Four Noble Truths – Suffering and Its Elimination

January 6, 2019; revised May 27, 2021

Introduction

1. The First Noble Truth is about the suffering that we can stop from arising.

  • The second describes how suffering arises from our own cravings (which we manifest via our own saṅkhāra that we generate willingly, as we have discussed; see, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means“). I will write a simpler version in the next post.
  • The Third Noble Truth says that we can stop future suffering by eliminating those cravings. That REQUIRES an understanding of the wider world view of the Buddha with the rebirth process within the 31 realms.
  • The Fourth Noble Truth is the path to acquire that understanding by “learning and living” that Dhammā (by following the Noble Eightfold Path).

2. The Buddha said, “my Dhammā has not been previously known in this world.”

  • What is new about knowing that there is suffering around us? Everybody knows that there is suffering from old age, diseases, poverty, etc. One does not have to be a Buddhist to see that.
  • So, we need to figure out “what is new” about suffering explained in the First Noble Truth.
The First Noble Truth – What is Suffering

3. I have discussed the First Noble Truth in the post,  “Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta.” Summary:

Birth is suffering, getting old is suffering, getting sick is suffering, dying is suffering. Having to associate with things that one does not like is suffering, and so is separation from those things one likes. If one does not get what one likes, that is suffering – in brief, the origin of suffering is the craving for the five aggregates of rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāna (pancupādānakkhandha). All we crave for in this world are represented by pancupādānakkhandha (upādāna or craving for the pancakkhandha).

  • (Here, I have translated upādāna as cravingHowever, the word upādāna CANNOT BE translated by just one word. It is a good idea to grasp the meaning. See,  “Concepts of Upādāna and Upādānakkhandha.”)
  • There is a deeper meaning in part, “If one does not get what one likes (iccha), that is suffering.” That is connected to the anicca nature.
  • That deeper meaning is expressed in terms of upādāna with taṇhā (attachment) is expressed in the final part, “Doing worldly activities (samkittena) to get all those things one craves for (pancupādānakkhandha) is suffering.”

4. Just as in science, something comes about due to causes. Our present life as humans has come about due to causes (kamma) done in the past. Some of those were “good kamma,” and that is why we can enjoy some pleasures. Bad kammā has led to instances of suffering.

  • But there are lower realms, including the animal realm, where suffering is much higher. Bad kammāa lead to such births.
  • Suffering in the four lowest realms is real suffering. That is what we first need to focus on.
  • And all that suffering arises because we crave things in this world because of our avijjā (not comprehending the Four Noble Truths).

5. Seeing this hidden suffering is indeed difficult. When the Buddha attained the Buddhahood, he was worried about whether he could convey these deep ideas to most people.

  • It is natural to seek pleasure and happiness. Some people act immorally, seeking such pleasures. The consequences of such immoral acts are not apparent. We can see a stone thrown up coming down, but we cannot see any bad consequences to the drug dealer who seems to be enjoying life.
The Second Noble Truth – Causes for Future Suffering

6. the cause of future suffering is indicated indirectly in the First Noble Truth: Craving sensory pleasures. Suppose we do immoral things to get such sensory pleasures. The worst outcomes (rebirths in the apāyās) will result.

  • For example, person X may kill another person to get his money or to marry his wife. Even though X may accomplish that goal and “enjoy life” for even 100 years, that is nothing compared to millions of years of future suffering X will go through due to his immoral action.

7. When a fish bites the bait, it does not see the suffering hidden in that action. Looking from the ground, we can see the whole picture, and we know what will happen to the fish if it bites the bait. But the fish is unable to see that whole picture and thus does not see the hidden suffering. It only sees a delicious bit of food.

  • In the same way, if we do not know about the wider world of 31 realms (with the suffering-filled four lowest realms), we only focus on what is easily accessible to our six senses.
  • To really comprehend suffering through repeated rebirths, one needs to comprehend that most suffering is encountered in the 4 lowest realms (apāyās); see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“ at puredhamma.net.
  • Thus, stopping suffering requires one to be mindful of one’s actions and stop doing bad vaci and kāya saṅkhāra (i.e., immoral thinking, speech, and deeds).

8. Therefore, the “previously unheard truth about suffering” that the Buddha revealed is the suffering hidden in sense pleasures. The level of suffering depends on what we do (vaci and kāya saṅkhāra) to get those pleasures. If they are immoral, then the worst suffering in the apāyās will result.

  • We believe that those sense pleasures are to be valued and to be enjoyed. That is because we do not see right away the consequences of any bad actions that we do to get those sense pleasures.
  • For example, if one rapes a woman to get enjoyment for a short time, one could be spending millions of years as an animal in the future because of that immoral action.
  • However, it may not be easy to grasp this point. One needs to advance step-by-step; see, “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?“.
  • The first step is to reduce suffering in the future is to avoid doing bad deeds (kamma) via thoughts, speech, and bodily actions (again, these are associated with manō, vaci, and kāya saṅkhāra).
  • Therefore, we create our own future happiness via puñña abhisaṅkhāra (good saṅkhāra) or future suffering via apuñña abhisaṅkhāra (bad saṅkhāra).
The Third Noble Truth – How to Stop Future Suffering

9. As discussed above, such suffering can arise in this life due to our own (apunnābhi) saṅkhāra (which we generate to satisfy our cravings).

  • In the same way, one can stop ALL FUTURE SUFFERING by controlling our own saṅkhāra.
  • We attach to things with greed and hate via saṅkhāra, because of our ignorance of the Four Noble Truths (avijjā). As we have discussed, this is the first step in Paṭicca Samuppāda leading to “the whole mass of suffering”: “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.”

