The Four Noble Truths: Suffering and Salvation in Buddhism

by Luke Wayne
3/28/16

The "Four Noble Truths" represent the central doctrines of all Buddhism. Buddha is reported to have said, "I teach only suffering and its ending."1 The "Four Noble Truths" represent precisely this Buddhist teaching; Suffering, the cause of suffering, the possibility of escape from suffering, and the method of attaining that escape.2

Dukkha: The Universal Suffering

The first of these four central Buddhist teachings is that of "Dukkha," which is generally translated "Suffering."3 It is not, however, merely physical or emotional pain, though it certainly includes such immediate and obvious suffering. In Buddhist teaching, the idea of "Dukkha" or "Suffering" conveys a deeper existential reality.

Everything is transitory, impermanent, and ever changing. Because of this, even happiness, pleasure, love, and the other noble and desirable things in life are actually forms of suffering because they do not last and cannot ultimately satisfy us.4 Not only this, but we must necessarily become sick, grow old, and otherwise experience unavoidable loss and decay, so even life itself is suffering.5

Even more, we are not what we believe we are. We believe that we are specific individuals with distinct identities that endure over time. We believe that, however much we change, we are in some meaningful sense that same person from the moment our human life begins until our heart beats its last. Buddhism, however, teaches that this is an illusion. We are a mere collection of physical and mental phenomena that each exist for only a moment and then give rise to new phenomena which combine, perhaps similarly, but still differently into what we presume to be ourselves in the next moment. There is no distinct thing that is an individual human person in any given moment, and there is no aspect of any presumed person that persists from one moment to the next. This too, Buddhism teaches, is Dukkha.6 Thus every aspect of life, indeed even life itself, is said to be tainted by this suffering.7 As one Buddhist scholar observed:

"For more than 2,000 years, Buddhists have been declaring that all objects of perception - all physical (table, sun, moon) and physiological phenomena and all wholesome, unwholesome, and neutral states of mind - are suffering. One hundred years after the Buddha passed away, practitioners were already repeating the formula, 'This is suffering. Life is suffering. Everything is suffering'"8

This may sound on its face to be a pessimistic cry of hopeless woe and lamentation, but it is not intended that way. To the Buddhist, the doctrine of Dukkha is more like the diagnosis of a terrible yet treatable disease. One is not pessimistic to admit the presence of the disease if one does so to then provide the hope of a cure.9 This is what the remainder of these central Buddhist teachings go on to do; to try to understand the cause of the disease and then to offer an effective treatment. Buddhism teaches, however, that the greatest burden is to suffer and not know that you are suffering, and therefore even to begin by identifying the reality of suffering is a part of the treatment.10

It must finally be noted that Buddhism rests on the assumption that life is a continual cycle of death and rebirth. If all of life is tainted by Dukkha, then to escape Dukkha means to break this cycle.11 Dukkha is not merely the particular suffering in this event or in that object. Dukkha permeates the eternal cycle of rebirth known as "samsara.," and is inseparable from it. Buddhism is not seeking to reduce or remove the suffering that one may experience in a particular lifetime but to escape samara's endless cycle of life and death that represents the perpetual renewal of Dukkha.

Tanha: The Source of Dukkha

The second of these four central Buddhist teachings is that the cause of Dukkha is "Tanha," which literally means "thirst," though most translators render it "desire" or "craving."12 As one Buddhist source laments:

"Where is the source of human grief, lamentation, pain, and agony? Is it not to be found in the fact that people are generally desirous?"13

The idea is not that we have a misguided set of desires, and that craving the wrong things leads to life's suffering, but rather that desiring and yearning itself is the cause of suffering, regardless of the object.14 Because all things are impermanent and ever changing, anything we desire will not last. Even if we managed to obtain all that we desire, and even if all our desires are "good" and "noble," they would bring with them suffering, dissatisfaction, and loss that would outweigh any fleeting pleasure or fulfillment we might receive.15

According to Buddhism, our desires which bring the pain and suffering of the world are rooted in our delusion that we are distinct persons who can act on the world around us as a separate thing from ourselves.16 Any judgment that one thing should be sought after and another thing avoided, any "leaning into" one experience and away from another,17 any desire or any action of the will necessarily bring Dukkha with it.18 Our delusion of personal existence and our unwillingness to look at all things as an interconnected whole without any distinction or preference is what perpetually creates Dukkha in all things. As one Buddhist instructor explains it:

