I think that we take the four noble truths for granted in Buddhism.
These truths are one of the first things you learn when you begin to study Buddhism. It seems like a simple concept at first, but if we contemplate it deeply, we can discover that it is more revolutionary than we initially suspect.
We can hear the four noble truths and repeat them over and over, but to truly understand them is different.
This seems pretty easy to understand. We are all acutely aware that there is a lot of pain in life, and that things aren’t always good. So, on the surface, the first noble truth seems like an idea that should be easy for us to accept.
Although we can accept that there is suffering in life, we may tend to expect the pain in life to go away some day. In our culture, we often think that if we work hard enough or if we think positively enough, the pain and suffering in our life will disappear. But from a Buddhist perspective, this belief doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
We can’t avoid the pain of life. At the very least, no matter how good things are, we are still going to get sick and grow old. We are still going to see the people we care about grow old and die. This is a fact of life, and this fact is pain that we can’t escape.
The goal of Buddhism is to escape suffering. I want to be clear that pain isn’t necessarily the same thing as suffering. Pain is something that is a universal part of life; we can feel pain without making ourselves suffer over it. I sometimes think of it this way.
Pain is inevitable, but suffering is something that we consciously choose and control. We compound every problem in life by suffering over it. We often worry about things that are not in our control, and this worry only makes it worse.
Getting angry about things doesn’t help either.
Buddha said, “Getting angry at someone is like grasping a hot coal to throw it at them. You are the one who gets burned.”
Getting angry only makes us unhappy. It doesn’t help the situation, but often worsens it. When we have an irritating problem, we have to worry about our own irritation as well as the problem. It would be much easier to just focus on the problem.
When we are stressed out, we tend to amplify any negative situation that happens to us. For example, if I am frustrated because I can’t find the t.v. remote and I happen to stub my toe while I’m looking for it, that stubbed toe is going to hurt a lot worse than it would have without the initial frustration of searching for the remote. It is going to make me mad at everything. If we are already stressed out, then even a very minor thing can add to our suffering a great deal more than it should.
That might be a slightly more revolutionary idea than the first noble truth. In other words, you can’t always get what you want. Yet, we tend to think that we can. By this, I don’t mean to say that everyone is optimistic—I know that is not the case.
Most of us don’t go around thinking we will suddenly become millionaires or be surrounded by supermodels asking for our love. But there are many people who feel that they should get what they want simply because they want it. If I want the perfect job, for example, I could develop a sense of entitlement, and believe that because I want it, the world should provide it. This entitlement could make me feel bitter if I don’t get the job. This can be a source of unhappiness and make our suffering much greater.
It is especially dangerous if this entitlement is coupled with a belief that we should not have to try very hard to get what we want. That might be part of what the Buddha intended when he revealed the first noble truth. When he said that life is full of suffering, maybe it was a response to the people who think that one day life may not be full of suffering. It’s a deeply rooted belief that things should go our way and that if they do, our pain will be over.
The first noble truth explains to us that pain is a natural part of life.
Even when some part of our life seems to be perfect, it doesn’t last forever. We hope it does, and we often cling to the things we want for fear of losing them. We so desperately want things to last forever, but nothing ever does.
It makes little difference if the change happens because we lost something or because our attitude has changed and we don’t really want it anymore. And, once we have what we really think we want, it often ends up not nearly as perfect as we pictured it.
We are very imaginative. We can come with all sorts of fantasies about what it will be like when we have this cool car or that hot girlfriend.
I think, to a certain extent, society encourages these fantasies. That’s why celebrity worship is so popular these days; it’s easy for us to wish that we could be one of the rich and talented famous people that we worship. We wrongly believe that they don’t suffer like we do.
If we acknowledge that they suffer too, then wishing we were them isn’t nearly as appealing.
Nothing can be as wonderful as it is in our fantasies. I think that’s why rock stars often seem to end up ruining their lives with drugs and other kinds of reckless behavior. This can happen when people are so motivated to ‘have it all,’ and when they get to the top, they realize they still lack perfect happiness. They still suffer just like the rest of us. They don’t know where to go next because they achieved all of their goals. What can you do when you’re at the top, and you’re still unhappy?
Our culture doesn’t help; from an early age, society conditions us on our perception of happiness. We learn that getting what we want will make us happy. We learn the myth of living happily ever afte
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that when we have everything, the truth is that we still have nothing. Everyone suffers from attachment and nothing is ever perfect. It’s always going to be that way. This sounds negative, but it’s the truth. That’s another reason why the four noble truths is a revolutionary concept.
When we believe the four noble truths, we are facing the harsh facts about reality. We are not trying to hide from the truth behind a delusion that at some point our lives will be without pain. I think that on some fundamental level we do realize that. Our Buddha nature knows the truth, and when we start to unleash it, the truth becomes more evident.
There is no perfect life. We might wish for it, but it isn’t real—life is full of suffering because we crave things.
But, there is hope. People sometimes think that Buddhism is very negative because of the four noble truths. That might be why there is not as much excitement towards Buddhism as there is in some other spiritual paths. But, it’s not wholly negative.
We can pretend that our pain isn’t real or that life can be perfect at some point, but this kind of thinking is not helpful. I think it’s better to understand the facts about reality. Only then can we experience personal and spiritual growth.
It’s like having a terminal illness. Most of us, I think, would rather know that we have a terminal illness than be kept in the dark about it. Knowing the truth is a good thing. We must accept the first two noble truths to relieve our suffering.
Beneath our suffering is something very positive, it’s there for us to access. We are one with everything. The core of our being is there.
When oneness with everything can be experienced, pain is a lot easier to handle.
Our ego causes our suffering. If we are attached to the idea that we have a fixed independent self, then we will suffer a great deal. If we can look beyond our limited self, then we can escape from suffering.
There is still a reason to have hope, in spite of the fact that life is full of suffering.
It is the noble eightfold path; this is the path that leads to enlightenment. It is what gives us hope for freedom from suffering; that’s the ultimate point of the four noble truths. Although life is full of suffering, there is a way out.
Pain is unavoidable but suffering is something that we can escape.
If we follow the path the Buddha set out for us we can lessen our suffering. The Buddha said, “I do not teach religion. I only teach suffering and the end of suffering.”
If we just follow the eightfold path of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, we can overcome our suffering.
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Assistant Ed: Andie Britton-Foster/Ed: Bryonie Wise