The Four Noble Truths are the essence of the Buddhadharma, and a converging point upon which nearly all schools of Buddhism are generally united. Comprised essentially of four words, the Four Noble Truths spell out a comprehensive assessment of the human condition and a schema for deliverance from its maladaptive incarnations.
The first Noble Truth, or dukkha is a complex word that etymologically means “a wheel that binds,” while colloquially being rendered into English, somewhat inaccurately as “suffering” and more appropriately as “unsatisfactoryness.” For Shakyamuni Buddha this is a defining characteristic of sentient experience, namely, that it tends toward this dukkha, which is the foundation of nearly all spirituality. That said, this tendency is not an inescapable inevitability, and indeed the Buddhist path proposes a way forward, but first the causes and conditions of dukkha must be thoroughly understood.
The second Noble Truth, or samudaya literally means origination, as in the origination or causes and conditions of the “unsatisfactoryness” that is dukkha. Distilling this relatively far reaching concept can be a trying task, however, its essence points toward the reality that all things are marcated by impermanence (anitya) and insubstantiality (anatma), and are therefore subject to change and dissolution. When we regard and therefore treat reality in any form, in any manner other than that congruent with this reality, dukkha is the inescapable eventuality.
The third Noble Truth, or nirodha literally means cessation, as in the possibility of putting an end to dukkha in one’s life experience. Practically the Four Noble Truths function as two sets that describe “suffering” and its causes and conditions, and the possibility of cessation, and the causes and conditions thereof.
The fourth Noble Truth, or marga literally means path or way, as in the path or way leading toward the cessation of “suffering” or “unsatisfactoryness” – dukkha. This teaching ultimately encapsulates another subteaching called the “Noble Eightfold Path” (of right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration).
A few salient points should be made here, namely that in a Zen context the “right” or “correct” that often prefaces each of the eight terms of the “Noble Eithfold Path” (samma in Pali) does not imply the existence of a single, exclusionary moral or ethical schema akin to righteousness, but rather stems from a firm rooting in the present moment, its contents, and taking refuge therein. However, to delve into this nuance would require far more space and time than the present work allows. Suffice it to say that for the western reader, Abrahamic presuppositions of righteousness need not bleed into the understanding of marga, or the path toward the cessation of unsatisfactoryness by way of overcoming its causes and conditions. Beyond this, it should also be noted that Shakyamuni Buddha frequently taught by means of exhaustive lists. It is the position of this author that almost always the Buddha was stating his full intention with his first statement, and subsequent statements were to be engaged should the point not be intellectually accessible or digestible within its initial presentation. Buddhism was synthesized during an era where education was not yet standardized and therefore the students approaching Buddha for teaching not only had varying intellectual capacities, but also varying academic preparation for undertaking the serious study and practice of religion and therefore multiple presentations were often required to convey singular points.
All of the aforementioned considered, and from a Zen perspective in particular (remembering that Zen is the Japanese transliteration of the Korean term Seon, which is a transliteration of the Chinese term Chan, which itself is a transliteration of the Sanskrit term Dhyana which simply means concentration or concentrated awareness) the path or marga is essentially accessible via the first term in the list of thise comprising the Noble Eightfold Path – right view. Right view itself, which is cultivated in various meditative practices, leads to a comprehensive awareness of the unfolding of reality as it is, which as overtly implied in the second “Noble Truth” is both impermanent and insubstantial. When a practitioner of the Buddhist path is able to perceive the impermanent and insubstantial nature of reality (and therefore steward in ongoing awareness sunyata,or the absolute itself, which is a topic also a bit beyond the scope of the present work) and respond in accord with the perception and awareness, they disrupt the causes and conditions of “suffering,” and thereby allay dukkha itself.
While various schools of Buddhism possess diverse degrees of investment in various post-mortem and metaphysical constructs which posit “suffering” (or dukkha) to actually hinge on a macrocosm (beyond the microcosmic perspective covered in this essay) of cyclical birth, sickness, old age, death, and rebirth (collectively known as samsara), it is the opinion of the present author that such a reality is, in fact, an unnecessary vestige of various forms of Vedic religion which is incompatible with a modern (and even postmodern) approach to the Buddhadharma, which has historically had to birth various schools of apologetics (such as Yogacara philosophy) to bridge the gap between the explicit teachings of the Buddha and the assumptions of his convert students and disciples throughout the ages, coming to the practice of Buddhism typically with prior religious presuppositions mostly intact.