The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths

As noted in my previous post, the Buddha is said to have articulated a middle path between the extremes of sensual indulgence and extreme asceticism. Rather than abandoning oneself to lower pleasures or mortifying one’s body by starving the flesh, Buddhists practice tranquil meditation. Advocates of the Buddha’s middle way claim that “It gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, to Nibbana [Nirvana].”[1] This middle path is said to consist of four noble truths: the truth of suffering (dukkha), the truth of the origin of suffering (samudaya), the truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodha), and the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering (magga).

1. The First Noble Truth

            The Buddha defines the first noble truth in his first sermon as follows: “Birth is suffering [dukkha]; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering—in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.” [2] Many of these claims seem obvious: Growing old or ill, having unpleasant sensations, and the dashing of one’s hopes would clearly be instances of suffering. But to extrapolate from this, as Buddhists do, to the further claim that existence as such is essentially suffering can seem a gross generalization. To understand what Buddhists mean by the claim that existence is suffering, it is necessary to analyze their concept of suffering (dukkha) more carefully.

            From a Buddhist perspective there are three types of suffering: Ordinary suffering (dukkha-dukkha), suffering as change (viparinama-dukkha), and suffering as being conditioned (samkhara-dukkha).[3] The first kind of suffering, ordinary suffering, is just what the name suggests: unpleasant sensations, emotional states, dashed hopes, etc. The second kind of suffering concerns mutability. One might have an enjoyable experience, but then suffer by losing it or by knowing that one will (or could) lose it. The final kind of suffering is both the most abstract and the least commonsensical. It concerns the conditioned nature of existence. Consider, for example, living the life of a god. As a god, one would be powerful, beautiful, and immortal, and spend one’s days drinking nectar and ambrosia. On the Buddhist account, such a life would nonetheless be a life of suffering, since, despite its many advantages to mortal life, it is still conditioned. Imagine a scenario in which time somehow froze, and I was eternally in the pleasurable state of drinking nectar and ambrosia. Though this state would no doubt be pleasant, it would still depend on something beyond me, viz. the nectar and ambrosia being imbibed.[4] The conditions determining my happiness would thus be extrinsic to me and to the domain of my autonomous action. In this regard, even the life of the gods would be a life of suffering, since even the gods are not absolutely self-sufficient.

            Buddhists understand the conditioned nature of existence through their doctrine of the five aggregates. Buddhist scholar Ruhala explains:

“What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual,’ or ‘I’, according to Buddhist philosophy, is only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or energies, which may be divided into five groups or aggregates (pancakkhandha). The Buddha says: ‘in short these five aggregates of attachment are dukkha. Elsewhere he distinctly defines dukkha as the five aggregates: ‘O bhikkhus, what is dukkha? It should be said that it is the five aggregates of attachment.’ Here it should be clearly understood that dukkha and the five aggregates are not two different things; the five aggregates themselves are dukkha.”[5]

The first aggregate is the aggregate of matter (Mpakkhandha). It includes the four great elements [i.e. i) solidity, ii) fluidity, iii) heat, and iv) motion] and their derivatives [i.e. our sense organs and the external objects that they grasp].[6] Next is the aggregate of sensations (Vedanakkhandha). These are the pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations that occur when our sensible and mental faculties come into contact with their objects. Third is the aggregate of perception (Sannakkhandha). This is what analytic philosophers would call seeing as. It involves not just experiencing a sensation or object, but subsuming it under a concept. I might, for example, perceive an apple as red and sweet. The fourth aggregate is the aggregate of mental formations (Samkharakkhandha). It consists of all volitional actions, actions that generate karma. Through such actions one directs one’s mind “in the sphere of good, bad, or neutral activities.”[7] Finally, the fifth aggregate is the aggregate of Consciousness (Vinnattakkhandha). This aggregate is generated by contact between the organs of consciousness and their corresponding objects. “For instance, visual consciousness has the eye as its basis and a visible form as its object.”[8] The difference between consciousness and perception is that consciousness does not label its experience. It would correspond more closely to what analytic philosophers would call simple seeing than to seeing as.[9]

            According to Buddhist theory, anything that we are tempted to call an existent object or an “I” is merely a concatenation of these five aggregates. The universe contains no substantial objects, but consists instead of a constant play of forces; every so called substance is what it is only on account of the interactions of the aggregates which constitute it.[10] Hence, all of life is dukkha in the sense of being conditioned.

