The Four Noble Truths Part I
by Ven. Thubten Chodron©
I want to talk a little bit about The Four Noble
Truths, which are the basic foundation of all the Buddha's
teachings. If we understand the Four Noble Truths, then when we
listen to any Dharma talk, we'll know how its topic fits into the
general Buddhist framework. The Four Noble Truths was the first
teaching the Buddha gave after his enlightenment. This is a very
practical teaching that applies to our daily lives. I'll mention the
four and go back and explain each.
First, our present situation - life in cyclic
existence - is unsatisfactory. Second, our unsatisfactory
experiences has causes; there is an origin to them. Third, there is
a state free from those unsatisfactory situations, i.e. nirvana or
true cessation. And fourth, a path exists to get there.
It is interesting that when the Buddha began
teaching, he started off talking about the unsatisfactoriness of our
present condition. We all know that we have problems in our lives.
We know that not everything in our lives is wonderful and that
things are unsatisfactory. So we may wonder, "How come I have to go
to a Dharma talk and hear about suffering?"
There are a lot of people, especially
Westerners, who want to hear about light and love. They want to say,
"Don't tell me about suffering, about pain. Don't tell me about the
unsatisfactory nature of cyclic existence. I just want to hear about
love, light, and bliss, something fantastic and extraordinary."
But the Buddha was practical. He said, "Ok. We
are going to look into our lives." Practicing Dharma isn't about
having an escapist mentality. It isn't about getting into some
spaced-out state or having some peak experience we can tell our
friends about. Real spiritual practice means understanding
ourselves, understanding the situation we are in, and understanding
our potential and how we can remedy our difficulties.
In outlining the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha
spoke about our present situation and our potential. The first two
Noble Truths -  unsatisfactory conditions and  their causes -
deal with our present state. In the last two Noble Truths -  the
cessation of those unsatisfactory conditions and  the path to
that cessation - talk about our great human potential.
Most of us live on automatic, without thinking a
lot about the causes and results of our actions. In order to use our
potential, we have to deeply understand that living on automatic is
really unsatisfactory and keeps us enslaved in cycles of problems
and suffering. For example, do we ever ask ourselves, "Why do I go
to work? Why do I eat? Why did I get married or did not get married?
Why do I go out with friends? Why did you buy a new car?" Do we
really stop and think about those things? Even after we do them, do
we ever ask ourselves, "Am I happy? Is what I'm doing really
fulfilling and meaningful? When I arrive at the time of death, will
I look back at my life and be happy about what I did, or will I have
We often space out and don't investigate those
questions. Instead, we have a car. We have a new VCR. We have this,
we have that. So we think everything is totally wonderful in our
life. Right? No! So, why are we doing these things? Because we are
supposed to. Because everybody else does. Because they say if I do
it, I'll be happy. But my experience is that I'm not.
So we need to look at how unsatisfactory living
a life on automatic is. If we don't look closely at that, what will
happen is that we'll live our entire life on automatic doing exactly
what we are supposed to do and we'll get to the end of our lives and
looking back, we'll think, "What have I accomplished? What was the
meaning of my life?" Who wants to get to the end of their life and
say the meaning of her life was a lot of stocks and bonds or the
meaning of his life was a bunch of titles and awards? Is that all
our life is worth? I don't think so.
The teaching on unsatisfactoriness is to help us
to wake up. Let's look at our basic experience, we all want to be
happy, right? Does anybody prefer to be unhappy? No. Does anybody
get everything they want? No. Think about it: when you have kids,
one of the first and important things you teach them is that we
can't always get what we want. That's throughout our whole lives,
isn't it? We never succeed in getting everything we want.
Sometimes we get what we want, and we're still
unhappy. We're disappointed. It wasn't as good as it's supposed to
be. Let's say we save up to go on a marvelous holiday to Hawaii.
It's winter in St. Louis, we go to Hawaii. That's supposed to be
wonderful, isn't it? To bring us happiness. But we get there and
it's raining. Our marvelous vacation is not as good as we thought it
was going to be.
In addition, problems, which we don't want, come
anyway. We try very hard not to have them but they come
automatically. We don't have to pay anything for them. We don't have
to reserve them. They just come.
So here we are, wanting to be happy, but being
frustrated: we can't get all we want, when good things happen they
often aren't as good as we thought they'd be, and we get what we
don't want. And as if we didn't have enough problems, all this
happens in the context of getting born, aging, falling sick, and
When we think about it, we already did the
"getting born" part for this life. But getting old continues. The
moment we're born, we begin the process of aging. Is aging fun? No,
not particularly. We all like to be young. But we all are getting
older. Our society idolizes youth, but none of us are getting
younger. In addition, we get sick. That's not fun either. And the
one for sure thing in our life is that we are going to die.
We have calendars full of events we have to do.
On Monday I have so many things to do. Actually the only thing we
have to do is die. Everything else is a maybe. When we don't think
about our mortality, we could think we might find some pleasure,
some happiness. But given the fact that our happiness doesn't last
long and occurs amidst birth, aging, sickness and death, any
pleasure and success we have is not going to be ultimate.
It's understanding this situation, understanding
these things that cures us. Understanding this, we choose to stop
running around, searching for pleasure. We begin to see that
grasping for pleasure is the source of our dissatisfaction and
frustration. We realize that happiness will never come from living
on automatic, selfishly seeking pleasure here and there.
Why did the Buddha teach about the
unsatisfactory nature of cyclic existence? He didn't do it so that
we'll feel depressed. We can get depressed all by ourselves; we
don't need to listen to teachings on how to do that! The Buddha
taught about the unsatisfactory circumstances so that we would wake
up and ask ourselves, "What really is the happiness that we all say
we want? What causes it? What causes our pain and how can we stop
those causes?" These questions set us off on a spiritual journey
that ultimately will lead us to happiness. This journey makes our