The Buddhist teaching known in English as the four noble truths is most often understood as the single most important teaching of the historical buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who taught in northern India during the 5th century bce. —Sanskrit duḥkha and Pali dukkha (pain), samudayo (arising), nirodho (ending), and maggo (path) or dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā (way leading to the ending of pain)—are recorded in the languages of Pali and Sanskrit in the different Buddhist canons, and the literary traditions have been very consistent in how they remember the teaching. These teachings are explained in the Sutta on the Turning of the Dhamma Wheel (Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana Sutta in Pali) and in a handful of different formulations in different suttas, abhidhamma analysis, and in the vinaya sections of the canonical texts. Despite the widespread awareness of the four truths, the complexities associated with this teaching are not usually recognized. While the bulk of the scholarship on the four noble truths analyzes them as they appear in the Pali canon, recent scholarship traces them through Buddhist canons that are extant in the Chinese Tripitaka.
Four Noble Truths
Carol S. Anderson
Ethics and Buddhism
Although canonical Buddhist philosophy does not offer systematic, meta-ethical argumentation in a manner that might be familiar to readers of Western ethical theories, Buddhism has long been deeply concerned with ethical questions, offering detailed articulations of human flourishing, elaborate moral psychologies, taxonomies of virtues, rules for moral conduct, and instructions on spiritual technologies for ethical self-cultivation. The ethical underpinnings of the Buddhist project manifest differently across Buddhist traditions, although teachings such as the Buddha’s diagnosis of the suffering endemic to the human condition and the way to resolve it in the four noble truths, the workings of karma (literally “action” in Sanskrit) and its effects in shaping the world that a being experiences, and the moral-psychological structure of experience together provide a shared set of foundational principles. How these foundational principles are enacted within the ethical teachings and contemplative practices of different Buddhist traditions varies. Among the early Buddhist schools that emerged in the first few centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha, a distinctive ethical focus is its elaboration of the moral psychology of monitoring and purifying unwholesome qualities of feeling and thinking as an essential task on the path of liberation. With the emergence of Mahāyāna (Sanskrit: “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism around the 1st century bce, the ethical lodestone shifts to the cultivation of bodhicitta (Sanskrit: “awakening mind”)—the radically altruistic intention to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit sentient beings—as well as advancing the figure of the bodhisattva (Sanskrit: “awakening being”) as moral exemplar. Vajrayāna (Sanskrit: “Indestructible Vehicle”) Buddhism upholds the basic ethical view of the Mahāyāna while activating them within a contemplative scheme characterized by elaborate tantric rituals, which are said to conduce to a more expeditious realization and are supported by additional sets of ethical commitments. In addition to exegeses of these traditional Buddhist ethical commitments and the practices that support them, much of the scholarship on Buddhist ethics in the 21st century is concerned with constructing systematic interpretations of traditional Buddhist ethics, applying traditional Buddhist ethics to contemporary moral problems, expanding the scope of Buddhist ethical reflection to articulate activist stances on social justice issues, and interpreting the recent secularization of Buddhist practice in evidence-based contemplative science protocols.