2. The Second Noble Truth

The Buddha articulates the second noble truth, the truth of the origin of suffering, as follows:

“It is this thirst (craving) which produces re-existence and re-becoming, bound up with passionate greed. It finds fresh delight now here and now there, namely, thirst for sense-pleasures; thirst for existence and becoming; and thirst for non-existence (self-annihilation).”

Ruhala points out that this principle of origination should not be understood ontologically, since, according to Buddhist cosmology the realm of samsara has existed for eternity. It is not that thirst (tanha) is the first cause of suffering, but rather that it is the most important issue from a pragmatic point of view. Underlying this thirst is the mistaken belief that things pursued and the self pursuing them have substantial reality. Ruhala explains that the terms “thirst” and “karma” “denote the same thing: they denote the desire, the will to be, to exist, to re-exist, to become more and more, to grow more and more, to accumulate more and more.”[11] Once one realizes that the self has no substantial core to be perfected, one grasps the third noble truth.

3. The Third Noble Truth

The Buddha describes the third noble truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering, as follows: “It is the complete cessation of… thirst, giving it up, renouncing it, emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it.”[12] Once we give up thirst, we attain the unconditioned—nirvana. Seeing that nothing in existence has true reality, we give up the desire to chase after conditioned objects and come to see “the Absolute truth or Ultimate Reality.”[13] Such a “supramundane experience” cannot be expressed in words; trying to do so would be like trying to explain to a fish what it is like to live on land.[14] Buddhists thus adopt a via negativa and try to explain nirvana by describing what it is not. It is thus called “Tatihakkbaya ‘extinction of thirst’, Asamkhata ‘Uncompound’, ‘Unconditioned’, Virdga ‘Absence of desire’, Nirodha ‘Cessation’, [and] Nibbana ‘Blowing out’ or ‘Extinction.’”[15] But though it is described in negative terms, it is not simply the negation of existence, since “the negation of negative values is not negative.”[16] Rather, as the unconditioned, it stands beyond both existence and non-existence. The Buddha explains:

“O bhikkhus, there is the unborn, ungrown, and unconditioned. Were there not the unborn, ungrown, and unconditioned, there would be no escape for the born, grown, and conditioned. Since there is the unborn, ungrown, and unconditioned, so there is escape for the born, grown, and conditioned.

Here the four elements of solidity, fluidity, heat and motion have no place; the notions of length and breadth, the subtle and the gross, good and evil, name and form are altogether destroyed; neither this world nor the other, nor coming, going or standing, neither death nor birth, nor sense-objects are to be found.”[17]

Once one reaches this state, one will be in the position of absolute knowing:

“Therefore, O bhikkhu, a person so endowed is endowed with the absolute wisdom, for the knowledge of the extinction of all dukkha is the absolute noble wisdom. This his deliverance, founded on Truth, is unshakable. O bhikkhu, that which is unreality (mosadhamma) is false; that which is reality (amosadhamma), Nibbana, is Truth (Sacca). Therefore, O bhikkhu, a person so endowed is endowed with the Absolute Truth.  For the Absolute Noble Truth (paramam ariyasaccam) is Nibbana, which is reality.”[18]

Though one’s subjective experience may change from failing to grasp nirvana to grasping it, nirvana itself undergoes no such change.[19]

4. The Fourth Noble Truth

The Buddha defines the fourth noble truth, the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering as follows: “It is simply the noble eightfold path, namely right view; right thought; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right concentration.”[20] The fourth noble truth is thus equivalent to the noble eightfold path.

            Buddhists divide these eight features into three categories of training: Ethical conduct (Silo), Mental Discipline (Samadhi), and Wisdom (Panna).[21] Ethical conduct is grounded in “universal love and compassion for all living beings”, and consists of right speech, right action, and right livelihood. Right speech forbids lying, slander, and abuse, and demands that we speak benevolently to build people up. Right action demands that we “abstain from destroying life, from stealing, from dishonest dealings, from illegitimate sexual intercourse, and that we should also help others to lead a peaceful and honorable life in the right way.”[22] And right livelihood forbids earning one’s living by harming others (as in the arms industry), creating intoxicants or poisons, fraud, or killing animals.[23] One should instead “live by a profession that is honorable, blameless and innocent of harm to others.”[24]

            Mental discipline consists of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Right effort concerns the will to properly direct ones mental states by eliminating bad ones and creating and perfecting good ones. Right mindfulness is the cultivation of an awareness of one’s body, sensations, and mental acts and contents.[25] Finally, right concentration consists in the development of the “four stages of Dhjana.” [26] The first stage requires the elimination of the passions and unwholesome thoughts, while good thoughts and the feelings of joy and happiness are retained. At the next stage, thoughts are eliminated as the mind develops “one-pointedness”, though the feelings of joy and happiness remain. In the penultimate stage of Dhjana, joy is eliminated and happiness remains. Lastly, in the fourth stage happiness too is eliminated and with the extinguishing of all sensations one is left with “only pure equanimity and awareness.”[27] Through these steps one progresses in mental discipline.

