The Ethical Significance of the Four Noble Truths in the Buddhist Tradition

The Ethical Significance of the Four Noble Truths in the Buddhist Tradition

The four noble truths are very significant because they form the heart and core essence of the Buddhist tradition. These noble truths are believed to have been proclaimed over 2,500 years ago by Buddha (Gunaratna, 2008). Under the Bodhi tree in Gaya, it is believed that he acquired “realization of the eternal verities of life” and attained divine enlightenment that culminated in the special proclamation (Gunaratna, 2008, p. 3). The proclamation was made seven weeks after the enlightenment had taken place (Gunaratna, 2008). The four noble truths are referred to as ‘noble’ for three main reasons; they were discovered by the Noble One- the Buddha, they can only be fully realized by the noble ones such as the Arahantsand the Pacceka Buddhas,and they are believed to be real and truthful (Gunaratna, 2008). The purpose of this paper is to espouse on the ethical significance of the four noble truths, as well as explore the significance of the eight-fold path. 

The First Noble Truth

The first noble truth deals with the element of Dukkha. The word is made up of two words duand kha, the former meaning low, bad, or vulgar, whereas the latter meaning empty or hollow (Gunaratna, 2008). When these two words are taken together, it is apparent that dukkhamakes reference to what is bad because it is empty or illusionary (Gunaratna, 2008). Dukkhais in most instances taken to connote suffering. However, as stated by Gunaratna (2008), “the word dukkha must awaken in our minds not only thoughts of pain and distress, but also all those thoughts about the unsatisfactory and illusory nature of the things of this world, their insubstantiality, their failure to satisfy completely, and their inevitable ending in disappointment, sorrow and disharmony” (p. 6). Essentially, this first noble truth espouses on pain, suffering, sorrow, as well as the dissatisfaction, insubstantiality, hollowness, and emptiness of the things of this world. It also espouses on ways or remedying the dissatisfaction and pain that pervades the lives of human beings at one given point of another. As reiterated by Franklin (2011), the first noble truth is believed to acknowledge the fact that; “Birth is painful, decay is painful, disease is painful, death is painful, union with the unpleasant is painful, separation from the pleasant is painful and any craving that is not satisfied is also painful” (Franklin, 2011, p. 21).

As aforementioned, this noble truth is not just about an illustration of suffering and ultimate hollowness of life, but also about the presentation of a way of escape for those who seek a deeper meaning of life. Buddha made an appeal to individuals, who longed for a way of escape by indicating that they should resort to Nirvāṇa, a system where the wicked stop troubling others and the weary find rest (Franklin, 2011). His teachings, in this regard, can be retrieved from the following thought; 

“Never in this world does hatred cease by hatred – hatred ceases by love. Victory breeds hatred, for the conquered is unhappy. One may conquer a thousand men in battle; but he who conquers himself is the greatest victor. Let man overcome anger by kindness, evil by good not by birth, but by his conduct alone, does a man become a low caste or a Brāhmin”(Radhakrishnan ,1976, p. 475).

Essentially, ethically speaking, the first noble truth teaches that suffering can only be alleviated or remedied when individuals choose to do good to others and when they pursue not just their own personal interests, but also the interests of others. 

The Second Noble Truth

The second noble truth regards the exploration of the cause of Dukkha. It is about the diagnosis of the aforementioned problem of suffering and insubstantiality of life. Buddha indicates that the cause of dukkha is craving (Gunaratna, 2008). It is said to be caused by the inherent passionate clinging and desire (otherwise referred to as taṇhā) for material things of this world (Gunaratna, 2008). It is inferred that self-centeredness is the ultimate cause of suffering and insubstantiality of life. It is further inferred that because of the inherent cravings of humankind and the accompanying selfishness thereto, individuals go through suffering and they experience hollowness and emptiness because they end up pursuing things that though unreal appear real. In their ignorance (avijjā), individuals end up pursuing goals that are elusive since they mistake the shadow for the substance and the unreal for the real (Gunaratna, 2008). Craving has been described as a consuming fire that not only destroys others, but also destroys the very primary subject of the craving. Essentially, Buddha taught that the cause of dukkhais taṇhā. Suffering and the hollowness of life herein is not a result of external factors, but they are a result of internal factors. The ethical standing herein is that change can only come from within. Buddha teaches that individuals ought to take responsibility for the ills in the world and the suffering they endure since he illustrates that they are caused by individualistic cravings and desires. 

