The Four Noble Truths

The job we have now is to begin to dig into the content of the Buddha's teaching. To try to understand what the Buddha told his disciples about the nature of the world that allowed them in some way to reproduce the experience of his awakening.

The discourse on the turning of the wheel of the Dharma gives the account of the Buddha’s first sermon. The traditional summary of the teaching is given in four categories, the so called Four Noble Truths.

  1. The Truth of Suffering (Dukkha)
  2. The Arising of Suffering (Samudaya)
  3. The Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha)
  4. The Truth of the Way (Mārga) that leads to the cessation of suffering.

The Language of the Scriptures

I should say that as we move through these categories, that I’ve shifted the language that I’m working with from Sanskrit to a language called Pali. This is the language of the traditional scriptures of South East Asia, the scriptures of the Theravada tradition. You can think of it as a vernacular, a popular form of Sanskrit. It was spoken in one of the regions of India shortly after the death of the Buddha.

When we come back to the Mahayana in a later article, we’ll come back to use Sanskrit. Sanskrit became the standard language in the classical Buddhist tradition shortly after the beginning of the common era.

The Truth of Suffering

Some say that if you understand the Truth of Suffering you understand all of the Four Noble Truths by implication.

The truth of suffering is expressed in the simple claim that All is Suffering. This phrase, the first doctrinal assumption that we will discuss posses a problem for us. It’s not easy to interpret.

If you know Buddhist people, if you are a Buddhist person, you know that the Buddhist tradition is not filled with sadness. It’s not a depressive downbeat tradition. In many respects, it has a kind of lightness.

The Dalai Lama for example, if you have seen him on television, he has some kind of lightness in his personality that allows him to simply float through the world. He expresses it with a smile. I wish I could somehow capture that exquisite smile of the Dalai Lama for myself and pass it unto you, because it conveys something important about the Buddhist tradition.

Buddhism is light, is buoyant, is easy. It almost floats as a religious tradition through the complexity of this world. The basic assertion in the Four Noble Truths, the assertion that all is suffering poses an interpretative dilemma for us.

How do you get from this claim, the claim that all is suffering, to the buoyancy and lightness of Buddhist experience? That’s the challenge, that’s the interpretative challenge we have as we first try to step into the world of Buddhist doctrine. We'll discuss it in the next article.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha's Teachings

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