Monday, January 21, 2008

The four noble truths

The four noble truths spring from Buddha’s first sermon in Banares. During that sermon Buddha, according the Lawrence Ullrich’s translation, said: “"He who recognizes the existence of suffering, its cause, its remedy, and its cessation has fathomed the four noble truths.” This translation, with its mention of a “cause” or suffering and a “remedy” for suffering, sheds light on Paul Williams’ view. Williams states that “the formula for the four Noble Truths is probably based on the formula for a medical diagnosis. That is, it states the illness, the source of the illness, then the cure for the illness, and finally the way to bring about the cure.” (Williams, pg 42) This view is echoed by other analysts. “The Four Noble Truths are structured like a medical diagnosis and therapy. For this reason, Buddha is sometimes imagined as a medical doctor who understands the existential sickness inherent in the human condition and who provides and effective (religious) cure.”(Holder 43) The medical diagnosis and cure view of the Noble Truths is holistic; since the entire body is infected with suffering, and the entire body must be cured at once.

The Dalai Lama seems to have a different view than the holistic medical diagnosis conception of the Noble Truths. For him, it appears that the Noble Truths are a sequential listing of steps an individual must recognize and enact. “These must also be understood in their sequential order: from the cause of suffering arises the reality of suffering; from the cause of practicing the path arises the reality wherein there is a cessation of suffering. Thus the first two truths describe samsara and how we wander in it, and the latter two refer to ultimate peace and how we obtain it.” (Dalai Lama 107)

Still another conception of the Noble Truths is that they are an inextricable part of the Buddhist web of beliefs and practices. Rather than standing alone as a diagnosis or some kind of sequential ordering of cause and effect, they are instead part of a larger whole. “The four noble truths are set in this network of doctrinal propositions, and their relation to other doctrines are outlined according to a specific abhidhamma methodology. They function items as knowledge in a larger web of interconnected teachings that show how reality is divided and arranged in a multitude of ways. [italics added]” (pg 110) An example of this interconnectedness can be found within the truth about the remedy or destruction of suffering. “What leads to peace of mind, to higher wisdom, to full enlightenment, to Nirvana? Verily, it is the eightfold noble path; that is to say: Right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindedness, right contemplation.” Just as the four noble truths can be interpreted in different ways, so too can the eightfold path be seen both as a sequential series of stepping stones as well as eight lilypads floating on the water, each of which can be reached from the others.

This multitude of interpretations within interpretations is location of the origin of various ancient Buddhist schools. Buddha’s four truths were the expression of his observation of the world as it is. When he began to offer his descriptions for remaining on the path, Buddha’s listeners began to filter these teachings through their own experiences and points of views. Almost immediately, Buddha’s followers began to vary from one another in their interpretations of the truths “in a complex web of mutual influences, now appropriating, now rejecting, together developed and were themselves expressions of a shared "nonlinear" reconception of the problem of salvation, which in each case was fleshed out in the specifics of a different religious vision and ideological orientations.” (Stone 241)

Further, the differences among Buddhists soon found expression in the differences in the actions that Buddhists take, the vinaya, and in the ordination of new believers. These differences grew until by the third century after Buddha there were 18 schools. Differences in interpretation and differences in actions resulted in differences in schools.


Anderson, Carol S. Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhist Canon (London: Routledge) 1999.

Dalai Lama, Bstan-dzin-rgya-mtsho, Glenn H. Mullin, Tsepak Rigzin. The Path to Enlightenment (Ithica, New York: Snow Lion Publications) 1995.

Stone, Jacqueline I. Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press) 1999.

Williams, Paul. Buddhist Thought (London: Routledge) 2000.