"In discovering the origins of our suffering, we uncover how the self was created. We see the suffering is self imposed and perpetuated by our unwillingness to look. The sense of 'you' and 'I' is created from our resistance to looking." 19

One can grasp the logic that connects desires, cravings, and attachments to the various forms of suffering in any given life, but it is not immediately clear how desires in this life would cause the rebirth of some future life, much less how they would contribute to suffering in that life. This difficulty is further magnified by the fact that, as we have noted, Buddhism is quite clear that the future life is not a continuation of "you" since "you" do not actually exist as a distinct and enduring person even in this life much less on into the next. Buddhist teaching answers this through the concept of "karma."20

Unlike the improper way that westerners use the term, karma is not the good or bad things that happen to you because of what you have done.21 The word "karma" literally means "action"22 or "deeds"23 and in Buddhism refers to any volitional act of the will. Karma is the action itself, not the result of the action. While Buddhism acknowledges that there is karma that can have relatively positive effects and karma that can have relatively negative effects, all karma is said to have causal effects that bring about future lives.24

These lives are not a continuation of the same individual being, since there is no such thing, but are rather connected by a chain of cause and effect relationships brought about by karma actions.25 The Buddhist, therefore, is not seeking to perform "good" karma, but rather no karma at all. The Buddhist doesn't want a better rebirth. Instead, the goal is to escape the cycle of rebirth and its inherent and all-encompassing suffering.26 All karma is action of the will, and "will" is inherently rooted in desire. All karma, even so-called "good" karma, ultimately perpetuates Dukkha.

Nirvana: An End of Dukkha

The third of these four central Buddhist teachings is that there is, in fact, freedom from samsara and the continuation of Dukkha.27 Following rather logically from the previous point, it is here claimed that since desire causes suffering, one can become free from suffering by becoming free of desires. One can, in turn, become free from desires by abandoning the illusion of a distinct, personal existence which gives personal will and desire its justification.28 When Tanha ceases, Dukkha ceases as well.29 When one fully grasps, embraces, and gives oneself up entirely to this understanding of the world, one realizes Nirvana.

Nirvana is not a place. It is not paradise or heaven or resurrection or eternal life.30 One does not "enter" Nirvana.31 Conversely, the consistent Buddhist cannot think of Nirvana as annihilation or extinction of existence.32 As Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula puts it:

"There are many who have got a wrong idea that it is negative, and expresses self-annihilation. Nirvana is definitely no annihilation of self, because there is no self to annihilate. If at all, it is the annihilation of the illusion, of the false idea of self" 33

The word "nirvana" does indeed mean to "blow out" or "extinguish," like a flame deprived of fuel or air that then ceases to burn.34 But what extinguishes is not you personally, since Buddhism denies that there is any "you" to extinguish. In the Pali Canon, an ancient collection of Buddha's teaching, we find Nirvana described in terms such as:

  • "the abandoning of desire and craving,"
  • "the cessation of continuity and becoming,"
  • "the extinction of thirst,"
  • "the uprooting of attachment,"
  • "reality,"
  • "absolute truth."35

It is, therefore, the annihilation of everything that makes you think of yourself as a "self" and that therefore makes you act as if you and other people and objects have distinct and enduring identities.36 It is the experiential realization of existence as it actually is;37 an interconnected reality where there are no distinctions or dualities.38 Rahula again notes:

"It is incorrect to say that Nirvana is negative or positive. The ideas 'negative' and 'positive' are relative, and are within the realm of duality. These terms cannot be applied to Nirvana, Absolute Truth, which is beyond duality and relativity" 39

Never mind for the moment that Rahula himself even here necessarily speaks of an actual duality between relative truth and absolute truth, and puts Nirvana plainly on one side of this duality and not on the other. The point is that Buddhism understands Nirvana as a truth to be realized. The world is known without distinctions and divisions, and thus self is impossible, and there are no "things" to be desired over other "things," there simply is what "is." Realization of Nirvana can, therefore, be, in a meaningful sense, attained in this life by purging oneself of all desires and ideas of distinction.40 Such a person will go on living in this life in many ways as before, though without desire or attachment, and when he dies there will be no resultant rebirth, and he thus attains the full and final realization of Nirvana.41 This is the end of suffering to which all Buddhist teaching is aiming.

