Four Noble Truths

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FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS . All strands of the Buddhist tradition recognize in the four noble truths (Skt., catvāry āryasatyānī; Pali, cattāri ariyasaccāni ) one of the earliest formulations of the salvific insight gained by the Buddha on the occasion of his enlightenment. For the Theravāda tradition, the discourse on the four truths constitutes part of the first sermon of the Buddha, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, delivered in the Deer Park near Banaras to his five original disciples. The standard formulaic enumeration of the four truths as found in this discourse is as follows:

This, monks, is the noble truth of dukkha ["suffering"]: birth is dukkha, old age is dukkha, disease is dukkha, dying is dukkha, association with what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what is dear is dukkha, not getting that which is wished for is dukkha; in brief, the five groups of grasping [i. e., the five khandha s; Skt., skandha s] are dukkha. And this, monks, is the noble truth of the uprising [samudaya ] of dukkha: this craving, which is characterized by repeated existence, accompanied by passion for joys, delighting in this and that; that is to say, craving for sensual desires, craving for existence, craving for cessation of existence. And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation [nirodha ] of dukkha: complete dispassion and cessation of craving, abandonment, rejection, release of it, without attachment to it. And this, monks, is the noble truth of the path [magga ] leading to the cessation of dukkha; just this Noble Eightfold Way; that is to say, proper view, proper intention, proper speech, proper action, proper livelihood, proper effort, proper mindfulness, proper concentration. (Sayutta Nikāya 5.420ff.)

These four noble truths (formulaically, dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga ) constitute a "middle way" between rigorous asceticism and sensual indulgence. The twin foci of truths are craving (Skt., tā; Pali, tahā ) and ignorance (avidyā ), craving to hold that which is impermanent, grasping for substantiality where there is no abiding substance, and not knowing that this orientation inevitably yields unsatisfactoriness (Pali, dukkha; Skt., dukha ). Hence the twin foci draw attention to the fundamental cause (samudaya ) of dukkha, and meditation on dukkha leads to a discernment that craving and ignorance are its matrix.

The eightfold path, the fourth of the four noble truths, provides a means especially adapted to lead one into salvific insight, a way conforming completely to the Buddha's own salvific realization. In this sense, the eightfold path is the proper mode of religious living, one that subsumes ethics into soteriology.

Although some uncertainty remains among scholars as to whether the passage quoted above indeed represents the earliest formulation of the Buddha's teaching, in the early phase of the Buddhist tradition in India (the so-called Hīnayāna phase) the four noble truths played a major role in shaping the fundamental orientation to religious living on the part of Buddhists. Early Buddhist schools in India differed in their interpretations of the four noble truths, but uniformly regarded its underlying thematic structure as one informed by metaphors of healing: symptom-disease, diagnosis-cause, elimination of cause, treatment or remedy. With the rise of the Mahāyāna tradition the four noble truths became less central as a fundamental statement of the life situation and one's mode of engagement in a soteriological process, but continued to be revered as a fundamental part of the Buddha's early teachings.

TheravĀda Interpretations

The Theravāda Buddhist tradition is prevalent in contemporary Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand. For at least two millennia it has regarded the four truths as constitutive of its central soteriological doctrine. As a result, considerable effort has been expended in the tradition on its exegesis. In an extended discussion on the four noble truths, Buddhaghosa, in his fifth century CE classic, Visuddhimagga (The path of purity), comments at one point on the meaning of the term sacca ("truth"):

For those who examine [truth] closely with the eye of salvific wisdom [paññā ], it is not distorted, like an illusion, equivocated, like a mirage, and of an undiscoverable inherent nature, like the self among sectarians, but, rather, it is the pasture of noble gnosis [ñāa ] by means of its actual, undistorted, authentic condition. Just like [the characteristics of] fire, like the nature of the world, the actual undistorted, authentic condition is to be understood as the meaning of truth. (Visuddhimagga 16.24)

Among the many interpretations offered by Buddhaghosa for the existence of four, and only four, truths is the Buddha's realization that the evolution of suffering, its cause, the devolution of suffering, and its cause are fully comprehensive of an analysis of the human condition and the way to liberation through it. (See Visuddhimagga 16.27.) Other analyses of the four truths suggest that the first Truth relates to the basis of craving; the second, to craving itself; the third, to the cessation of craving; and the fourth, to the means to the cessation of craving. Similarly, the truths may be viewed as pertaining, respectively, to the sense of attachment, delight in attachment, removal of attachment, and the means to the removal of attachment. (See Visuddhimagga 16.2728.) According to the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the practitioner is to cultivate a fourfold awareness of the four truths in which dukkha is to be fully understood; the origin of dukkha, abandoned; nirodha, realized; and magga, cultivated. The Theravāda commentarial tradition has maintained that the soteriological moment arises in the simultaneity of this fourfold awareness. (See Visuddhimagga 22.92.)

Although the tradition continued to elaborate analyses of the four truths arranged according to various numerical configurations (most frequently with the number sixteen), it has held to the conviction that when the truths are fully penetrated and soteriologically known it is by one knowledge, through a single penetration, and at one instant. This knowledge of the four truths, they aver, is in and of itself salvific.

The Theravāda has continued to interpret the Eightfold Path as comprising three basic elements deemed integral to religious living at its fullest: sīla (Skt., śīla ), or moral virtue; samādhi, or meditative concentration; and paññā (Skt., prajā ), or salvific wisdom. Proper view and intention are classed as salvific wisdom; proper speech, action, and livelihood are classed as expressions of moral virtue; and proper effort, mindfulness, and concentration are classed as forms of meditative concentration.

Finally, the tradition has utilized the notion of "emptiness" (Pali, suññatā; Skt., śūnyatā ) in the analysis of the four noble truths. Buddhaghosa wrote:

In the highest sense, all the truths are to be understood as empty because of the absence of an experiencer, a doer, someone extinguished, and a goer. Hence this is said:

For there is only suffering, no one who suffers,
No doer, only the doing is found,
Extinction there is, no extinguished man,
There is the path, no goer is found.

Or alternatively,

The first pair are empty
Of stableness, beauty, pleasure, self;
Empty of self is the deathless state.
Without stableness, pleasure, self is the path.
Such, regarding them, is emptiness.(Visuddhimagga 16.90)

MahĀyĀna Interpretations

Although the Theravāda tradition applied the notion of "emptiness" in negating permanence, abiding happiness, and substantiality as legitimate descriptions of sentient life, it is within the Mahāyāna that one finds emptiness as a designation of reality in the highest sense. As part of the general critique of "substantiality" carried out by the Prajāpāramitā literature, even the four truths are declared void of real existence. In this analysis, suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to the cessation of suffering are themselves "empty."

In the Saddharmapuarika Sūtra (Lotus Sūtra), the old standard formulas of the epithets of the Buddha and characteristics of dharma are repeated for the Tathāgata Candrasūryapradīpa and his preaching, but the four noble truths are only mentioned by titlethere is no elaboration. The Saddharmapuarika proclaims that such teaching is taken up and absorbed into the one comprehensive and central soteriological message (i.e., the "single vehicle"; ekayāna ) of the sūtra.

Although the four noble truths are not featured in their earlier formulation in many Mahāyāna texts, the basic theme nonetheless persists: Life is awry, craving and ignorance are the cause, one's life can be changed, and a way or means that brings this about is available. For example, the verse text of Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra does not contain the complete formula of the four noble truths. Prajākaramati, a commentator on this great text, even points to the one verse (chap. 9, verse 41) where he finds a contrast clearly presented between the four noble truths and the "teaching of emptiness." Yet even though a fundamental shift in the understanding of the path to liberation has taken place in this and other Mahāyāna texts, the underlying assessment as to the cause of suffering, that is, the basic thematic structure of the four truths, remains unchanged.

In the Madhyamakakārikā, Nāgārjuna provides an incisive, penetrating analysis of the four noble truths. He maintains that dukha, which evolves from the interplay of the constituents of individuality and the objects of perception, can no longer be seen as having any fundamental ontological status, even in sasāra, the fleeting "whirl" of repeated existence. The same is true, for that matter, of sasāra itself, or even of nirvāa: All is emptiness (śūnyatā ).

Thus, the older-formulated Eightfold Path, which provided the remedy for the disease (dukha ) of undisciplined and uninformed human existence, yielded with this shift in worldview to another formulation of the soteriological process, to another religious orientation that is also to be cultivatedthe bodhisattva path. Although the ontological interpretation of the four noble truths underwent change in the cumulative development of the Buddhist tradition, as in the case of the great Chinese Buddhist thinker Zhiyi (538597), the fundamental theme that the inadequacy of human life results from craving and ignorance, which can be eradicated by following the path to enlightenment taught by the Buddha, has continued.

See Also

Eightfold Path; Soteriology.


The text of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is available in English translation in Sayutta Nikāya: The Book of Kindred Sayings (19171930), translated by C. A. F. Rhys Davids and F. L. Woodward (London, 19501956). For the Visuddhimagga, see the reliable translation by Bhikku Ñyāamoli, The Path of Purification, 2d ed. (Colombo, 1964). A related text, Upatissa's Vimuttimagga, has been translated from the Chinese as The Path of Freedom by N. R. M. Ehara, Soma Thera, and Kheminda Thera (Kandy, 1977). For an overview and analysis of the four truths from a Theravāda perspective, see Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught, rev. ed. (New York, 1974).

New Sources

Anderson, Carol S. Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravāda Buddhist Canon. Richmond, Va., 1999.

Eckel, Malcolm David, and John Thatamanil. "Beginningless Ignorance: A Buddhist View of the Human Condition." In Human Condition, edited by Robert Cummings Neville, pp. 5071. Albany, 2001.

Norman, K. R. "Why are the Four Noble Truths called 'Noble'?" In Ananda: Papers on Buddhism and Indology: A Felicitation Volume Presented to Ananda Weihena Palliya Guruge on his Sixtieth Birthday, edited by Y. Karunadasa, pp. 1113. Columbo, 1990.

Pereira, Jose. "The Four Noble Truths in Vasubandhu." Buddhist Heritage in India and Abroad, edited by G. Kuppuram and K. Kumudamani, pp. 129142. Delhi, 1992.

Skilling, Peter. "A Buddhist Verse Inscription from Andhra Pradesh." Indo-Iranian Journal 34 (1991): 239246.

John Ross Carter (1987)

Revised Bibliography