The Four Noble Truths are the fundamental beliefs of Buddhism. According to tradition, Gautama Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment was a description of these concepts. According to Buddhist thought, believing these ideas is not as important as experiencing them. Along with belief in reincarnation (samsara) and Nirvana, the Four Noble Truths shape the thinking of almost all forms of Buddhism. These four concepts, in short, are 1) the reality of suffering, 2) the impermanence of the world, 3) the liberation that comes by eliminating desire, and 4) the necessity of following the Eightfold Path.
The First Noble Truth, also known as the principle of dukkha, claims that to live is to suffer. In English, this terminology can be confusing, as Buddhism does not claim all experiences are unpleasant. The concept of dukkha is more subtle, suggesting ideas such as anxiety, frustration, or dissatisfaction. This is the core belief of Buddhism, and all other beliefs and practices are based on this First Noble Truth. Buddhists believe that dukkha explains what is wrong with mankind: suffering caused by having the wrong desires, specifically, the desire for things that are only temporary. This problem is expounded in the Second Noble Truth.
The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism, also known as anicca (“impermanence”) or tanha (“craving”), states that nothing in the universe is permanent or unchanging. In fact, not even the Self is permanent or unchanging. This is Buddhism’s explanation for why mankind is as we are. Since suffering is caused by desiring what is impermanent, all desires ultimately lead to suffering. Even positive desires perpetuate the cycle of reincarnation and dukkha. In order to overcome this, one must understand the Third Noble Truth.
The Third Noble Truth says the only way to be freed from the cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth is by completely eliminating desires for temporal things. Buddhism sees this as the answer to the question “how do we correct what is wrong with mankind?” In practice, the Third Noble Truth calls for eliminating absolutely all desires, good, bad, and otherwise. The means to accomplish this is found in the Fourth Noble Truth.
The Fourth Noble Truth is that following the Noble Eightfold Path can eliminate desire. Buddhism’s plan for “how” to correct mankind’s flaws is found here. The Eightfold Path is defined as right views, right intent, right speech, right behavior, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right meditation.
According to Buddhism, one can end the cycle of reincarnation, suffering, and dukkha by applying the Four Noble Truths and living out the Noble Eightfold Path. This leads a person to a state completely void of all desire, craving, clinging, or frustration. This state of “nothingness” is known as Nirvana and is the Buddhist alternative to heaven. One who attains Nirvana ceases to exist as an individual, and stops the samsara process of rebirth and re-death.
As with most major worldviews, not everything about the Four Noble Truths is completely contradicted by the Bible. Misplaced desires are a major source of angst and sin (Romans 13:14; Galatians 5:17). Mortal life is certainly subject to change, and it is brief (James 4:14). Also, it’s unwise to invest in things that aren’t permanent (Matthew 6:19–20). However, in the matters of the eternal state and the process of transformation, the Four Noble Truths deviate drastically from biblical Christianity.
The Bible teaches that God is eternal, and those who are with Him in heaven will enjoy that state forever (Matthew 25:21; John 4:14; 10:28). The same eternal consciousness—without the joy—applies to those who choose to reject God (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Their fate is described as a conscious, personal condition of torment (Luke 16:22–24). Buddhism teaches that our eternity is either one of endless reincarnation or the oblivion of nonexistence. The Bible says, “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
Christianity and Buddhism both teach that people need to transform their desires and their behavior, but only Christianity provides a realistic means for how to do this. In Buddhism, one is told to change his desires through self-directed efforts. Unfortunately, this means one has to have the desire to shed desires, a built-in conundrum. The Buddhist who desires to rid himself of desire is still desiring something. Buddhism also does nothing to answer how a person can change a heart that is unwilling to change and self-deceived (Jeremiah 17:9; Mark 9:24). Christianity provides an answer to both of these problems: a Savior who not only changes what we do (1 Corinthians 6:11) but what we want to do (Romans 12:2).
There are many other differences between Buddhist and Christian beliefs. While Buddhism teaches that life is suffering, the Bible says that life is meant to be enjoyed (John 10:10). Buddhism says the Self needs to be eliminated, while the Bible says that each person is valuable and meaningful (Genesis 1:26—27; Matthew 5:22) and that the Self persists after death (John 14:3).