The Buddha made a big promise — that if we know the cause of suffering we can end it. Melvin McLeod breaks down the Buddha’s four noble truths — including his unique insight into the real cause of our suffering — and argues it’s not only the ultimate self-help formula, but the best guide to helping others and benefiting the world.
Buddhism famously says that everything we are looking for—happiness, the end of suffering, even enlightenment—is found right here in this life. Chop wood, carry water, and all that.
But what is this life? It may be much vaster and deeper than we think, both less real and more real. And perhaps more importantly, what is it not? Because according to Buddhism, the whole problem is that we misunderstand the true nature of this life.
The Buddha said we make some fundamental cognitive errors about who we are and what we experience, and these cause our suffering. Looking at it that way, the whole Buddhist path is nothing but a way to get from who and where we think we are to who and where we really are.
The Buddha’s teaching on this path, and the insights behind it, are summarized in four simple statements. These four truths are called noble because they liberate us from suffering:
1. Our lives are pervaded by suffering, both obvious and subtle.
2. There is an identifiable cause of our suffering.
3. Because we know its cause, we can free ourselves from suffering.
4. There is a specific path we can follow to end suffering, which consists of meditation, wisdom, and ethical living.
This four-part logic is the world’s first, and to my mind still greatest, self-help formula. Buddhism is not only self-help. It’s the ultimate self-help.
I know this borders on heretical. After all, isn’t the very definition of Buddhism anatman—no self, no soul? Isn’t Buddhism famous for its doctrine of nonself? And if there’s no self, how can there be self-help?
But “no self” is a kind of shorthand. It doesn’t mean there’s no self at all. We exist, obviously. It means no mistaken self. It means that the type of self we deluded beings believe in doesn’t exist. In fact, this mistaken idea of self is the very problem. That’s why the truth of no self—no mistaken self—is the best self-help of all.
Experiencing interbeing leads us toward the ultimate, unconditioned aspect of our true nature, one we could describe as enlightened.
What is this false sense of self, what is often called ego? It’s the mistaken belief that we are a separate, independent entity with some sort of unchanging personal essence at our core. This self doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction we create based on our ignorance about the true nature of ourselves and reality. But because we believe this self exists, we struggle to serve and protect it, and cause ourselves and others endless suffering in the process. It is the false organizing principle of our lives.
Who, then, are we really? What is our true self that is obscured by this mistaken self?
One thing we can say with certainty is that in our true self there is no hint of the mistaken or fictitious self. All phenomena, including us, are the products of infinite causes and conditions. There is nothing that is separate or independent. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, everything in the universe is present in a single flower (and in us) except one thing—a separate self. This is very good news. When we realize that we are interdependent with all things, we see we are not separate from anything or in conflict with reality. Our minds and hearts open.
This is our true nature, what Thich Nhat Hanh called interbeing, in the relative realm of phenomena. Experiencing it leads us toward the ultimate, unconditioned aspect of our true nature, one we could describe as enlightened. We might give it a name, like buddhanature, or describe some of its characteristics, such as wisdom, compassion, and awareness. We could even say that in reality we’re all buddhas. But Buddhists are leery about talking too much about that because we have a tendency to grasp onto such appealing concepts and solidify them into yet another, more “spiritual” version of ego. That’s why Buddhists generally prefer to focus on understanding where we’re going wrong, because there’s less risk that will inflate our ego. Reality will naturally reveal itself when ignorance is cleared away, so we don’t have to think too far ahead.
There’s another big question about Buddhism and self-help, which is whether self-help is only about helping ourselves. Surely that is antithetical to Buddhism, which focuses so much on compassion for others, as well as generally a bad thing. But in reality, if we know what’s truly good, we don’t have to choose between ourselves and others.
There’s a concept in Buddhism called the two benefits. It means anything we do that is positive, that is virtuous, benefits both ourselves and others. It is only the mistaken self’s narrow and superficial definition of self-interest that makes us think we have to choose between our well-being and others’. When we know what truly makes us happy, things like a loving connection to others and living a meaningful life, then there is no conflict—what helps me helps you, and vice versa. My real happiness and yours are not separate.
And it turns out that one of the very best things we can do for others is to be happy and whole ourselves. When we are not driven by our small, mistaken sense of who we are, we are skillful, resilient, and caring, and we radiate love and joy. We show others that happiness is possible. By practicing these four truths, we diminish suffering not just for ourselves but for everyone around us.
