We are fortunate in having preserved for us the official report of the Buddha's discourse, in which he expounded what he considered the main features of his system to the five men he first tried to win over to his new-found faith. There is no reason to doubt its substantial accuracy, not as to words, but as to purport. In any case it is what the compilers of the oldest extant documents believed their teacher to have regarded as the most important points in his teaching. Such a summary must be better than any that could now be made. It is incorporated into two divisions of their sacred books, first among the suttas containing the doctrine, and again in the rules of the society or order he founded (Samyutta, v. 421 = Vinaya, i. 10). The gist of it, omitting a few repetitions, is as follows: -
"There are two aims which he who has given up the world ought not to follow after - devotion, on the one hand, to those things whose attractions depend upon the passions, a low and pagan ideal, fit only for the worldly-minded, ignoble, unprofitable, and the practice on the other hand of asceticism, which is painful, ignoble, unprofitable. There is a Middle Path discovered by the Tathāgata - a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace, to insight, to the higher wisdom, to Nirvāna. Verily! it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is to say, Right Views, Right Aspirations, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Mode of Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Rapture.
"Now this is the Noble Truth as to suffering. Birth is attended with pain, decay is painful, disease is painful, death is painful. Union with the unpleasant is painful, painful is separation from the pleasant; and any craving unsatisfied, that too is painful. In brief, the five aggregates of clinging (that is, the conditions of individuality) are painful.
"Now this is the Noble Truth as to the origin of suffering. Verily! it is the craving thirst that causes the renewal of becomings, that is accompanied by sensual delights, and seeks satisfaction now here, now there - that is to say, the craving for the gratification of the senses, or the craving for a future life, or the craving for prosperity.
"Now this is the Noble Truth as to the passing away of pain. Verily! it is the passing away so that no passion remains, the giving up, the getting rid of, the being emancipated from, the harbouring no longer of this craving thirst.
"Now this is the Noble Truth as to the way that leads to the passing away of pain. Verily! it is this Noble Eightfold Path, that is to say, Right Views, Right Aspirations, Right speech, conduct and mode of livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Rapture."
A few words follow as to the threefold way in which the speaker claimed to have grasped each of these Four Truths. That is all. There is not a word about God or the soul, not a word about the Buddha or Buddhism. It seems simple, almost jejune; so thin and weak that one wonders how it can have formed the foundation for a system so mighty in its historical results. But the simple words are pregnant with meaning. Their implications were clear enough to the hearers to whom they were addressed. They were not intended, however, to answer the questionings of a 20th-century European questioner, and are liable now to be misunderstood. Fortunately each word, each clause, each idea in the discourse is repeated, commented on, enlarged upon, almost ad nauseam, in the suttas, and a short comment in the light of those explanations may bring out the meaning that was meant.
The passing away of pain or suffering is said to depend on an emancipation. And the Buddha is elsewhere (Vinaya ii. 239) made to declare: "Just as the great ocean has one taste only, the taste of salt, just so have this doctrine and discipline but one flavour only, the flavour of emancipation"; and again, "When a brother has, by himself, known and realized, and continues to abide, here in this visible world, in that emancipation of mind, in that emancipation of heart, which is Arahatship; that is a condition higher still and sweeter still, for the sake of which the brethren lead the religious life under me." The emancipation is found in a habit of mind, in the being free from a specified sort of craving that is said to be the origin of certain specified sorts of pain. In some European books this is completely spoiled by being represented as the doctrine that existence is misery, and that desire is to be suppressed. Nothing of the kind is said in the text. The description of suffering or pain is, in fact, a string of truisms, quite plain and indisputable until the last clause. That clause declares that the Upādāna Skandhas, the five groups of the constituent parts of every individual, involve pain.
Put into modern language this is that the conditions necessary to make an individual are also the conditions that necessarily give rise to sorrow. No sooner has an individual become separate, become an individual, than disease and decay begin to act upon it. Individuality involves limitation, limitation in its turn involves ignorance, and ignorance is the source of sorrow. Union with the unpleasant, separation from the pleasant, unsatisfied craving, are each a result of individuality. This is a deeper generalization than that which says, "A man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward." But it is put forward as a mere statement of fact. And the previous history of religious belief in India would tend to show that emphasis was laid on the fact, less as an explanation of the origin of evil, than as a protest against a then current pessimistic idea that salvation could not be reached on earth, and must therefore be sought for in a rebirth in heaven, in the Brahmaloka. For if the fact - the fact that the conditions of individuality are the conditions, also, of pain - were admitted, then the individual there would still not have escaped from sorrow.