The Third Noble Truth of Buddhism

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving." — Samyutta Nikaya LVI.11

Buddhism is not a religion of despair, but of hope and freedom. The teachings of the Buddha are very optimistic about ending suffering. There is a misconception among many non-Buddhists that Buddhism is all about suffering and personal sacrifice. It is true, externally that is how a monk's life looks to be to the general public. Leaving everything behind and going out all alone to spend time in contemplation and mindfulness, begging for alms and holding on to nothing. A very tough life indeed!

The fact is Buddhism offers a permanent solution to the eternal problem of earthly suffering. The teachings of the Buddha show us the way out of suffering, and give us the hope that suffering can be overcome eventually by controlling ones cravings and leading a virtuous life as dictated by the principles of the noble Eightfold path. The Buddha found a solution in the problem itself. The eightfold path is not difficult to practice. It is not prescribed for the monks alone, but for people of all ages, backgrounds and temperaments.

Suffering ends when the craving ends. It ceases to exist, only when the beings achieve complete liberation from it. The seeds of this reverse process are sown when a monk or a follower of the Buddha becomes aware of the impermanent and distasteful nature of the world and its objects. The first step in this process is the cultivation of dispassion.

"Among whatever qualities there may be, fabricated or unfabricated, the quality of dispassion — the subduing of intoxication, the elimination of thirst, the uprooting of attachment, the breaking of the round, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, the realization of Unbinding — is considered supreme. Those who have confidence in the quality of dispassion have confidence in what is supreme; and for those with confidence in the supreme, supreme is the result."

The following passages from Anguttara Nikaya describe how craving arises and how it can be ended by discernment.

"From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications. From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form. From name-and-form as a requisite condition come the six sense media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress and suffering.

"Now from the remainderless fading and cessation of that very ignorance comes the cessation of fabrications. From the cessation of fabrications comes the cessation of consciousness. From the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of name-and-form. From the cessation of name-and-form comes the cessation of the six sense media. From the cessation of the six sense media comes the cessation of contact. From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling. From the cessation of feeling comes the cessation of craving. From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging/sustenance. From the cessation of clinging/sustenance comes the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth. From the cessation of birth, then old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of stress and suffering.

"This is the noble method that is rightly seen and rightly ferreted out by discernment." — Anguttara Nikaya X.92

There are five stages in this process of this liberation. They are, the extinction of craving, the extinction of clinging, the extinction of the effects of karma, the extinction of rebirth and the extinction of rebirth, cessation of decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, suffering, grief and despair.

When a person passes through these five stages, his craving ceases and he finds permanent freedom from all forms of suffering. He becomes liberated from the world of impermanence and change. He does not return nor re-enter into the wheel of existence.

The path to Nirvana goes through two stages. The first phase happens when a person is still alive on earth. During this phase, all the impurities of the seeker are removed and he becomes an Arhat or a holy person. At this stage the ego is no more nourished, but remains on earth in a very diminished state. The second stage is set in motion when the fivefold process comes to an end and the Arhat leaves this world. At this stage the ego is completely dissolved, without any trace, bringing an end to the five fold process.

When the Arhat or the holy one passes away, he attain the realm where there is nothing, where there is "neither solid nor fluid, neither heat nor motion, neither this world nor any other world, neither the sun nor the moon." This is called the cessation of becoming which is "neither arising, nor passing away, neither standing still nor being born, nor dying." It is Nirvana, which is unborn, without source, uncreated and unformed real into which escape is possible for the beings through cessation of craving.

The Buddha discouraged all forms of speculation about this final state. He did not clarify what would happen to the monks when they became Arhats. He did not answer whether they would continue to exist or cease to exist. He did not even clarify what would happen to the Buddha himself when he passed away into the nothingness of Nirvana. Would he continue to guide, and provide inspiration to his followers from somewhere above, in some inexplicable state of existence, or simply dissolve himself into an unfathomable void of non-becoming and nothingness, leaving the monks to their own fate?

Perhaps the Buddha did not define what could not be defined. Perhaps he was aware that to define and describe truth would be to limit its scope and distort it. Perhaps he felt silence as the best solution to such matters, which could be better understood through personal experience rather than the speculative theories of idle minds.


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Suggestions for Further Reading

Source: A Study Guide prepared by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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