The Buddha, after an early life of wealth and luxury, observed that all humanity suffered, and resolved to seek out the cause and the cure. He studied and put into practice for himself all the philosophies of the time, but realizing that none of them could provide an answer, he determined to find his own Enlightenment, and, seated under the Bodhi tree, he did so.
The Buddha’s approach to the problems of the world was not that of a saviour, or of a prophet, or of a philosopher, but that of a physician. First, he examines the patient, observing the symptoms of the sickness; then by analysing the symptoms, he diagnoses the cause of the sickness. Next, like any good physician, he explains to the patient that there is hope, and he tells of the nature of the cure. Finally, he gives the prescription and the course of the treatment which is to be followed.
These stages are set out in what all Buddhists know as the Four Noble Truths. They are called Noble because of the lofty, spiritual insight, and they are at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching.
In the first Noble Truth, the Buddha identified the basic cause of the problems of humanity as “Dukka”. This is the Pali word which the Buddha used. Now, because the full meaning of words cannot be directly translated from one language to another, it is necessary to explain the concept of ‘dukkha’ in some detail. In ordinary usage, ‘dukkha means suffering, pain, sorrow or misery. But in the First Noble Truth, representing what the Buddha saw in the world and in life, the word has a deeper and wider philosophical meaning. It includes the ideas of imperfection, impermanence and insubstantiality, and comprises also the corruptibility of all things living or inert, and their liability to disease, ageing and death.
‘Dukkha’ even involves happiness, whether those of family life, or of the senses, or even the higher pleasures of exalted spiritual states, not because they are suffering in the ordinary sense of the word, but because they are impermanent and liable to change.
Thus, in the First Noble Truth, the Buddha pointed to the factual existence of dukkha.
In the Second Noble Truth he showed its origin, which is “tanha”. The direct meaning of this is ‘thirst’, but it also includes desire, greed and craving. At one level this means greed and craving for material things, sense pleasures, wealth and power. At a deeper level it involves a desire for permanence, continuance and changelessness even in the face of the fact, shown in the First Noble Truth, that in reality nothing is changeless. According to the Buddha’s analysis, all troubles and strife in the world, from quarrels in families to wars between nations, arise out of this selfish ‘thirst’.
The third Noble Truth given to us by the Buddha is that we can achieve an end to “dukkha”, and that it is called “Nirvana”. Volumes have been written about ‘Nirvana’ in attempts to explain what it is. But the only reasonable reply to the question is that it can never be answered satisfactorily, because human language is too poor to express the nature of Absolute Truth, or Ultimate Reality, which is Nirvana. Parallel situations are to be found in all religions; Ultimates are not to be named, are inexpressible.
In one sense, there is ‘Nirvana’ when “dukkha” ceases, because of the ending of ‘tanha’. If this seems obscure, we may say that when wisdom is developed and cultivated according to the Fourth Noble Truth, (which we will take up later), the secret of life will be seen, the reality of things as they actually are. When that secret – one which in truth is blindingly obvious – is discovered, then all the forces feverishly producing the illusion of reality, and therefore the desire for it, are stilled. “Tanha” is like a mental disease, which is cured when the cause of the malady is discovered and seen by the patient.
One who has realized the Truth is truly happy. He is free from all complexes and obsessions and has perfect mental health. As he is free from selfish desire, hatred, ignorance, conceit, pride and all such “defilements”, to use the Buddhist term, such a person is pure and gentle, full of universal love, compassion, kindness, sympathy, understanding and tolerance.
The Fourth Noble Truth is that of the way leading to the cessation of “dukkha”. This is known as the ‘Middle Path’, because it avoids two extremes; on the one hand, the search for happiness through the pleasures of the senses, which is “low, common and unprofitable”, and, on the other hand, the search for happiness through self-mortification in various forms of asceticism, which is “painful and unworthy”. Having himself tried these two extremes and found them to be unproductive, the Buddha discovered through personal experience the Middle Path, which gives “vision and knowledge leading to calm, insight, enlightenment and Nirvana”. It is generally referred to as the Noble Eightfold Path, because it is composed of eight categories, namely, Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
The Buddha devoted 45 years of his life to his teaching, and nearly all of it deals in one way or another with this Noble Path.