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What are they? Where are they found in the literature? Are there any significant differences in them among the traditions?

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6 Answers 6

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Here is a version from the Triratna site

  1. All existence is dukkha
  2. The cause of dukkha is craving
  3. The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving
  4. There is a path that leads from dukkha - (The path most commonly associated with this is the eightfold path).

Dukkha is commonly translated as suffering but the translation that I find more useful is unsatisfactoriness. The original meaning comes from an ill fitting chariot wheel. A bumpy ride if you will.

The formulation is related to a medical diagnosis e.g.

  1. The illness
  2. The etiology (cause)
  3. The prognosis
  4. The cure

As far as I am aware the 4 Noble Truths are a central teaching in Buddhism perhaps comparable to the divinity of Christ for Christian's (controversial comparison maybe). I have not heard of any significant variations. I would be very interested to hear if they were any.

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1. What are they?

They are the diagnosis, description, prognosis & prescription for emotional suffering, distress and dissatisfaction.

2. Where are they found in the literature?

The most succinct & direct description is found in the Discourse on Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (SN 56.11, Dhammacakkappavattana-suttaṃ).

However, the most detailed description is found in one of the sections of the Greater Discourse on Establishing Mindfulness (DN 22, Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna-suttaṃ) & the Discourse on the Dissection of the Truths (MN 141, Saccavibhaṅga-suttaṃ).

Even though these discourses are the most explicit, the four truths are found throughout the whole Pāḷi Canon.

3. Are there any significant differences in them among the traditions?

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, craving as a cause for suffering is just an abbreviation for a list of causes, craving being the first cause in the list:

"Another common misunderstanding of the Buddha's teaching is that all of our suffering is caused by craving. In the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma, the Buddha did say that craving is the cause of suffering, but he said this because craving is the first on the list of afflictions (kleshas). If we use our intelligence, we can see that craving can be a cause of pain, but other afflictions such as anger, ignorance, suspicion, arrogance, and wrong views can also cause pain and suffering. Ignorance, which gives rise to wrong perceptions, is responsible for much of our pain. To make the sutras shorter and therefore easier to memorize, the first item on a list was often used to represent the whole list. The word "eyes," for example, is used in many sutras to represent all six sense organs and "form" is often used to represent all Five Aggregates (skandhas). If we practice identifying the causes of our suffering, we will see that sometimes it is due to craving and sometimes it is due to other factors."

The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings, Thich Nhat Hanh. Ch. 5: Is Everything Suffering?

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sunyata, interesting edit. I've tried to make the wording more direct. Is it possible to provide a quote from the book so that we can read Thich Nhat Hanh's words on the subject? –  Anthony Mar 17 at 2:44
    
@Anthony: I've added a link to a quote from TNH and i just updated it with a longer quote which includes the comparison with writing down "eyes" for all six senses. Is this ok? –  sunyata Mar 19 at 21:40
    
@sunyata it's ok but i've tried to bring it closer to the StackExchange model by incorporating the text into the answer as a quote. –  Anthony Mar 21 at 1:43
    
@Anthony: Thank you, much better after your edit. Slightly off topic but connected: This same chapter in "The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings" contains other (in the author's view) misunderstandings of the Buddha's teachings (maybe this is a discussion for meta?) –  sunyata Mar 21 at 9:44

Here's the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta (SN 56.11), supposedly the earliest occurence of the FNT in the Canon:

[beginning skipped]

"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress:1 Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

[ending skipped]

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According to the Saccavibhanga Sutta translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

  1. the noble truth of stress.

    Now what, friends, is the noble truth of stress? Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

    And what are the five clinging-aggregates that, in short, are stressful? The clinging-aggregate of form, the clinging-aggregate of feeling, the clinging-aggregate of perception, the clinging-aggregate of fabrications, the clinging-aggregate of consciousness: These are called the five clinging-aggregates that, in short, are stressful.

  2. the noble truth of the origination of stress.

