From this site and this site, I have learned that after he achieved enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first sermon, which centered on the Four Noble Truths, which are considered the foundation of Buddhism. As a note: I have slightly reworded the Noble Truths to make them more understandable to me, but in a way that still captures the core truth being expressed.
The First Noble Truth: “Dukkha” is a part of conditional existence. This is often written as “life is suffering.” But the Sanskrit word “dukkha” has many possible shades of meaning. The most literal translation is “that which is difficult to bear.” Unfortunately, it is hard to translate “dukkha” into English without going too far, or not far enough, in carrying the meaning. But, it can also mean suffering, stress, pain, anguish, affliction, dissatisfaction, or unproductive discontent.
“Dukkha” can also refer to the dissatisfaction brought about by anything that is temporary or conditional. Even extremely happy times in our lives are touched by “dukkha” because those times are possibly temporary. Or they might be happy times based on current conditions and once those conditions change, “dukkha” comes into our lives.
One thing that warrants special consideration is the “dukkha” of our humanity. The Buddha taught that in our living human form, there are five temporary “skandhas” (components). These are:
- Our bodily form
- Our senses
- The ideas we have
- Our preferences and biases
- Our consciousness
To me, this underscores the idea that our Selves are not permanent – we are always learning and growing or we are diminishing through entropy. Either way, from moment to moment, we are constantly changing because every new input makes a change in us in some way or other. The change might be in our physical body, or our energy level, or our emotional state, or in our mental capabilities, or some combination of those. But, as I have been learning more and more, there is ALWAYS a change, which is the textbook definition of impermanence.
The Second Noble Truth: “Dukkha” has a cause. In my simplistic understanding, “dukkha” is caused by our desire to avoid pain or gain pleasure. One word originally used to describe this was “tanha,” which can be translated as “thirst” or “craving.” This is often rooted in our desire to control the world around us by clinging to something or pushing something away or running away from something. It is seeking happiness in anything other than our Selves. Our attachment to external things causes “dukkha.” Our belief that the world should conform to our beliefs about how the world should be, causes “dukkha.”
I am also learning, thanks to Brian at Optimize.me, that Suffering = Pain X Resistance. What this tells me is that pain is inevitable and it only turns into suffering when I resist the pain. And this makes sense because pain is a signal that something is not right. A pain in my body indicates that something needs to be looked at and corrected. Emotional pain, which is often more difficult to understand, still indicates that something needs to be looked at and corrected (we often call this therapy).
The Third Noble Truth: “Dukkha” can be ended. This happens when we learn to let go of our attachments to temporary things, to stop clinging to things we think will give us pleasure, to stop pushing away things we think will give us pain. At this point, as “dukkha” ends, we reach a state of “nirvana,” which is literally translated as “unbound” and is often thought of as the Awakening. This is considered the moment of enlightenment, when we are released from the bonds of space and time and understand True Nature, Original Mind, Infinite Life, and Infinite Light.
Everything I have read so far suggests that “nirvana” is actually beyond intellectual understanding and intellectual conception and must be experienced to fully comprehend the profound experience of being released from the limitations of space and time. In essence, we can understand the basic idea on the surface level, similar to reading the definition in the dictionary. But we will never fully comprehend “nirvana” until we experience it.
The Fourth Noble Truth: There is a Path that leads to Awakening. The Path is paradoxical in that it is conditional and impermanent, which leads to “dukkha.” But it is the way we can learn to reduce and eventually eliminate “dukkha” and achieve our Awakening (“nirvana”). The path provides a way to learn everything we need to learn, so that we can unlearn everything we have learned.
One example I read made me think of when I used to look at the moon through my telescope. It was awe-inspiring to see the surface of the moon in my eyepiece, but I was wise enough to never confuse the image in my eyepiece with the actual moon. Similarly, the Path provides a “toolkit” to bring the true nature of reality more and more into our awareness, but the Path must never be confused as the actual true nature of reality.
The Path is usually represented as a wheel with eight spokes. In some of my reading, this is said to represent that each aspect is equally important and they are all best when practiced together. The general idea is that we continue to learn and implement the Path, so we gain more awareness and learn better how to reduce our attachment, which reduces our “dukkha,” until we eventually achieve our Awakening (“nirvana”).
From this site, I have learned the Path supports “the three essential factors of Buddhist training,” which are ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom.