The word Buddha is Sanskrit meaning “the awakened one,” a person who has been released from the world of cyclic existence (samsara) and attained liberation from desire. A Buddha realizes that desire is an indication of one’s dissatisfaction. Recognizing dissatisfaction can become an open gate to the path of liberation. The Buddha experienced such dissatisfaction with life before he began his vision quest for enlightenment.
There were many who carried the name Buddha before the one popular Buddha was born. There were many other Buddhas before him. Shakyamuni Buddha, born Siddartha Gautama in Kapilavatsu, India, was the one popular Buddha we speak of today. He was born into the Shakyan tribe and thus the reason he was given the name Shayamuni Buddha, the awakened one of the Shakyan tribe. His father was King Suddhodana. His mother, Mayadevi, the Great Mother died seven days after his birth and so his aunt Mahapajapati raised him. Nevertheless, he lived as a wealthy protected prince; married a woman of royalty named Yasodhara, and had a son, named Rahula. Eventually, he left the palace once he became aware of all the suffering that had been hidden from him, including old age, sickness, birth, and death. He went to many teachers to understand this suffering and they taught him various lessons as an aspirant toward ending suffering. He excelled with all of his teachers, to the point they asked him to become a teacher. However, Buddha refused their invitation to teach feeling he had not yet been fully awakened to the condition of suffering. He continued his journey.
Fortunately, Buddha was a dreamer. His first teachings, the Four Noble Truths of Suffering, came from a succession of five dreams. Finally, after sitting among the trees in the forest, he became a lamp unto himself and was enlightened to what he called The Four Noble Truths about suffering. These truths are:
1) there is suffering;
2) there is a cause for suffering;
3) there is cessation of suffering; and
4) there is a path leading to the end of suffering called the Eightfold Path.
Can you tell me more about the Four Noble Truths of Suffering?
The Four Noble Truths
I. There is suffering (Dukkha) – Dukkha means suffering in Sanskrit. This first truth brings awareness to the universal law that we all suffer in some way. Physical suffering is called Dukkha Dukka, when there is pain in the body, disease. Mental and emotional suffering is called Samskara Dukkha, in which there is dissatisfaction/anguish or thirst for pleasure, power, and prosperity. Also, this kind of suffering includes seeing one’s individual existence or having notions of being separate from all things and being. Spiritual suffering is called Viparinama Dukkha, which is resisting change, not understanding that all things are impermanent.
II. There is a cause for suffering (Samudaya) – Samudaya means the arising of suffering. This second truth addresses the origin, roots, nature, creation or arising of suffering. We are invited as practitioners to explore our suffering so that we can touch the root of it. The root can take on the nature of clinging to desires, ideas, expectations and attachment to who you think you are in this lifetime.
III. There is cessation of suffering (Nirodha) – Nirodha means cessation, to end suffering. After becoming aware of the root of suffering we are encouraged in the practice to stop doing the things that make us suffer. More specifically be aware of our actions through body, mind, and speech.
IV. There is a path leading to the end of suffering (Magga). Magga means path in Sanskrit – path of awakening. There is a path out of suffering that can shift our tendency from suffering toward liberation. It is commonly called the Noble Eightfold Path. The path includes Right View or understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
The word, “right” has been used as a translation of the Pali word samma that appears in Buddha’s original sermon (or sutra- teaching). Samma has also been translated to mean perfect or complete. However, it literally stands for the quietude of citta or mind upon itself. The entire path is samma, every aspect of the path has samma, one’s whole life is samma. The complete or perfect knowing of the whole series of each moment of our lives is samma. Therefore, for the sake of avoiding a sense of right and wrong or confusing this path with rules, I prefer to use the word “complete” in the place of right. Complete refers to doing what is beneficial to living an awakened life, living in a way that does not cause suffering. The path aligns with actions of the body, speech and heart-mind.
The ancient Eightfold Path espoused by Shakyamuni Buddha is such a path in which the vow is to awaken to life as we are living it or to awaken to suffering. It is a vow so expansive it includes not only our own suffering but also the suffering of others. It is vow that is not meant to be an achievement we boast about with our friends but rather an inexhaustible commitment to embrace the path despite our being weary.
Walking the Eightfold Path is a vow to break the surface of things that have obstructed our liberation from the constant yearning for pleasure, power and prosperity. It is a path that has little to do with being strong and courageous but rather one in which the fragility, vulnerability, and soft centers of our hearts are revealed in the transformation and evolution of life.
Yet, this path cannot be taught as it is wisdom that must surface within your own life. You can only bring it alive with the actions of your life. You cannot just memorize it or find techniques of speaking and behaving liberated. The path can only be engaged in your living it. It can only be engaged as an awakening of your own doing. It is difficult to grasp because it goes against our instincts to figure things out with our brains. We might say, “I don’t want to do this until I know what it is.” Some might say, “Prove that this will work when all else has failed us.” We are stymied by our instinct to doubt its legitimacy. For these reason there exist practices such as meditation and sacred time like vision quests to help pry open the closed doors of our lives.
At first glance, the teachings on the Four Noble Truths appear simple, but to understand how suffering arises and ceases can take a lifetime. There is a chart of the Eightfold Path at the back of the book. For further reading on these teachings I suggest The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh.