The Buddha

’s Four Noble Truths: A Logical Basis For Philosophy Essay, Research Paper

The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: A Logical Basis for Philosophy

The Buddha Shakyamuni was born in the 6th century BCE in the area

presently known as Nepal. During his 80 year lifetime, he systematically

developed a pragmatic, empirically based philosophy which he claimed would lead

its followers towards an enlightened existence. Buddhism is commonly called a

religion; however, it differs from the usual definition of a religion in that it

has no deities, does not promote worship of demigods, and is based on logical

reasoning and observation rather than spiritual faith. At the heart of Buddhist

philosophy is the Buddha’s enumeration of Four Noble Truths: Dukkha (suffering),

Samudaya (origin of suffering), Nirodha (cessation of suffering), and Magga

(path to cessation of suffering). The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are based on

archetypal traits that were elucidated through careful empirical observance and

intensive introspection. These Four Noble Truths form a logically coherent set

of axioms upon which the whole of Buddhism is based, and provide a solid

foundation for a philosophy which is applicable several millennia after its


“What we call a ‘being,’ or an ‘individual,’ or ‘I,’ according to Buddhist

philosophy, is only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or

energies….” – Walpola Rahula{2}

In order to fully understand the Four Noble Truths, it is necessary to

investigate the Buddhist view of the individual and its makeup. In some

respects, the manner in which Buddhism deals with the mind/body problem is much

more advanced than most religious views, and closer to science’s understanding

of the mind and body. Rather than postulating the existence of an eternal soul

with no physical manifestation, the Buddha taught that the person is really a

collection of five skandhas or aggregates. These include rupa (matter), vedana

(sensations), sanna (perceptions), samkhara (mental formations), and vijnana

(consciousness). The aggregate of matter encompasses all tangible aspects of

the world. The aggregate of sensations is akin to the process of sensory input;

e.g., the activation of retinal cells in the eye. Vedana does not include the

process of perception, however; the act of perceiving the senses, i.e.,

recognition of external sensations, is within the realm of the sanna. Buddha

classified mental activities (samkhara), i.e., ideas and thoughts, as being

disparate from the state of mental consciousness (vijnana). Consciousness, in

the Buddhist view, is the awareness of the sensations and perceptions that the

person experiences, while the mental formations are the volitions, whims,

thoughts, and ideas that a person has. The breakdown of the individual into the

skandhas is strikingly similar to the classifications used in the modern field

of psychology. Matter, sensation, perception, cognition, and consciousness are

common nomenclature in both paradigms.

“There is this Noble Truth of suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering,

sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief,

and despair are suffering, association with the loathed is suffering,

dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is

suffering….” – Shakyamuni Buddha{3}

The First Noble Truth, the Truth of Dukkha, is based on Buddha’s

observation that all people in the world are in a state of dukkha. Dukkha,

which translates literally as ?suffering’ from the Pali, does not mean pain or

distress as the word ?suffer’ usually implies. Instead it is used to convey the

idea that the very act of living is one of imperfection and impermanence, and

hence is a situation that must be remedied in order to achieve true happiness.

There are three types of dukkha: dukkha-dukkha (suffering in the conventional

sense), viparinama-dukkha (suffering caused by the ephemeral nature of happiness

in life), and samkhara-dukkha (suffering caused by existence itself). Suffering

in the conventional sense of the word, such as that caused by pain, disease, and

poverty, is classified as dukkha-dukkha. The Buddha also noted that happiness

itself, being a fleeting emotion, usually resulted in an eventual loss of

happiness greater than the initial happiness. This loss of happiness is caused

by the removal of whatever situation or object precipitated the happiness in the

first place; therefore the transitory nature of life itself is the root of

dukkha, in this case called viparinama. This leads to the conclusion that

suffering is an inherent trait of existence itself, and is classified as

samkhara. And thus the question is raised that if suffering is inherent in life

itself, what is the cause (and the remedy) for this undesirable state of


“There is this noble truth of the origin of suffering: It is craving, which

produces renewal of being, is accompanied by relish and lust, relishing this and

that; in other words, craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving

for nonbeing.” – Shakyamuni Buddha{4}

While dukkha has a variety of direct causes, Buddhist doctrine teaches

that at the heart of all suffering is a basal craving or thirst called tanh?.

