Dharma - Merit - Meditation - Nectar - Liberation - Emptiness - Process - Awakening


in Buddhadharma

On the Four Noble Truths

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"Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation."
Samyuktâgama (Samyutta-nikâya), 56.II, verse 423.

The Truth of Suffering
The Truth of Arising
The Truth of Cessation
The Truth of the Path


The First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma
in the Deer Park at Sarnath


The wheel ("dharmacakra") and the motif of two deer flanking Śiva predate the Buddhadharma.  In a Tibetan mandala, it may be placed over the four gateways. Common at the centre of the monastery and/or temple roofs, it represents the Buddhayâna as a whole.

Note how the Wheel of Dharma springs out of the Lotus, symbol of our Buddha-potential. Moreover, in tune with traditional Indian polarity placement, the male (Solar) unicorn is on the right side of the Wheel, the (Lunar) female deer on the left. Both Mahâyana & Vajrayâna "expansions" are thus part of the image.

After his enlightenment, Buddha Śâkyamuni returned to the Deer Park at Sarnath, close to Kaśi, the "city of light", considered sacred to Śiva and later known as Vârânasî or Benares. This park was probably a sacred grove dedicated to Śiva Paśupati, "Lord of Cattle", used by Shaivite yogins.

By delivering his first discourse to his five ascetic companions, Śâkyamuni was the first Buddha of our time to turn the Wheel of Dharma.

In the First Discourse, the wisdom leading to enlightenment or the realization of things as they are, was taught by the enlightened Śâkyamuni in terms of four interlinked propositions known as the Four Noble Truths ("cattâri ariyasaccâni"), covering the central tenets of his Buddhadharma. This crucial First Discourse of Buddha Śâkyamuni can be found in the second basket of the Tripitaka as : "Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma" (Samyuktâgama, 56.II).

The Four Noble Truths follow the pattern of a medical anamnesis :

(a) diagnosis : what is at hand ? = suffering ;
(b) identification of causes : what feeds suffering ? = lust & unlust ;
(c) curability : what ends suffering ? = wisdom ;
(d) method of treatment : how to be wise ? = experience emptiness.

Experiencing emptiness results from purifying & training the conceptual mind. Logic, epistemology, science & metaphysics define this mind's rational, conceptual understanding of emptiness ; an approximation. Meditation trains the peaceful, tranquil mind of Bodhicitta, leading up to concentrated insights & direct nondual realization of emptiness.

The nobility of these Four Noble Truths lies in their intention to radically change the human condition, and bring about a true peace which, once attained, depends on nothing. This is not a revelation, but the discovery of the ultimate nature of things by way of reason & meditation.

Unenlightened, sentient beings inevitably cycle around dis-eased. There is only one solution : end "samsâra" ! To eradicate the root of the illness, the mind must be healed. This all-encompassing intention is the splendour of the Four Noble Truths, for in principle all sentient beings can enter "nirvâna", being liberated and/or fully enlightened (Buddhahood). If this is the view, then, not unlike Pythagoras, Śâkyamuni was one of the first philosophers of humanity. Perhaps Śâkyamuni's criticism & nominalism are even more outstanding than the harmony of the spheres and the theorem on which it is based (for the latter are dependent arisings).

The Four Noble Truths work on all levels of interpretation. Discussed at the coarse level, they introduce the Buddhadharma succinctly.


Diagnosis : caught in & trapped by cycles, sentient beings suffer ;

Suffering ("duhkha") is the condition of disabled, afflicted sentient beings. Birth, sickness, old age & death are exemplaric of the transient nature of human beings trapped in "samsâra", conditioned by the five factors of individuality ("skandhas") : physical body ("rûpa"), feelings ("vedanâ"), cognitions ("samjñâ"), dispositions ("samskâra") & consciousness or sentience ("vijñâna"), also called the "aggregates of attachment" ("upâdâna-skandha"). A more contemporary classification includes sensation, volition, affection (etc), cognition and consciousness.

