Four Noble Truths: Recipe for Problem Solving

Pre-2016; re-written August 6, 2022; revised January 27,2023

Problem-solving can be reduced to four simple steps. That is the same approach the Buddha used in discovering the Four Noble Truths to solve the problem of suffering.

Four Steps to Solving a Problem

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

  • One needs to know the problem 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 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.

Those were the exact steps that our Bodhisatta used to attain Buddhahood.

Figuring Out the Causes

2. Let us discuss an example. If a car would not start, the cause may not be apparent 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 to 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. One could re-connect the loose wires if the problem is with a loose wire. If it is a failed engine, one could either replace the engine or fix it if it is a minor problem with the engine.
Root Causes and Secondary Causes

3. Sometimes, there can be a temporary or a permanent solution.

  • If we get a headache, In most cases, we take an aspirin or Tylenol, which would “fix it.” But if the headache keeps returning, we may realize 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 connect the timing of the headaches to eating some specific food, we can stop eating that and see whether it goes away.
  • If we cannot figure it out, and if the problem persists, we go to a specialist, 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 the root cause that may not be obvious.
  • 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, we would have removed recurring headaches.

4. There is an essential difference between superficial causes and root causes. Superficial causes do not lead to severe problems. For example, if too many drinks taken by a person not used to alcohol causes a headache, which can be ‘fixed” by taking an aspirin. But some problems have root causes that are hard to see, like the one in #3 above.

  • It is interesting to note that root causes give the exact meaning of the Pāli term “mūlika hetu“; “mula” is the root of a tree. Even if a tree is cut down, the tree may not be killed if the roots remain intact. It may still sprout new limbs and finally grow into a full-fledged tree.
  • However, removing the deep roots of a tree will permanently kill the tree. Similarly, removing root causes will eradicate a persisting problem.
Not Prudent to Apply Temporary Solutions

5. Most times, when a problem arises, we tend to do the most expedient thing to get it out of the way and move on. If the headache goes away until one gets through the day, one may take an aspirin and handle it daily 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 continue with the “temporary fix” especially if we are busy.
  • If that person was starting to develop cancer, postponing the “root cause” diagnosis could be a grave mistake. Cancer cells multiply rapidly and could spread to other body parts.
  • Even though one could get temporary relief by taking aspirin daily (may be by gradually increasing the dose, too), that is NOT the solution. The result in the short term could be temporary relief, but one is heading into a much more dangerous outcome.
  • The ideal solution to the problem is not to temporarily be free from the headache but to be free from cancer!
Suffering Associated with the Existence

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

  • First, most of us are unaware that temporary solutions cannot handle it.
  • For example, even if we don’t suffer significantly in this life, there will be suffering in future lives. Some people do not realize that there is a rebirth process and that most rebirths are filled with unimaginable suffering. They are unaware that the problem is much more than just suffering in this life.

7. In complex situations, the root causes of a given problem will not be evident if one does not have a sufficiently broad view of the situation. That means the ideal solution may not be obvious.

  • When that happens, the problem leads to ever-increasing severity and may not be solvable. Therefore, postponing finding the root causes of a problem can be dangerous.
  • In the example discussed in #3 above, cancer may grow if one keeps postponing getting a good diagnosis by a qualified physician. It will be too late when cancer has spread through the body. Thus, after some point, cancer may not be treatable.
  • In the same way, our ability to grasp the profound teachings of the Buddha will decrease as we get old and our brains start deteriorating. Don’t postpone this most critical task of learning Buddha Dhamma!
The Solution to the Existence of Suffering Requires a Wider Worldview

8. That more significant problem of existence can be “seen” only by the highly-purified mind of a Buddha. During the night of Enlightenment, the Buddha achieved three types of higher knowledge:

  1. Ability to recall one’s past lives (pubbe nivāsānussati ñāṇa),
  2. The ability to see any living being’s cuti (end of bhava) and patisandhi (grasping of new bhava). This is the cutūpapāta ñāṇa.
  3. The attainment of the Buddhahood with āsavakkhaya ñāṇa. That involved grasping the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path to Nibbāna.
Focusing on This Life Yield Only Temporary Solutions

9. Of course, one can find temporary solutions by fixing superficial causes. Just like fixing a headache by taking an aspirin, one could find temporary happiness in this life by “trouble-shooting” each problem as it arises. That is the “rat race” most of us are engaged in.

  • For example, most of our time is spent solving problems that pop up at the office or at home. At the office, one is assigned a task to finish within a specific time. When finished, one gets another. That goes on until retirement! 
  • It is not that different at home. One must take care of the kids, house, cars, etc.
  • At the end of this life, another WILL start. Then we do it all over again. There is no permanent solution to this short-sighted approach.
  • But it could be much worse when future birth is in an apāya. That is when one will be helpless. The only way to avoid that possibility is to get to at least the Sotāpanna Anugāmi stage of Nibbāna.
Only One Permanent Solution

10. 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 strive to “maintain things to our satisfaction,” and EACH time, we fail.

  • 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 we will not be enjoying what we have gained with so much effort.
  • Think carefully about any famous personality we believe has achieved their life goals. They all will have to leave behind their achievements at death. Furthermore, those things would not mean anything in their new life; they will have to start all over. The only things carried over to the new life are any good/bad habits or deeds they cultivated, not material gains.
Root Causes of Saṁsāric Suffering

11. If we understand where this never-ending process gets the required fuel from (i.e., the root cause for rebirths), then by ELIMINATING those causes, we can permanently solve the problem of perpetual suffering in the rebirth process.

  • As long as we crave “mind-pleasing things” in this world by generating abhisaṅkhāra, rebirth (jāti) is inevitable. Depending on the type of abhisaṅkhāra, rebirth may be in an apāya, human, Deva, or Brahma realm. But they all end up in old age and death (maraṇa.)
  • It is critical to realize that six root causes maintain this world for anyone: greed, hate, ignorance, and mundane versions of non-greed, non-hate, and non-ignorance. It is relatively easy to see how greed, hate, and ignorance can lead to rebirth in the apāyās.
  • It is impossible to understand how mundane versions of non-greed, non-hate, and non-ignorance can be destructive until those “bad roots” of greed, hate, and ignorance are removed. An understanding of Paṭicca Samuppāda is necessary to see the “hidden suffering” in apparently harmless sensory pleasures.  See “Six Root Causes – Loka Samudaya (Arising of Suffering) and Loka Nirodhaya (Nibbāna).”
  • Thus, stated succinctly, the root cause of our suffering is not being able to “see” the hidden suffering in sensory pleasures.
  • Not understanding that is avijjā or ignorance.
Removal of the Root Causes

12. 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 because it requires eliminating the root of cravings (attachments.)

  • We can see that “mind-pleasing things” bring us happiness. It is not easy to “see” the suffering hidden in that.
  • The Buddha likened this to the case of an ox dragging a fully-loaded cart eagerly while its owner is holding a stack of hay on a pole in front of it. The ox has its mind set on reaching the stack of hay and does not even realize the heavy load it is pulling.
  • A fish can see only the tasty worm but not the dangerous hook hidden inside. We are not that different from the fish, as the Buddha explained in the “Baḷisa Sutta (SN 17.2).”
  • 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.
  • Thus, cravings for worldly things can ONLY be removed via wisdom (paññā) when one can accept the broader worldview discovered by the Buddha (rebirth process) and how abhisaṅkhāra (generated with avijjā) leads to rebirths in various realms, i.e., understanding Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana. That understanding leads to the Sotapanna stage. It is a change in one’s worldview!
Following the Path to Remove Future Suffering

13. 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 apparent.

  • The way of removing the root causes of avijjā and taṇhā 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, and anatta to a certain extent.
The Four-Step Process Is Universal

14. Therefore, the four-step process stated in #1 above is a fundamental principle that can solve any problem. That means solving a mundane problem temporarily and providing 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.

  • One could find a longer-term solution by working towards a better rebirth. We must do that too, but always the goal MUST BE to remove all root causes.
First Step – Understanding the Existence of the Problem

15. The critical 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 is to realize the validity of the rebirth process. 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 every life, what we have done has been to “take aspirin” to (temporarily) solve problems as they materialize. The Buddha taught that one must address the root causes of Saṁsāric suffering to remove any future suffering.
  • This is the First Noble Truth of “ dukkha sacca” (pronounced “dukkha sachcha.”) It means “existence in this world of 31 realms is filled with suffering, and it is a never-ending process. But that can be overcome permanently”.
  • Therefore, the main goal must be Nibbāna. There is no other permanent solution!
Nibbāna – Elimination of All Six Root Causes

16.  Nibbāna does not have a cause. Eliminating all six root causes in #11 leads to Nibbāna. All these are removed via paññā or wisdom. It is essential to realize that wisdom means understanding the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana.

  • 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 remaining 31 realms are “supported” by (the mundane versions of) non-greed, non-hate, and non-ignorance, the so-called “good roots.”
  • This is why the Noble Eightfold Path is two-fold: the mundane (lokiya)  Noble Eightfold Path must be followed first to avoid birth in the lowest four realms and cleanse the mind to a certain extent. But one could “fall back” in future lives unless one gets to the Sotāpanna Anugāmi stage.
  • Then one follows the transcendental (lokottara) Noble Eightfold Path to attain Nibbāna by thoroughly cleansing the mind of all six roots. It is a step-by-step process. See “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?.”
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