Buddhism teaches many things, but part of the core beliefs are the four noble truths which are useful to consider in the context of a life well spent. I’m not a Buddhist scholar, but I’ve recently begun researching some of the foundational aspects of Buddhism and have found significant beauty and utility in the simplicity of its core philosophical tenets. Fixed firmly in the foundation of Buddhism are the four noble truths, as taught by the Buddha:

  1. The truth of suffering.
  2. The truth of the cause of suffering.
  3. The truth of the end of suffering.
  4. The truth of the path to the ending of suffering.

The Truth of Suffering

Although we like to wish it were not so, there is opposition in all things in life – especially those things that matter the most like family, friends, work, and health. And it’s that opposition, or as the Buddha may have taught – that suffering, that is the first step toward joy. One of the few universally gifted things every person has in life is the ability to choose how we’ll react to suffering and if we’ll learn and grow from it.

Learning from Suffering

Just before finishing my master’s degree I jumped to a new job. I was happy where I’d been before but decided to put my degree to the test. It ended up that I over the next two years bounced between a few jobs and was finally laid off from a small company, leaving me without a backup plan to support my family. I wasn’t unemployed for long, but those few months were, for me, a legitimate trial. I felt anger toward the company I worked at, and specifically the manager, who’d laid me off. I felt inadequate and unprepared to support my small family. Life was suffering.

Looking back I realize that it wasn’t that bad – I was laid off in July and had a new job before September. But it triggered a series of events that resulted in a turbulent couple of years for me. Taking a new job with a new company in Colorado Springs and then moving again to Oklahoma City. Throughout much of that time I felt like I’d been cheated somehow; that I’d been forced to leave behind a great life and home. But just before moving from Colorado Springs to Oklahoma City I realized that instead of harboring animosity for my situation, I needed to be grateful that I now understood the stress and fear that comes with major career interruptions. So now, hopefully, I can be a boon to those around me who might go through similar experiences. I can see an increase in my own confidence in something beyond just a job and in my ability to take care of my family.

Things don’t Cause Suffering; Impermanence Causes Suffering

According to the Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh, students of Buddhism often make the mistake of generalizing that everything in life causes suffering. But that is not the case. It’s the impermanence of things that cause suffering in life. For example, as I write this sentence, the table on which my laptop rests doesn’t cause me suffering but if I were to lose the table then I would suffer, because I’m attached to having a table on which to rest my laptop. Similarly, a bad boss doesn’t cause suffering; the impermanence of a supportive boss causes suffering.

Amidst the Suffering, We Can Find Joy

Suffering isn’t the only thing in life – there is joy. Buddha taught through the four noble truths that there is a way to end suffering and experience joy. Some might argue that joy is a construct, an ephemeral concept humans evolved to invent in order to find a false relief from the suffering of life. But Buddha would argue against that. Suffering is often needless, but only in that those who experience the suffering don’t find any meaning in it. Buddha himself came to that conclusion after choosing years of homelessness and hunger. He grew up as a prince – the son of a wealthy king who provided everything a boy might want. The king sheltered his son from all pain, loss, and discomfort. And yet his son felt cheated by his father and resented his upbringing – he still suffered. So he exiled himself from the royal courts to live on the streets. After six years of misery, Buddha realized that suffering for the sake of suffering meant nothing. Instead, he needed to find meaning in suffering.

Not a Conclusion but the End

That’s only a small portion of the philosophy behind Buddhism, and barely scratches the surface of the beginning half of the four noble truths. Let me know what you think and comment below or email me at brian@brianaustin.org.