"Duhkha", translated as "suffering" or "unsatisfactoriness", literally means "contracted space", suggestive of the claustrophobic limitation imposed upon our fundamental nature, deemed spacious, open, fluid & free. So "duhkha" may be contrasted with "sukhâ", the open spaciousness of bliss. This ultimate state of enlightenment is without obstructions and so, depending on nothing, cannot be opposed. It is beyond happiness and unhappiness. Beyond peace and war. This is true peace, or "hyper-peace" (as ps.-Dionysius would say).

The First Noble Truth calls for wakefullness in the face of all forms of suffering, from general unsatisfactoriness, up to physical pain, mental agony and the pervasive nature of suffering throughout the world system(s). Only by being aware of suffering can we possibly eliminate it. Buddha seeks out our suffering to disrupt our tendency to daydream away from it, unwilling to take note of it (either because it hurts too much or because we consider a remedy inexistent). He turns our attention to the possibility of eradicating suffering for good, and in doing so end the four tides of suffering : birth, sickness, ageing and death. Bringing in the effort necessary to transform the mind thoroughly, propels one to liberation & full enlightenment.

If the First Truth would stand alone, nothing would be gained. This is not the case. With the truth of suffering, Śâkyamuni, as would a medical doctor, points to the obscured & afflictive state of our deluded condition in order to trigger our attention, incite us & empower us to irreversibly transform it into the better, healed, whole clear state, i.e. "nirvâna", the absence of suffering, true peace. He puts his finger to the wound, so we may become aware of the pain. Origination implies cessation.

Absence of true peace : all states of mind & body in which clinging ("upâdâna") inheres, cause suffering : clinging to a wrong sense of reality (ignorance), clinging to pleasurable states (desire) and clinging to absence of unpleasurable states (hatred).

The truth of suffering is intended to fire up our spiritual vehemence. There is still a lot of work to be done, and the sooner we put in the right effort, the quicker results will be forthcoming, i.e. suffering eradicated. Suffering will not go away by itself, and physical death does not end it either. Nobody can do the work for us. There are no true Saviors.

Pervasive suffering is a theme also found in Hinduism :

"Because of the sorrow present in the transformation of Nature, in its anguish, in its reactors and due to the conflict between the movements of Nature, to the discerner all is merely sorrow."
Patañjali : Yoga-sûtra, 2.15.

In Tibetan Buddhism, one meditates on (1) the suffering of suffering, or the experiences of physical & mental pain and anguish, (2) the suffering of change, bewailing the impermanence of peace & happiness and (3) the pervasive suffering, the one underpining "samsâra" as a whole and the cause of apathy.

The last kind of suffering is the most difficult to discern. Although material wealth,  sensate gratification and certain mental hallucinations are pleasurable, in the long run they cause new material, emotional & mental suffering. Over time, the marginal surplus of material increase decreases. The more the body ages, the more spiritual needs become important. On this very subtle level of suffering, one identifies the whole of cyclic existence or "samsâra" as unsatisfactory & transient. As all pleasure ends, at all times suffering is only temporarily releaved. The body inevitably returns to the butcher's block !

To come to this conclusion is not to endorse pessimism, but to maintain a realistic view on cyclic existence. On the contrary, the object to be eliminated is clearly established : suffering.

The Buddhadharma is intelligent & good because right effort brings permanent bliss. There is no "creda quia absurdum" in the Buddhahdarma. This is science of mind before being a flowering of goodness. Permanent bliss is not self-powered, self-settled, or inherently existing bliss, but the nondual savouring of the continuous symmetry-transformations or perfect kinetography of an enlightened mindstream ; a perpetual perfect dance.

In principle this can be now, in our old age and/or after our body dies.