The Third Noble Truth

Herein, Buddha declares that with the cessation of taṇhā(craving), dukkhafails to exist (Gunaratna, 2008). The argument is that if dukkhais caused by taṇhā, then the cessation of taṇhā means the end of dukkha. Because of this third noble truth, it is apparent that the teachings of Buddha are not just about an illustration of the fallen nature of humankind, but also about an illustration of hope and light. Buddha teaches that individuals should renounce craving and that such renunciation can be complete (Gunaratna, 2008). Such renunciation and abandonment ought to be voluntary and not forced since craving carries significant burdens that one should not have to willingly carry through life. Essentially, Buddha teaches that individuals ought to be not only purged, but also emancipated from craving. Once an individual has attained this emancipation, he/she will exhibit calmness in his speech, thought, and actions. That individual remains unaffected and unmoved by things that generally affect ordinary people who have not been freed from craving. Life, as illustrated in this third noble truth, is mainly lived by the monks. They live life without the craving and grasping for life. It is apparent that the ethical significance is that when individuals stop pursuing their individualistic (self-centered) desires, then the process of the cessation of dukkhawill be commenced. Upon death, a monk who has effectively shed the cravings of life will be able to triumphantly say thus;

            “Oh Life! To thee I no more cling 

Oh Death! Where is thy sting?” (Gunaratna, 2008, p. 14)

Such an individual will be said to be set to enjoy eternal life. In order to desist from craving for and clinging to life (illustrated as the main cause of suffering and insubstantiality) individuals are called upon to seek the deeper meaning of life so as to make use of the current earthly treasures for the life to come as opposed to focusing on the material things which though may appear real are actually unreal. 

The Fourth Noble Truth and the Eight-Fold Path

The fourth noble truth is about the noble path that is to be followed to ensure the cessation of dukkha(Gunaratna, 2008). The noble path to be followed is referred to as the Eight-Fold Path. The eight-fold path is said to have only been discovered and not created by Buddha since it has been in existence since time immemorial (Gunaratna, 2008). It is referred to as a path since it has been followed in the past by many who ascribe to Buddhism. It is also referred to as a path because of the process that has to be followed thereto. It is a path leading to the cessation of suffering. In the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Buddha himself described the eight-fold path thus; 

Just as if, O Monks, a man faring through the forest sees an ancient path, an ancient road, traversed by men of former days and he were to go along it and going along it should see an ancient city … even so I, O Monks, have seen an ancient Path, an ancient road, traversed by the rightly Enlightened Ones of former times. And what, O Monks, is that ancient path, that ancient road, traversed by the rightly Enlightened Ones of former times? It is just this Noble Eightfold Path … I have gone along that Path, and going along that Path, I fully came to know Suffering, the Arising of Suffering, the Cessation of Suffering and the Way leading to the Cessation of Suffering” (Gunaratna, 1968, p. 22). 

The eight-fold path that was discovered by Buddha is a thoroughly considered program of decontamination of thought, word, and action that eventually culminates in complete cessation of craving and the corresponding attainment of superior wisdom (Gunaratna, 2008). The eight factors in the path are interrelated and inter-dependent (Gunaratna, 2008). 

The first primary teaching to be followed with respect to the eight-fold path is the ‘right view’ or ‘right understanding.’ This entails the acquisition of an understanding of things as rightly are (Bodhi, 1998). An understanding of things as they are, is herein gained through an understanding of the four noble truths as illustrated above (Bodhi, 1998). This step is about gaining an understanding of the true reality of things as taught in the Buddhism tradition. The second step is ‘right intention. ’ this is the truthful desire to gain enlightenment (Bodhi, 1998). It is, for instance, the sincere intention of renouncing and denouncing cravings (Bodhi, 1998). The third step is ‘right speech.’ This entails abstinence from telling lies, engaging in slander, causing discord, and using abusive language (Bodhi, 1998). Individuals are instead called upon to use their speech in a building and compassionate manner. The fourth step is ‘right action.’ This entails promoting honorable and peaceable conduct (Bodhi, 1998). The fifth step is ‘right livelihood.’ It entails abstaining from making a living in a manner that causes harm to others (Bodhi, 1998). The sixth step is ‘right effort.’ It entails deliberately applying energetic will to ensure the cessation and prevention of evil. The seventh step is ‘right mindfulness.’ It entails being diligently and deliberately aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, bodily activities/ actions, as well as, conceptions (Bodhi, 1998). The eighth step is ‘right concentration.’ This is about training and disciplining the mind. 


The four noble truths are very significant because they form the heart and core essence of the Buddhist tradition. The first noble truth deals with the element of Dukkha. It connotes suffering and insubstantiality of life. The second noble truth regards the exploration of the cause of dukkha. It is about the diagnosis of the aforementioned problem of suffering and insubstantiality of life. Herein, it is made apparent that dukkhais caused by the inherent passionate clinging and desire (otherwise referred to as taṇhā) for the material things of this world. The third noble truth provides a solution to the problem of dukkha. The problem is remedied through renouncing the cravings of life. The fourth noble truth then regards the path to be followed towards the end of dukkha


Bodhi, B. (1998). The Noble Eightfold Path the Way to the End of Suffering.  Buddhist Publication Society; the Wheel Publication No. 308/311.

Franklin, J., J. (2011). The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism in Victorian England, 1870—1900. Victorian Review, 37(2), pp. 21-26. 

Gunaratna, V., F. (2008). The Significance of the Four Noble Truths. Buddhist Publication Society; the Wheel Publication No. 123.

Gunaratna, V., F. (1968). The Four Noble Truths: Their Nature and Significance. Public Trustee Department of Ceylon.