The Four Noble Truths

Excerpts from the suttas of the Pali Canon

 

Breaking free

"Bhikkhus, it is through not realizing, through not penetrating the Four Noble Truths that this long course of birth and death has been passed through and undergone by me as well as by you. What are these four? They are the noble truth of dukkha; the noble truth of the origin of dukkha; the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha; and the noble truth of the way to the cessation of dukkha. But now, bhikkhus, that these have been realized and penetrated, cut off is the craving for existence, destroyed is that which leads to renewed becoming, and there is no fresh becoming."

— DN 16 (with dukkha left untranslated)

The elephant's footprint

[Ven. Sariputta:] "Friends, just as the footprints of all legged animals are encompassed by the footprint of the elephant, and the elephant's footprint is reckoned the foremost among them in terms of size; in the same way, all skillful qualities are gathered under the four noble truths. Under which four? Under the noble truth of stress, under the noble truth of the origination of stress, under the noble truth of the cessation of stress, and under the noble truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress."

— MN 28

One's duties with regard to each of the Four Noble Truths

[The Buddha speaks of his Awakening:]

"Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: 'This is the noble truth of stress'... 'This noble truth of stress is to be comprehended'... 'This noble truth of stress has been comprehended'...

"Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: 'This is the noble truth of the origination of stress'... 'This noble truth of the origination of stress is to be abandoned'... 'This noble truth of the origination of stress has been abandoned.'

"Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: 'This is the noble truth of the cessation of stress'... 'This noble truth of the cessation of stress is to be directly experienced'... 'This noble truth of the cessation of stress has been directly experienced.'

"Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: 'This is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress'... 'This noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress is to be developed'... 'This noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress has been developed.'

"And, monks, as long as this knowledge & vision of mine — with its three rounds & twelve permutations concerning these four noble truths as they actually are present — was not pure, I did not claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos with its devas, Maras, & Brahmas, with its contemplatives & priests, its royalty & commonfolk. But as soon as this knowledge & vision of mine — with its three rounds & twelve permutations concerning these four noble truths as they actually are present — was truly pure, then I did claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos with its devas, Maras & Brahmas, with its contemplatives & priests, its royalty & commonfolk. Knowledge & vision arose in me: 'Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.'"

— SN 56.11


The First Noble Truth the truth of dukkha

 

Definition

"Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha."

— SN 56.1

Sariputta's elaboration

[Ven. Sariputta:] "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; 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 what is birth? Whatever birth, taking birth, descent, coming-to-be, coming-forth, appearance of aggregates, & acquisition of [sense] spheres of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called birth.

"And what is aging? Whatever aging, decrepitude, brokenness, graying, wrinkling, decline of life-force, weakening of the faculties of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called aging.

"And what is death? Whatever deceasing, passing away, breaking up, disappearance, dying, death, completion of time, break up of the aggregates, casting off of the body, interruption in the life faculty of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called death.

"And what is sorrow? Whatever sorrow, sorrowing, sadness, inward sorrow, inward sadness of anyone suffering from misfortune, touched by a painful thing, that is called sorrow.

"And what is lamentation? Whatever crying, grieving, lamenting, weeping, wailing, lamentation of anyone suffering from misfortune, touched by a painful thing, that is called lamentation.

"And what is pain? Whatever is experienced as bodily pain, bodily discomfort, pain or discomfort born of bodily contact, that is called pain.

"And what is distress? Whatever is experienced as mental pain, mental discomfort, pain or discomfort born of mental contact, that is called distress.

"And what is despair? Whatever despair, despondency, desperation of anyone suffering from misfortune, touched by a painful thing, that is called despair.

"And what is the stress of association with the unbeloved? There is the case where undesirable, unpleasing, unattractive sights, sounds, aromas, flavors, or tactile sensations occur to one; or one has connection, contact, relationship, interaction with those who wish one ill, who wish for one's harm, who wish for one's discomfort, who wish one no security from the yoke. This is called the stress of association with the unbeloved.

"And what is the stress of separation from the loved? There is the case where desirable, pleasing, attractive sights, sounds, aromas, flavors, or tactile sensations do not occur to one; or one has no connection, no contact, no relationship, no interaction with those who wish one well, who wish for one's benefit, who wish for one's comfort, who wish one security from the yoke, nor with one's mother, father, brother, sister, friends, companions, or relatives. This is called the stress of separation from the loved.

"And what is the stress of not getting what is wanted? In beings subject to birth, the wish arises, 'O, may we not be subject to birth, and may birth not come to us.' But this is not to be achieved by wanting. This is the stress of not getting what is wanted. In beings subject to aging... illness... death... sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair, the wish arises, 'O, may we not be subject to aging... illness... death... sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair, and may aging... illness... death... sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair not come to us.' But this is not to be achieved by wanting. This is the stress of not getting what is wanted.

"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.

"This, friends, is called the noble truth of stress.

— MN 141

The First Noble Truth defined in terms of the senses

"And what is the noble truth of dukkha? 'The six internal sense media,' should be the reply. Which six? The medium of the eye... the ear... the nose... the tongue... the body... the intellect. This is called the noble truth of dukkha."

