What are the main teachings of the Buddha?
All of the many teachings of the Buddha centre on the Four Noble Truths, just as the rim and spokes of a wheel centres on the hub. They are called 'Four' because there are four of them. They are called 'Noble' because they ennoble one who understands them and they are called 'Truths' because, corresponding with reality, they are true.
What is the First Noble Truth?
The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. To live, you must suffer. It is impossible to live without experiencing some kind of suffering. We have to endure physical suffering like sickness, injury, tiredness, old age and eventually death and we have to endure psychological suffering like loneliness, frustrations, fear, embarrassment, disappointment, anger, etc.
Isn't this a bit pessimistic?
The dictionary defines pessimism as 'the habit of thinking that whatever will happen will be bad,' 'or 'The belief that evil is more powerful than good.' Buddhism teaches neither of these ideas. Nor does it deny that happiness exists. It simply says that to live is to experience physical and psychological suffering which is a statement that is so obvious that it cannot be denied. The central concept of most religions is a myth, a legend or a belief that is difficult or impossible to verify. Buddhism starts with an experience, an irrefutable fact, a thing that all know, that all have experienced and that all are striving to overcome. Thus Buddhism is truly a universal religion because it goes right to the core of every individual human being's concern with suffering and how to avoid it.
What is the Second Noble Truth?
The Second Noble Truth is that all suffering is caused by craving. When we look at psychological suffering, it is easy to see how it is caused by craving. When we want something but are unable to get it, we feel frustrated. When we expect someone to live up to our expectation and they do not, we feel let down and disappointed. When we want others to like us and they don't, we feel hurt. Even when we want something and are able to get it, this does not often lead to happiness either because it is not long before we feel bored with that thing, lose interest in it and commence to want something else.
Put simply, the Second Noble Truth says that getting what you want does not guarantee happiness. Rather than constantly struggling to get what you want, try to modify your wanting. Wanting deprives us of contentment and happiness.
But how does wanting and craving lead to physical suffering?
A lifetime wanting and craving for this and that and especially the craving to continue to exist creates a powerful energy that causes the individual to be reborn. When we are reborn, we have a body and, as we said before, the body is susceptible to injury and disease; it can be exhausted by work; it ages and eventually dies. Thus, craving leads to physical suffering because it causes us to be reborn.
If we stop wanting altogether, we would never achieve anything.
True. But what the Buddha says is that when our desires, our craving, our constant discontent with what we have and our continual longing for more and more does cause us suffering,then we should stop doing it. He asks us to make a difference between what we need and what we want and to strive for our needs and modify our wants. He tells us that our needs can be fulfilled but that our wants are endless - a bottomless pit. There are needs that are essential, fundamental and can be obtained and this we should work towards. Desires beyond this should be gradually lessened. After all, what is the purpose of life? To get or be content and happy.What is the Third Noble Truth?
The Third Noble Truth is that suffering can be overcome and happiness attained. This is perhaps the most important of the Four Noble Truths because in it the Buddha reassures us that true happiness and contentment are possible. When we give up useless craving and learn to live each day at a time, enjoying without restlessly wanting the experiences that life offers us, patiently enduring the problems that life involves, without fear, hatred and anger, then we become happy and free. Then, and then only, do we begin to live fully. Because we are no longer obsessed with satisfying our own selfish wants, we find that we have so much time to help others fulfil their needs. This state is called Nirvana. We are free from psychological suffering.
What or where is Nirvana?
It is a dimension transcending time and space and thus is difficult to talk about or even think about. Words and thoughts being only suited to describe the time-space dimension. But because Nirvana is beyond time, there is no movement and so no aging or dying. Thus Nirvana is eternal because it is beyond space, there is no causation, no boundary, no concept of self and not-self and thus Nirvana is infinite. The Buddha also assures us that Nirvana is an experience of great happiness. He says:
"Nirvana is the highest happiness". (Dhammapada 204 )
But is there proof that such a dimension exist?
No, there is not. But its existence can be inferred. If there is a dimension where time and space do operate and there is such a dimension - the world we experience, then we can infer that there is a dimension where time and space do not operate - Nirvana. Again, even though we cannot prove Nirvana exists, we have the Buddha's word that is does exist. He tells us:
"There is an unborn, a not-become, a not- made, a not-compounded. If there were not, this unborn, not-made, not-compounded, there could not be made any escape from what is born, become, made, and compounded. Therefore is there made known an escape from what is born, made, and compounded." -- Ud 80
We will know it when we attain it. Until that time, we can practise.
What is the Fourth Noble Truth?
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Path leading to the overcoming of suffering. This path is called the Noble Eightfold Path and consists of Perfect Understanding, Perfect Thought, Perfect Speech, Perfect Action, Perfect Livelihood, Perfect Effort, Perfect Mindfulness, and Perfect Concentration. Buddhist practice consist of practising these eight things until they become more complete. You will notice that the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path cover every aspect of life: the intellectual, the ethical and economic and the psychological and therefore contains everything a person needs to lead a good life and to develop spiritually.