The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are central to Buddhism. These truths were taught by the Buddha shortly after he became enlightened.

The First Noble Truth is that life is frustrating and full of suffering, or dukkha.

The Second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by tanha, the desire for private fulfillment.

The Third Noble Truth is that suffering can come to an end. If suffering is caused by selfish desire, it can be cured by overcoming desire.

The Fourth Noble Truth is that there is a path that leads away from suffering, the Eightfold Path. This path consists of eight practices that the Buddha believed would lead to enlightenment.

How could these four ideas form the core of a way of life?

Right Mindfulness

Right Mindfulness is the seventh step on the Eightfold Path. According to Buddhism, the mind is very powerful. It can affect every part of our lives. However, most of us pass the day in an unmindful state. We are not aware of what we do or of what happens around us.

Spend a few minutes practicing mindfulness. Look around you. Write down everything you see. Listen closely. What sounds can you distinguish? Write them down. Now listen to yourself. What thoughts pass through your head? Write them down.


According to Buddhism, things don’t have an essence that defines them. This idea is called sunyata, or emptiness. For example, you know what a car is, but is it always a car? When it is being assembled in the factory, at what point does it stop being a set of parts and become a car? One answer is that it becomes a car when it can fulfill the function of a car – that is, when it can be driven. But does that mean it stops being a car if it won’t start? What if the car’s wheels were stolen; would it still be a car? What is the essence of this thing we call “car”?

Another aspect of this idea is that things aren’t inherently either good or bad. Things may seem good or bad depending on the context, but nothing is good or bad in its essence.

Write of something you usually consider either good or bad. Then try to think of contexts where it might seem different – when something you think of as good seems bad, or vice versa.

The Farmer’s Horse

Buddhism often uses stories to present ideas. Here is a Buddhist story.

One day a farmer’s only horse disappeared. His neighbours all came to commiserate with him on his bad luck. But the farmer just said, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

A week or so later, the farmer’s horse returned, accompanied by two wild horses. His neighbours all came by to congratulate him on his good luck. But the farmer just said, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

The farmer’s son decided to break the wild horses so they could be ridden. One of the horses threw him and broke his leg. The neighbours came by to console the farmer for this stroke of bad luck. But the farmer just said, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

A few days later, the king’s army came to the village. They took all the able-bodied young men to fight in a war. They left the farmer’s son because he had a broken leg. The neighbours all came by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck. But the farmer just said, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

Write what idea you think the story is trying to present.

The Strawberry

Buddhism often uses stories to present ideas. Here is a Buddhist story.

One day while walking in the wilderness, a man came upon a vicious tiger. He fled, running through the trees, looking back over his shoulder to see if the tiger was gaining on him.

Unfortunately, this meant he didn’t watch where he was going, and he tumbled headlong over a cliff. He scrambled desperately to save himself and managed to grab a vine that hung over the cliff. For a few moments he dangled there, savouring his amazing escape from certain death.

Then he looked up. Two mice were perched on the cliff edge, gnawing on his vine with their sharp little teeth.

As he looked up, the man glimpsed something else. A strawberry plant was growing from the cliff face, with one plump, ripe strawberry. The man reached up and plucked the strawberry. It was incredibly delicious!

What idea do you think the story is trying to present?

Rainy Day, Sunny Day

Buddhism often uses stories to present ideas. Here is a Buddhist story.

An old lady had two daughters. One was married to an umbrella seller. The other was married to a noodle seller.

On sunny days, the woman worried about her first daughter, thinking that nobody would buy any umbrellas, and her son-in-law’s business would be hurt.

On rainy days, she worried about her second daughter, as her son-in-law couldn’t dry noodles without the sun. As a result, the old lady lived in sorrow, grieving for her daughters.

One day she met a monk who asked her why she seemed so grief-stricken. She told him about her worries. The monk smiled and said, “I will show you a way to happiness. On sunny days, think of the younger daughter’s husband making plenty of noodles and doing good business. On rainy days, think of the older daughter’s husband. With the rain, people will be buying umbrellas, and the business will prosper.”

The woman did as the monk told her. From then on she was happy every day.

What idea do you think the story is trying to present?

Arhat and Bodhisattva

In Buddhism, people can attain enlightenment in many ways. They can also do different things once they are enlightened. One choice is to enter nirvana, where all suffering ends. A person who choose this is called an arhat.

A second choice is to stay in the world to help others find enlightenment. A person who chooses this is called a bodhisattva.

The difference between them is explained in a story.

Two men were wandering in the desert when they came to a compound, surrounded by a high wall. The first man climbed the wall. Giving a cry of delight, he leaped down on the other side.

The second man also climbed the wall. At the top, he saw that the walls surrounded a beautiful oasis with springs and gardens. He wanted to enter the garden. But he thought about all the other people who were wandering in the desert. Instead of entering the oasis he returned to the desert, determined to help other wanderers find the oasis.

One of these men was an arhat, and one was a bodhisattva. Which was which?

The Ten Perfections of a Bodhisattva

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva struggles to achieve ten perfections. Only when these have been achieved can the bodhisattva become a Buddha.

The ten perfections are charity, right conduct, dispassionateness, wisdom, steadfastness, forbearance, truthfulness, determination, loving compassion, nonattachability.

Think about the ten perfections. How do you think they can be achieved? Choose one perfection. Describe how a person could achieve it.


Another Buddhist practice is bowing to the Buddha. This is not a slight bow from the waist, but a full prostration. The practitioner’s knees, forearms, and forehead all touch the ground.

Bowing sounds like an easy way to practice Buddhism. Proper bowing, though, requires physical, mental, and spiritual awareness. It is not enough to bow because other people bow, or because you want other people to think well of you because you are devoted.

While you are bowing, your mind can’t wander. You can’t think about getting something to eat as soon as you’re done bowing. You need to focus on bowing, on the Buddha’s teachings, and on the Buddha-nature.

How do you think that bowing in this way could help a student of Buddhism?

The Four Immeasurables

Everyone wants to be happy, but according to Buddhism, there is no such thing as individual happiness. Because all people are interconnected, the happiness of one person depends on the happiness of all people. In order to be happy, all people must develop positive attitudes toward all other people and sentient beings. One way to do this is through the Four Immeasurables.

The Four Immeasurables are four positive states of mind. They are call immeasurable both because they are directed toward an immeasurable number of other beings and because the amount of good karma they create is immeasurable.

The Four Immearusables are loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity.

Loving-kindness is the wish that all sentient beings should be happy – not just the people we like, but all people and animals.

Compassion is the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering.

Appreciative joy involves rejoicing in the happiness of others, not just our own happiness.

Equanimity calls for regarding all sentient beings as our equals.

How do you think developing the Four Immeasurables can contribute to happiness? Explain.