The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism

The Very First Sermon of The Buddha

Abel Chan
Abel Chan
Feb 5 · 7 min read
Adam Peot, Dove Buddha, 2016. Image Courtesy of AdamPeotArt.

About 2,600 years ago, in a small kingdom just below the Himalayan Foothills, the Shakya clan celebrated the birth of a new prince — Siddhartha Gautama. Twelve years before he was even born, the Brahmins had prophesied that the prince’s fate lay in two possible paths: to become a universal monarch that ruled with inordinate power, or a great sage of unrivaled wisdom.

The seductive appeal of the former over the latter instigated the king to confine Siddhartha within the palace’s walls as the prince grew up. Luxury in all shapes and forms surrounded the prince’s life — he was tutored by the Brahmins, trained in the noble arts of archery and swordsmanship, entertained by dancing girls, and fed with extravagant feasts. When he came of age, he was wedded to Yaśodharā, who bore him a son, Rāhula. By society’s standards, he had everything. But it wasn’t enough.

The prince found himself drawn to the mysterious world lying beyond the palace’s walls. He couldn’t help it, and ventured to this great unknown. There, in the streets, he encountered three things that were absurdly foreign to his lifestyle in the palace.

What he saw was nothing any common folk would take note of — a sick man, an old man, and a corpse that was being carried to the burning grounds. Taken aback by these sights, he questioned his charioteer about why these things had happened to these people. The charioteer then explained to the prince that all beings were subjected to sickness, old age, and death; that it was simply a natural part of life. The prince could no longer rest.

Kushinara, The Four Sights, 2016. Image Courtesy of BRelief.

On his return to the palace, the prince came across a wandering ascetic walking peacefully along the road, dressed in a simple robe and carrying a begging bowl. He realized that that peace was what he desired and resolved to leave the comfort of the palace in search for peace and an answer to the problem of suffering.

He bid his wife and child a silent farewell, making sure not to wake them, and rode to the very edge of the nearby forest. It was in this forest that he severed his long hair with his sword and gave up his fine clothes for the simple robes of an ascetic.

Thus began his quest for liberation. The prince learned how to discipline his mind, a technique that allowed him to enter a sphere of nothingness. This was not liberation. He then picked up the art of entering the concentration of mind which is neither conscious nor unconscious. This was not liberation.

For another six years, the prince practiced austerities and concentration, diving himself mercilessly, eating only a single grain of rice each day. Day after day he pitted his mind against his body, denying himself of all physical comforts and pleasures. Before he knew it, his ribs stuck through his wasted flesh, and the prince appeared to be more dead than alive. This was not liberation.

Inger Lise, Siddharta Gautama Self-Denial, 2015. Image Courtesy of NDLA.

The prince then abandoned the way of the ascetic and the lifestyle of self-denial. He now knew that both luxury and denial were not ways to liberation. As such, he pursued a middle ground, known today as The Middle Way.

One day, seated beneath the tree of awakening, the Bodhi tree, Siddhartha became exceptionally absorbed in meditation, reflecting on his experience of life in a way that was deeper than any one had done before him. He was determined to penetrate life’s truth.

Siddhartha sat solid and unmoving, as determined as a mountain. It was only after six days that his eyes opened on the rising morning star. He had attained the truth he was looking for — a realization that what he was searching for had never been lost, to him or to anyone else. There was nothing left to attain, and thus, no longer any struggle to attain it. This was enlightenment. This was nirvana.

No longer was he Siddhartha Gautama the prince. He had become the Awakened One, the Sage the Shakyas, the Shakyamuni — he had become the Buddha. He was then graced by the Chief of Three Thousand Worlds, Brahma, and tasked to teach the way of enlightenment, to liberate those ‘whose eyes were only a little clouded over’. And the first sermon that the Buddha taught was the path to transcending suffering — the Four Noble Truths.

the realization that first prompted the Buddha’s journey: that there is suffering and constant dissatisfaction in the world.

According to the Buddha, one must acknowledge the truth that life is not ideal. That life frequently fails to live up to expectations. That despite satisfying the desires and cravings we are subjected to, the gratification is one that is merely temporal in nature. This is the truth of suffering.

Alan Peto, The Buddha Mind, 2014. Image Courtesy of Unsplash.

desire and ignorance lie at the root of all suffering, where desire is the craving for pleasure, material goods, and immortality, all of which can never be satisfied; and ignorance is not seeing the world as it actually is, where the mind is undeveloped and unable to grasp the true nature of things when one does not train its capacity for mental concentration and insight.

The Buddhist believes that ignorant desire is the cause of all suffering, where one has an active misconception of the nature of things: seeing pleasure where there is pain, beauty where there is ugliness, permanence where there is impermanence, and self where there is no self.

“The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning, also whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact for its indispensable condition, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion. I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.”

— The Fire Sermon

the transcendent state free from suffering and the worldly cycle of birth and rebirth, where spiritual enlightenment has been achieved.

Nirvana entails the extinguishing of ignorant cravings, where one will experience profound spiritual joy without negative emotions and fears. The Buddha discouraged his followers from questioning Nirvana too fervently, attributing it to quibbling with the doctor who is trying to save one’s life. Instead, one should focus on the task at hand and free themselves from the cycle of suffering.

Terri-Anne Allen, Buddhist Enlightenment, 2019. Image Courtesy of Pixabay.

the means to enlightenment, like a raft for crossing the river. Once one has reached the opposite shore, one no longer needs the raft and can leave it behind.

The final Noble Truth is a set of principles called the Eightfold Path — The Middle Way. The Eightfold Path is as follows: right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The Buddha teaches that seeking these correct modes of behavior and awareness empowers people to transcend their negative individualism — their pride, their anxiety, and the desires that make them unhappy — inverting negative emotions and states of mind, turning ignorance into wisdom, anger into compassion, greed into generosity.

“When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that he is liberated. He understands: birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.”

— The Fire Sermon

Clarice Junias, Buddha Face, 2013. Image Courtesy of PicSerio.

Regardless of spiritual identification, many of us are born into this world not realizing or acknowledging the magnitude of suffering that life entails. It is often overwhelming to fully comprehend the misfortune, sickness, and death that surround us, especially when that knowledge seems to serve no purpose whatsoever.

Perhaps we could take a page out of the book that is Buddhism and face these sufferings directly, embarking on the path that liberates ourselves from our tyrannous desires, and recognize suffering as a common connection with others, thus birthing compassion and gentleness.

After all, reveling in life’s chaos has always held great liberation.

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Abel Chan

Written by

Abel Chan

“Lost are we, and only so far punished, that without hope we live on in desire” — Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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