The Four Noble Truths

Four Noble Truths

With so much suffering in the world today – on an individual level as well as nationally and globally – wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could discover and point out to us the actual CAUSE of all suffering so that we could eliminate the cause and thus perhaps eliminate suffering itself, making the world a much happier and more peaceful place in the process?

2,600 years ago in India, someone did discover and point out – clearly and repeatedly – the actual cause of all suffering and the way to freedom from suffering. His name was Siddhartha Gautama and he is better known to us today as Buddha (meaning “The Enlightened One”), the founder of the spiritual philosophy known as Buddhism.

The main essence of his teachings, and the very foundation of Buddhism, is encapsulated within what he called the Four Noble Truths.

These are the Four Noble Truths that Buddha presented:

1. Suffering is the unavoidable accompaniment of physical existence.

2. All suffering is caused by desire.

3. All personal desire and ambition must be extinguished by the person who wishes freedom from suffering and it can be extinguished by walking the Path.

4. The Path which leads to freedom from suffering is a narrow path.

Yes, according to the Buddha, desire is the cause of all suffering. Buddhism says that all suffering is born of desire and that all desire is born of ignorance. If we truly KNEW the real nature of ourselves, the real nature of things, and the real nature of existence, we would desire nothing.

The desireless person is not a joyless person. In fact, he has more joy than anyone else because he is not attached or attracted to anything, knowing that all things are passing, fleeting, and temporary, in the world of the senses. Because he has no personal desire, no personal aims and ambitions, no personal goals and self-centred intentions, he can enjoy all things that come his way while they last, knowing that nothing lasts forever.

Buddhism says that the death and sacrifice of personal desire is the goal of all true spiritual endeavour. The only “desire” which is really worth having is the intention and earnest aspiration to be of the utmost possible help and service to humanity.

The famous Buddhist scripture The Bodhicharyavatara (“The Way of the Bodhisattva”) by Shantideva contains these pertinent words:

“All the joy the world contains has come through people wishing happiness for others.

“All the misery and suffering the world contains has come through people wanting pleasure for themselves.”

The Western world is very heavily entrenched in desire, personal ambition, greed, selfishness, sensuality, etc. even to the point of various new spiritual movements focussing on the glorification of materiality and the notion that “desire is divine” and that people should be attempting to “attract” wealth, property, material success and even unlimited pleasure into their lives. Meanwhile, the Eastern – and particularly the Indian – spiritual traditions have long held the view of the vital importance of desirelessness.

For one thing, as long as we still have even one last lingering shred of personal desire remaining in our hearts, we are limited in the help and the service that we can give to suffering humanity.

Many people do not sufficiently appreciate the tremendous differences between Western and Eastern thought. As one writer has very aptly said, if Westerners really understood Buddhism they would certainly not be as keen and enthusiastic as they are about becoming Buddhists or calling themselves followers of the Buddha. Many things that Buddha said and taught would be difficult for Westerners to stomach, if they were to comprehend them correctly.

In light of this, some people claim that Buddha never actually taught at all that suffering comes from desire or that desire is something that human beings should free themselves from. They insist that Buddhists have misunderstood the words of the Buddha. Yet it is they themselves who are misguided and who are misleading many others in the process. A simple survey of some of Buddha’s words recorded in the Dhammapada (a highly revered scripture which is the basic foundational compilation of the sayings of the Buddha) should solve the issue, since his statements are so clear that there is not the slightest room for misinterpretation…

* “Desires are never satisfied, not even by a shower of gold. He who knows that the enjoyment of passion is short-lived and that it is also the womb of pain is a wise man.”

* “The disciple of the Supremely Enlightened takes delight in the destruction of desire.”

* “The man who has killed all desires…he indeed is exalted among men.”

* “It is not good conduct that puts you on the path to liberation, nor will ritual do it, nor book learning, nor seclusion and solitude, nor meditation. None of these alone can bring mastery or joy. It is desirelessness that does it.”

* “Those who seek perfection must keep watch by day and night until all desires vanish.”

* “From passion and desire, sensuousness and lust, arise grief and fear. Free yourself from attachment.”

* “The master…cuts all ties. He gives up all his desires. He resists all temptations. And he rises. And wherever he lives, in the city or the country, in the valley or in the hills, there is great joy. Even in the empty forest he finds joy, because he desires nothing.”

* “Desire nothing.”

* “Desire never crosses the path of virtuous wakeful men. Their brightness sets them free.”

* “Let us, then, free from the disease of desire, live happily amongst those who suffer that disease; among men with disease of desire let us dwell free from that disease.”

* “The end of desire is the end of suffering.”

* “When desire leaves you, never to return, suffering has left you, never to return.”

And if we think about it, we can easily see that the statement “All suffering is caused by desire,” is perfectly true. To live for self is to live for disappointment, sorrow, and suffering, and to end up causing disappointment, sorrow, and suffering for others along the way.

Some other very powerful and inspiring statements on this subject can be found in The Way of the Bodhisattva, which we mentioned earlier:

* “In this and in the worlds to come, desire is the parent of all woe.”