— SN 56.14

Dukkha as a raging fire

"The All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

"The ear is aflame. Sounds are aflame...

"The nose is aflame. Aromas are aflame...

"The tongue is aflame. Flavors are aflame...

"The body is aflame. Tactile sensations are aflame...

"The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs."

— SN 35.28

Dukkha should be known

"'Dukkha should be known. The cause by which dukkha comes into play should be known. The diversity in dukkha should be known. The result of dukkha should be known. The cessation of dukkha should be known. The path of practice for the cessation of dukkha should be known.' Thus it has been said. In reference to what was it said?

"Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are dukkha; association with what is not loved is dukkha, separation from what is loved is dukkha, not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.

"And what is the cause by which dukkha comes into play? Craving is the cause by which dukkha comes into play.

"And what is the diversity in dukkha? There is major dukkha & minor, slowly fading & quickly fading. This is called the diversity in dukkha.

"And what is the result of dukkha? There are some cases in which a person overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, grieves, mourns, laments, beats his breast, & becomes bewildered. Or one overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, comes to search outside, 'Who knows a way or two to stop this pain?' I tell you, monks, that dukkha results either in bewilderment or in search. This is called the result of dukkha.

"And what is the cessation of dukkha? From the cessation of craving is the cessation of dukkha; and just this noble eightfold path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration — is the path of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha.

"Now when a disciple of the noble ones discerns dukkha in this way, the cause by which dukkha comes into play in this way, the diversity of dukkha in this way, the result of dukkha in this way, the cessation of dukkha in this way, & the path of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha in this way, then he discerns this penetrative holy life as the cessation of dukkha."

— AN 6.63


 

The Second Noble Truth – the origin of dukkha

 

The definition

"And this, monks is the noble truth of the origination of dukkha: 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."

— SN 56.11

Craving inevitably leads to more dukkha

If this sticky, uncouth craving
overcomes you in the world,
your sorrows grow like wild grass
after rain.

If, in the world, you overcome
this uncouth craving, hard to escape,
sorrows roll off you,
like water beads off
a lotus.

— Dhp 335-336

If its root remains
undamaged & strong,
a tree, even if cut,
will grow back.
So too if latent craving
is not rooted out,
this suffering returns
again
&
again.

— Dhp 338

Abandoning craving opens up the possibility of Awakening

"Monks, any desire & passion with regard to craving for forms is a defilement of the mind. Any desire & passion with regard to craving for sounds... craving for aromas... craving for flavors... craving for tactile sensations... craving for ideas is a defilement of the mind. When, with regard to these six bases, the defilements of awareness are abandoned, then the mind is inclined to renunciation. The mind fostered by renunciation feels malleable for the direct knowing of those qualities worth realizing."

— SN 27.8


The Third Noble Truth – the cessation of dukkha

 

Definition

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

— SN 56.11

Dispassion is supreme

"Among whatever qualities there may be, fabricated or unfabricated, the quality of dispassion — the subduing of intoxication, the elimination of thirst, the uprooting of attachment, the breaking of the round, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, the realization of Unbinding — is considered supreme. Those who have confidence in the quality of dispassion have confidence in what is supreme; and for those with confidence in the supreme, supreme is the result."

— Iti 90

Stilling: the hallmark of the goal

"This is peace, this is exquisite — the stilling of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving, dispassion, cessation, Unbinding."

— MN 64

Unraveling the causes of suffering

"Monks, the ending of the effluents is for one who knows & sees, I tell you, not for one who does not know & does not see. For one who knows what & sees what is there the ending of effluents? 'Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance. Such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance. Such is perception, such its origination, such its disappearance. Such are fabrications, such their origination, such their disappearance. Such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.' The ending of the effluents is for one who knows in this way & sees in this way.

"The knowledge of ending in the presence of ending has its prerequisite, I tell you. It is not without a prerequisite. And what is its prerequisite? Release... Release has its prerequisite, I tell you. It is not without a prerequisite. And what is its prerequisite? Dispassion... Disenchantment... Knowledge & vision of things as they actually are present...Concentration... Pleasure... Serenity... Rapture... Joy... Conviction... Stress... Birth... Becoming... Clinging... Craving... Feeling... Contact... The six sense media... Name-&-form... Consciousness... Fabrications... Fabrications have their prerequisite, I tell you. They are not without a prerequisite. And what is their prerequisite? Ignorance...

"Just as when the gods pour rain in heavy drops & crash thunder on the upper mountains: The water, flowing down along the slopes, fills the mountain clefts & rifts & gullies. When the mountain clefts & rifts & gullies are full, they fill the little ponds. When the little ponds are full, they fill the big lakes... the little rivers... the big rivers. When the big rivers are full, they fill the great ocean. In the same way:

fabrications have ignorance as their prerequisite,
consciousness has fabrications as its prerequisite,
name-&-form has consciousness as its prerequisite,
the six sense media have name-&-form as their prerequisite,
contact has the six sense media as its prerequisite,
feeling has contact as its prerequisite,
craving has feeling as its prerequisite,
clinging has craving as its prerequisite,
becoming has clinging as its prerequisite,
birth has becoming as its prerequisite,
stress & suffering have birth as their prerequisite,
conviction has stress & suffering as its prerequisite,
joy has conviction as its prerequisite,
rapture has joy as its prerequisite,
serenity has rapture as its prerequisite,
pleasure has serenity as its prerequisite,
concentration has pleasure as its prerequisite,
knowledge & vision of things as they actually are present has concentration as its prerequisite,
disenchantment has knowledge & vision of things as they actually are present as its prerequisite,
dispassion has disenchantment as its prerequisite,
release has dispassion as its prerequisite,
knowledge of ending has release as its prerequisite."