            Finally, the Buddhist training of wisdom consists of right thought and right understanding. Right thought is entertaining thoughts of love and non-violence towards all beings. Similarly, right understanding is seeing reality as it is, i.e. grasping the four noble truths. This understanding is not comprised of subsuming an object under a concept (anubodha/ knowing accordingly), but rather in penetrating to the essence of reality (pativedha/ penetration), “seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label.”[28] When one does so, one attains “the highest wisdom which sees the Ultimate Reality.”[29]

5. Concluding Reflections

Overall, I have been extremely impressed by the depth of Buddhist philosophical insight. It is a refreshing contrast to the animus toward philosophy that I experienced growing up as an Evangelical Christian. Even a cursory look at its teachings leaves me with much to think about. Here are some of the questions I will be reflecting on.

  1. What exactly is the nature of the conditioning relation constitutive of dukkha? From my initial readings, I can’t tell what exactly this conditioning relation amounts to. Several possibilities come to mind: (i) contingency, (ii) being non-self-explanatory, (iii) being non-intrinsic, (iv) non-epistemic transparency, (v) non-autonomy. This would give the following possible sketches of what it means for all existence to be suffering:
    • Contingency-conditioning: all objects (/subjects) are conditioned because they are brought about by a contingent interplay of the five aggregates, aggregates which are themselves contingent. Because putative objects are the contingent result of a contingent play of forces, they are insubstantial. Whatever ultimate reality is, it would need to be necessary, and so all of life is suffering to the extent that it is cut off from necessary being.
    • Non-self-explanatory-conditioning: all objects (/subjects) are conditioned because they cannot be explained in terms of their own essences. Rather, to understand what an object is, one must look to the aggregates from which it arises. And those aggregates would have to be understood in terms of further aggregates, ad infinitum. Whatever ultimate reality is, it must be intrinsically intelligible. Hence, all life is suffering to the extent that it is cut off from the self-explanatory ground of being.
    • Non-intrinsic-conditioning. This version is more metaphysical than the logical account presented above. Rather than concerning the intelligibility of objects, this formulation concerns their existence. On this reading, all objects are conditioned because they are what they are only in virtue of their relation to the aggregates from which they arise. Because they can be what they are only in relation to others, they do not have independent existence. Whatever ultimate reality is, it must be what it is intrinsically. Hence, all life is suffering because we are determined by our relations to other conditioned objects and cut off from an intrinsic ground of being.
    • Non-epistemic-transparency-conditioning. This formulation concerns knowledge. The idea here is that all objects are conditioned in that they can be known only by knowing the aggregates that give rise to them. But whatever ultimate reality is, it must be able to be known in itself. Hence, all is suffering because we are cut off from a ground of being that can be known immediately.
    • Non-autonomy-conditioning. Here the primary concern is personal autonomy. A subject is conditioned in he is what he is independently of his own volition. Because a subject’s character is conditioned by the aggregates which give rise to his experiences, his autonomy is limited. But whatever ultimate reality is, it must have unrestricted autonomy. It must make itself what it is. Hence, we all suffer because we are alienated from true autonomy.
  2. To what extent does the Buddhist account of the conditioned nature of existence presuppose nominalism? Nominalism is the claim that only particulars exist. According to such a view, there are no abstracta (such as essences or natural kinds) capable of being multiply instantiated by particular objects. This seems to fit well with the Buddhist account of the five aggregates and could undergird the doctrine of the no-self. But I wonder what would happen if one instead accepted a realist (platonic) account of abstracta. This looks like it would allow one to block the Buddhist account at its outset. If there are independently existing essences that make particular objects what they are, these essences could be (a) necessary, (b) intrinsic, (c) self-explanatory, (d) epistemically transparent, and (c) in some sense autonomous (in the sense that the powers of an object are determined by the kind of object that it is).
  3. To what extent does the Buddhist emphasis on non-violence and compassion make it superior to the Christian monotheism popular in the West? I was struck by the extent to which non-violence and compassion were encoded into the ethics of Buddhism. This was by no means the case in the versions of Christianity I grew up in. I chose to be a vegetarian as a child and was always scolded and ridiculed for it in church. It was refreshing to see the extent to which compassion for other sentient beings constitutes a core component of Buddhist ethics. The demand that people avoid careers based on killing is also an encouraging contrast to the militarism of American Christianity.
  4. To what extent is Nirvana really unconditioned? This a question that has been lingering since my last post. To the extent that Buddhists adopt the via negativa and define Nirvana in terms of what it is not, would not nirvana itself stand in a relation to the conditioned world of samsara? And wouldn’t this make Nirvana itself a conditioned reality?
  5. What is the relation of the contemplative approach of Buddhism to the contemplative spiritualities popular in the West? Though both seek the unconditioned by quieting the mind, is there a fundamental difference in what the attaining of enlightenment looks like? For example, the image involved in Nirvana is the peace attained when a flame finally burns itself out and achieves rest. The image of fire also occurs in Christian mysticism but tends to retain an active and passionate form. St. John of the cross, for instance, speaks of the soul yearning for God “with ardent desire” and that “the living flame of love”, the Holy Spirit, is “a fire that burns and flares within” the soul.[30] Eventually this fire of love will raise the saint to “the activity of God in God.”[31] Here the unconditioned divine life appears to be one of ceaseless activity rather than one of tranquility.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth (The first sermon of the Buddha), trans. Ruhala, 92.

