The Four Noble Truths

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The Four Noble Truths are an important concept in Buddhism. Scholars have published a variety of different statements about what they are and their place in Buddhism.

Translation

Some scholars present them as statements, propositions, about suffering and so on (see below). Others, however, say that they are actually not statements but the things themselves, suffering etc. Some of these suggest "Realities" as a translation. Some scholars seem to mix the two interpretations, suggesting they may regard both as valid aspects.

In addition, a variety of possible analyses of the compounds in ancient Indian languages have been put forward:

  1. noble truths
  2. truths of the noble one, i.e. the Buddha
  3. truths of the noble ones, i.e. those who have attained some level of enlightenment
  4. ennobling truths

K.R. Norman (then President of the Pali Text Society) suggested all meanings were valid, saying multiple meanings were common in the Indian tradition.[1]

Role

According to Brad Clough writing in 2003, the received wisdom among American and European scholars, though contested, is that they are the central teachings of all or most traditions of Buddhism.[2] However, Donald Lopez writing in 2012 says no scholar would dare try to identify any essence or defining characterization of Buddhism.[3]

Professor Peter Harvey (of Sunderland University) says they are the Buddha's advanced teachings for those ready for them.[4] L.S.Cousins (sometime President of the Pali Text Society) says this is the traditional Theravada position,[5] and quotes a stock passage from the Pali Canon in support.

Harvey also says the Mahayana position is that the Truths are an elementary teaching for those not ready for its own.[6]

The Chinese Mahayana writer Zhiyi (538–597 CE) presents the Truths as the essence of the teachings, but says there are different levels of Four Noble Truths, including Mahayana ones.[7]

A former British ambassador to Japan reported in the first half of the 20th century that the Truths were little known in the Far East (which might seem strange for the "central teachings").[8] Similarly, they are said to have received little emphasis in Chinese Buddhism.[9]

In a 1999 book,[10] Carol S. Anderson argued that the Pali Canon presents the Truths as one teaching among many, and asserted that their centrality is part of the hegemonic structure of colonialism.[11] More recently, she seems to have revised this position, saying the Truths and the Eightfold Path (see below) represent the most fundamental teachings of Buddhism.[12]

First Truth: suffering

"Suffering" is the usual translation, though others are found, such as "pain", "ill", "anguish", "dis-ease" etc.

According to Professor Damien Keown, this says that life is suffering.[13]

According to Dr Michael Jerryson,[14] it concerns the nature of suffering (not the nature of life), but he gives no details.

Second Truth: the cause of suffering

Keown says this holds that craving causes rebirth and hence suffering.

Third Truth: the cessation of suffering

This can be brought about by removing the cause. The term "nirvana" is used in reference to this attainment.

Fourth Truth: the path leading to the cessation of suffering

According to Keown this is the Eightfold Path:

  1. Right View
  2. Right Resolve
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Meditation

According to Cathy Cantwell,[15] this is a Theravada formulation and Mahayana prefers others.

At first sight it is hard to see how this relates to the real-life practice of Buddhism as described by other scholars:

  1. Nearly all Buddhists use ritual for spiritual ends.[16]
  2. Devotion is a major part of the lives of most Buddhists.[17]
  3. For most of Buddhist history, meditation has been mainly monastic, and by no means universal even in that context.[18]
  4. The most popular form of Buddhism is Pure Land,[19] which offers a way of salvation based on faith alone,[20] and believes the Buddha Amitabha has the power to take his devotees to his Pure Land.[21]

Here are some things said by various scholars that might give some hints as to how these things fit together:

  1. Carl D. Olson, in his book The Different Paths of Buddhism, refers to "the path of the Buddha".[22] This seems to imply he regards the path as simultaneously both one and many.
  2. Roy C. Amore says Theravada and Mahayana are different vehicles for going along the same path.[23]
  3. Professor Richard Gombrich suggests a difference between "cognitive" and "affective" beliefs, between what people say (and presumably think) they believe and what their behaviour indicates they "really" believe, as an explanation for such discrepancies in Ceylon.[24]

Notes

  1. in Ananda, ed Karunadasa, Colombo, 1990, pages 12f; reprinted in Collected Papers, volume IV, 1993, Pali Text Society, 1993, page 174
  2. History of Religions, volume 42, page 389
  3. The Scientific Buddha, Yale University Press, 2012, page 15
  4. Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 47
  5. in Hinnells, ed, New (Penguin) Handbook of Living Religions [2nd edition], 1997, pages 393f/(Penguin) Handbook of the World's Living Religions [3rd edition], 2010, pages 395f
  6. Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2007, page 319
  7. Edelglass & Garfield, Buddhist Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2009, page 338
  8. Sir Charles Eliot, Japanese Buddhism, Edward Arnold, London, 1935, pages 59f
  9. Charles Holcombe, History of East Asia, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2017, page 72
  10. Pain and Its Ending, Curzon
  11. page 197
  12. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004 (Volume One), page 297
  13. Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1996, chapter 4
  14. Buddhist Warfare, Oxford University Press, 2010, page 15, note 5
  15. Buddhism, Routledge, 2010, page 68
  16. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004 (Volume One), page 139
  17. Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 170
  18. Lopez, Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics, 2004, page xxxii; Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2007, pages 502f
  19. Flesher, Exploring Religions, University of Wyoming
  20. Oxtoby & Amore, World Religions: Eastern Tradtions, Oxford University Press, 2010, page 211/Oxtoby & Segal, Concise Introduction to World Religions, 2nd ed, 2012, page 398
  21. Mitchell, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, ist ed, 2002, page 206/2nd ed, 2008, page 226
  22. Rutgers University Press, 2005, page 3
  23. Oxtoby & Amore, World Religions: Eastern Tradtions, Oxford University Press, 2010, page 205/Oxtoby & Segal, Concise Introduction to the World Religions, Oxford University Press, 1st ed, 2007, page 398/2nd ed, 2012, page 394
  24. Precept and Practice [1st ed], Oxford University Press, 1971/Buddhist Precept and Practice [2nd ed], Kegan Paul, 1995, passim