Four Noble Truths: Recipe for Problem Solving

1. When solving any problem, there are four steps:

  • One needs to know what the problem is, or even realize there is a problem.
  • The reason or the cause for that problem (some may be superficial causes but there are root causes).
  • Knowing what kind of end result can be expected by solving the problem (there may be many possible outcomes depending on the approach).
  • A procedure to systematically solve the problem based on the superficial or root causes.

2. Let us discuss several examples. If a car would not start, the cause may not be clear to someone who does not have a technical background in automobiles, but a qualified technician will be able to find the cause quickly.

  • He may find that it is a simple problem of some wires becoming loose in the ignition circuit, or it could be as bad as a problem with the engine itself.
  • The solution of the problem will lead to being able to start the car.
  • And the way to get there depends on the actual problem and going through the standard procedures to solve the problem. If the problem is with a loose wire, one could re-connect the loose wires or just replace that circuit box. If it is a failed engine, one could either replace the engine or if it is a minor problem with the engine, just fix that.

3. Sometimes figuring out the cause or even figuring out that there is a problem, may not be obvious. If we get a headache, in most cases we would just take an aspirin or Tylenol and that would “fix it”.

  • But if the headache keeps coming back, then we may realize that there could be a more serious root cause. Now we need to figure out why we are getting headaches frequently. First, we look at easy solutions. For example, if we can tie up the timing of the headaches to eating some kind of specific food, we can stop eating that and see whether it goes away.
  • If we cannot figure it out, and if the problem persists, then we go to a specialist again, in this case, a physician. The physician will ask a series of questions and may do a series of tests. The goal is to figure out what causes the headaches, the root cause.
  • The end result of solving the problem again is simple: to be free of headaches. But in the case of recurring headaches, taking aspirin is not a permanent solution.
  • Depending on the results of the diagnostic tests, the physician may find the root cause to be cancer. Then that cancer needs to be treated, etc. He will prescribe a method of treatment. If that root cause is removed, then we would have removed recurring headaches.
  • Thus the correct way to solve a problem has four steps. Correctly identifying the problem, find its root causes, determine the outcome if the root causes are removed, and finding the best procedure to handle the root causes.

4. But sometimes, when a problem arises we tend to do the most expedient thing to get it out of the way and just move on. If the headache goes away until one gets through the day, then one may decide to just take an aspirin and handle it day to day like that.

  • Even when the wife (or husband) says, “You have been taking aspirins almost every day for this many days. Why don’t you see a doctor and see whether there is something else going on?”, we may just continue with the “temporary fix” especially if we are busy.
  • If that person was starting to develop cancer, then postponing the diagnosis of the “root cause” could be a grave mistake. A cancer cell multiplies very rapidly and could spread to other areas of the body.
  • Even though one could get temporary relief by taking aspirin daily (may be with gradually increasing the dose too), that is NOT the solution. The end result in the short term could be temporary relief, but one is moving into a much more dangerous outcome.
  • The ideal solution to the problem is not to be free from the headache temporarily, but to free from cancer!

5. We can solve many problems by ourselves by following the four-step process. We may need a qualified technician to find root causes of car problems or may need the help of a physician to diagnose the root causes for the recurring headaches to be cancer.

6. The Four Noble Truths handle the most critical problem of all: the suffering associated with existence.

  • First, most of us are not even aware that there is a problem. Some people do not realize that there is a rebirth process and that most rebirths are filled with unimaginable suffering. They are not even aware that there is a problem.
  • This problem of existence can be seen only by the highly-purified mind of a Buddha.
  • And he found the root causes, that permanent happiness (Nibbāna) results from removing the root causes, and the procedure to do that.
  • However, one can find temporary solutions but just fixing the superficial causes. Just like fixing the headache by taking an aspirin, one could find temporary happiness in this life by “trouble-shooting” each problem as it arises. One could even find a bit longer-term solution by working towards a better rebirth. But those are temporary solutions.

