Buddhism: The Four Noble Truths
In order to help people realize that the normal understanding of life is inadequate, he, Buddha, talked about ‘dukkha’, translated as dissatisfaction or unsatisfactoriness. He often summarized his teaching as the Truth about ‘dukkha’, its origin, its ending, and the path to its ending. These core teachings, to be measured against one's experience and used for guidance, are known as the Four Noble Truths.
The First Noble Truth: There is dukkha
Life as we normally know it must always have a proportion of disagreeable experiences ... sickness, pain and distress are obvious examples. Even in relatively affluent societies people suffer from anxiety, stress or a loss of purpose; or they feel incapable of dealing with life's challenges.
Moreover, agreeable experiences are limited and transient for instance, 'dukkha' can be brought on by the loss of a loved one, or being badly let down by a friend. What also becomes apparent is that these feelings cannot be relieved for long by our usual responses, such as seeking pleasure, greater success or a different relationship.
This is because 'dukkha' stems from an inner need. You could call it a longing of the heart ... for understanding, peace and harmony. Because it's an inner or spiritual need, no matter how we try to alleviate such feelings by adding something pleasant to our life, it never quite succeeds. As long as we are motivated to seek fulfillment in what is transient and vulnerable and it doesn't take much introspection to recognize how vulnerable our bodies and feelings are ... we will always suffer disappointment and a sense of loss.
"Being associated with what you do not like is dukkha,
being separated from what you like is dukkha,
not getting what you want is dukkha.
In brief, the compulsive habits of body and mind are dukkha."
The Second Noble Truth: There is an origin to 'dukkha'
The Buddha's experience was that this wrong motivation was in essence the origin of dissatisfaction. How is this? By always seeking fulfillment in what is transient, we miss out on what life could be offering if we were more attentive and spiritually attuned. Not using (through not knowing) our spiritual potential, we are motivated by feelings and moods. However, when mindfulness reveals that this is a habit rather than our true nature, we realize that we can change it.
The Third Noble Truth: 'Dukkha' can stop
Once we've understood the Second Truth, the Third follows on, if we're capable of ‘letting go’ of our conscious and unconscious self-centered habits. When we are no longer defensive or aggressive, whenever we respond to life without prejudice or fixed views, the mind rests in an inner harmony. The habits and viewpoints that make life appear hostile or inadequate are checked.
The Fourth Noble Truth: There is a Way to stop 'dukkha'
This involves the practical guidelines for bringing a spiritual focus to bear on life as we are living it. We can't 'let go' until we become capable of that through cultivation of our spiritual nature. But if there is proper cultivation, the mind will naturally, incline towards Nibbana (Nirvana). All that is needed is the wisdom to know that there is a way and the means to accomplish that way.
The 'Way' is defined as the Noble Eightfold Path. The 'wheel' symbol that is often used in Buddhist iconography is a depiction of this Eightfold Path in which each factor supports and is supported by all the others. Buddhist practice consists of cultivating these factors: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
The 'Right-ness' of them is that they entail living in accordance with virtue, meditation and wisdom rather than from any self-centered position. Such a Way is therefore 'Right' for others as well as oneself.
"He who has understanding and great wisdom
does not think of harming himself or another,
nor of harming both alike.
He rather thinks of his own welfare,
of that of others, of that of both,
and of the welfare of the whole world."
FOLLOWING THE PATH
When asked to explain why his disciples always looked cheerful, the Buddha commented:
"They have no regret over the past,
nor do they brood over the future.
They live in the present;
therefore they are radiant."
Someone who has fully cultivated this way finds serenity and patience in themselves in times of difficulty and the wish to share good fortune when things go well. They live a life free from guilt, and, rather than having violent mood swings, the mind and heart stay steady and buoyant through the circumstances of life.
These are the fruits, but like most fruit, they have to be cultivated slowly and persistently with good-heartedness. For this reason, the guidance, or simply the companionship, of like-minded people is almost indispensable. The Refuge of Sangha is a reflection on this. Most generally, 'Sangha' refers to all spiritual companions, but this spiritual companionship is highlighted by the religious order of alms-mendicants who live under a detailed code of conduct that unambiguously presents the values of the Buddhist path.
Buddhist monks and nuns are not preachers-being specifically prohibited from teaching unless asked to do so ... they are spiritual companions, and their relationship with the general Buddhist public is one of mutual support. They are prohibited from growing food or having money; they have to keep in touch with society and be worthy of support.
Buddhist monasteries are not escape-hatches, but places where others can stay, receive teachings and most important ... feel that their act of service and support is appreciated. In this way, the monks and nuns provide more than companionship and guidance ... they also present the opportunity for others to gain confidence and self-respect.
"Do not think lightly of goodness, saying,
'Nothing will help me improve.'
A pitcher is filled with water
by a steady stream of drops;
likewise, the wise person improves
and achieves well-being
a little at a time."