The Four Noble Truths are basic facts that outline a path for overcoming our problems. This is Buddha's first teaching, which provides the framework for all other Buddhist teachings.
First Noble Truth: True Suffering
The first truth is that, in general, life is unsatisfactory. From birth to death, there are plenty of joyful moments, but they never last long, and there are lots of unpleasant times as well:
- Unhappiness – illness, disappointment, loneliness, anxiety and dissatisfaction are all easy to recognize and understand. It’s often not even related to our surroundings – we could be with our best friend eating our favorite food, but still be unhappy.
- Short-lived happiness – whatever we enjoy, it never actually lasts or satisfies us, and it soon turns into unhappiness. When we’re freezing cold, we go into a warm room, only for the heat to eventually become so unbearable that, again, we want fresh air. It would be great if this happiness lasted forever, but the problem is that it never does (See What is Happiness?).
- All-pervasive suffering – the deepest problem is how we actually deal with the ups and downs of life. Our attitude actually perpetuates unhappiness and short-lived happiness. When we’re unhappy we crave to get rid of it, and when we’re happy we crave to maintain it.
Second Noble Truth: True Cause of Suffering
Our unhappiness and short-lived happiness don’t just arise out of thin air, but from a wide range of causes and conditions. External factors, like the society we live in, serve as the conditions for our problems to arise; but for the actual cause, Buddha instructed us to look at our own minds. Our own disturbing emotions – hatred, envy, greed and so on – drive us to compulsively think, speak and act in ultimately self-destructive ways.
Buddha saw even deeper and uncovered the true cause that underlies even these emotional states: the way we understand reality. This includes unawareness and confusion about the long-term effects of our behavior, and a strong misconception about how we, others, and the world exist. Instead of seeing the interconnectedness of everything, we tend to think that things exist all by themselves, independent of external factors.
Third Noble Truth: True Stopping of Suffering
Buddha pointed out that we don’t need to put up with this, because if we can uproot the cause, then the result will not arise. If we get rid of our confusion about reality, the problems will never be able to come back. He wasn’t just talking about one or two of our problems – he said we will stop creating new problems altogether.
Fourth Noble Truth: True Path of Mind
To get rid of our naivety and unawareness, we need to look at what directly opposes them:
- Plan for the long-term, instead of leaping shortsightedly for immediate gratification
- Look at the larger picture, instead of focusing on one small aspect of life
- Consider the consequences of our actions on the rest of our lives and on future generations, instead of just doing what’s easy for us now.
Sometimes, faced with the disappointments of life, we feel like the only way to cope is to distract ourselves by getting drunk or stuffing ourselves with junk food, not thinking of the long-term consequences. If we make it a habit, there are serious health risks that not only jeopardize our own lives, but could also have disastrous effects on our families as well. Underlying this is the idea that we're totally separate from the consequences of our own actions. The strongest opponent of our confusion is thus:
- Realize that we are intimately interconnected with the rest of humanity and the planet, and understand that our fantasies of how we exist do not correspond to reality.
If we can accustom ourselves to this insight through repeated meditation, we will eventually dispel all of the confusion that supports our empty projections (See How to Meditate).
We all want to be happy, yet it somehow continues to elude us. Buddha’s approach to finding happiness – outlined in the Four Noble Truths above – is universal and still relevant 2,500 years after the Buddha first taught it.
There’s no need to become a Buddhist in order to benefit from using the Four Noble Truths to deal with our everyday problems. It’s impossible that things will always go the way we want, but that is no reason to become depressed and lose hope. The Four Noble Truths contain within them everything we need to find genuine happiness and make our lives truly meaningful.