7. Thus there is an important difference between superficial causes and root causes.

  • It is interesting to note that root causes give the exact meaning as the Pāli term “mülika hetu“; “mula” is the root of a tree. If a tree is cut down but if the roots remain intact, the tree may not be killed. It may still sprout new limbs and finally grow to a full-fledged tree.
  • However, removing the deep roots of a tree will permanently kill the tree. Similarly, removing root causes will eradicate the problem completely.

8. In complex situations, the root causes of a given problem may not be obvious. And that means the ideal solution may not be obvious.

  • When that happens, the problem leads to ever-increasing severity, and may not be solvable after some point, as in the above case of ignoring the headaches for a longer time will only lead to the spread of cancer and after some point, cancer may not be treatable.

9. In the case of some possible problems that we can foresee, we do not need to wait until they materialize. For example, all parents tell their kids to get a good education and then a good job, so that those kids will not fall into hardships when they grow up. In that case, the solution is to get a good job and the way to get there is to get a good education.

  • But getting a good job does not solve all possible problems: a young person getting a job knows that one could come down with a deadly disease or lose the job in an unpredictable situation. Here again, in terms of mundane reality, there are no perfect solutions.  One could eat healthy foods, engage in an exercise program, etc and also purchase health insurance and life insurance, etc.

10. We should play out these scenarios in our heads. We can easily see that the four-step process can solve any problem with varying degrees of success.

  • In all these situations, our goal is to “maintain things to our satisfaction”. We want our bodies, and the bodies of our spouses and children, to function well and avoid any ailments or discomfort.  And we want our physical belongings (houses, cars, clothes, etc) to function well.
  • By following the above four-step process we can fulfill our desires to some extent. We can evade certain problems by eating healthy, exercising, etc. We can get a car to last a long time by doing the required maintenance. Still, all these activities require effort with associated suffering. That is a part of the suffering that is not apparent (these are associated with saṅkhāra dukkha and viparinama dukkha; see, “Introduction – What is Suffering?“.
  • This is because all we can do in those cases is to try to address some superficial causes.
  • But eventually, we WILL NOT be able to maintain our bodies to our satisfaction. No matter how well we plan, there comes a time when our bodies start to degrade, even if we do not encounter any major issues like cancer or Alzheimer’s disease; this is part of the dukkha dukkha; see, “Introduction -2 – The Three Categories of Suffering“.
  • Yet, if we do not follow the four-step process in those mundane tasks, we will have many more problems. Therefore, the first thing to do is to make sure one analyzes one’s day-to-day activities and make sure to carefully analyze the problems one encounters (or even better to anticipate future problems) and take necessary precautions.

11. However, tackling superficial causes that we can readily see or discern is what we have been doing since the beginning-less time. Life after-life, we just strive to “maintain things to our satisfaction”, and at ALL TIMES fail at least at the end.

  • Most times we suffer trying to “get things going in the way we want”, and by the time we achieve at least some success, our bodies start falling apart, so that we will not be enjoying what we have gained with so much effort.
  • Think carefully about any famous personality, whom we believe had achieved their life goals. They all had to leave behind their achievements in many instances with a tragic death, and in their new life those things would not mean anything anyway; they have to start all over. The only things that are carried over to the new life are any good/bad habits or deeds they had cultivated, and not any material gains.

12. The key point that the Buddha was trying to make was that we do not realize that there is a “problem of existence”, the first step in the four-step process involving our existence. But since we cannot readily see the rebirth process most of us focus on just this life.

  • All we have been doing is to “take aspirins” as headaches resurfaced, instead of finding a permanent solution to the “problem of never-ending headaches”.
  • In each and every life so far, what we have done has been to “take aspirins” to try to solve problems temporarily as they inevitably come our way.
  • This is the First Noble Truth of “ dukkha sacca” (pronounced “dukkha sachcha.”) That “existence in this world of 31 realms is filled with suffering, and it is a never-ending process. But that can be overcome permanently”.