* “The pain of gaining, keeping, and of losing all! See the endless hardships brought on us by property! For those distracted by their love of wealth [or “comfort” or “luxury”] there is no chance for freedom from the sorrows of existence.”

* “They indeed, possessed of many wants, will suffer many troubles, all for very little.”

* “Indeed, O foolish and afflicted mind, you want and crave for all and everything. All this together will rise up as pain itself, increased a thousandfold. Since this is so, the wise have no attachments; from such cravings fear and anguish come. And fix this firmly in your understanding: all that may be wished for will by nature fade to nothing.”

The Four Noble Truths are (1) the Truth of suffering, (2) the Truth of the cause of suffering, (3) the Truth of the way out of suffering, and (4) the Truth of the Path.

This “Path” was called by Buddha the “Noble Eightfold Path” because it has eight parts or components to it. He explained it as being the Path which leads to liberation and ultimately to Nirvana. Yet despite being an Eightfold Path it is called a “narrow” path due to the fact that it is the path of desirelessness or, as Buddha also put it, “the Path of Purity.”

~ * ~

H.P. Blavatsky on Buddha

“As to his being one of the true and undeniable SAVIOURS of the World, suffice it to say that the most rabid orthodox missionary, unless he is hopelessly insane, or has not the least regard even for historical truth, cannot find one smallest accusation against the life and personal character of Gautama, the “Buddha.” Without any claim to divinity, allowing his followers to fall into atheism, rather than into the degrading superstition of deva or idol-worship, his walk in life is from the beginning to the end, holy and divine. During the 45 years of his mission it is blameless and pure as that of a god – or as the latter should be. He is a perfect example of a divine, godly man.

“He reached Buddhaship – i.e. complete enlightenment – entirely by his own merit and owing to his own individual exertions, no god being supposed to have any personal merit in the exercise of goodness and holiness. Esoteric teachings claim that he renounced Nirvana and gave up the Dharmakaya vesture to remain a “Buddha of compassion” within the reach of the miseries of this world. And the religious philosophy he left to it has produced for over 2,000 years generations of good and unselfish men.

“His is the only absolutely bloodless religion among all the existing religions: tolerant and liberal, teaching universal compassion and charity, love and self-sacrifice, poverty and contentment with one’s lot, whatever it may be. No persecutions, and enforcement of faith by fire and sword, have ever disgraced it. No thunder-and-lightning-vomiting god has interfered with its chaste commandments; and if the simple, humane and philosophical code of daily life left to us by the greatest Man-Reformer ever known, should ever come to be adopted by mankind at large, then indeed an era of bliss and peace would dawn on Humanity.” – from the Theosophical Glossary

~ * ~


Misconceptions about Buddhism
The Yoga of Purity
Practical Theosophy
Buddha Nature
Blavatsky and Buddhism
Self and Non-Self in Buddhism and Theosophy
“The Voice of the Silence” – An Authentic Buddhist Text

The Letter from the Maha Chohan
Theosophy – An Explanation and Overview

~ Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK ~

4 thoughts on “The Four Noble Truths

  1. If we kill out desire, what then replaces it as the initiating force for our actions? Or should nothing replace it? And if that is the case, then is there not a risk of apathy or inertia? I.e. what prompts a desireless man to better himself and do good in the world? Or is it only lower (personal) desire that we should seek to eliminate?

    Thank you for the clarification, and for the time and effort you must dedicate to this website.

    1. Hello Sam, thank you for your questions, which are very valid and raised fairly frequently by Theosophical students.

      I think you have the answer when saying that perhaps it is “only lower (personal) desire that we should seek to eliminate.”

      This is the desire that arises from the Kama principle in the human constitution. If that is overcome and the only type of “desire” that is left is higher, impersonal, and utterly selfless and unselfish, could it really even be called “desire”? In one sense it could but many students find it more accurate and appropriate to speak of it as “aspiration.”

      That which “prompts a desireless man to better himself and do good in the world” is an attribute of spiritual will rather than material or personal desire.

      At you can see a diagram showing the Seven Principles of the human constitution. This is from the article “Ego Is Not A Bad Word” at

      H.P. Blavatsky states in “Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge” that the real will has its seat in the Higher Manas and on the diagram you can see the distinction between this and Kama.

      I hope this may help and clarify in some way.

      1. Yes, thank you, that does clarify things. I‘d gleaned that desire could be twofold – an elevated spiritual quality as well as a selfish personal trait, but as you say, desire may not be the most fitting term for its higher expression.

        I’ll try to remember to call it aspiration, or spiritual will, or some other term that more aptly describes it. But whatever term is used, it’s reassuring to know that the teachings aren’t advocating we suppress the inclination to be of service, as that seemed to run counter to the current of Theosophy.

        Your article ‘Ego Is Not a Bad Word’ was even more helpful. I can’t believe I’ve only just learned the difference between our Higher Ego and the Higher Self… the silt has finally settled in that pool of water 🙂

        Thanks again for your explanation, and this awesome website.

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