What's so noble about Buddhism's Four Noble Truths?

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1. The essence of Buddhism

According to the Buddhist tradition, Prince Siddhartha abandoned his comfortable life to go on a spiritual quest at the age of 29, having discovered the reality of suffering outside the palace walls.

He became the Buddha when he first achieved enlightenment, or awakening. That's when he came to understand the four principles which went on to form the basis of his teaching during his lifetime. These concepts continue to be the guiding principles of all schools of Buddhism today.

They are known as the Four Noble Truths and encapsulate the essence of the Buddhist tradition.

2. All life involves suffering

The physical suffering that comes with old age, sickness and death are obvious, but the Buddha could see that suffering was deeper than this: human beings are subject to mental suffering.

This may sound like a pessimistic view of the world – but Buddhists view it as neither optimistic nor pessimistic - just the truth of how things are. The Buddha wanted people to recognise this truth so that rather than stumbling from one unsatisfactory situation to the next, they can understand the root causes of suffering.

3. The cause of suffering

The Second Noble Truth is the truth of the cause of suffering.

The Buddha taught that there are three roots of evil, or badness. These are: hatred (or anger), greed (or craving) and delusion.

As unenlightened human beings we are locked into a vicious circle, which Buddhists call Samsara. We constantly crave material goods and become angry and upset when we don't get what we want, or when things don't live up to our expectations. These reactions come from a deep-seated delusion that happiness comes from these material and external things.

Unless we can free ourselves from our attachment to these cravings we will never find peace, and the cycle of Samsara will continue.

But the Buddha's teachings do not end with his analysis of suffering. He goes on to tell us how we can work to end it.

4. The end of suffering

The Buddha's Third Noble Truth is that the way to overcome the cravings that cause suffering is to let go of your attachment to them. It is then that you can achieve enlightenment, or nirvana.

Nirvana

Nirvana is a Sanskrit word which means 'extinction'. It describes a state that can be achieved by getting rid of the fires of greed, delusion and hatred for ever.

Buddhists believe that after death a person who’s achieved nirvana is liberated from the circle of Samsara.

However, letting go of these negative attachments isn't easy, which is why the Buddha prescribed a path to reach awakening.

5. The Eightfold Path

The Fourth Noble Truth is the way to enlightenment or nirvana and is often represented as a wheel – the Wheel of Dharma. Dharma is a Sanskrit word used to refer to the whole body of the Buddha's teachings. Click on the labels to find out more.

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According to the Buddha, overcoming the cravings that lead to suffering cannot be achieved by reason alone, but must be realised by experience and self-knowledge. So the meditation elements of the Wheel of Dharma (right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration) are key. The Buddha didn't claim to have invented this path, but simply to have rediscovered an ancient wisdom which understood the fundamental principles of human nature.

6. What is the point of suffering?

The existence of suffering in the world has challenged philosophers, religious and secular, throughout history.

Horace

Horace was a Latin poet who lived in Rome in the 1st Century BC.

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Horace

"Suffering is but another name for the teaching of experience, which is the parent of instruction and the schoolmaster of life."

Rumi

The 13th Century Turkish poet and mystic Rumi believed suffering to be a gift from which we can learn.

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Rumi

"The wound is the place where the Light enters you."

Schopenhauer

The 19th Century German philosopher Schopenhauer was deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy, seeing the world as driven by a continually dissatisfied will.

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Schopenhauer

“Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.”

Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis for resisting Hitler's regime and ideology.

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Bonhoeffer

"A Christian is someone who shares the sufferings of God in the world."