Etiology : craving chains sentient beings to cycles ;

The Second Noble Truth involves an analysis of the causes or arising ("samudâya") of suffering, defined as ignorant craving or "thirst" ("triśnâ") for sensual pleasure, for self-annihilation (as in nihilism and classical ontological materialism) or for the supposed "eternal" existence of the gods. Desire is sensate, involving the five sense-consciousnesses and based on attraction. They are the roots of the afflictive desires or negative emotions. Repulsion or hatred is mental, whereas ignorance about the true nature of phenomena leads to grotesk reifications, like a self-powered soul ("âtman") or a self-sufficient God ("Brahman").

Mental delusions & afflictive desires constitute the Three Poisons or unwholesome roots ("akuśala"), forming the hub of the wheel of suffering. Ignorance designates objects as inherently existing from their own side. Craving grasps (affirms) the object. Hatred dislikes (negates) the object. In milder form, hatred is the mental tendency to push something away, while mild craving is the mind's tendency to attract.

The cause of suffering is therefore not an abstract principle, but something active and purposive, i.e. and agent. Craving makes each facet of experience to be aflame. This is an emphatic "yes" or "no". It comes into being and settles itself in lovable and gratifying experiences, and in what gives relief or escape from what is unpleasant and undesirable. Non-afflictive desires are not under attack here, only the ignorant craving causing suffering. This points to the root of this craving : nescience, delusion or the absence of the wisdom-mind realizing the ultimate nature of phenomena.

Analyzing this further, we discover this craving to be an afflictive desire to have, grasp or possess something else than what present experience gives, a ceaseless striving for some new state or experience, a lust for something else than what is presently at hand ... Suffering is rooted in continuous activity on the basis of short-lived impulses, as it were "making experience". Mind arises & ceases, "just as a monkey ranging through a forests seazes a branch and, letting go, seizes another." (Samyuktâgama, II.95).

The truth of arising also shows how every effect has a cause, how everything comes into being in dependence on something else, in endless cycles of co-determination. This conditioned, interdependent arising ("pratîtya-samutpâda") is known as the "causal nexus", the universal interconnectedness between all possible phenomena. In this conditioned, cyclic, conventional existence, all arising phenomena bear the Three Marks of Existence ("trilakśana") : impermanence ("anitya"), suffering ("duhkha") and selflessness ("anâtman"). They arise, stay for a while and cease. They crave and so suffer. Never remaining identical, they exist interdependently. What does not arise cannot cease. What cannot be observed cannot be told.

By knowing the causes of suffering, namely, on the one hand, the afflictive states of our emotions (craving & hatred), and, on the other hand, the deluded activity of our mind (ignorance), a cure can be sought.


Curability : the suffering of all sentient beings can be ceased ;

The truth of cessation ("nirodha", also "destruction, dissolution") manifests a revolutionary solution : the Three Poisons, the roots of all possible emotional afflictions & mental delusions, can be irreversibly destroyed. Cessation implies the end of suffering. A path to the final end of all possible suffering comes in sight. To liberate sentient beings from suffering, the necessary path of merit has insufficient power on its own, for wisdom is also necessary. Brahmanism has no supramundane exit, only a transient cosmic consciousness (cf. the Peak of Existence - the heaven of Brahmâ).

The fact of cessation manifests the ultimate nature of phenomena : emptiness. Not a subsisting, abiding foundation or ontological ultimate, emptiness yoga trains an ultimate bliss beyond affirmation & negation. This bliss cannot be the object of the coarse, conventional, nominal, conceptual mind. The latter is chained by the ontological illusion making sensate and/or mental objects appear as established by way of their own, independent character. Emptiness, the ultimate nature, is unsubstantial and devoid of own-form (cf. the emptiness of emptiness). Nameless, emptiness ever remains a Divine Mystery unfolding a Divine Energy-Play.

Cessation cannot be realized without a radical change of mind.

By positing (designating) the end of suffering, Buddha manifests enlightenment as unaffected by the turbulent nature of the aggregates of cyclic existence. The truth of cessation leads to the simultaneity of the Two Truths, namely the conventional truth ("samvriti-satya") of the suffering of cyclic existence and the ultimate truth ("paramârtha-satya") of the cessation of suffering, "nirvâna" or true peace. The cure is a matter of two components : the merit or method (which is the truth of the path leading to compassion, necessary to deal with conventional truth) and the wisdom of cessation (necessary to prehend ultimate truth). The latter immediately points to the ultimate cause of suffering : our ignorance about the true nature of things (hence, attachment to conventional reality) and the fickle nature of our emotions, with their cohesive and repulsive polarities, their loves & hates.

Buddha's cure is not something learned, but part of his intimate experience. As a Bodhisattva he had already accumulated massive amounts of merit. His birth was that of an exceptionally gifted & precious human being. But the meditations of this exceptional, legendary Bodhisattva did not end suffering. The "traditional" techniques, based on the accumulation of good karma through austerities (renunciation), brought this dedicated trainee only to a certain point within "samsâra". After six years, the traditional methods of ascetism were exhausted.

The truth of cessation is the wisdom of the Buddha, directly related to the Two Truths. Experiencing the ultimate nature of reality is the outcome of ending ignorance by realizing emptiness, uprooting all emotional afflictions. Extremes are avoided by realizing the "middle ground" of not too much and not too little, ending mental delusions and painful, afflicted emotions. Objects do not exist on their own, but as part of an interrelated network of other objects. The relata or not the focus here, but the relation.

Some Buddhist celebrate the advent of this truth as the moment Buddha Śâkyamuni saw the "house-builder", the fundamental cause of this flawed existence (cf. Dhammapada, verses 153 - 154). What did he see ? Buddha saw (a) his ego without any self-identification or measurement (renounced) -or the emptiness of the self- and (b) the functional, interdependent world around him with compassion and without own character or independent substance ("svabhâva") : the emptiness of phenomena. He summoned the Earth to witness his exceptional condition.

The Truth of Cessation defines the difference between conventional reality and ultimate truth, introducing the Two Truths.


Treatment : train in ethics, meditation & wisdom ;

The therapy or path ("marga") proposed by Śâkyamuni is the Treefold Training ("triśikśa"), one unlike Vedic rituals & yogic practices of his time, and therefore deemed "unorthodox". It does not appeal to any eternalized subject (or "âtman"), nor to an eternalized object (or "Brahman"). These three "higher" trainings involve morality ("śila"), the practice of meditation ("samâdhi") and wisdom ("prajñâ"). These cover the entire Buddhadharma. They are interdependent conditions, and so all three need to be present in order for the cure to have effect (the end of suffering). It is that simple.

The Buddha's approach of both merit and wisdom is revolutionary.

It does not suffice to offer to the Deities or accumulate mere "good" karma (which exhausts itself). The "merit" collected is dedicated to the welfare of all sentient beings, and so connected to a very vast field or network, by intent infinite. Although one may choose, as in the Lesser Vehicle, to focus on personal liberation, merit is never collected for one's own sake.

Hand in hand with this view on personal effort, the wisdom of  Śâkyamuni seeks to experience reality as it is, not as it is conceptualized and then substantialized. His wisdom cuts through illusion while the illusionary appearance remains. This "cutting through" targets the eternalization or reification of conventional reality, not conventional reality itself. The path does not end with "another" reality to be revealed, better than anything else one can conceive as best (a "summum bonum"), but with the same reality perceived as emerging, abiding and submerging in an endless interconnected, functional field, empty of an everlasting substance, never essentially enduring from its own side, a sacred unbounded wholeness. Emptiness is not the substance of all things, but the characteristic of each and every thing. It is not only a state of mind, but also an object to be experienced.

The Threefold Training is explained in the Eightfold Path.


© Wim van den Dungen
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.



initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 28 I 2014 - version n°1