Minimal Viable Buddhism Part 2: The Four Noble Truths

Joeri Poesen //

The Buddha invited his followers time and again to not blindly accept what anyone says, teaches or preaches, but to consider the words carefully and
decide for themselves whether or not they made sense.

While sitting under a tree, the Buddha is said to have experienced Awakening, also referred to as Enlightenment or Liberation: the universal truth which underlies the human condition, and the realisation of how to take action.

Here's a quick summary for the "too long; didn't read" crowd:

  1. Suffering is an inescapable part of life
  2. Suffering is caused by greed/desire, ignorance/delusion, and hatred
  3. Suffering doesn't have to be permanent: a cure exists
  4. The cure to suffering is a set of guidelines called "The Noble Eightfold Path"

A word on Dukkha/Suffering

"Suffering" is the most common translation of the Pali word "Dukkha". Dukkha is one of those words that express complex feelings, and as such are quite tricky to translate accurately.

Consider the Portuguese word "Saudade":

Saudade refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love which is lost. It carries with it the repressed knowledge that the object of longing may never return, and was once described as "the love that remains" after someone is gone. It is a bittersweet, empty feeling of something or someone that is missing.

Try to translate saudade into English, and you get the idea.

Dukkha is said to originate from the concept of the axle or wheel on a cart being misaligned. As a result, using the cart is quite literally a pain in the ass. The overall experience is probably a mix of unhappiness, unsatisfaction, physical pain and bad temper. On the whole it's a negative state with physical and mental components, and the intensity can range from irritation to a broken back.

This range of unsatisfactory experiences together (and more) is what makes up Dukkha, and because the English language doesn't have a proper equivalent, we tend to stick with "suffering".

1. The First Noble Truth: Suffering is an Inescapable Part of Life

Suffering is an inescapable part of life. This was true 2600 years ago, and it's still very much so today. This fundamental realisation is the First Noble Truth.

The Buddha describes three types of suffering:

Type 1: ordinary suffering

  • old age, sickness and death
  • being parted from loved ones
  • having to deal with unloved ones

Type 2: the suffering of change

  • grasping what we have
  • craving what we don't have

Type 3: all-pervasive suffering

  • wherever we go with a contaminated mind and body, suffering follows
  • as long as we're driven by stress and unresolved trauma, suffering follows

We're killing each other in the name of God or Country, for reasons our grandparents can't even remember. We're all aware we're destroying our planet, yet we continue as if it'll all go away.

Politicians dismantle infrastructure that is meant to protect the weak, in favour of enriching themselves and others.

We can buy whatever we want. And we do. And we're still miserable.

We're stressed out because of work, in-laws visiting, stock market performing badly, a child with leukemia.

Look at yourself, your surroundings, your country and your planet. You only have to open your eyes to see that suffering is in and around each of us.

2. The Second Noble Truth: The Origin of Suffering

All of humanity's suffering - whether anyone else's or our own, is caused by three things:

  • greed and desire
  • ignorance and (self-)delusion
  • hatred


We make ourselves unhappy by continually wanting, grasping for more: more money, a nicer car, the newest iphone, more twitter followers. We hardly ever stop for a minute, consider what we have, right now. We're always looking at tomorrow: "I'm working hard now, but in 10 years it'll all pay off and then I can take it easy."

Newsflash: in 10 years you'll be a decade older and wondering where the time went.

While we're grasping for that thing we think we need so much, we're unhappy, we're making our loved ones unhappy, and we forget to live life.

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." -- Ferris Bueller

Not only do we crave what we don't have, we grasp onto what we do have, afraid of letting go, afraid of losing it, afraid someone else might take what we have. On Sunday mornings we're unhappy because the next day we have to go to work. Halfway our holidays, the looming work depresses us. We just ate the best chocolate ice cream ever in the history of world, and now it's gone. We shoot up because we chase that first high and we run away from life.

When we're not grasping for what we don't yet have, we're pathetically holding on to the things we do have. Inherently we know that all things end, but we refuse to accept this.

The Buddha teaches us that nothing lasts. Literally everything is impermanent: every thing and every phenomenon comes and goes, starts and ends. Trying to hold on to anything, or anyone, in any given state, is shooting yourself in the foot: it can't be done, and will only cause misery.


This is like one of those self-referential acronyms geeks like so much: ignorance of the causes of suffering is itself a cause of suffering. As long as we don't realise what drives us, posititively or negatively, we're doomed to suffer.


The Buddha knew that fear and destructive desire go hand in hand with hatred. Man has always hated that which is different, and sought to subjugate others in order to grasp (or retain) power. We blame our shortcomings on others, whom we divide into groups based on superficial characteristics, because fighting against a common enemy is easier and requires less introspection than critically looking at oneself, one's past and one's actions to make things better.

3. The Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Suffering

The Buddha determined that the root cause to suffering is attachment. Attachment to things, people and concepts. Fear of letting go. Craving for what we don't yet have.

It therefor stands to reason that the elimination of attachment leads to the elimination of suffering; to peace of mind, and clarity of vision. This state is known as Nirvana, and is the ultimate goal for many Buddhist practitioners.

That said, striving to reach Nirvana can become an all-consuming yearning which, in itself, will lead to suffering.

This is one of the reasons why the Buddha never clearly described what Nirvana actually is: it is said he wanted everyone to concentrate on achieving the right state of mind, and correct behaviour towards others, rather than fantasise about - and be consumed by - Nirvana.

How we can actually achieve the end of suffering is detailed in the Fourth Noble Truth.

4. The Fourth Noble Truth: The Way to the Cessation of Suffering

The toolkit proposed by the Buddha to help end suffering makes up the Fourth Noble Truth. The toolkit is known as the Noble Eightfold path - a set ideas and practices to help us view the world with more clarity, and act with more reason and less emotion.

The Noble Eightfold Path is often represented as a wheel with eight spokes. In many ways this is a more fitting metaphor than a path, since the Path is not meant to be walked from one point to the next. The eight paths are eight equally important parts of the toolkit, just like the eight spokes are all necessary to support the wheel, to stop it from collapsing.

The eight spokes are often simplified into the Three Educations or Three Trainings:

  • Ethics and insight: right view, right resolve
  • Wisdom: right speech, right action, right livelihood
  • Meditation: right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration


To summarise the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Suffering exists, is quantifiable, and is integral to human existence.
  2. Suffering has specific causes: grasping, yearning, hatred and self-delusion.
  3. Fear not! We can end suffering and (in a wholesome way) try to reach Nirvana.
  4. The Buddha has open-sourced his set of tools to help end suffering, and named it 'The Noble Eightfold Path'

The eight practices are so fundamental I'll go into each one individually in the next few weeks.