The Four Noble Truths

2600 years ago, Gautama Buddha preached his very first sermon. This sermon is often called “The Deer Park Sermon,” named for the place he preached it. His audience was very small - just a few men with whom he had traveled in the past; he had promised them that if he attained Liberation, he would return to them and share the Truth he discovered.

That very first sermon remains one of the clearest statements of the Buddha’s dharma, or message.

The First Noble Truth: Suffering

All life is characterised by suffering. To live is to experience suffering.

This is the starting point for every religion. Everyone experiences a sense of dis-ease, or a feeling that things aren’t they way they should be. Every living being experiences this sense of the wrongness of the universe.

NOTE: The First Noble Truth is often misunderstood to mean that life is suffering, but that is not the case. If that were the case, there would be no point in the rest of the Buddha’s sermon, which promises liberation, not death.

The Second Noble Truth: The Cause of Suffering

The root cause of suffering is craving or desire-and-aversion.

Why do we all experience suffering?

This is where Buddhism makes a radical departure from all other religions and philosophies. They all assume that the reason we experience the wrongness of the universe is because the universe is wrong. Then they proceed to tell stories or reason out how the universe became wrong or broken.

The Buddha didn’t make that leap. He only addresses the experience itself. Why do we experience suffering?

In other words, the two different approaches address:

  • Our experience of the-universe-as-wrong.
  • Our experience-of-the-universe as wrong.

Maybe it isn’t the universe that is broken and wrong. Maybe it is our experience that is broken and wrong.

In all fairness, maybe both are broken and wrong, but even if that is the case, I have more control over my experience than I do over the entire universe, so I might as well start there.

So the Buddha paused and looked closely at the experience itself. He asked himself: “When and how do we feel this wrongness and suffering?”

While looking closely, he saw something profound and simple:

Happy Unhappy
We get what we want. We don’t get what we want.
We avoid what we don’t want. We get what we don’t want.

In other words, the Buddha saw that the bottom line is that we experience the universe as wrong or broken because:

  • We don’t get what we want when we want it.
  • We do get what we don’t want when we don’t want it.

Kinda childish when put so simply, isn’t it?

The Third Noble Truth: How to End Suffering

The way to end suffering is to end craving, or desire-and-aversion.

Armed with this simple, yet profound truth, the Buddha saw that the only way to cut off our experience of suffering is to address the problem of desire-and-aversion.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Way of Freedom

The way to end craving, or desire-and-aversion, is to organize one’s life according to the Noble Eightfold Path.

Like so much else in life, addressing desire-and-aversion may be simple but it isn’t easy. It is just so deeply rooted in our human life and experience. Addressing this root cause of suffering requires an entire change of life.

In his first sermon, the Buddha preached about eight (8) characteristics of a genuine human life instead of a life governed by desire-and-aversion. These life principles are usually referred to as:

The Noble Eight-fold Path

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration