the practical buddhist : essentials

the four noble truths

Excerpted from my book, The Practical Buddhist: Buddhism Without the Robes & Ritual

Noble Truth #1: Life is characterized by a basic sense of dissatisfaction; like a cart with one wheel out of kilter.

Some refer to this as suffering. But you don’t always suffer in the classic sense, do you? A better, more apt translation of duhkah, the Sanskrit word most often translated as suffering, is ‘out of kilter.’ Here’s an effective way to relate to duhkah.

Imagine you’re riding in a wooden-wheeled cart with one of the wheels slightly out of true. You’re getting where you want to go, but not without a regular and uncomfortable wobble produced by the wheel that’s out of true. Although it might be interesting or slightly amusing at first, you’d soon grow tired of the repetitive up-down-wiggle, up-down-wiggle, up-down-wiggle.

Life is like this. It’s filled with physical and emotional pain, constant and evolving change, and the struggle with the knowledge that one day, we will die. These are the big issues we all face. Instead of relying on traditional beliefs about a promised afterlife, the Practical Buddhist chooses to face these dilemmas head on in the present knowing only that what is experienced is real.

Noble  Truth  #2:  This sense of dissatisfaction arises from within us through attachment to our desires.

Many spend their entire lives searching for something to fill a perceived inadequacy; an unfilled void that they can’t identify.They believe that their humanity is in need of fulfillment, completion, or redemption.Their search for fulfillment may lead them to serial lovers, substance abuse, religious addiction, or other behaviors that only stoke the fires of emptiness and prolong the behavior of continually seeking an end to their dissatisfaction.

This constant searching is a form of attachment. We are attached  to our seeking behavior as well as the very things we seek: the pursuit of wealth, the embrace of new lovers, and the ultimate quest for redemption.The Buddha taught there wasn’t anything out there that could fill this void because the void is actually false. He taught that our seeking behavior comes from within. It is our response to our overall dissatisfaction and not because we actually lack anything.

The longer we give into its power, the stronger our attachment becomes to  finding resolution, to finding something. It isn’t that desire is bad, it’s just that it can never be truly satisfied.There is always another desire around the corner.

Noble Truth #3: It is possible to put an end to our dissatisfaction.

If the dissatisfaction we feel is a result of being attached to the idea of incompleteness, the need for redemption, the desperate search for anything that will make our dissatisfaction disappear, then the solution to the problem becomes obvious.We should untether from our seeking behaviors.

But this is difficult to do. Most of us have spent our entire lives becoming more and more attached to the idea that we need to acquire things (MacBooks, new cars, more shoes, bigger TVs); that we need to participate in religious activities (scriptural study, prayer, worship); that we need to ingest certain substances (the symbolic blood of Christ, coffee, wine, beer, cocaine, heroin).

We do these things in order to alleviate our dissatisfaction. But in all our questing, there remains the emptiness. Our thirst might be quenched by these activities, but soon the thirst returns and we search again for something that will quench it once and for all.The Buddha taught that it is possible to put an end to our dissatisfaction but the solution doesn’t lie in religion, things, or substances. It comes about through engaging in the present moment fully and without reservation.

Noble Truth #4: The Eight-fold Path alleviates our dissatisfaction.

The Buddha taught that following the Eight-fold Path was a means to experiencing freedom from dissatisfaction.We think of walking a path as starting at one point and ending at another. But the Eight-fold Path isn’t like that. It’s been said that once you set foot on the path, you have already walked it. It’s like swimming – once you learn to swim, you can swim in a pool, in a lake, or in the ocean.

To follow the Eight-fold Path is to at once experience appropriate views, intentions, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and meditation simultaneously. Daily practice increases your chances of success with all things and it is the same with the Eight-fold Path.