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Buddhism: A Short Summary of Suffering, The Four Noble Truths, and The Eightfold Path

Updated on December 3, 2012
A meditating Buddha at Borim Temple in Jangheung, South Korea
A meditating Buddha at Borim Temple in Jangheung, South Korea | Source

The Three Streams of Buddhism

For a Buddhist, the Four Noble Truths define the role of a human in this world and after this world. Before the Buddha came to the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, he first examined people. This examination led to the defining of the Three Marks of Existence and the Noble Truths. The Noble Truths also led to the Eightfold Path. To better understand the Four Noble Truths, one must first examine what comes before, the Three Marks of Existence, and after, the Eightfold path.

The Three Marks of Existence

The Three Marks of Existence are a set of characteristics that the Buddha observed to be true in all people. The first mark is impermanence, also known as “anitya”. This mark is the basis for the entire Buddhist religion. Nothing in the material world is permanent and everything is in a state of flux, according to a Buddhist (Hawkins 42). This impermanence is so important not only because it leads to the second mark of existence, but it is also is the main reason for the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The second mark of existence is unsatisfactoriness, also known as “duhkha” or suffering, from this impermanence. This suffering is later explained in the Four Noble Truths. The final mark of existence is anatman, which is literally without a permanent “atman” or soul. The Buddha thought that because everything was constantly in flux and nothing was permanent, it didn’t make sense to talk about a kernel of existence that continued to live on after the material being had shifted, changed, and finally ceased to be. A permanent soul does not make sense, and doesn’t exist, according to The Buddha.

The Four Noble Truths

These marks of existence, which are very pessimistic, are then explained and relieved from people by the Four Noble Truths. These truths are what turn the pessimistic and almost nihilistic marks of existence into something manageable by humans. The first truth is that life is unsatisfactory. The second truth explains that the unsatisfactoriness comes from “trnsa”, or thirst, and ignorance of the true nature of reality. These first two truths seem to follow logically from the three marks of existence. Because everything is in a constant state of flux, and nothing is permanent, it is pointless to become attached to physical things. Everything will eventually cease to be and change form. This suffering that people experience comes from the attachment to the physical world. The final two noble truths helps Buddhist followers recognize and end this suffering. The third truth is that there is a way to stop being a slave to the unsatisfactory world. Finally, the fourth and last noble truth is that the way to end the slavery, and therefore end the suffering attached to it, is to follow the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path

The Eightfold path is the final step in the four noble truths and is the path to salvation for Buddhists. The Eightfold path consists of eight components on how to act and think in this temporal physical life to achieve an end to the cycles of life, samsara, and to gain true realization of the nature of reality, and thus achieve Nirvana (Hawkins 44). The first two parts of the path are the right viewpoint and the right intention. These help Buddhists realize that they need to change their view of the world from how they had once seen it. That is, one must recognize the impermanence of the world and accept that their suffering stemmed from his or her connection with the impermanent physical world. The next four steps of the Eightfold Path are right speech, right actions, right livelihood, and right effort. These four steps are the physical actions that follow the mental actions achieved in the first two parts of the eightfold path. These four things are what make up a majority of a Buddhist’s actions in his or her life. They attempt to do good actions and no harm in their life. The fourth step in this set, right effort, makes sure that a Buddhist goes beyond doing no bad. The right effort maintains that a Buddhist should strive to do the right thing and put in a positive effort. The final two steps of the Eightfold path are what take this above simply physical actions to religious actions. These steps are right mindfulness and right concentration. Right mindfulness consists of keeping track of your own thoughts and actions. This is the first major step in a Buddhists revelation of the ultimate truth. This helps you examine yourself and your place in the world. The next step is right concentration, or meditation. Through meditation, or deep thinking, true realization of the nature of the reality can be made and an end to samsara can be achieved. This realization and end to samsara is called Nirvana and it is what Buddhists use their lives striving for.

The Mission of a Buddhist

The entire mission of a Buddhist is to end their suffering in the physical world and to achieve a realization of reality and an end to samsara, also known as achieving or reaching Nirvana. Nirvana seems to be an end of suffering and an end to the attachment of the physical world at the very least. The Four Noble Truths lie at the very center of Buddhist beliefs and without them the religion of Buddhism would not exist. These truths not only point out the Buddha’s observations that humans are suffering and want to end it, but also give a guide on how to achieve Nirvana as well. To a Buddhist, suffering can be ended; however, it is up to people to recognize that the ultimate way to end the suffering has been laid out by the Buddha.


Religions of the World Series: Buddhism
Religions of the World Series: Buddhism

Hawkins, Bradley. Religions of the World: Buddhism. 1. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall Inc., 1999. Print.



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    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      The history of the world we live in has had a few developments regarding distribution of goods - wars, revolutions, etc. One might say the developments were not good.

      However, denying physical goods any role would not be convincing on grounds of spiritual practice. Arguably, the human psyche may benefit and become enriched with learning experiences - whether it would be maths, literature, or philosophy. I'd say that the Buddhist meditative and 'tracking' practices actually reflect on this fact.

      Good learning takes money and resources. This world may never become perfect as for property. Denying property any importance could hardly make the world better, however.