In fact, the benefit of these truths goes much further—beyond our own lives, beyond the people we know. They apply to human society as a whole and help cure its ills.
I believe the basic logic of the noble truths—suffering, its cause, and how we can end it—is universal and true for all times. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be built on, deepened, and expanded as human thought and knowledge progress.
Traditionally, Buddhists applied the four noble truths mostly to our personal lives—how we can work with our own mind and heart to end our suffering, and perhaps even attain enlightenment. Now, we can combine the Buddha’s profound analysis with modern thought in politics, economics, sociology, and psychology to understand better the societal causes of suffering and how they too can be eased.
Today we can expand the first noble truth to include all the suffering in society and the family. We can see how billions of people suffer because of unjust, uncaring, and violent political, economic, and social systems. How trauma and suffering are passed down from parent to child, generation after generation.
We can see that the causes of this suffering are also rooted in ego—the basic misunderstanding of self—and how ego’s anger, greed, and indifference operate on a vast, collective scale in society. And because we know its causes, we can see a path to ease the suffering of war, inequality, trauma, and neglect of the earth, and create a better human society.
This, to my mind, is the great contribution of modern thought to Buddhism. Through our expanded analysis of the four noble truths, informed by contemporary knowledge, we can vastly increase the benefit of the Buddha’s wisdom. That’s why the ultimate form of self-help is also the ultimate way to help all humanity. So let’s take a look at each of the noble truths in turn, applying them both to our own lives, as is done traditionally, and to society as a whole.
The Truth of Suffering
The Buddha said that life is marked by dukkha. That’s usually translated as “suffering,” but it can also mean “struggle.” In fact, the Buddha defined nirvana—the end of suffering—as the total absence of struggle, complete peace.
We often say that life is a struggle. What that really means is that it’s a never-ending struggle to maintain our sense of ourselves as separate, independent, and at some level permanent. That’s a painful and futile struggle because it flies in the face of the most fundamental qualities of reality—change and impermanence. As the Buddha famously said, all compounded phenomena disintegrate. That includes us. Nothing in life is solid and everything is always changing. There is nothing we can hold on to. Everything is impermanent and dies.
And yet we try. Endlessly, moment after moment, we struggle to create a solid sense of ourself, which inevitably changes and disintegrates, and must be recreated. This endless process of creation, disintegration, and recreation, which gives us the illusion of a continuous self, is what is known in Buddhism as samsara, the realm of struggle and suffering we are caught in.
At some level we know there is no solid self we can rely on—we know deep down that our existence is questionable—and so our lives are marked by a subtle, underlying fear of emptiness and nonexistence. There is wisdom in this. We are right—we don’t really exist, at least not in the way we think we do.
The other way we try to maintain the mistaken self is to build around it a solid world we can depend on, one whose existence confirms our own existence. But this too is impossible, because of change and impermanence, and so it leads to all kinds of other suffering.
Nothing in life is solid and everything is always changing. There is nothing we can hold on to. Everything is impermanent and dies.
As the Buddha said, all meeting ends in parting. We will inevitably lose what we treasure and love. That’s heartbreaking. Equally heartbreaking, we will inevitably suffer bad and painful experiences we don’t want. And no matter what, we will lose everything in the end, because we will die. In a real sense, this whole mistaken self, and the whole mistaken world we create to confirm it, is nothing but an attempt to deny the reality of death.
Buddhism traditionally categorizes suffering in these three ways—losing what we want, getting what we don’t want, and our underlying feelings of fear and unease. This is suffering we cause ourselves by our denial of reality, and Buddhism teaches us ways to develop the wisdom to free ourselves from it. But there is another kind of suffering we need to add—the suffering caused by other people and their egos.
I don’t need to catalogue all the terrible ways people treat each other. You know them as well I do. In our personal lives—in the family, relationships, workplaces—people make us suffer and we make them suffer. And in every part of the world, billions of people suffer violence, deprivation, and denial of their full humanity at the hands of other people in the form of unjust and uncaring political, economic, and social systems.
Expanding the first noble truth to include these types of suffering is the modern world’s contribution to Buddhism. And it is Buddhism’s contribution to the modern world, because the four noble truths help us better understand these forms of suffering and how to alleviate them.