10. The Third Noble Truth is about what can be achieved by systematically removing those causes.

11. To stop the arising of “bad saṅkhāra” we need to do two things: (1) remove avijjā by learning true Dhamma, and (2) making use of our free will to get control of our saṅkhāra (this is the basis of Ānāpāna/Satipaṭṭhāna).

  • A systematic way to achieve this is stated in the Fourth Noble Truth.
The Fourth Noble Truth – The Way to Stop Future Suffering

12. The second Noble Truth describes those CAUSES that we need to work on. The root causes are greed, hate, and ignorance, but they need to be removed mainly via understanding the Three Characteristics (Tilakkhana) and also via removing our bad saṃsāric habits; see a series of posts starting with, “Habits, Goals, Character (Gati)” to “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā. “

  • The way to achieve this is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path: Sammā Diṭṭhi (understanding what is embedded in the Four Noble Truths), and then thinking (saṅkappa), speaking (vācā), acting (kammaṃta), living one’s whole life that way (ājiva), striving harder (vāyāma), getting to the right mindset (sati), and finally to samādhi.

13. When we follow the Noble Eightfold Path, nirāmisa sukha arises first and then various stages of Nibbāna.

  • Nirāmisa sukha starts when one lives a moral life (see “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)” and follow-up posts).
  • The root causes of immoral behavior are greed, hate, and ignorance. We can reduce ignorance to the level of the Sōtapanna stage just via comprehending the Three Characteristics of “this world of 31 realms”, i.e., anicca, dukkha, anatta; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations, “and the follow-up posts. It is that powerful.
Why Is It Hard to See the “Hidden Suffering”? – Time Lag

14. The main problem in clearly seeing the “cause and effect of mind actions” is that the results of those actions have a time delay and that the time delay itself is not predictable.

  • In contrast, it is easy to predict what will happen with material things (moving an object, a vehicle, a rocket, etc.). The success of physical sciences is due to this reason. Once the underlying laws are found (laws of gravity, laws of motion, electromagnetism, nuclear forces, quantum mechanics, etc.), one has complete control.

15. But the mind is very different.  To begin with, no two minds work the same way. Under a given set of conditions, each mind will choose to act differently. With physical objects, that is not so; under a given set of conditions, what will happen can be predicted accurately.

  • Effects of some actions (kamma) may not materialize in this life, and sometimes it may come to fruition only in many lives down the road (but with accumulated interest).
  • Even in this life, mental phenomena are complex: This is why economics is not a “real science.” It involves how people sometimes act “irrationally” for perceived gains. No economic theory can precisely predict how a given stock market will perform.

16. This “cause and effect” that involves the mind is the principle of kamma and kamma vipāka in Buddha Dhamma.

  • But unlike in Hinduism, Kamma is not deterministic, i.e., not all kamma vipāka have to come to fruition; see, “What is Kamma? Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.
  • Suitable CONDITIONS must be there to bring good or bad kamma vipāka to fruition. That is why kamma is not deterministic, and we can stop ALL future suffering.
  • We just need to get rid of avijjā and taṇhā, two key steps in Paṭicca Samuppāda. That is how Angulimāla overcame all that bad kamma of killing almost 1000 people.
We Can Eliminate Only a Part of Suffering Encountered in This Life

Finally, let us look into what kind of suffering can be stopped from arising and gain confidence in Buddha Dhamma. One does not need to believe Buddha’s teachings blindly.

17. There are two types of vēdanā (feelings); see, “Vēdanā (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways.”

  • First is due to kamma vipāka. 
  • The second is mental suffering due to saṅkhāra (via attachment to sensual pleasures and friction (paṭigha) due to things we don’t like). This could lead to depression.

18. This life is the RESULT of past kamma. Once life starts, it cannot be stopped until “its kammic energy” is exhausted. This life WILL end up in old age, decay, and eventual death.

  • Therefore, if someone has aches and pains due to old age, it is impossible to get rid of them other than to use medications or therapy to lessen the pain and manage it.
  • Even the Buddha had back pain due to old age and had a severe stomach ache at the end.
  • One may get injured, come down with a disease, etc.
  • All these are due to kamma vipāka.

19. On the other hand, it is possible to stop the second type (“mental suffering”) that arises due to our own way of thinking (again, our own vaci saṅkhāra).

  • Therefore, we can EXPERIENCE the relief from suffering (called nirāmisa sukha) in this life itself.
  • The suffering (or vēdanā) that a living Arahant has eliminated is called “samphassa ja vēdanā.” This is what leads to depression in some people.
  • Here, “samphassa” is “san” + “phassa,” or “contact with one’s own defilements (san)”; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Samsāra)“.
Humans Have Free Will to Eliminate Future Suffering

20. The life we have as humans is a RESULT of a past good deed—a dog’s or an ant’s life results from a past deed by that sentient being.

  • And what happens to us in this life is a COMBINATION of what we have done in the past (kamma vipāka) AND what we do in this life.
  • What happens to an animal is MOSTLY due to kamma vipāka from the past.
  • The difference between a human and an animal is that the animal does not have much control over what will happen to it. But human birth is a special one: We have a higher level mind that CAN change the future to some extent, and with possible enormous consequences.
  • We have free will, and animals (or those beings in other lower realms) do not. We can control our saṅkhāra, and they cannot. It is hard to get a human birth. We should not waste this opportunity.
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