The Essence of the Buddha’s Teachings: The Four Noble Truths

If you’re a beginner in Buddhist study and practice, a good understanding of the Four Noble Truths will help you contextualise everything else you go on to learn about Buddhism.

The Four Noble Truths are the foundational teachings of Buddhism that offer profound insights into the nature of suffering and the path to liberation. This was the Buddha’s first teaching after he achieved Enlightenment, and it is as radical now as it was 2,500 years ago. All traditions of Buddhism emphasise the importance of this most fundamental of teachings.

If you are interested in Buddhist philosophy’s fundamentals, we will explore the four noble truths in this blog post.


  • Why are the Four Noble Truths Important?

  • What is Suffering or Dukkha?

  • What is the Cause of Suffering?

  • What is Nirvana?

  • What is The Eightfold Path?

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Why are the four noble truths important?

Buddhism is founded on Four Noble Truths: there is suffering, a cause of suffering, an end to it, and a way to end it. But what is suffering and what do the Four Noble Truths mean for us? To begin to understand Buddhism and its essence, it is important we know what each of them refer to and, most importantly, what that looks like in our lives.


What is Suffering or Dukkha?

Our understanding of the word ‘suffering’ might evoke images of extreme distress, such as those of civilians in wartime or the aftermath of natural disasters such as an earthquake or tsunami. But this is not what the Buddha meant by suffering.

The word translated as ‘suffering’ comes from ‘dukkha’. It can equally be translated as ‘dissatisfaction’, where it refers to what stops us from being happy or at peace. When we search for happiness or acquire great success and wealth but are still not happy, this is what is meant by suffering. In short, suffering is characterised by this endless searching for satisfaction because of a dissatisfaction.


What is the Cause of Suffering?

The first truth gives us an idea of what suffering is but how do we snap ourselves out of this cycle, what is its cause? The Buddha says suffering is caused by desire. Desire epitomises and fuels this cyclical search for satisfaction or peace.

Having this desire, it dictates our lives and is what we base our lives around. It governs our actions, consciously or unconsciously. Another aspect of suffering is that, when we perform actions fuelled by desire, when our own actions bring unhappiness to others, that is also suffering.

It is important to understand that desire itself is not inherently bad, but that a lack of control of it is how it leads to or generates suffering. The second truth, desire being the cause of suffering, is there for us to recognise this truth for ourselves so we can acknowledge and accept it.


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What is Nirvana?

Now that we have the truths of suffering and its cause, we have the clarity of how to end it. Like with anything, when we know its cause, we know its solution – the opposite of it or its reversal. If the cause of suffering is desire, the solution is to stop desire.

The ending of desire is the well-known term nirvana (“to extinguish”) – figuratively blowing out the flame of desire. In contrast to suffering, where there is an endless search for satisfaction, nirvana is the end of this search. This ending is itself the peace we were chasing so hard to find all along.

Suffering and desirous actions represent an insatiable restlessness, where we cannot even sit still or quietly without stimuli, being happy in the moment or accepting it for what it is. Linked to this, suffering is also exemplified by both a lack of acceptance for the way things are and that what we have right now is not enough for us to be happy.

Nirvana, on the other hand, is unconditional happiness. Rather than simply changing our perspective to what we have is enough, it is an absence of entertaining the thoughts which generate this restlessness and dissatisfaction in us. This end to suffering is an end to our lives being dictated by desire and a restraint from entertaining those thoughts that we need more to be happy.


What is The Eightfold Path?

Finally, the last truth is there is a way to end suffering – how we cultivate nirvana. It is not enough for us to just read the truths or know them; we have to put them into practise and realise them for ourselves in our own lives. For this purpose, the Buddha devised the Eightfold Noble Path:

  1. Right speech
  2. Right action
  3. Right livelihood
  4. Right effort
  5. Right mindfulness
  6. Right concentration
  7. Right understanding
  8. Right knowledge

‘Right’ denotes practising the eight parts in a way which does not bring suffering – knowing how to conduct them without inflicting suffering on ourselves or others. The eightfold path is sometimes divided into three categories: moral conduct (right speech, action and livelihood), meditation (right effort, mindfulness and concentration), and wisdom (right understanding and knowledge).



How could these Four Noble Truths apply to someone’s life?

In essence, the three parts characterise the moral conduct which brings about an end to suffering, the control of the mind necessary to not subject ourselves to desire-driven actions, and the wisdom we need to have and govern our lives by, integrated into all that we do. If you’re interested to discover what Buddhism is, check out our upcoming Buddhist courses for beginners.


Author: Lewis Gwilt

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