The Buddha Begins Teaching

The Core Teachings of the Buddha

According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha, after years of meditation, went to sit under a peepul tree where he attained awakening. With awakening came insight into the true nature of reality. The Buddha formulated these insights in four statements, which he called the “Four Noble Truths”. 

At the core of his understanding was the observation that life intrinsically means suffering (1). He named the causes of suffering (2) and stated that it was possible to overcome suffering (3). Finally, he offered a means to achieve this goal: the Noble Eightfold Path (4). 

The Buddha proceeded just as a doctor would: he diagnosed the ailment, defined the causes, and prescribed a remedy.

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, India

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are:

1 All life is suffering.

2 The causes of suffering are hate, craving, and ignorance.

3 By overcoming the causes of suffering, one can end suffering.

4 There is a way to overcome the causes of suffering, namely the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Four Excursions


The first of the Four Noble Truths states that all life is suffering. At first, this sounds rather pessimistic.

The Buddha’s teachings assert that every human being will inevitably experience pain and suffering.

People suffer when they lose a loved one; they suffer when they are sick and when old age begins to restrict them. All these experiences are an intrinsic part of life.

The main cause of suffering is that people become attached to things that are actually impermanent.

The Buddha's teachings do not deny that life holds just as many good moments. Yet even in an instant of extreme happiness, suffering is not far away, for this moment, too, will inevitably pass.

Mahabodhi temple, Bodhgaya, India

The Painful Cycle of Death and Rebirth

Key to an understanding of the first truth is the concept of rebirth.

In ancient India, when Buddhist ideas were being formed, people believed that they lived not only once but were locked in an eternal cycle of death and rebirth.

Not just humans and other living beings, no, all things – indeed the entire universe was caught up in this eternal cycle of becoming and passing away.

In this view, humans are born into this life of suffering time and again.

Female Monkey with Her Young

Identifying the Causes of Suffering

The goal of the Buddhist teachings is to find a way out of suffering.

But since life is inextricably linked with suffering, this can only come about if one manages to escape the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.

A first step toward this goal involves identifying the causes of suffering, which are hate, craving, and ignorance. Craving means clinging to things. Ignorance means failing to recognize reality or holding misconceptions about life and oneself.

Marcel Geisser, a Zen monk in the Linji (Rinzai) Zen tradition, describes suffering from a Buddhist point of view.

Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom

Self and Non-self

Zen master Marcel Geisser explains in the video that a misconception of Self is the source of suffering.

By perceiving and focusing their being on the “Self”, people view all things from their personal vantage point. This makes people believe they own or can hang on to those things.

However, according to Buddhist understanding there is no such thing as a permanent “I” or “Self”.

Every person, every being, is made up of different parts that continually change. The cells in our bodies are subject to constant and rapid renewal; so, too, are our thoughts and feelings, which change with every new experience.

The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso

On Emptiness

The idea that all things – animate as well as inanimate – are made up of individual parts and only become an entity through perception and naming is described by the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso with the help of an example:

“Let us take the example of the tape recorder and investigate: What is the actual nature of the tape recorder? If you look at the shape, material, and colour of the tape recorder separately, there is no longer the existence of ‘tape recorder.’ So, you see, although there is a tape recorder, if we investigate its individual qualities and characteristics, we can’t find it. Then you can see that ‘tape recorder’ is a mere designation.”

Shining torch

Explore for Yourself!

Look for a torch at home and strip it down to its single parts as far as possible. What remains? How far can it be disassembled? When, in your opinion, does it stop being a “torch”?

In this video, Jens Schlieter explains the Buddhist concept of “Self”.

A philosophical challenge!

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

The Path to Overcome Suffering

To overcome suffering in life, one first has to recognize the causes of suffering. A key step in this is realizing that there is no such thing as an “I” or a “Self”.

The third truth says that the causes of suffering (hate, craving, ignorance) can be overcome.

How this is done is explained by the precepts of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path outlines a way to overcome suffering. It identifies the following steps:

1 right view

2 right resolve

3 right speech

4 right action

5 right livelihood

6 right effort

7 right mindfulness

8 right concentration

Even though the rules are expressed in only a cursory manner here, you can see that they relate to thoughts (1+2), behaviour (3–5), and religious practice.

Thus, the Buddhist way involves the intellect, actions, and the intuitive dimension.

Shuzan held up a short stick and said: If you call this a short stick, you are contradicting its reality; if you do not call it a short stick, you are ignoring the factual. So, what do you want to call it?

The Core Teachings of the Buddha