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In almost any contemporary introduction to Buddhism, one of the first things one learns is the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Everything is suffering (dukkha).
  2. Suffering is caused by craving.
  3. There is an end to suffering.
  4. One can reach this end by following the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path.

The Four Truths are central to the teaching of the early Pali suttas, so something like them was probably central to the teaching of the historical Buddha. There’s been a recent trend in Buddhist studies to disparage the Four Truths, on the ground that they were far removed from the practice of most Buddhists in history, whose lives (especially but not only in East Asia) focused much more on devotion and magic. But never mind. I’m far less concerned with learning about the historical structure of past Buddhist societies, and more with the question of whether these truths – undeniably revered and treated as truths by many Buddhists throughout history – are indeed true.

I noted before that the Second Noble Truth was of great importance in my own spiritual development. I would still count it as the most important thing I’ve learned from Buddhism. Maybe not all suffering comes from craving, but a huge chunk of it does.

But what about the other three? I was provoked to think about this point by comments made to my recent post on karma and theodicy, by Elisa Freschi and by James (no last name given, but his blog is The Supine Bovine). They were noting that we can’t expect to achieve human perfection (nirvana or buddhahood) in this lifetime. I added the caveat that a few traditions (usually tantric ones) believe that we can – but I certainly don’t share their belief, so the caveat is not that important.

But if we can’t achieve the ultimate end in this life, and we don’t get any additional lives to work with, then surely we will never get to that end. And that is to say that the Third Noble Truth is false. There isn’t an end to suffering – unless you count death, which is something of a copout, since it’s an end to joy and everything else as well. Given that I hold the two supporting beliefs – that we can’t achieve an end to suffering in this life, and that there is no rebirth – I am committed to denying the Third Noble Truth, and I thank James and Elisa for making me realize this.

Now, the First Noble Truth without the Third makes for an extraordinarily grim view of the world: everything is suffering, and there’s no way out. In other words, life sucks. Philosophical reflection leads us only to the realization that we must be miserable. But here’s the thing: I reject the First Noble Truth too. My earlier defence of marriage entails as much. There’s a prima facie strangeness to the claim that everything is suffering: one immediately wants to retort, “but what about joy? What about happiness?” The classic Buddhist response is that even happiness reveals itself to be suffering; even sukha is dukkha. Ultimately, the joy of love, like the joy of possession, becomes the pain of loss. But I don’t see this as true. Even if we see a thing’s true nature as being that which it will eventually become, then ultimately, as Lucretius reminds us, happiness ends not in suffering and loss, but in nothing at all – a state that is neutral, not painful. And in the meantime, we can have great joy here on earth; that joy really is joy, especially when it is enhanced by zest.

It seems to me, then, that while the Second Noble Truth basically is a truth, the First and the Third are not. And the Fourth? Well, there seems to be a lot of truth in the Buddhist path as a way of reducing suffering. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson used an fMRI machine to measure areas of the brain associated with happiness, and found that the monk Mathieu Ricard was off the charts compared to his other subjects. Davidson’s followed this up with a lot of other research about the effects of meditation on the brain, though I’d be interested to see research into the effects of other parts of Ricard’s path: Buddhist theoretical philosophy, practising Buddhist ethics, monasticism. But at any rate, it looks like at least parts of the Fourth Noble Truth are right on – when it comes to reducing suffering. The traditional claim is that it ends suffering, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. But to my mind, a major reduction is good enough.