The Four Noble Truths


Lectures on Basic Study Materials (8)
From Dai-Byakuho, issue no. 370

The Four Noble Truths

Emancipation from Suffering
Shakyamuni’s First Lecture on the Law

What are the Four Noble Truths?
When Shakyamuni was thirty years old, he attained enlightenment
under a bodhi (pipal) tree. After he became a Buddha, the
presentation of his first lecture on the Law was called “Turning the
Wheel of the Law”. Shakyamuni’s first lecture was given at Deer Park
to the five ascetics1 on the teaching that is known literally as “The
Four Resignations”, that is, the thing to which one resigns oneself.
Because these “Resignations” refer to truths, these four resignations
are “four truths to which the Buddha has become enlightened”, and
thus, are called, “The Four Noble Truths”.
The Four Noble Truths are: (1) the suffering of life; (2) man’s
amassed earthly desires; (3) the eradication of earthly desires to end
suffering and attain enlightenment; and (4) the path to eradication of
earthly desire. The teaching of the Four Noble Truths is an
explanation that clarifies that suffering is the actuality of life and our
earthly desires are the cause of suffering. It further elucidates that
enlightenment is achieved through the eradication of suffering, while
the eradication of suffering is accomplished through the path.
When arguing the cause and effect of things, one usually cites the
cause and then sets forth the effect. But as the suffering of life is the
effect while earthly desires are the cause, and as enlightenment is
the effect while the path is the cause for enlightenment, the order of
The Four Noble Truths presents the effect before the cause. The
reason for first indicating the precise nature of the results was to
lead mankind to the path more effectively.

Suffering: Suffering is the Actuality of Life
The world in which we live, a world controlled by desire, is full of
impurity and suffering. Although there are many aspects to human
suffering, the Four Sufferings, Eight Sufferings and Three Sufferings
are presented as the most fundamental of all sufferings.
The Four Sufferings
1. The suffering of birth is the suffering of being born into an illusory
world of constant vicissitudes, and the suffering experienced at the
time of birth.
2. The suffering of old age is the suffering caused by the physical and
mental debility that comes with aging.
3. The suffering of sickness is the suffering one goes through because
of mental and physical disorders.
4. The suffering of death is the suffering associated with both the
loss of wealth and loved ones, and the destruction of mind and body.
The Eight Sufferings
(The following four sufferings are added to the previous four.)
5. The suffering of separation from loved ones is the suffering caused
by the separation from loved ones, such as relatives and friends, and
from things to which we are attached.
6. The suffering of meeting with those we dislike is meeting people
for whom we have bitter feelings or hatred.
7. The suffering of not being able to attain what we desire is self-
8. The suffering arising from the five components (form, perception,
conception, volition and consciousness) is the suffering originating
from such attachments as physical sensation and knowledge.
The Three Sufferings
1. Kuku (the suffering of suffering) is the mental anguish that occurs
when we come into contact with undesirable things, such as the
suffering of others.
2. Eku (the suffering of destruction) is the suffering arising from the
change in or extinction of things we desire.
3. Gyoku (the suffering of impermanence) is the suffering that
accompanies the knowledge that nothing remains forever.

Amassed Earthly Desires: The Cause of Suffering
Here, the word “amassed” connotes “gathered together and manifest”
or “summoned”, and in this context means, “earthly desires collect
together and become manifest”, or, “through earthly desires, the
sufferings of life and death (the world of illusions) are summoned
and collected together”. From this, we arrive at “Amassed Earthly
Buddhism teaches that the cause of suffering is rooted in earthly
desire. Among earthly desires, the earthly desires of the threefold
world and the six paths are called illusions of thought (view) and
desire (emotion). Illusions of thought are illusions based on a
misguided rational about true reason, while illusions of desire are
unrealistic emotions that arise during one’s thought processes. All of
these are based on the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance.
The Shitai Sutra explains that the “three kinds of love” are the cause
of suffering. yoku-ai (greedy love) is love that tries to fulfill one’s
physical and emotional desires. u-ai (possessive love) is attachment
to material things, thoughts and life. mu’u-ai (nihilism) is attachment
to the idea of the rejection of life.

