The teaching commonly called the “four noble truths” is the most widely known teaching of the historical Buddha who lived and taught during the 5th century BCE in northern India. The four words that comprise the four truths—Sanskrit duḥkha and Pāli dukkha (“pain”), samudaya (“arising”), nirodha (“ending”), and mārga/magga (“path”) or dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā (“way leading to the ending of pain”)—are recorded in Pāli and Sanskrit in the different Buddhist canons, and the literary traditions have been very consistent in how they remember them. They are explained in the “Sutta on the Turning of the Dhamma Wheel” (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta). Despite the widespread awareness of the four truths, the complexities associated with this teaching are not commonly understood. Many of the technical questions surrounding the teaching discussed in this bibliography are significant when compared to early scholarship on it of 19th and early 20th centuries.
Primary Sources and Overviews
The four noble truths are most readily found in the Pāli canon of the Theravāda school, and it is important to examine the primary source passages. New scholarship is also emerging on the four noble truths in Sanskrit Buddhist canons (see Dessein 2012). The best known is the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Sutta on the turning of the dhamma wheel) (see Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Sutta on the Turning of the Dhamma Wheel)), but the four noble truths are widely mentioned throughout the Pāli canon, as in the Great Discourse on Establishing Mindfulness (Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta) (see Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Great Discourse on Establishing Mindfulness)) in the Dīgha-nikāya. It is equally important to examine how each translator renders the key terms of the four truths. For example, Sanskrit duḥkha and Pāli dukkha are often translated as “pain,” “suffering,” “stress,” or “dis-ease” (and as an adjective, “painful, stressful”); the different translations found on the Access to Insight website are useful for such a comparison, and I. B. Horner’s translation for the Pali Text Society (Horner 2000) is widely available. The study of the four noble truths in Anderson 1999 provides references to other passages in the Pāli canon, and a broader framework for studying the teaching. The overviews offered by Gethin 1998, Harvey 2013a, Harvey 2013b, Cousins 2003 locate the four noble truths in the broader history of early Buddhism, and these are preferred to other introductions to the four truths and Buddhism because they focus on a detailed understanding of the four truths.
This website, maintained by John Bullitt, offers different translations of the Sutta by leading scholars as well as a link to a recitation of the Sutta.
Anderson, Carol S. Pain and its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravāda Buddhist Canon. Edited by Charles S. Prebish and Damien Keown. Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism Series. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1999.
This is an extensive study of the four truths in the Pāli canon. The author deconstructs common misconceptions about the four truths and the Buddha’s enlightenment, and demonstrates that the four truths function both as propositions and as symbols. While the early chapters are accessible to general readers, the book as a whole is fairly specialized.
Cousins, L. S. “Buddhism.” In New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions. 2d ed. Edited by John R. Hinnells, 369–444. London: Penguin, 2003.
This chapter takes the nature of bhāvanā (meditative development) as central to traditional Theravāda teachings, particularly useful for the four truths. An insightful and approachable introduction to the context for the four truths in Theravāda Buddhism.
Dessein, Bart. “The First Turning of the Wheel of the Doctrine: Sarvāstivāda and Mahāsāṃghika Controversy.” In The Spread of Buddhism. 2d ed. Edited by Ann Heirman and Stephan Peter Bumbacher, 14–48. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.
This article is an exhaustive study of the variations in the Pāli and Sanskrit versions of the “Sūtra on the turning of the dhamma wheel.” The author persuasively argues that the different versions of the Sūtra reflect differences of doctrinal opinions about the nature of arhats and the powers ascribed to Buddhas.
“Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Sutta on the Turning of the Dhamma Wheel).” In The Samyutta-nikaya of the Sutta-pitaka. Vol. 5. Edited by Léon Feer, 420–423. Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1991.
The Sutta emphasizes that dukkha is to be fully understood, its origin (craving) is to be abandoned, its cessation (the cessation of craving) is to be realized, and the way going to its cessation is to be developed. The same Sutta is also found in Vinaya-piṭaka I.1–12, edited by Hermann Oldenberg (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1993). Translations include The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000) and The Book of the Kindred Sayings by C. A. F. Rhys Davids and F. L. Woodward (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1917–1930).
Gethin, Rupert M. L. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
This includes a concise and accessible introduction to the four truths in this introduction to Buddhism. Gethin suggests that the four saccas are “true things” (or “realities”) that should be realized, instead of propositions as Anderson has proposed.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013a.
One of the more comprehensive introductions to the history of Buddhism, with a succinct overview of the Buddha’s biography and the first dharma-talk on the four truths in chapter 3.
Harvey, Peter. “Dukkha, Non-Self, and the Teaching on the Four ‘Noble Truths.’” In A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. 1st ed. Edited by Steven M. Emmanuel, 26–45. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy 50. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013b.
This is another useful introduction to the teachings on the four noble truths, two-thirds of which is copyrighted in Harvey’s An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), chapter 3. This chapter goes into more detail on the teachings on dukkha and “non-self,” as the title indicates.
Horner, I. B., trans. Book of Discipline. Vol. 4, Mahāvagga, 1–19 [15–18]. Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2000.
This translation of the Vinaya-piṭaka is a bit archaic but reliable. The four noble truths are also laid out in the teachings on discipline, which contains one of the stories of Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment.
“Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Great Discourse on Establishing Mindfulness).” In The Digha-nikāya. Vol. 2. Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and J. Estlin Carpenter, 304–313. Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1995.
In this teaching on mindfulness meditation, the four noble truths are offered as one set among many as subjects of meditation. This passage is translated by Maurice O’C. Walshe in Thus Have I Heard: Long Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom, 1987), pp. 344–349.
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