The Way to Nirvana

While it cannot be overstated that Nirvana is not a place or any sort of future state to which the Buddhist is seeking to arrive, the fourth of these four central Buddhist teachings, figuratively speaking, lays out the "way" or the "path" to the end of the suffering of Dukkha.42 Buddhism expresses this path to enlightenment and liberation in eight points, thus it is commonly called the "eightfold path."43 The eight points are:

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

Detailing the specifics of each point in the path and the various ways each school of Buddhism understands and applies them is beyond the scope of this article. We must note, however, that these eight aspects of the path, taken together, are designed to reshape every facet of one's thought, life, and worldview in light of the previous three "truths" and toward the end of attaining Nirvana through the abandonment of desire and sense of self. As a mere reading of the points above would likely indicate, this is not expected to typically happen through an instant and immediate epiphany. Rather, it requires years of careful self-discipline, training one's mind and body for enlightenment the way an athlete does for an Olympic competition or a tradesman for a career.44 Some forms of Buddhism may believe that there are other elements to the path or sources of help outside oneself along the way. All, however, would uphold this central path to Liberation from Dukkha and realization of Nirvana through the disciplined adherence to the Eightfold path the Buddha prescribed.

The God Problem

The system articulated above entirely depends on a set of starting assumptions:

  1. All things are impermanent, transitory, and fleeting
  2. Therefore, no real, permanent person or thing can endure through time
  3. And as a further result, no desires can be meaningfully and lastingly fulfilled.

The God of the Bible, however, is eternal and unchanging. For example, the Scriptures tell us that:

Psalm 90:2 "Before the mountains were born or You gave birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God."

Malachi 3:6 “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed."

Hebrews 13:8 "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."

The Buddhist, therefore, is forced to bet his or her whole system on the claim that the biblical God does not exist. Buddha himself obviously never made this claim. He lived his entire life in the Hindu culture of ancient India, where the Biblical God was unheard of, and the idea of a single, distinct, personal, eternal, transcendent, creator God was not a part of public discourse. Interestingly, Buddha did accept the existence of the Hindu gods, but as these gods were themselves temporal and mortal, he considered them to be within the cycle of death and rebirth in samsara and thus suffering Dukkha like everything else.45 Such transitory gods fit well in the Buddhist system and created no controversy. The eternal and unchanging God of Christianity, however, is another matter entirely.

The Dalai Lama has stated emphatically that the Buddhist worldview leaves no place for an atemporal, eternal, absolute or a divine creation.46 Walpola Rahula asserts that belief in God is a human invention and is empty and false.47 The Society for the Promotion of Buddhism lists belief in a sovereign, creator God as one of the three wrong viewpoints in the world that deny us enlightenment. They defend this claim simply by restating that everything is merely a succession of temporal appearances connected by causes and effects.48 In other words, belief in God is wrong ultimately because the Buddhist system can't allow for His existence.

The Buddhist presupposes a conception of reality that is entirely undone if they accept the existence of the eternal God. If God exists eternally and unchangingly, and even more if He can ultimately fulfill righteous desires and promise eternal life to the faithful, the four noble truths turn out not to be true or noble, and Buddhism unravels.

  • 1. Rodney Smith "Stepping out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 44
  • 2. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 2
  • 3. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 32
  • 4. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 2
  • 5. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 34-35
  • 6. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 2
  • 7. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 16
  • 8. Thich Nhat Hanh, "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching" (Broadway Books, 1998) 20
  • 9. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 2
  • 10. Thich Nhat Hanh, "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching" (Broadway Books, 1998) 29
  • 11. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 21
  • 12. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 36
  • 13. "The Teaching of Buddha" (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966) 42-43
  • 14. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 16
  • 15. Rodney Smith "Stepping out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 13
  • 16. ibid, 4
  • 17. ibid, 6
  • 18. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 3
  • 19. Rodney Smith "Stepping out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 44
  • 20. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 3
  • 21. ibid
  • 22. ibid
  • 23. "The Teaching of Buddha" (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966) 299
  • 24. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 3
  • 25. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 55
  • 26. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 3
  • 27. ibid, Chapter 4
  • 28. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 37
  • 29. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 16
  • 30. ibid, 22
  • 31. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4
  • 32. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 23
  • 33. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4
  • 34. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 51
  • 35. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4
  • 36. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 52-53
  • 37. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4
  • 38. "The Teaching of Buddha" (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966) 299
  • 39. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4
  • 40. ibid
  • 41. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 25
  • 42. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 5
  • 43. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 16
  • 44. Houston Smith and Phillip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperCollins Publishing, 2003) 39
  • 45. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 22
  • 46. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 183-184
  • 47. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 6
  • 48. "The Teaching of Buddha" (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966) 44-45