The Four Noble Truths are four concepts fundamental to Buddhist teachings. It is believed that the first sermon given by Gautama Buddha after his enlightenment was the description of these four ideas. It is thought in Buddhism that living according to these truths is essential to stop the cycle of reincarnation. Along with the concept of reincarnation, or samsara, the Four Noble Truths make the foundation of practically all forms of Buddhism.
The First Noble Truth is also defined as the principle of dukkha (suffering) and states that to live is to suffer. This terminology can be confusing since Buddhism does not teach that all experiences cause suffering (Rinpoche, 2018). The concept of dukkha is much subtler, referring to aspects of life such as anxiety, frustration, or dissatisfaction. This is the fundamental belief of Buddhism, and all other ideas and practices are based on the First Noble Truth. Buddhists believe that dukkha explains what is wrong with humanity, which is the fact that many people’s suffering is caused by wrong desires, particularly the desire for impermanent things.
The second noble truth of Buddhism is also known as anicca (impermanence) or tanha (thirst or an intense desire for life). This concept clarifies the idea of impermanence and states that nothing in the universe is unchanging especially the ‘self’. This is the Buddhist explanation of the essence of human life: since suffering is caused by the desire for the impermanent, all desires eventually lead to suffering. Even positive desires perpetuate the cycle of reincarnation and dukkha. This is manifested in the concept of anatta, or ‘non-self’, which is arguably the most profound and complicated Buddhist concept.
The teachings of Anatta state that nothing is identified as a self, and anything that people consider as such is an illusion. This teaching is fundamentally separated from traditional religions, which makes Buddhism a distinctly unique philosophy. Almost all people’s thoughts and actions are centered around the idea of ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘mine’, but in Buddhism, these notions are regarded as deceptive (Rinpoche, 2018). They are delusions that lead people to conflict and suffering, and Buddha teaches that to eliminate suffering, people have to destroy the idea of self.
To overcome eternal suffering by eliminating the self, one must understand the Third Noble Truth. This truth states that the only way to be freed from the cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth is to eliminate the desire for worldly things. Buddhism sees this as the answer to the question of how to solve the problems of mankind. Therefore, this truth calls for the elimination of absolutely all desires that can be considered positive or negative.
The means to achieve this is contained in the Fourth Noble Truth. This truth states that the way to eliminate desire is to follow the Eightfold Path (Rinpoche, 2018). This is what Buddhism presents as a solution to correct the faults, infirmities, and inadequacies of all humankind (Rinpoche, 2018). The Eightfold Path is defined as a combination of practices, including the Right Views, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Awareness, and Right Meditation.
Each of the Four Noble Truths has a structure including three aspects. First comes the assertion, then the prescription, and the result of the practice. In Pali terms, they are referred to as “pariyatti, patipatti, and pativedha” (Rinpoche, 2018). Pariyatti means a theory or statement, such as “suffering exists”. Patipatti is the practice, direct work, and pativedha is the result of that practice. This is called a reflective structure, as one develops their consciousness so that it becomes deeply reflective. The mind of a Buddha is a reflective mind that knows things as they are.
Buddhists believe that one can complete the cycle of reincarnation and dukkha by applying the Four Noble Truths and traversing the Eightfold Path. This way of living can bring a person to a state completely devoid of any desire, craving, attachment, or frustration, known as nirvana. One who reaches nirvana ceases to exist as a person and stops the process of rebirth and death of samsara.
Rinpoche, L. Z. (2018). The four noble truths: A guide to everyday life. Simon & Schuster.