Eradication of Earthly Desires: A Utopian Life, Emancipated From
Here, “eradication” refers to a situation in which all earthly desires,
which are the cause of suffering, are completely obliterated. That is,
it refers to an enlightened life condition where the impermanence of
this world is transcended, and suffering is eliminated through
ridding of attachments. That is why this noble truth is called “The
Eradication of Earthly Desires”. This life condition is also known as
the “Tranquillity of Nirvana”.

The Path to Eradication: The Path by which to Attain an Enlightened
Life Condition
The Path to Eradication mandates that one needs a correct practice to
eliminate suffering. Shakyamuni explained that one should practice
the “Eight-fold Path” to become a Buddha. This path is:
1. Right Views: Correct wisdom based on Buddhist reason.
2. Right Ways of Thinking: Correct thoughts and intentions.
3. Right Speech: Correct speaking, which eliminates lying, “bad-
mouthing”, etc.
4. Right Conduct: Correct behavior, refraining from killing, stealing,
5. Right Way of Life: Living to clean mental, verbal and physical
6. Right Effort: Correct perseverance to seek the True Law.
7. Right Mindfulness: Never forgetting the ideal of enlightenment or
the practice that leads to it.
8. Right Concentration: Focusing of mind and spirit by means of the
Buddha’s wisdom.

The Four Kinds of Noble Truths
There is a passage in the Gosho which reads:
In the provisional sutras, Shakyamuni taught. . .the four noble truths
for the people of Learning; the twelve-linked chain of causation for
the people of realization; and the six paramitas for bodhisattvas. (“A
Comparison of the Lotus Sutra and Other Sutras”, M.W., Vol. 3, pp.
It is evident from this passage that the teaching of the Four Noble
Truths is a Hinayana teaching that does not yet reveal the truth, but
was nevertheless taught so that people of learning could be freed
from the illusions of thought and desire, and thus, attain the stage of
arhat. However, the Four Noble Truths is a teaching about cause and
effect, through which one can break away from suffering and as
such, is a fundamental principle that pervades all Buddhist teachings.
From this perspective, the Great Master T’ien-t’ai established the
Four Noble Truths considering each of what are known as the Four-
fold Teachings. The Four-fold Teachings are: the Hinayana Teachings
(Zokyo); the Shared Teachings (Tsukyo); the Distinct Teachings
(Bekkyo); and, the Perfect Teachings (Engyo). These are known
collectively as the Four Kinds of Four Noble Truths, and are
presented below.
1. The Four Noble Truths of Birth and Extinction (Hinayana): explain
that under the various laws of cause and effect within the Four Noble
Truths, there is both birth and extinction.
2. The Four Noble Truths of neither Birth nor Extinction (Shared
Teachings): explain that the causes and effects of illusion and
enlightenment are both non-substantive and void, and that there is
no true birth or extinction.
3. The Four Noble Truths of the Immeasurable (Distinct Teachings):
explain that the teachings of the Four Noble Truths spanning both the
six paths (hell through rapture) and the four noble worlds (learning
through Buddhahood) are innumerable. The bodhisattva path is the
practice and study of these teachings.
4. The Four Unadorned Noble Truths (Perfect Teachings): explain that
within the true aspect of all existence, earthly desires are
enlightenment, and birth and death are nirvana, separate from the
effort to extricate oneself from illusion and realize the truth.
Though the above Buddhist doctrines could be said to have been
expounded to resolve mankind’s suffering, these doctrines vary
according to the sutra they are illuminated by. In the Ongi Kuden,
Nichiren Daishonin instructs:
If one encounters and embraces the Mystic Law, the fires of earthly
desires of the eight sufferings will become the fire of the wisdom of
the Buddha of Intrinsically Perfect Wisdom and the opening of
enlightenment. (Shinpen p. 1738)
With the sword of the single character “Myo”, one will sever the
fetters of the delusions of birth and death. (Ibid., p. 1759)
In other words, true salvation in the Latter Day of the Law can only
be obtained by embracing the Dai-Gohonzon, the Supreme Law
concealed within the depths of the Juryo Chapter of the Essential
Teachings, and by persevering in faith.

1 Five Ascetics: The five men who accompanied Shakyamuni to seek
the Path through ascetic practice when Shakyamuni first renounced
secular life. Their names are Ajnata Kaundinya, Ashvajit, Bhadrika,
Dashabala Kashyapa and Mahanama.

©1995 Nichiren Shoshu Monthly