    And what, friends, is the noble truth of the origination of stress? The craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

  3. the noble truth of the cessation of stress.

    And what, friends, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress? The remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.

  4. the noble truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.

    And what, friends, is the noble truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress? Just this very noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

According to the Tittha Sutta, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the second and third noble truths are related to the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.

  • And what is the noble truth of the origination of stress? [the second noble truth]

    From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications. From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form. From name-&-form as a requisite condition come the six sense media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then old age & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress & suffering.

  • And what is the noble truth of the cessation of stress? [the third noble truth]

    From the remainderless fading & cessation of that very ignorance comes the cessation of fabrications. From the cessation of fabrications comes the cessation of consciousness. From the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of name-&-form. From the cessation of name-&-form comes the cessation of the six sense media. From the cessation of the six sense media comes the cessation of contact. From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling. From the cessation of feeling comes the cessation of craving. From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging/sustenance. From the cessation of clinging/sustenance comes the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth. From the cessation of birth, then old age & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of stress & suffering.

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"The Four Truths of The Nobles" are a formulaic summary of Buddha's Awakening. They are easier understood in context of Three Characteristics of Existence:

  1. Whatever is compound (consists of multiple pieces coming together), will fall apart. Same way, whatever is conditional (depends on multiple factors coinciding together), is impermanent.

  2. Nothing is solid, everything is made of pieces or depends on conditions. This includes "I" which cannot possibly be a solid/independent entity. Since "I" is really just a compound phenomena, it is not independent and too is subject to conditions.

  3. Because of the above, there is no (and there can't be!) such thing as permanent Sukha ("ease", "comfort") . Dukkha ("wrongness", "trouble") is an inevitable part of existence at large.

Now, instead of being a helpless victim caught in this universal trap, let us take master's stance, as was Buddha's habit:

Whatever comes together, can be broken apart. Therefore, whatever is conditional (depends on multiple factors coming together), can be controlled. Because all subjective experiences are conditional, they can all be controlled. This includes experience of Dukkha ("wrongness", "trouble"), which is a conditional phenomena and therefore can be controlled. All we need is 1) analyze Dukkha 2) identify factors comprising Dukkha 3) pick a factor in our control that we can remove, thereby disbanding the entire compound Dukkha 4) work towards removing that factor.

  1. There is Dukkha, this life is not without Dukkha ("wrongness", "trouble"). Dukkha must be understood. Dukkha comes from superposition of "that" and "this". "That" is a desirable possibility, object of unsatisfied thirst. When a desirable "that" emerges in the mind, "this" co-emerges as undesirable, Dukkha. From emergence of "that" comes emergence of "this". When "that" does not exist, "this" does not exist. From cessation of "that" comes cessation of "this". Dukkha has been understood.
  2. Dukkha depends on factors, is not without its factors. The key factor of Dukkha is "Thirst" -- unrealistic clinging to "that", or irrational attachment to "this". The Thirst must be let go. The Thirst has been let go.
  3. Dukkha is subject to disbanding of its factors, is not immune to disbanding of its factors. With disbanding of factors of Dukkha comes cessation of Dukkha. Cessation of Dukkha must be realized. Cessation of Dukkha has been realized.
  4. There is Path to cessation of Dukkha, cessation of Dukkha is not without a path. Path must be actualized. Path has been actualized.
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May I suggest you make more explicit that the Path is the Noble Eightfold Path? –  user50 Jun 26 '14 at 20:30
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I left that out on purpose, because according to some research the Eightfold Path as we know it today could be a later compilation that did not exist at Buddha's time. Buddha did mention Ancient Path but not necessarily all of its components at once. –  Andrei Volkov Jun 26 '14 at 20:35
    
Fascinating! If it's not too much trouble could you add your findings to the N8P question? –  user50 Jun 26 '14 at 20:45

The way I explain the Four Noble Truths to non-Buddhists is:

The Four Noble Truths

  1. Life means suffering
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment
  3. It is possible to end suffering through...
  4. ...The Eightfold Path
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