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The central teachings of the Buddha are called the Four Noble Truths. The first of these truths is that ordinary existence is suffering. The second is that suffering is caused by ignorance and craving. The third is that suffering can be transcended. And the fourth Noble Truth is the way and means to transcend suffering, which is The Noble Eightfold Middle Path. It seems that the Buddha based this schema on the procedure used by ancient Indian physicians. The physician would understand that the patient was ill by observing his or her symptoms. Using his knowledge and experience and questioning the patient, he would try to find out what they had been doing or had eaten or what had happened to them that was making them ill. He would then encourage his patients by telling them that their health could be restored. And finally he would prepare the appropriate medicine, give it to the patient and instruct them how to take it. The Buddha said many times that his role was to show us the way out of suffering, ‘One thing and one thing only do I teach, suffering and how to end suffering’ (Majjhima Nikaya 1. 140). Once a monk approached him and insisted he answer questions about the origins and extent of the universe and other speculative matters. The Buddha refused, saying that humanity was like a man pierced by a poison arrow and that the good physician’s role was to remove this arrow, not to tell the afflicted man what type of wood the arrow was made from, what type of feather was used for the flight or the biography of the man who shot it. He then said, ‘And why do I not answer all your questions? Because they are not useful, they do not help in living the holy life, they do not lead to turning away, to dispassion, to stilling, to peace to higher knowledge or to Nibbana. And what do I teach? Suffering, its cause, its transcendence and the way leading to its transcendence. And why do I teach this? Because it is useful, it helps in living the holy life, it leads to turning away, to dispassion, to stilling, to peace, to higher knowledge and to Nibbana’ (Majjhima Nikaya 1.431).
The Four Noble Truths abbreviated in Pali
- Dukkha (suffering)
- Samudaya (suffering has a cause)
- Nirodha (suffering can be ceased)
- Magga (the way is The Noble Eightfold Middle Path)
Buddhism is sometimes confused as a pessimistic religion since it refers to the suffering in life. But this view fails to look at the entirety of The Four Noble Truths. It is not that all life is suffering, but rather that all unenlightened life is suffering. There can be suffering, but there is also a way out of the suffering and that is why there are four noble truths, not one.
Desires fulfilled by sum total of desires
The Buddha taught that life is suffering. However, we create this suffering from our own mind-body actions, feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. We tend to cling and have too much attachment to things that are full of suffering and impermanence. Thus, we find no lasting happiness. This has been put into a mathematical formula (U Kyaw Min, Buddhist Abhidhamma) of desires fulfilled divided by the sum total of desires:
desires fulfilled / sum total of desires
for example: 30/50 = 60% or 30/30 = 100%
If the sum total of desires is 50 and the desires fulfilled are 30, you have 60% of desires fulfilled and suffering from the lack of satisfaction. If however, you reduce your selfish craving by reducing your desires to 30, then you have complete happiness (at least for the impermanent moment until karma formations make new desires). Thus, the traditional translation of the Four Noble Truths are that life is suffering, the cause is selfish desire, suffering ceases when selfish desire ceases, and the way is the Eightfold Middle Path.
Pain exists, suffering is optional
Shinzen Young (dharma teacher, author of several Buddhist books and tapes, Young, 1994) puts the Truths into another mathematical formula of:
S = P x R
The above formula is Suffering = Pain times Resistance. The enlightened person does not deny the existence of pain. The goal is to not put any resistance to it. When we put resistance to the pain, that is the suffering.
To use some figures in the above formula, let's say that on a scale of 0 to 100 for pain you are experiencing a pain of 75.On a scale of 0 to 100 for resistance with 0 representing no resistance and 100 representing maximum resistance, let's say you are resisting at a level of 50. The product is 75 (pain amount) times 50 (the resistance amount) which is 3,750 which is the amount of your suffering (from a scale of 0 to 10,000). This sounds like a lot of suffering. But if you have the same pain level of 75 and place no resistance to it, then the result is no suffering. This is because:
75 x 0 = 0
As we know from multiplication anything multiplied by a factor of zero is zero. So therefore, there is no denying the existence of pain, we must just learn to accept it, observe it, and watch it vanish, as we apply no resistance to it. The end result is no suffering.
The Four Noble Truths have also been considered as a physician’s prescription with the Buddha as the Great Physician, symbolically healing the world with the answers to our everyday suffering. The First Noble Truth describes the condition, the Second Noble Truth is the cause or diagnosis, the Third Noble Truth is the prognosis, and the Fourth Noble Truth is the treatment.
- L = “un-enlightened” life
- S = suffering
- 8 = eightfold middle path
All of the other symbols are mathematical symbols. The translation of the above mathematical expression with the definition of the mathematical symbols in italics:
- For all life, that there exists, there is suffering.
- Suffering exists because of unfulfilled expectations.
- Therefore, it follows that, the logical negation of false expectations leads to no suffering.
- By following the eightfold middle path, you have the absolute value of fulfilled expectations which are greater than or equal to the sum total of all expectations.
Reasonable expectations, which are attainable are okay, it is the unreasonable expectations that cause suffering.
“Why do what you will regret? Why bring tears upon yourself? Do only what you do not regret, and fill yourself with joy.” (Dhammapada, ch. 5)
“And how householder, does one entertain expectations? Here, householder, someone thinks: may I have such form in the future! May I have such feeling in the future! May I have such perception in the future! May I have such volitional formations in the future! May I have such consciousness in the future! It is in such a way that one entertains expectations.
Having left home to roam without abode, in the village the sage is intimate with none; rid of sensual pleasures, without expectations, he would not engage people in dispute.” (Samyutta Nikaya 22.3)
Although not a Buddhist, Bill Gates (richest person in the world from 1996-2009) followed a formula similar to the one showed here. He is quoted in interviews saying that he and his compay, “under-promise and over-deliver.” This is another way of saying keep the expectations low and then exceed them. For example, if he (or another CEO) told his stock holders that the stock will probably go up 100 points next year and then it only goes up 60 points, the investors will be upset. But if he under-promises, by stating that the stock will go up 20 points and then it goes up 60 points, the investors are happy. There is the same result, but in the first scenario people tend to get upset (expectations not met) and in the second (expectations exceeded), they are happy.
- 1. Promise 100 pt. increase; actual = 60 pts. = investors upset
- 2. Promise 20 pt. increase; actual = 60 pts. = investors happy
- The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists -- Explained. David N. Snyder, Ph.D., 2006.
- What the Buddha Taught, W. Rahula, Ph.D., 1959.
- Buddhist Abhidhama. U Kyaw Min, 1987.
- Purpose and Method of Vipassana Meditation; The Humanistic Psychologist. Shinzen Young, 1994.