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Perception of Suffering in Buddhism - The Four Noble Truths


The first teaching of the Buddha, known as the Turning the Wheel of the Dharma, says that life evokes suffering (dukkha) that is caused by ignorance, attachment and aversion; Further it says that a liberation from suffering can be attained via the Noble Eightfold Path, which is plastered by the right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Although there are many Buddhist schools, all are based on the essence of Buddha’s teaching that is summarised in the Four Noble Truths:

The First Noble Truth - “Existence of Suffering” (dukkha)

A person experiences many forms of suffering in the course of life. Although the main reason for this condition is aging, sickness and death, the roots go much deeper. Suffering is not limited to external causes, and even when people have good physical health, adequate material security, education, or functional relationships, they often feel unfulfilled, and unsatisfied.

Driven by the desire to overcome suffering, people constantly pursue material or non-material things that will assumingly provide them pleasure, contentment or at least some comfort. But life always fails to meet the expectations and pursued solutions are often short lived and temporary. As soon as superficial pleasures fade away, suffering returns.

Although this may sound very pessimistic, especially in times of abundance, Buddhists find the First Noble Truth neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but rather realistic.

The Second Noble Truth - The Origin Of Suffering (samudāya)

When we observe our day-to-day suffering, we can easily identify the cause: pain, illness, injury, loss of the loved one, unemployment or financial crisis. The real cause, however, is reaching deeper than simple worries and obvious events – it roots in the desire, tanhā. The desire can exist in various forms that are referred to as the Three Roots of Evil, or the Three Fires, or the Three Poisons:

Ignorance or delusion (avijja, moha)

Ignorance is the main root of all misery in the world. It is based on the belief that all phenomena are fixed and permanent. Because of that, people resist to change by any means, which leads to greed and hatred.

The antidote to ignorance is wisdom.

Hatred and destructive urges (dvesha)

Hate, anger, aversion, and irritation arise from the ignorance (unawareness) of the interconnectedness of all things and beings. For this reason, we experience ourselves apart from everything else, what prevents us from recognising the suffering around us, and our influence on it.

Another aspect of separation leads us to either grab things (the desire to include, or have) or to reject things (the desire to exclude, or not to have). In other words, we become angry when we cannot get what we want (status, partner, property) or when we cannot get rid of what we do not want (undesirable social positioning, career, emotions, physical condition etc.). This makes us jealous of people who possess something we find desirable, or it creates hatred in us towards those whose lifestyle or behaviour is frightening us.

The antidote to dvesha is loving-kindness.

Greed and craving (lobha)

Lobha refers to the desire for material or non-material thing that we believe are necessary for making us better, more successful, happier or more protected. This can take various forms, from obtaining status symbols to collecting things and people.

The antidote to lobha is generosity.

Although the person must rise above the desire, and prevent being enslaved by it, according to Buddhist teachings there is also a positive desire, such a desire for enlightenment, or for the support of other people.

The Third Noble Truth - The Cessation Of Suffering (nirodha)

This Noble Truth offers the possibility of liberation.

The Buddha thought that cessation of suffering can be attained by extinguishing the desire through practice of non-attachment. This is not easy, but still, it can be accomplished through diligent practice. Although the final liberation from attachment is achieved by attaining nirvana (enlightenment) the practice of non-attachment and extinguishing of three fires (ignorance, hate, greed), must be carried out long before the final liberation is reached.

The person who has attained enlightenment does not have to leave this realm immediately and can remain in this existence. Nevertheless, after attainment of enlightenment, one is in a state of mind in which profound blissfulness is experienced, without negative emotions or fears, and in which the compassion for all living beings is awakened. Only after the physical death, the enlightened person can enter into the final nirvana (parinirvāṇa) and be freed from the cycle of rebirth.

The Fourth Noble Truth - The Path To The Cessation Of Suffering (magga)

The final Noble Truth is a prescription for the way out of suffering. This is set of principles described as the Noble Eightfold Path.

The path is laid out in eight stages, but these do not have to be practiced in a specific order. Rather, they should be perceived simultaneously, since each stage reinforces and supports others.

The stages of the path can be divided into the following groups:

  • Wisdom (right understanding and right intention),

  • Ethical Conduct (right speech, right action and right livelihood),

  • Meditation (right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration).

The Buddha described the Eightfold Path as a way to enlightenment, comparing it to the raft used to cross a river. But once the opposite shore is reached, raft is no longer needed and can be left behind.

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