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What is meant in Buddhism by referring to the “Four Truths” (or the “Four Noble Truths”)?


Buddhism is a Western term used to describe those who follow the religion or philosophy of Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of the Kingdom of Lumbini (born circa 563, BCE), which is now known as Nepal. Siddhartha's mother died in child birth and it was foretold by a sage known as Asita that Siddhartha would grow up to be an enlightened Buddha. The meaning of the word 'Buddha' is literally 'the awakened one'. (Billington, 51:1997) Siddhartha's father protected his son from seeing the reality of suffering in the world, which might tempt him to follow a religious path and instead surrounded him with luxury, beauty and opulence. (Snelling 20-23:2000) Eventually, though, Siddhartha encountered, sickness, death and old age for the first time, and aged 29, troubled by his discovery, he left the royal palace in search of a solution to the problem of suffering. (Rahula, xv: 1967)

Earlier, it was stated that the Buddha had discovered that the way to enlightenment could be reached by following a 'middle' way or path, a way which avoids the extremes of self gratification and self-mortification. The Fourth Noble Truth, known as 'magga' or the path, makes the Buddha's teaching complete. It teaches that the way to enlightenment is through following the Noble Eightfold Path. (Goonewardene, 1991) Virtually, the whole of the Buddhist's teachings are concerned with the 'magga', which entails perfecting the three disciplines, Sila (ethical conduct); Samadhi (mental discipline, achieved through meditation) and Panna (wisdom). (Rahula, 45-46:1967) The Buddha emphasized the importance of living your life by the Noble Eightfold Path. Thus the Four Noble Truths advocate that Buddhism is not just a philosophy but a 'way of life', which should be followed in earnest. In addition it is important that followers understand the dharma to give meaning to its practice. (Goonewardene, 1991)

In conclusion, the basis of all Buddhist teaching is that true enlightenment, release from samsara and the attainment of Nirvana can only be achieved through an understanding of dukkha. The Four Noble Truths are central to the teachings of the Buddha and indeed knowledge of these are said to be '…the culmination of his Awakening experience'. (Burton, 71: 2004) The recognition of the three 'marks of existence' and the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths is the way forward for all those who wish to attain enlightenment, through following the Noble Eightfold Path. Thus the Four Noble Truths are 'the' central tenet of Buddhism and the core teaching of the Buddha, and as such it is important that followers not only understand the teachings but also follow the 'magga' in order to realize Nirvana.

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