Wrestling with the Four Noble Truths


Over the past year and a quarter, I have taught four classes on Buddhism at a local university. Class sizes ranged from 12 to 55. Every time, most of the students had a difficult time adopting the Four Noble Truths as something they generally agreed with. Each time, though, nearly all the students were comfortable and approving of each step of the Buddha's Eightfold Noble Path.


The Four Noble Truths are:
  1. Life is suffering.
  2. Desire is the cause of suffering.
  3. The path to liberation from suffering is to renounce all desire.
  4. The way leading to the cessation of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.

World View

The majority of Eastern culture works from the premise of repeated reincarnation, and the law of cause and effect (karma). If you have done something bad in a previous life or this life, it will cause you suffering. Even with the most earnest effort, the Buddha didn't believe anyone could go through life without doing something bad or hurtful, therefore there would always be suffering.

Westerners are primed by our culture to believe that life is about "the pursuit of happiness." They do not generally believe that all of life is inherently suffering. While everyone experiences a lot of suffering in this life, there are also many experiences of happiness and joy because of the blessings God bestows on people, particularly when people are grateful to God and give thanks to him for those blessings. Among these are the blessings of marriage, family, work, recreation, fellowship with other believers and worshiping God.


Desire and Suffering

Regarding the Second Noble Truth, Westerners would tend to disagree with Buddha that all suffering is caused by desire. While wrong desires definitely do cause suffering, many desires are wholesome and may not cause any suffering at all, but rather bring about happiness and joy. The love that a husband and wife have for one another can cause a great deal of joy (though not always), and many kinds of suffering come into being that have no ostensible connection with what one is desiring. Accidents occur and people are injured. People get cancer, or some other kind of disease, that might be hereditary or be due to unintentional exposure to environmental hazards.


Renouncing Desire

With respect to the Third Noble Truth, most Westerners would look at accidents and many diseases and would disagree with Buddha that the way to prevent accidents and all diseases is to simply empty one's self of all desires. If these types of suffering were not caused by desire in the first place, then eliminating all desires won't eliminate that type of suffering either.


Assumptions

So how is it that someone so profoundly respected as the Buddha could potentially be so wrong about some of the most prominent fundamentals of his religion, or was he right and Westerners are so wrong? To get a better understanding of this, it helps to realize that the Buddha assumed that karma and reincarnation governed the universe, and that most Westerners do not assume reincarnation, but rather that there is just one life here on earth, whether they believe in life after death or not. Most Westerners who believe in life after death, believe only in one life after death, to be spent in either heaven or hell.

Why does this matter regarding the nature of the Four Noble Truths? The basis of a person's world view informs his or her beliefs. If you believe in reincarnation, then when bad things happen to someone who has seemingly always been good, there is an easy explanation—they did something bad in a prior life. For typical Westerners, this simple explanation is not available. Most Westerners believe that bad things can either be the result of bad karma from past actions in this life, or from accidents or inexplicable diseases.

Your assumptions regarding karma and reincarnation strongly influence your willingness to embrace the first three Noble Truths or to reject them as untrue.
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