The Cause of Suffering
According to the Buddha, the basic cause of suffering is ignorance, our fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of ourselves and reality. We’ve already talked about that in general terms, so let’s look at specific ways the mistaken self operates, both individually and in society, to cause endless suffering.
Ego is at root concerned with only one thing—itself. Protecting itself, maintaining itself, pleasing itself. As the Dalai Lama famously said, we all feel we’re the most important thing in the world.
So with the care and feeding of the self as the organizing principle of our lives, we generate what are known in Buddhism as the three poisons. We divide the world into three categories: good for me, bad for me, and doesn’t affect me. We categorize everything according to what it means to us, and act accordingly.
So if there’s something I like, something good for me, I try to attract or consume it. This is the poison of passion, greed, or attachment. On the other hand, if there’s something bad for me, something that’s painful or threatens my existence, I try to repel or attack it. This is the poison of anger or aggression. Finally, if there’s something or somebody that doesn’t affect me, that’s irrelevant to my well-being, then I ignore them. This is the poison of indifference.
These poisons metastasize into endless dualisms by which we categorize everything as either good for me or bad for me. Traditionally these are called the eight worldly concerns, and they’re ego’s guide to life: happiness versus suffering, fame versus insignificance, praise versus blame, and gain versus loss. But of course there are infinite variations—winning versus losing, rich versus poor, liked versus disliked, beautiful versus ugly, successful versus unsuccessful, and on and on. It’s a good exercise to make your own list of what you feel is good for you versus bad for you.
It’s not that these dualisms are necessarily a problem in themselves—there are things that are good in this world, and we shouldn’t seek out suffering. The problem is that this process is totally self-centered—it’s the “me” part. Focused on ourselves, we’re less caring about others. Driven by these dualisms, we are consumed by hope and fear. We hope to get the good stuff and fear getting the bad stuff. The whole struggle produces nothing but stress and suffering. And for what? Temporary gratification of a nonexistent self.
Greed, aggression, and indifference don’t just poison our own lives. They also poison society. They may start with us as individuals, but they manifest on a massive scale in our political and economic systems. Greed manifests in rapacious corporations and massive inequality. Aggression manifests in war, oppression, and ideologies of superiority. Indifference manifests in uncaring societies that allow millions to suffer poverty and deprivation. All three poisons manifest in our relationship with the earth, threatening our very future.
Ego also goes beyond the individual. In fact, its most damaging form may be collective ego, the larger selves many people identify with. My race, my country, my party, my religion, my gender, my class, etc. The eight worldly concerns go from good or bad for me to good or bad for us, but it’s all the same thing. These collective egos are different from the genuine feelings of connection and solidarity that sustain many communities, which have more of the quality of nonego. They are about a bigger, better, more powerful me. They create classes of “others” and are often vehicles of domination.
Racism, sexism, nationalism, colonialism, authoritarianism, militarism, fundamentalist religion, and in some ways capitalism all draw their strength from the seductive power of collective ego—its energy, empowerment, self-righteousness, sense of purpose and community, and the concrete rewards it offers. I think we can fairly say that collective ego is and always has been the most destructive force in human society. Harnessing and manipulating it is the way to do real evil.
So taken together, with all the suffering and delusion, both personal and collective, the second noble truth paints a pretty bleak picture. Is there any way out?
The End of Suffering
Yes, said the Buddha. Since we are creating this tragedy ourselves, we have the power to free ourselves from it. To relax the struggle. To renounce our damaging, false sense of self. To cultivate all that is good in us. To open our minds and hearts to others. To see reality clearly and live in harmony with it. To be who we are really are. And because we can do this in our own lives, we can do it in society.
It’s said in Buddhism that our ignorance and obscurations are merely temporary, and that our true nature is what is real and always present. Our enlightened nature—our natural wisdom and loving heart—is like the sun. It’s always there, shining. It’s just temporarily obscured by the clouds of ignorance.
Those clouds have been there for a long, long time, though, and we’re used to them. In fact, we like them. They make us feel safe, as opposed to the brilliance and openness of the sun in the open sky, which ego finds threatening. So these clouds are not easy to let go of. That’s why we have to go through all the analysis of the first and second noble truths—so we understand how damaging these obscurations are. But once we see the suffering they cause and we’re ready to renounce them, there is a proven path we can follow to see—no, be—the sun.
The Buddha’s fourth noble truth is the path to the end of suffering, also known as enlightenment. It is our roadmap not only to helping ourselves, but to benefiting others and creating a good society. It reduces suffering at all levels.