13. If we understand how this never-ending process gets the required fuel from (or the root cause for rebirths), then by ELIMINATING those causes we can solve the problem of perpetual suffering permanently.

  • This cause of suffering is the Second Noble Truth: “dukkha samudaya (where “samudaya” is “san” + “udaya” where “udaya” means “to arise”) or how rebirth-fuelling “san” is the cause for dukha.  The Buddha analyzed this cause in detail and found that it is our attachment (tanha) to “things in this world” due to our ignorance of the fact that “anything in this world cannot be maintained to our satisfaction” or anicca. Thus stated succinctly, the root cause for our suffering is not realizing anicca.
  • Anicca leads to dukha (suffering), and thus one becomes anatta (helpless). Since this dukha can be overcome, it is called dukkha, and thus we have the Three Characteristics of “this world of 31 realms”; see, “Anatta and Dukkha – True Meanings“.
  • Not understanding these three characteristics is called avijjā or ignorance.

14. Now the third step is to see that the successful solution to this problem is the attainment of Nibbāna or stopping the rebirth process. This is probably the hardest step to latch on to.

  • Our minds are not set up to “see” the suffering one is undergoing, but to contemplate on “possible future happiness”. The Buddha likened this to the case of a cow dragging a fully-loaded cart eagerly when its owner is holding a stack of hay on a pole in front of it. The cow has its mind set on reaching the stack of hay and does not even realize the heavy load it is pulling.
  • Even the lowest worm wants to live. It does not see the suffering that it goes through. This is where one needs to spend a lot of time trying to comprehend the message of the Buddha.
  • It is only when one truly comprehends that “it is fruitless to struggle to find happiness in this world of 31 realms” that one attains the Sotāpanna stage. This is when one sees the truth in the Third Noble Truth, the nirōdha sacca. Nirodha means “nir” + “udā” or to stop the arising.

15. The Buddha said that when one sees one Noble Truth, one sees all four. Thus at the attainment of the Sotāpanna stage, the way to Nibbāna also becomes clear.

  • The process to remove the root causes of avijjā and tanha is the Fourth Noble Truth, the magga sacca, or the Truth of the Path, where “magga” is a path. And this path is eightfold and it is the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • The Path has to be followed systematically. The first step is to realize the “correct vision” or Sammā Diṭṭhi to eliminate “san.” A Sotāpanna has achieved this to a significant extent by comprehending anicca, dukkha, anatta to a certain extent.

16. Therefore, the four-step process stated in #1 above is a basic principle that can be used to solve any problem. That means to solve a mundane problem temporarily and to provide a permanent solution to the ultimate problem of existence. That approach is based on the principle of cause and effect, the same one that Nature is based on.

17.  Nibbāna does not have a cause. Eliminating all causes lead to Nibbāna. There are six root causes that maintain this world for anyone: greed, hate, ignorance, non-greed, non-hate, non-ignorance. All these are removed via paññā or wisdom. It is important to realize that wisdom is NOT non-ignorance. Explanation of that requires another essay.

  • But for now, it suffices to say that the four lowest realms of this world are “maintained” via the “bad roots” of greed, hate, and ignorance. The rest of the 31 realms are “supported” by non-greed, non-hate, and non-ignorance, the so-called “good roots.” It is critical to realize that ALL roots lead to attachment to “this material world”. But until one develops wisdom to a certain extent by first removing the “bad roots”, it is not possible even to grasp the meaning of anicca, dukkha, anatta.
  • This is why the Noble Eightfold Path is two-fold: the mundane (lokiya)  Noble Eightfold Path is to be followed first to avoid birth in the lowest four realms and to cleanse the mind to a certain extent.
  • Then one follows the transcendental (lokottara) Noble Eightfold Path to attain Nibbāna by fully cleansing the mind of all six roots; see, “Mahā Cattārisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty)“.

Next, “First Noble Truth – A Simple Explanation of One Aspect“, ………


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