BUDDHISM > four noble truths

In life there is suffering. Suffering is caused. Suffering can end. The way to its end is through the practice of self-discipline, concentration, and wisdom. It might seem pessimistic for the Buddha to say that there is suffering in life. But he did not leave it at that. Like a good doctor, he diagnosed the fundamental problem of life and declared it: Life involves suffering. As a caring doctor, he optimistically determined that a cure exists, and prescribed the necessary treatment: proper practice and correct understanding.

Upon hearing that in life there is suffering, people often say they do not “suffer.” We might understand better if we think of life as never being completely satisfactory. We very often feel some degree of physical or mental discomfort. At other times in our lives, we all undergo genuine suffering. Initially, we undergo the trauma of birth; later, we experience disease and illness. Many of us will undergo aging, and none of us will escape death.

Regardless of whether we say suffering or non-satisfaction, all beings are subject to distress. Simply put, things usually do not go as we wish. Suffering is inherent in everything within our existence. Thus, this is the first truth: in life there is suffering.

What causes suffering? Ignorance and greed. Ignorance is the lack of understanding that all conditioned things are impermanent and void of an everlasting individual identity. Greed is the craving and attachment for material things or pleasant experiences and much more.

All of us have greed, desires, and attachments for things, people, life, and more. Why? We are deluded, and in our unawareness we do not see things as they really are. We do not understand that life is suffering, that suffering is caused by craving, that suffering can end, and that there is a way to its end.

When we do not get what we want, we become annoyed. When we lose what we have, we feel resentful. When we are unable to be with people we like, we become irritated. These are all forms of anger. Anger has its roots in the discriminatory and mistaken idea that “I am an individual” and, consequently, that I need to protect my ideas and possessions; that I need to defend who I am as an individual. Ignorance leads us to think in terms of gain or loss, plus and minus: that I need to protect what is mine, whether it is a thing, an idea, or a person.

This concept of “mine” leads to selfishness, which in turn results in our wanting, either of what we do not have or more of what we already have. Greed and anger arise because we are ignorant and do not know that craving leads to more craving. This, the Buddha said, is the second truth: Suffering is caused.

The Buddha did not just tell us what the problem was—that life is suffering, that our lives are filled with dissatisfaction, that we are unhappy much of the time—and then leave it at that. He went on and explained that this suffering is caused by our own greed, which comes from our ignorance. And then he told us unequivocally that there is a way to end this suffering.

We can do so by eliminating our selfishness. When our greed and attachments no longer exist, suffering ceases, and the state of Nirvana is attained. Nirvana is the state in which we are permanently liberated from our suffering. In this state, there is no thought of “me” or “mine,” and there is no more greed, anger, and ignorance. There is peace, love, wisdom, and a level of complete happiness that we cannot imagine or begin to describe.

The Buddha did not tell us about suffering to take the joy out of our lives. He did not intend that we should feel that life was depressing or unbearable or hopeless. He wanted to shake us out of our complacency. He hoped that we would awaken and replace our current state of ignorance with one of understanding. To deny that suffering exists is pointless. But to become immersed in feelings of hopelessness is equally futile. We need to follow the middle path and find an inner balance, to neither drown in nor ignore suffering, but to strive to overcome our unsatisfactory existence. Thus, we now realize the third truth: Suffering can end.

The way to its end is the fourth truth: practice. Different traditions and teachers may use different words to explain the practice, but the essence is the three learnings of discipline, concentration, and wisdom.