The path is divided into eight parts, but they come down to three things: meditation (right mindfulness, effort, and concentration), wisdom (right view and thought), and ethical living (right action, speech, and livelihood).
For our purposes we can define meditation quite broadly. It begins, of course, with classical Buddhist meditation: we calm and stabilize the mind and then use the power of our focused mind to examine reality and develop insight into its true nature. This two-step process of developing concentration and insight is unique to Buddhism and is the secret to liberation.
But we can also include meditations to open the heart and develop love and compassion, such as metta and tonglen. And the largest number of Buddhists in the world, in the faith-based traditions, focus on the practice of prayer to receive the wisdom and compassion of enlightened beings. So maybe we could call this category spiritual practice rather than just meditation.
In fact, going even further, we might include here the powerful insights and techniques of modern psychology. Today, we understand the damage and trauma that happen in childhood, how we suffer from them for the rest of our lives, and how we pass the suffering on to future generations.
To help us heal now, and break the cycle of suffering, even long-time meditators find modern psychology helpful. Particularly when combined with mindfulness practice, it has a unique power to bring trauma and its origins to the light of awareness, which is the real healing power in this world. Combining modern psychology and timeless Buddhist practice is a new and powerful way to identify much suffering, its cause, and its cure.
If, as the Buddha said, our fundamental problem is ignorance—the cognitive errors about our own nature and the nature of reality that cause our suffering—then the real antidote is wisdom.
That’s why Buddhism is described as the religion of wisdom—because we end the suffering caused by ignorance by correctly understanding our own nature and reality. Wisdom is the antidote not only to the suffering of the individual ego, but to the terrible damage done by collective ego. It helps us to see the unreality of both.
Through wisdom, we see that things are not solid, separate, and independent. They are empty of all the heavy, mistaken concepts we project on them. We see that everything is interdependent, open, fluid, always changing—and good. We are no longer in conflict with reality, and we don’t need to defend ourselves against it anymore. We can relax our struggle and see the beauty and sacredness of this floating world. We are naturally awake. Wisdom brings joy and happiness. It’s the ultimate self-help.
It is natural for us to follow the ethical guidelines of the path because they reflect who we really are. Our true nature is ethical as well as wise and compassionate. No longer obsessed with ourselves, we naturally act in the world with love and skill, living, speaking, and working in ways that bring benefit and cause no harm. Right action, speech, and livelihood are how enlightenment manifests in our lives.
We can apply these same ethical standards to our role in society. In his fourteen mindfulness trainings, Thich Nhat Hanh shows us how we can contribute to a better society by following the Buddhist precepts in our lives as citizens and consumers. We ask ourselves: Does this choice lead to less or more killing, stealing, lying, injustice, environmental destruction? Does it contribute to compassion, harmony, fairness, and respect for all people? These are the standards that guide our lives. And we can encourage, as best we can, governments and other institutions to follow these same ethical and moral guidelines. These simple, universal values are humanity’s guide to the kind of society we want and deserve.
This is called a path, even though we’re not actually going anywhere or transforming ourselves into anything. It’s the path to realizing who and where we already are. But from our point of view now, there is a journey, and a transformation, and not an easy one. Because we have so much to clear away, so much accumulated ignorance and karma, we have to work hard at it. If it were easy, we would have done it long, long ago.
And yet it can happen in a moment. This moment. Every moment. The sun of our true nature is always there, shining. The clouds of obscurations generated by our ignorance have breaks and gaps in them. Our discursive mind, our mistaken self, is not continuous. There are moments when it stops or falls apart, and if we’re paying attention, we get glimpses of the sunlight breaking through. In those ordinary moments, we can experience our awakened mind right on the spot, fresh, open, and unburdened by limiting concepts and projections.
So the path is both immediate and gradual. The immediate part is that awakened mind is available to us in the present, in ordinary moments like this one. We can experience it right now if we look. The gradual part is that as we diligently follow the path the Buddha laid out—of meditation, wisdom, and right living—the clouds of ignorance will gradually lighten and break up. We can extend the gaps, train ourselves to experience them, and rest longer in our true nature. That’s how we progress. More and more, we see the sun of our true nature—wisdom, love, and joy—shining through, and in those moments suffering ends. No mistaken self, and the true self revealed in that moment, are the ultimate help for both self and others. We have finally come home.