The four noble truths are the intellectual core of Buddhism. It was insight into them—a deep intuitive insight beyond intellectual reflection—that prompted the Buddha’s awakening.
The original text
The simplicity of the four noble truths is deceptive. A lot of the later literature has added a filter that distorts the original. Some of the platitudes attributed to the Buddha, such as the idea that everything is suffering, don’t exist in the earliest texts.
Hence, I’d start with the original texts:
- Now this, monks, is the noble truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha, separation from the loved is dukkha, not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.
- And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of dukkha: the craving that makes for further-becoming—accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there—i.e., craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.
- And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.
- And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: precisely this noble eightfold path—right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”
Adapted from Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of SN 56:11. I left dukkha untranslated rather than using his choice of stress.
No single English word captures the full range of the Pali dukkha, which encompasses everything from physical pain to a subtle existential angst. I prefer to leave it untranslated. The traditional translation is suffering, although Ajaan Geoff’s stress captures the the psychological nuances better.
Not everything is suffering, but sickness and death, which are big time suffering suffering, are inevitable. Modern psychology explores the background suffering this causes in Terror Management Theory.
In daily practice, I find it helpful to monitor dukkha. Pay attention to the inevitable bits of pain that simply existing causes: headaches, being hungry, stubbing a toe. Compare those to the dukkha that the mind creates in reaction to daily events.
The Buddha never promised that the practice would remove the former type of suffering—at least in this life. On the other hand, you can dramatically calm and reduce the second type of dukkha in short order.
Samudaya: the Cause of Suffering
Taṇhā, craving—literally thirst in Pali, is what causes dukkha. Some later traditions have taken this a step further than the Buddha to say that any desire whatsoever is the craving that drives suffering. Yet the Buddha listed three specific types of craving:
- Kāmataṇhā: craving for pleasant sensual experiences.
This covers everything from sex to posh luxuries. There’s nothing wrong with them in and of themselves, but craving for sensual pleasures always leads to disappointment. A good meal ends, sitting too long in a comfortable chair hurts and we ultimately can’t control how we experience pain. This is one part of the unreliability of sensual pleasure. The other is that even the best experiences can’t entirely block out the subtle background angst that Terror Management Theory describes.
- Bhavataṇhā: craving to become
This ranges from wanting to live forever in the afterlife offered by most religions to creating an identity and building an existence around it. The later happens all the time on a psychological level, and each new identity you create for yourself will inevitably fade away and lead to suffering.
- Vibhavataṇhā: craving not to be
This goes way beyond the obvious example of suicide. Any desire to become numb is Vibhavataṇhā: drinking to alleviate social anxiety, desperately wanting a boring meeting to end or zoning out all day instead of being engaged.
Nirodha: the End of Suffering
The end of craving is the end of suffering. It’s a simple and as hard as that. Life isn’t a pointless endeavor. There’s an end to suffering.
The early translations of Buddhist literature into English didn’t do the end of suffering justice and called the whole affair cessation. While it’s true to talk about the cessation of suffering that’s only half the story. Many of the traditional Buddhist metaphors focus on the joy and relief felt at having dodged misfortune, recovered from illness, come out of debt, etc.
Practicing Buddhism doesn’t leave you a nihilist zombie. When you remove craving and dukkha, you’re filled with joy and compassion—in a sense you’re truly alive.
Magga: the Path
Craving isn’t a switch that you can flip off. Instead, there’s an entire path of practice that creates the conditions that lead to the end of suffering.
That path is the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Buddha’s Teachings: an Introduction
There’s a succint chapter devoted to the Four Noble Truths that’s a good place to start. Available for free under the treatise section at dhammatalks.org.
Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha’s First Teaching
This is a book-length exposition of the entire Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, from which the Four Noble Truths come.
Dhamma Talk: The Four Noble Truth
There are dozens of similar talks from Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu on YouTube.
The Wikipedia article is also not a bad place for general info.