[2] Wheel of Truth, 93.

[3] Walpola Ruhala, What the Buddha Taught rev. ed,(New York: Grove Press, 1974), 19.

[4] Or to the existence of nectar and ambrosia type experiences.

[5] Ruhala, What the Buddha Taught, 20.

[6] Ibid., 20-21.

[7] Ibid., 22.

[8] Ibid., 23.

[9] Ibid.

[10] This line of thought also grounds the Buddhist understanding of the no-self. For the Buddhist, “there is no other ‘being’ or ‘I’ standing behind these five aggregates, who experiences dukkha. As Buddhaghosa says: ‘Mere suffering exists, but no sufferer is found; the deeds are, but no doer is found.’ …. There is no thinker behind the thought. Thought itself is the thinker. If you remove the thought, there is no thinker to be found.” (Ruhala, 26).

[11] Ibid., 31.

[12] Wheel of Truth, in Ruhala, 93.

[13] Ruhala, What the Buddha Taught, 35.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 36.

[16] Ibid., 38. Health is not the mere absence of illness even though its name is Arogya. Immortality isn’t just the absence of death. Freedom is a positive, even though it always presupposes the liberation from an obstacle. Similarly, Robinson and Johnson point out that we should not be mistaken by the etymology which suggests the blowing out of a candle flame. “Traditional Buddhist etymology, however, derives it from roots meaning ‘unbinding.’ This relates to the fact that fire, in the time of the Buddha, was regarded as being in a state of agitation, dependency, and entrapment as it burned, then growing calm, independent, and released as it went out…. Thus the term nirvana carried no connotations of ‘going out of existence.’ In fact, there were occasions when the Buddha used ancient Vedic notions of fire—which held that fire did not go out of existence when it was extinguished, but rather went into a diffuse, indeterminate, latent state—to illustrate the notion that a person who has attained the goal is beyond all description. Just as a first that has gone out cannot be described as having gone in any particular direction, so the person who has attained the goal cannot be predicated as existent, nonexistent, both, or neither. As for the experience of nirvana, it is so totally free from any sort of limitation that the person experiencing it has no means by which he or she could say that there is a person having the experience. There is simply the experience, in and of itself” (Buddhist Religion, 40).

[17] Ibid., 37.

[18] Ibid., 39.

[19] “There is the path leading to the realization of Nirvana. But Nirvana is not the result of this path. You may get to the mountain along a path, but the mountain is not the result, not an effect of the path. You may see the light, but the light is not the is not the effect of your eyesight” [Ibid., 40].

[20] Wheel of Truth, 93.

[21] Ruhala, What the Buddha Taught, 46.

[22] Ibid, 47.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 48.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, 49.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] St. John of the Cross, “The Living Flame of Love” in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross trans. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez,(Washington: ICS Publications, 1991), 641.

[31] Ibid., 642.

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