The Four Noble Truths
(or The Four Truths of the Noble Ones
) (catvāri āryasatyāni;; cattāri ariyasaccāni) are one of the most fundamental Buddhist
teachings. In broad terms, these truths relate to suffering's nature, origin, cessation and the path leading to the cessation. They are among the truths Gautama Buddha
is said to have realized during his experience of enlightenment
The Four Noble Truths appear many times throughout the most ancient Buddhist texts, the Pali Canon. The early teaching and the traditional understanding in the Theravada is that the four noble truths are an advanced teaching for those who are ready for them. Mahayana Buddhism regards them as a preliminary teaching for people not ready for its own teachings. They are little known in the Far East.
Some may see "truths" as a mistranslation (one author cites "realities" as a possibly better choice: these are things, not statements, in the original grammar.) However, the original Tibetan Lotsawas (Sanskrit: locchāwa; Tibetan: lo ts'a ba), who studied Sanskrit grammar thoroughly, did translate the term from Sanskrit into Tibetan as "bden pa" which has the full meaning of "truth".
Why the Buddha is said to have taught in this way is illuminated by the social context of the time in which he lived. The Buddha was a
, a wandering ascetic whose "aim was to discover the truth and attain happiness." He is said to have achieved this aim while under a bodhi tree
near the River Neranjana; the Four Noble Truths are a formulation of his understanding of the nature of "suffering
the fundamental cause of all suffering, the escape from suffering, and what effort a person can go to so that they themselves can "attain happiness."
These truths are not expressed as a hypothesis or tentative idea, rather the Buddha says:
These Four Noble Truths, monks, are actual, unerring, not otherwise. Therefore, they are called noble truths.
The Buddha says that he taught them...
...because it is beneficial, it belongs to the fundamentals of the holy life, it leads to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation of suffering, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nirvana. That is why I have declared it.
This teaching was the basis of the Buddha's first discourse after his enlightenment. In early Buddhism this is the most advanced teaching in the Buddha's Gradual Training.
Pali canon text
- The Nature of Suffering (Dukkha):
"Now this ... is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are 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."
- Suffering's Origin (Samudaya):
"Now this ... 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."
- Suffering's Cessation (Nirodha):
"Now this ... 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 Way (Mārga) Leading to the Cessation of Suffering:
"Now this ... is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
Mahayana understanding of the Four Noble Truths
Certain major Mahayana sutras
, including the Mahaparinirvana Sutra
and the Angulimaliya Sutra
, present variant versions of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha:
- the Truth of Suffering relates to the failure to recognize the eternity of the Buddha;
- the Truth of the Cause of Suffering concerns the perversion and distortion of the True Dharma (i.e. wrongly insisting that the Buddha and Dharma are impermanent);
- the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering relates to the correct meditative cultivation of the tathagatagarbha (indwelling Buddha Nature in all beings) and not erroneously viewing it as non-Self and empty; cessation of suffering also arises with the elimination of inner defilements, when one can then enter into the Buddhic Essence within oneself: "When the afflictions have been eradicated, then one will perceive entry into the tathāgata-garbha";
- the Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering entails envisioning the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as eternal, unshakable and indestructible. (Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, tr. by Kosho Yamamoto, ed. by Dr. Tony Page, Nirvana Publications, London, 1999-2000)
The Angulimaliya Sutra similarly emphasises the seeing and knowing of the Buddha's eternality, immutability and peace as the key factors in liberation from suffering; failure to see this eternal nature of ultimate reality is said to constitute the primary cause of beings' continued entrapment in the sufferings of Saṃsāra.
It should be noted that this view is specific to certain Mahayana schools, most notably the Tathagatagarbha and Jonangpa traditions. The ideas that the Buddha and his Dharma are eternal and that one's inner Buddha nature is not empty would be denied in other Buddhist traditions such as Madhyamaka and Zen.
- Duff, Tony (2008). Contemplation by way of the Twelve Interdependent Arisings. Kathmandu, Nepal: Padma Karpo Translation Committee. Retrieved on 2008-8-19 from http://www.tibet.dk/pktc/gelugpa.htm
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
- Feer, Leon (ed.) (1976). The Samyutta Nikaya. London: Pali Text Society.
- Gethin, Rupert (1988). Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press.
- Harvey, Peter (1990). Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge University Press.
- Nanamoli, Bhikkhu (trans.) (1995, ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi). The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
- Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997). Tittha Sutta: Sectarians (AN 3.61). Retrieved 2007-11-12 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.061.than.html.
- Warder, A.K. (1970). Indian Buddhism. Delhi:
- Yamamoto, Kosho (1999-2000, ed. & rev. by Dr. Tony Page). The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 Volumes. Nirvana Publications.