The four noble truths represent the capstone of Buddhist practice. They provide a clear explanation of the nature of reality along with an ethical framework that helps us live skillfully, and be of benefit to ourselves and others.
That being said, it can be difficult to decipher the subtleties of each truth and how they can be implemented in daily life.
The following discusses each one in detail along with explanations on how they can be understood within the context of daily life.
We need to unpack this a bit, because it can be disconcerting if taken at face-value. The word "suffering" is used in a slightly different way in Buddhism than what we're used to in Western culture. The death of a loved one or the loss of a job qualifies as suffering. However, a child who forgets to take out the trash or a spouse who forgets a birthday is also suffering.
So, suffering is not a finite thing. Rather, it's a spectrum of experiences that we deem to be unpleasant or difficult. The Buddha stated that, "Life is suffering" because he grouped all of our experiences into one of three categories:
In this way, it's easy to see that everything we desire causes us suffering either in the short term for items in groups #1 and #2, or in the long-term for items in group #3.
Another way to look at the teaching is to use a more literal translation of the original Sanskrit. The Sanskrit word for suffering is "dukkha," which can also be taken to mean "hard to carry" or "difficult to bear".
So, another way to read the first noble truth is, "Life is difficult to bear". Of course, that begs the question, "What makes life so difficult?"
The second noble truth refers to the three types of suffering that were referenced earlier. An easy way to think about it is to imagine ourselves carrying a back pack, and filling it with stones. Each stone represents something we desire, and the more attached we become to that desire, the larger the stones become.
So, the greater our desire becomes, the heavier our packs become, which results in our lives being more difficult to bear. In contrast, the smaller our desire becomes, the lighter our packs become, and the easier our lives are to bear.
One might argue that desire is a natural part of life, and they'd be correct. In fact, the Buddha would agree 100% with this statement, and that's why the first noble truth reminds us that suffering is also a natural part of life. Our desire and our suffering feed each other in a never-ending cycle.
Thankfully, all is not lost. If the first noble truth tells us our problem, and the second tells us the cause, then the third noble truth tells us the solution for escaping this endless cycle of suffering.
This one is fairly straight-forward. If our lives are difficult to bear because we are carrying too many stones/ desires around, then the obvious solution is to get rid of the stones! The Buddha took this idea about as far one could reasonably go, stripping his life of everything except the essentials of food, clothing, medicine, and shelter.
Since these items are necessary for life, he trained himself and his monastics to use them skillfully as opposed to renouncing them completely. For example, they only ate food that was freely donated to them, and they were only allowed to beg for food before noon.
This practice allowed them to meet their nutritional needs without feeding into any desires or aversions towards specific foods. It also kept them from becoming a burden on the lay people who supported them.
The third noble truth is also why the Buddha and his monastics were the world's first minimalists.
Their only possessions were 2 sets of robes and a begging bowl. They didn't have families or permanent living quarters because they wanted as few stones/ desires in their back packs as possible. The general attitude could best be described as, "I'm going to lose it anyway, so why not let go of it all now."
This is a very reasonable attitude for a monastic to take, however, it doesn't translate well for laypeople who have jobs, families, student loans etc. That being said, the teaching is still useful if we approach it in a different way.
As lay people, we can use our inner wisdom to examine each desire that we are carrying around and decide if it can be safely discarded. If it can be discarded, then doing so inevitably lightens our packs, and eases the suffering in our lives.
However, if it can't be discarded then it is incumbent upon us to learn how to work skillfully with that desire, and make ourselves more spiritually resilient in order to carry it. The method for doing this is detailed in the fourth noble truth.
The 8-Fold path is a set of tenets that were laid out by the Buddha in order to help us live our lives in a skillful, non-harming way. It provides benchmarks for measuring our adherence to the Buddhist path along with techniques for quelling the desirous mind.
The tenets of the 8-Fold path are as follows:
Learning to embody each of the 8 tenets and adhere to their guidelines is a lifelong practice, which results in the cessation of suffering in our daily lives. As we do this, we become bored with our desires, and learn to live lives of gratitude and faith.
Eventually, the teachings become a part of us, and we don't even have to think about them all that often. Instead, we embody and manifest them in each moment as we move through the world.
If you enjoyed reading this post, please leave a comment below and subscribe to our newsletter.
Sensei Alex Kakuyo is an author, vegan activist, and Buddhist teacher in the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism. He teaches a nonsectarian approach to the Dharma, which encourages students to seek enlightenment in everyday life.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out some of our others here. Also feel free to leave a comment and subscribe to our newsletter!
Comments will be approved before showing up.