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Discussion of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism

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Q2. Outline and discuss the four noble truths: is the Buddhist view of existence optimistic or pessimistic?

The question of the Buddhist view of existence being optimistic or pessimistic is one which is many have an opinion on. It could be said that the four noble truths provide the views of the Buddha in the way that life is led and more importantly, should be led. Certainly, the end goal is clearly optimistic, the attainment of spiritual enlightenment, or nirvana. However, the Buddhist view of life as we lead it is often deemed pessimistic as it is so concerned with suffering. As there is more than one school of thought to, "is the Buddhist view of existence of optimistic or pessimistic?" our understanding of these truths is crucial to the answer.

The first noble truth is the full understanding of suffering. In an obvious way, people are aware of suffering and know when they have unpleasant sensations such as hunger, cold, or sickness. However, the first noble truth includes "awareness of all the ramifications of suffering because it encompasses the very nature and essence of suffering" (Gethin, 1998). This includes knowledge of the subtle as well as the obvious aspects of suffering.

The obvious aspect of suffering is immediate pain or difficulty in the moment. Subtle suffering is more difficult to understand because it begins with happiness. In that respect it might be considered a "pessimistic" view that happiness leads to suffering. However, it is a fundamental Buddhist belief that the "very nature of happiness must change because it is impermanent." (Gethin, 1998). To non- - Buddhists situations that might give one greatest happiness may be those which are the most actively desired and pursued e.g. love marriage and children. However, the need to maintain this happiness makes the happiness itself a suffering in Buddhist terms.

If a sufferer is not aware of his suffering, s/he will never have the motivation to eliminate it and will continue to suffer. On the other hand if one becomes aware of suffering, one may be able to overcome it. In the same sense with the more subtle forms of suffering, if a person is happy and becomes aware and accepts that the happiness automatically includes the seed of suffering, then s/he will be much less inclined to become involved in the attachment to this happiness. One will then think. And so the first truth is that one should be aware of suffering. Once one has a "very clear picture of the nature of suffering, one can really begin to avoid such suffering" (Sumedha, 2001). Of course, it would be reasonable to assume that everyone wants to avoid suffering and to emerge from suffering, but to accomplish this one needs to be absolutely clear about its nature.

When one becomes aware that "the nature of day-to-day existence is suffering" (Gethin, 1998), one doesn't have to be miserable with the thought suffering will always be present because the Buddha entered the world, his teachings describe the means by which suffering can be ended. The message is in fact optimistic. No one needs to endure suffering and we can, in fact, be happy. It is believed that even though one can not immediately emerge from suffering by practising the Buddha's teachings, one can gradually eliminate suffering in this way, and move towards the state beyond which is liberation. This fact in itself has the power to make one happy, even before one has actually completely emerged from suffering. And also, through applying the Buddha's teachings, one can both be happy in the relative phase of ones progress and then at the end one will gain wisdom and liberation and be happy in the ultimate sense, as well.

The first noble truth makes it clear that there is suffering. Once one knows what suffering is, one must eliminate that suffering. It is "not a question of eliminating the suffering itself, but of eliminating the causes of suffering" (Cush, 1994). Once one removes the causes of suffering, then automatically the effect, which is suffering, is no longer present. This is why, in order to eliminate this suffering, one becomes aware of the second noble truth, the truth of universal origination.

The second noble truth is the truth of universal origination. This is an English translation of the name Buddha himself gave to this noble truth and means "that which is the cause or origin of absolutely everything." (Francesconni, 2001). The truth of universal origination indicates that "the root cause of suffering is karma" (Gethin, 2001). Karma is a Sanskrit word which means "activity".

The Buddha "thought of suffering as simply a fact of existence" (Cush, 1994) and in its general approach to the problem, Buddhist thought suggests, "that it is beings themselves who must take ultimate responsibility for their suffering" (Cush, 1994). This may seem pessimistic, but on the other hand, as we have discussed life's illusions as something over which we humans have some control, we can work for a happy existence.

It is a belief that part of the human nature is to actively identifying with the wrong things - our desires. Our Karma is created by, for example, wishes to be successful in our jobs and our relationships. It is in our choice of our interests, in how we use our wealth, and our bodies, and in turn these definitions can lead to our lives being ruined. Loss a partner, a child, our health, our wealth or work, our wishes and desires, and their expansion into grasping, clinging and obsession, which are the cause of our discontent. They lead us "to seek our heart's deepest desires - happiness and peace - in objects which by their very nature are transient and cannot possibly last." (Gethin, 1998). Pleasure, prosperity, success and fame are short-term gains. This is what the Buddha taught as the Second Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering - Desire (Tanha). Again these could be considered a very pessimistic view of the human condition. Nothing has any permanent meaning, life's hard and then we die.

Ignorance of the Buddha's teachings, might attribute all happiness and suffering to some external cause, believing that happiness and suffering come from the environment, or from the gods, and that everything that happens originates in some source outside of one's control. If one believes this, then it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to envisage eliminating suffering and its causes which is in itself an extremely pessimistic point of view. On the other hand, when a person accepts responsibility that experience of suffering is a product of what the self has done, that is, a result of personal karma, eliminating suffering becomes a real possibility. Buddhism believes that once awareness of



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