Buddhism is one of the most influential religions in the world. Buddha, otherwise known as Siddhartha Gautama, reached awakening under the Bodhi Tree. Upon his enlightenment, Buddha gained profound knowledge of the circle of rebirths, the nature of karma, and the four noble truths (Harvey 32). According to Anderson, the truths are not only intertwined with Buddha’s awakening but also provide a path to enlightenment for others to follow (78). The first two noble truths are critical to a thorough understanding of Buddhism.
The First Two Noble Truths
The ultimate purpose of Buddhist practice is to end the cycle of rebirth and suffering (Keown 48). Thus, the four noble truths are concerned with the very notion of suffering. The first noble truth states, “Suffering exists” (Van Gordon, Shonin, and Griffiths 10), and it pertains to the idea that life is inextricably saturated with varied forms of suffering. The Truth of Suffering, or dukkha, expresses the inevitability of continuous painful experiences, such as birth, illness, aging, death, and psychological suffering brought on by grief, regret, despair, disappointment, and disillusionment (Keown 51).
Unlike in Brahmanism, Buddhists believe that human beings possess no eternal soul but rather consist of changeable elements, which will inevitably perish. The only lasting part of a human being is his or her “moral identity” (Keown 52), which is reflected in that person’s next life. The second noble truth, which states, “There is a cause of suffering” (Shonin, Gordon, and Singh 10), explains that the cause of suffering lies in the constant cravings that each person experiences throughout life. The Truth of Arising, or samudaya, names craving and desires as the direct cause of the ongoing cycle of rebirths (Keown 53). With the exception of longing for the world to be better and for others to be happy, all unrestrained desires lead to more suffering.
Analyzing the Buddhist worldview through the noble truths helps provide a better understanding of the Buddhist philosophy in general. The first truth, “Life is suffering,” is its central tenet. The idea that suffering is embedded in every aspect of human lives offers an understanding of the nature of existence in Buddhism. As the second truth indicates the cause of said suffering, the Buddhist worldview takes shape: existence is inherently painful and increasingly unsatisfactory (Jackson and Makransky 301). The second truth elaborates on the cause of painful experiences, namely, desire. Desires and cravings are manifold and driven by the ego. These two assertions help illuminate the significance of the self in Buddhism. The ego, or the self, is what these cravings and desires guide humans toward, as well as to the eventual understanding of their insignificance, or rather the damage they bring. All cravings come from the self, the self-absorption that human beings indulge in on a daily basis. Worse still, the capitalist system in Western countries has encouraged a preoccupation with one’s own interests since the Industrial Revolution. As capitalist states develop their egocentric outlooks, an increasing number of disappointed people seek a viewpoint that focuses on completely different values (Cusack 312). Buddhism brings a refreshing change to many individuals in need of a deeper spiritual life.
These two truths not only help better explain the nature of the Buddhist worldview, but they also help shed light on the popularity of Buddhism in the West. Indeed, it is the abolishment of the ego and the prospect of achieving freedom from desire that attract people the most. Being mindful, diminishing excessive cravings, and eliminating suffering are the crucial ideas in Buddhist practice.
Anderson, Carol. Pain and its ending: the four noble truths in the Theravada Buddhist canon, New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Cusack, Carole M. “The Western Reception of Buddhism: Celebrity and Popular Cultural Media as Agents of Familiarisation.” Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 24.3 (2011): 297-316. Print.
Harvey, Peter. An introduction to Buddhism: teachings, history and practices, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.
Jackson, Roger, and John Makransky. Buddhist theology: Critical reflections by contemporary Buddhist scholars, New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Keown, Damien. Buddhism: A very short introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
Van Gordon, William, Edo Shonin, Mark D. Griffiths. “Mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths.” Buddhist foundations of mindfulness. Ed. Edo Shonin, William Van Gordon, and Nirbhay N. Singh. Cham: Springer, 2015. 9-29. Print.