— SN 12.23

Where neither pleasure nor pain can arise

"From the remainderless fading & cessation of that very ignorance, there no longer exists [the sense of] the body on account of which that pleasure & pain internally arise. There no longer exists the speech... the intellect on account of which that pleasure & pain internally arise. There no longer exists the field, the site, the dimension, or the issue on account of which that pleasure & pain internally arise."

— SN 12.25

This/That Conditionality

"And what is the noble method that is rightly seen and rightly ferreted out by discernment? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones notices:

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

"In other words:

"From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications. From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form. From name-and-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 and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress and suffering.

"Now from the remainderless fading and 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-and-form. From the cessation of name-and-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 and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of stress and suffering.

"This is the noble method that is rightly seen and rightly ferreted out by discernment."

— AN 10.9


The Fourth Noble Truth – the path leading to the cessation of dukkha

 

The Noble Eightfold Path

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

— SN 56.11

The threefold division of the path

[Visakha, a layman, ex-husband of Ven. Sister Dhammadinna:] "And are the three aggregates [of virtue, concentration, discernment] included under the noble eightfold path, lady, or is the noble eightfold path included under the three aggregates?"

[Ven. Sister Dhammadinna:] "The three aggregates are not included under the noble eightfold path, friend Visakha, but the noble eightfold path is included under the three aggregates. Right speech, right action, & right livelihood come under the aggregate of virtue. Right effort, right mindfulness, & right concentration come under the aggregate of concentration. Right view & right resolve come under the aggregate of discernment."

— MN 44

An ancient path rediscovered

"It is just as if a man, traveling along a wilderness track, were to see an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by people of former times. He would follow it. Following it, he would see an ancient city, an ancient capital inhabited by people of former times, complete with parks, groves, & ponds, walled, delightful. He would go to address the king or the king's minister, saying, 'Sire, you should know that while traveling along a wilderness track I saw an ancient path... I followed it... I saw an ancient city, an ancient capital... complete with parks, groves, & ponds, walled, delightful. Sire, rebuild that city!' The king or king's minister would rebuild the city, so that at a later date the city would become powerful, rich, & well-populated, fully grown & prosperous.

"In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration... I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of birth... becoming... clinging... craving... feeling... contact... the six sense media... name-&-form... consciousness, direct knowledge of the origination of consciousness, direct knowledge of the cessation of consciousness, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of consciousness. I followed that path.

"Following it, I came to direct knowledge of fabrications, direct knowledge of the origination of fabrications, direct knowledge of the cessation of fabrications, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of fabrications. Knowing that directly, I have revealed it to monks, nuns, male lay followers & female lay followers, so that this holy life has become powerful, rich, detailed, well-populated, wide-spread, proclaimed among celestial & human beings."

— SN 12.65

A path to overcome danger

"There are these three things that are (genuine) mother-&-child-separating dangers. Which three? The danger of aging, the danger of illness, the danger of death.

"A mother can't get (her wish) with regard to her child who is aging, 'I am aging, but may my child not age.' A child can't get (its wish) with regard to its mother who is aging, 'I am aging, but may my mother not age.'

"A mother can't get (her wish) with regard to her child who is growing ill, 'I am growing ill, but may my child not grow ill.' A child can't get (its wish) with regard to its mother who is growing ill, 'I am growing ill, but may my mother not grow ill.'

"A mother can't get (her wish) with regard to her child who is dying, 'I am dying, but may my child not die.' A child can't get (its wish) with regard to its mother who is dying, 'I am dying, but may my mother not die.'

"These are the three things that are (genuine) mother-&-child-separating dangers.

"There is a path, there is a practice, that leads to the abandoning and overcoming of these three mother-&-child-uniting dangers and these three mother-&-child-separating dangers.

"And which is that path, which is that practice...? Just this very noble eightfold path, i.e., right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

"This is the path, this the practice, that leads to the abandoning and overcoming of these three mother-&-child-uniting dangers and these three mother-&-child-separating dangers."

— AN 3.62

Enlightenment is accessible only to those who follow this path

"In any doctrine & discipline where the noble eightfold path is not found, no contemplative of the first... second... third... fourth order [stream-winner, once-returner, non-returner, or arahant] is found. But in any doctrine & discipline where the noble eightfold path is found, contemplatives of the first... second... third... fourth order are found. The noble eightfold path is found in this doctrine & discipline, and right here there are contemplatives of the first... second... third... fourth order. Other teachings are empty of knowledgeable contemplatives. And if the monks dwell rightly, this world will not be empty of arahants."

— DN 1

 


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