Tanha is defined in the original texts as ?… this thirst which produces re-

existence and re-becoming, and which is bound up with passionate greed, and

which finds fresh delight now here and now there ….?{5} There are three sub-

divisions of tanha: kama-tanh? (desire for sensual pleasures), bhava-tanh?

(desire for existence), and vibhava-tanh? (desire for non-existence). These

three types of desire have a common effect – they result in the continuation of

suffering and the instantiation of the dukkha. The causal relationship between

the tanha and dukkha is delineated by the related concepts of karma and karma-

phala. Karma is the Sanskrit word for ?action’ or ?doing’ and it refers to the

actions of a person as a result of his or her mental volition. The result of a

person’s karma is called karma-phala, commonly colloquialized as the fruits of

karma. The basic belief in Buddhism about the mechanics of karma is that when a

person has a craving (tanha) of any sort, they will try to attain the thing for

which they have the craving (karma), and in doing so will cause the existence of

dukkha in their life. This belief is another way of viewing the old axiom that ?

what goes around, comes around,? a simple observation about the nature of cause

and effect in relation to human actions.

“There is this noble truth of the cessation of suffering: It is the

remainderless fading and ceasing, the giving up, relinquishing, letting go, and

rejecting of that same craving.” – Shakyamuni Buddha{6}

The goal of a Buddhist is to eliminate all traces of dukkha from his or

her life, thus becoming Enlightened. A person who has attained Enlightenment,

according to the Buddha, is in a state of Nirvana. Nirvana is commonly defined

as Tanhakkhaya, or the extinction of thirst. It is the end of all earthly

suffering and freedom from attachment to the Five Aggregates.{7} While commonly

misconstrued as final annihilation, nirvana is simply the final liberation from

the earthly existence, or as the Buddha put it, ?… [it is] the extinction of

desire, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of illusion. This, O bhikkhus,

is called the Absolute [Nirvana].?{8} One who is enlightened is able to realize

the absolute truth of any situation without the illusion of earthly existence


“There is this noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering:

It is this Noble Eightfold Path, that is to say: right view, right intention,

right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness,

and right concentration.” – Shakyamuni Buddha{9}

With the goal of Nirvana thus elucidated, the obvious question is ?How

does one set about reaching Nirvana?? As with the rest of his philosophy, the

Buddha answered this question through careful empirical observations. In the

early days of his life, Siddhartha lived a life of luxury in which all of the

sensual pleasures were given to him. Finding this an unsatisfactory state of

affairs, the Buddha attempted to find happiness in a life at the opposite

extreme. He became a wandering ascetic, practicing self-denial and abasement

for a number of years. After searching for the answer in both hedonism and

puritanism, he realized that the path to Enlightenment must lie somewhere

between these two antipodes. Thus, the Buddha found the Middle Path or the Way

leading to the Cessation of Dukkha, Magga. He declared that eight qualities

were required to follow the path to Nirvana: Right Understanding, Right Thought,

Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,

and Right Concentration. The rational behind this eightfold path of the Magga

is simple – a person who follows it will be endowed with wisdom (right

understanding and right thought), compassion (right speech, right action, and

right livelihood), and mental awareness (right mindfulness and right

concentration). These are the qualities which are both necessary and sufficient

to attain final liberation, Enlightenment, and Nirvana.

Thus is laid out the very heart of the Buddhist doctrine. These four

aspects of the Buddha’s philosophy are not lofty, abstract constructs which have

no empirical basis. They are, in the most sincere use of the words, ?The Four

Noble Truths.’


{1}The idea of the cycle of death and rebirth, a central tenet to both

Buddhist philosophy and the Hindu religion, will not be brought into this

discussion of the Four Noble Truths. While reincarnation was very important to

Buddha’s formulation of his beliefs, it is neither a necessary nor sufficient

condition for the Four Noble Truths to hold true. When examined from a purely

logical and empirical basis, the Four Noble Truths are still valid without the

introduction of reincarnation.

{2}Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught. Page 25.

{3}Sherab Ch?dzin Kohn. The Life of the Buddha. Page 19.

{4}Sherab Ch?dzin Kohn. The Life of the Buddha. Page 19.

{5}Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught. Page 29.

{6}Sherab Ch?dzin Kohn. The Life of the Buddha. Page 19.

{7}B. Alan Wallace. Tibetan Buddhism From the Ground Up. Pages 40-41.

{8}Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught. Page 36.

{9}Sherab Ch?dzin Kohn. The Life of the Buddha. Page 19.


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