There is suffering in life. The Buddha began his most central teaching, the Four Noble Truths, not with a claim about our true nature, but with the plain truth that pain, loss, dissatisfaction, and disappointment are part of what we get in this human life. Famously called “the great physician,” the Buddha’s formulation of the problem of suffering and his proposed solution takes the form of a medical diagnosis and prescription, in four parts: the symptom, a cause for the symptom, a potential end to the symptom, and a method to get to that end.
The teaching of the Four Noble Truths came to be considered the heart of the Dharma, containing all the rest of the teachings and summarizing the path of practice. It is based on a simple formula that is easy to understand but difficult to embody: our distress has a cause, but the cause is not what we think it is.
While it’s true that life includes all sorts of painful experiences initiated by forces outside our control—other people, social systems, our body’s fragility and mortality—the true cause of suffering is not painful experiences themselves but the distress brought about by craving: the mental and emotional anguish of dissatisfaction, regret, and fantasy that all come from fixating on things we cannot control.
After his awakening, and upon deciding to teach, the Buddha first sought out five friends, fellow ascetics he had practiced austerities with. They had admired his intensity of effort and self-denial, but as he took the practice as far as it could go short of starving to death, he realized that the self-mortification they were doing was a dead end. When he then changed his practice to one that nourished the body, they left him, judging that he had fallen off the path. In fact, he had found the path.
The Buddha’s first teaching to his friends is called “Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma” (SN 56.11), and begins with him saying he had found “the middle way” between sensual indulgence and bodily mortification. Having grown up wealthy, the Buddha knew what sensual indulgence could accomplish, and having practiced intense ascetic disciplines, he knew what bodily mortification could accomplish. Neither led to freedom from suffering. The path he discovered rejected both extremes, favoring a pleasurable embodied meditation called jhāna, and inquiry into the relationship between our actions and our subsequent experiences of suffering or peace. The Four Noble Truths is the model he used to lay out his argument for why craving is the source of our suffering, and how to heal this most ancient affliction.
The Four Noble Truths (cattāri ariyasaccāni)
The truth of dissatisfaction (dukkha, often translated as “suffering”)
The truth of the cause (samudaya) of dukkha, which is craving/grasping (taṇhā, literally “thirst”)
The truth of the cessation (nirodha) of suffering through the cessation of craving
The truth of the path (magga) to the end of suffering
With each Noble Truth, the Buddha named an action, or task to undertake in relation to it. These tasks can also be thought of as insights, since they describe both practices and the fruition of those practices.
Dissatisfaction is to be fully understood
Craving is to be abandoned
Cessation is to be realized
The Path is to be developed
The first Noble Truth names the symptom we suffer from: dukkha, translated as dissatisfaction or suffering. The definition of dukkha is a broad list of painful experiences, all of which are outside our control:
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
The five aggregates is a list that includes all the aspects of experience we tend to cling to, and so the definition encompasses everything we might suffer in relation to. These are all physically and emotionally painful aspects of life, but the second Noble Truth makes a distinction between the physical experience of pain and the emotional reactivity of craving:
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.
The Buddha’s diagnosis here is that the thing that causes dissatisfaction is not painful experiences themselves but the emotional constriction of craving, or fixating on them being otherwise. This is not saying that we should never try to change an unpleasant or unsafe situation, nor that we shouldn’t have goals in either ordinary life or spiritual practice, but that if the motivation for our actions is always craving and trying to control that which is impossible to control, we will deepen in suffering.
The Third Noble Truth promises that the diagnosis is correct, and the remedy effective. If we uproot craving, the suffering and dissatisfaction it creates in us will end.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.
The fourth Noble Truth consists of the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the Buddha’s prescription for treating the sickness that is habitual craving and ending the symptom that is dissatisfaction. It is divided into three sections: Wisdom (pañña), Ethics (sīla), and Meditation (samādhi). Though the path factors are laid out starting with wisdom, when the sections are named together, they’re spoken “sīla, samādhi, pañña,” indicating the importance of ethical practice as the foundation of the path.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
The Noble Eightfold Path is what we cultivate throughout our practice, and is synonymous with the “middle way.” This is a path, the Buddha told his friends, that doesn’t harm the body, nor indulge craving. Having seen that craving is the cause of suffering, each aspect of the Eightfold Path is designed to weaken the habits of reactivity, grasping, and fixation on ourselves.
The Noble Eightfold Path (ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga)
Right/Wise View (sammā diṭṭhi)
Right Intention (sammā saṅkappa)
Right Speech (sammā vācā)
Right Action (sammā kammanta)
Right Livelihood (sammā ājīva)
Right Effort (sammā vāyāma)
Right Mindfulness (sammā sati)
Right Concentration/Immersion (sammā samādhi)
Our core retreat practices of meditation and mindfulness are the 7th and 8th aspects of the path, but every aspect of the path supports every other, and all of them are part of a well-rounded practice life. As we clarify our intentions and develop the ethical precepts, we see more clearly how deeply craving and reactivity is woven into our hearts, and the truth of suffering can start to be understood. As mindfulness strengthens throughout our life, we see more clearly moment to moment, and kindness and compassion grow stronger. Seeing more clearly, our view of why we’re unhappy and who we really are starts to change, and our intentions for peace and kindness deepen.
Meditation helps us see through and settle the patterns of distraction and avoidance that are all expressions of the dissatisfied heart. And moments of letting go, even if brief, are a window into the third Noble Truth—the end of suffering—where we can feel the release of not being under the influence of craving, our most constant companion. This release, once it became permanent, is what led the Buddha to claim to his friends, “Unshakeable is the liberation of my mind,” and it is the promise of freedom and a life of peace the path holds for anyone who sets out along it.