Four Noble Truths


Like many early Greek philosophers, the Buddha often makes an analogy between his role as a teacher and guide, and the work of a physician or doctor.

He provides a list of symptoms, a diagnosis as to illness and its causes, and a prescription as to what can be done to alleviate the condition and restore the patient’s wellbeing. Traditionally these are known as the Four Noble Truths.

  1. The Buddha identifies suffering, dissatisfaction, unease, disharmony (dukkha);
  2. and the causes of suffering and dissatisfaction: craving/desire/attachment – three kinds of desire: desire or attachment to sensory pleasures (kama tanha), desire to become – attachment to states of being (bhava tanha), and desire to get rid of (vibhava tanha);
  3. he informs everyone that there is a remedy or method for alleviating suffering and dissatisfaction – by clearly investigating the causes and letting go of incorrect beliefs and views (delusions – avidya) about the nature of existence;
  4. he provides a prescription or method for alleviating suffering: the Noble Eightfold Path – including  mindful meditation.

There are a number of contemporary scholars who argue that the term ‘Truth’, may give the wrong impression in this context, implying some kind of absolute belief or truth (as in the ten commandments in Christianity). Stephen Batchelor suggests that ‘task’ might be a more useful term – in that the Buddha, who comes across as a practical and pragmatic physician, is recommending something we can do – a method, a remedy – rather than an abstract truth. Also, given that all things, events, ideas, beliefs, etc. are impermanent, ever-changing and interdependent, there can be no absolutes – including fixed notions of truth.

In his most recent book, After Buddhism, Batchelor suggests the following formulation of four tasks:

An understanding of conditionality as the context for a fourfold task:

to comprehend suffering; to let go of the arising of reactivity; to behold the ceasing of reactivity; to cultivate an eightfold path that is grounded in the perspective of mindful awareness and leads one to become self-reliant in the practice of the dharma.

This is cumbersome. Another version might be:

Recognise and accept how things are [Dharma = anicca, anatta, dukkha];                   Recognise how we cling and desire, and learn to let go of what passes;               Realise that we can be calm, clear and non-reactive;                                                     Practice mindful enquiry and contemplation and act in harmony with how things are (the eightfold path)

This is also cumbersome. A simpler version might be:

wake up and accept the way the world is; recognise our clinging habits; realise that we can learn to let go; practice mindful enquiry, mindful thought, mindful speech and mindful action – in this way we can re-establish harmony with the world, and kinship with all beings.