The Four Principles of Suffering (Four Noble Truths)

The Buddha said in the Alagaddupama Sutta: “What I teach now as before, O monks, is suffering and the cessation of suffering.”  His approach was similar that of a medical physician dealing with physical illnesses.  Suffering is a disease (dis ease) has symptoms, a cause, a cure and a prescription for its cessation.  The Buddha outlined these principles as the Four Noble Truths.  When we view suffering as a disease, it is easier to address because we realize that suffering affects everyone and can more easily abandon our judgment about our suffering.  Just like flu or cancer, we are all at risk.

The principles of the disease of suffering can be summarized as noted below:

Symptoms: Dissatisfaction

Suffering exists and is a disease.  Dissatisfaction with what life hands us is universal. We may use other names to describe our symptoms of suffering:  stress, fear, tension, anxiety, worry, depression, disappointment, anger, jealousy, abandonment, nervousness or mental pain.  The Atlas of Emotions ( provides a range of descriptions for the categories of anger, fear, disgust, and sadness.  For example, the emotion of anger ranges from annoyance, frustration, exasperation, argumentativeness, bitterness, vengefulness to fury.

Cause:  We want life to be other than it is.
The three poisons (greed, aversion and delusion) cause suffering.  Each poison creates attachment.  With greed, we are attached to getting more or protecting what we have, with aversion, we are attached to getting rid of the unpleasant and with delusion, we are attached to confusion and ignorance (the opposites of investigation and learning).  The bottom line is that we want we are experiencing in life to be other than it is.  We long for something else.  We have expectations of outcomes that are in direct conflict with what life is giving us.  This “fever of unsatisfied longing” is often referred to as craving or desire.  This craving does not and cannot lead to lasting happiness, the peace that we seek.

The most familiar type of craving is what we get from our six sense bases (body, eyes, ears, nose, tongue and mind).  As Joseph Goldstein notes, “All of these desires are just our usual engagement with life – enjoying and wanting what is pleasurable, avoid as best we can what is disagreeable.”  This engagement is never ending.  As the Buddha noted, “…people who are not free from lust for sensual pleasures, who are devoured by craving for sensual pleasures, who burn with the fever of sensual pleasures, still indulge in sensual pleasures; the more they indulge in sensual pleasures, the more their craving for sensual pleasures increases and the more they are burned by the fever of sensual pleasures, yet they find a certain measure of satisfaction and enjoyment in dependence on the five cords of sensual pleasure.”  MN 75 

Cure:  Stop craving, let go
As we learned, craving (wanting) is the cause of suffering.   Cravings arise constantly.  It is when we cling to a craving that suffering arises.  Clinging is attachment.  When we attach to a craving, we are in a trance, unaware of other possibilities and the effect that this craving is having on our life.  It is not just wanting life to be other than it is, it is being attached to the concept, life should be other than it is.  We then become dissatisfied and obsessed with the should.  We have choices – continue the obsession, do something (act), or let go.  Continuing the obsession with out acting just increases the suffering.

The good news is that with motivation, there can be freedom from attachment (clinging).  Freedom from attachment is not a onetime letting go but something to be practiced each time craving arises.  This is letting go many times, moment to moment.   It is helpful to realize letting go can happen because all phenomena are impermanent.  After the Buddha gave his first teaching, one of the monks stated that “All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.”   However, when our attachment to a desire (craving) falls away, there is a tendency to attach to another.  This can lead to an endless cycle of attachments.  Sumedho noted, “I was brought up in America — the land of freedom.  It promises the right to be happy, but what it really offers is the right to be attached to everything.”  [i]

Sumedho asks us to reflect frequently on “All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.”  “I would like to emphasize how important it is to develop this way of reflecting.  Rather than just developing a method of tranquillising your mind, which certainly is one part of the practice, really see that proper meditation is a commitment to wise investigation. It involves a courageous effort to look deeply into things, not as analyzing yourself and making judgments about why you suffer on a personal level but resolving to really follow the path until you have profound understanding.  Such perfect understanding is based upon the pattern of arising and ceasing.  Once this law is understood, everything is seen as fitting into that pattern.”[ii]

What would it be like if there were complete cessation?  As Phillip Moffitt notes, “Thus when there is cessation, your mind no longer burns in response to the arising of pleasant and unpleasant in your life…Your mind is willing to be with what is true in the moment and isn’t disturbed by it.”[iii]

Prescription:  The Eightfold Path
Although the cure for suffering is letting go of craving, it requires a comprehensive approach.  The Buddha described eight steps that are combined into three components: wisdom, skillful living, and mindful practice.

Living with Wisdom (2 steps):
Skillful Understanding: gaining an understanding of what life is really about.
Skillful Intention: practicing generosity, loving-kindness and compassion.

Living a Skillful Life (3 steps):
Skillful Speech:  not lying, speaking harshly

Skillful Action:  following the five precepts

  • Abstaining from killing.
  • Abstaining from stealing.
  • Abstaining from speaking falsely.
  • Abstaining from sexual misconduct.
  • Abstaining from misusing intoxicants that cloud the mind.

Skillful Livelihood:  engaging in activities that support your spiritual path and which do not harm yourself or others.

Living Mindfully (3 steps):
Skillful Effort: developing wholesome mental states.
Skillful Mindfulness:  seeing things as they really are.

Skillful Concentration:  being able to focus on the task at hand.

In Summary, Stephan Bachelor states the four principles of suffering:

Embrace life (comprehend)
Let go of what arises. (abandon)
See its ceasing. (realize) (develop)

[i] Ajahn Sumedho (The Four Noble Truths (p.38)

[ii] Ajahn Sumedho (The Four Noble Truths (p. 39-40)

[iii] Moffitt, Philip.  Dancing with Life p. 155

[iv] Bachelor, Stephen After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age Yale University Press 2015 p. 70