I am going to begin a short series on The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Noble Path of Buddhism. It's not uncommon to hear that "the teaching of the Buddha surrounds the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path," and Western Buddhist teaching is often introduced in this way.
I'm not convinced that it's as straightforward as that. In fact, browsing through the texts of the massive Pali Canon, it sometimes seems that these concepts are just a very small subset of an extremely large and diverse body of teaching. I agree with Eknath Easwaran when he makes the following remarks about the Pali Canon and its relation to the Eightfold Path:
"...not even a fraction of this literature directly deals with the steps of the Buddha's Eightfold Path. Instead there is much discussion of insights attained on that path, and the philosophical doctrines derived from those insights – so much, in fact, that the reader of Buddhist scriptures might tend to forget that the actual practice of the Eightfold Path was the Buddha's central teaching."
In my opinion, these comments apply to the Four Noble Truths as well. Because "the Dhamma" (the full body of Buddhist teaching) is so large and diverse, it's hard to say what is and is not an essential piece. Even in the Dhammapada, which, in the minds of some, boils down Buddhist teaching to the basics, the Noble Truths and Eightfold Path are only mentioned twice, and are never defined, simply alluded to.
That said, almost all Buddhist teachers do see these concepts as essential to Buddhist philosophy and practice, and there are texts which make these concepts primary.
One such text is the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (found in the Samyutta Nikaya, a division of the Sutta Pitaka – the division of the Pali Canon which contains the Buddha's discourses), in which the Buddha is recorded as briefly introducing both the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path.
"And what, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; this is right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, and leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering,; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonattachment.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is the Noble Eightfold Path..."
Thus, the Four Noble Truths, according to this text, are:
2. The Origin of Suffering
3. The Cessation of Suffering
4. The Path to The Cessation of Suffering
The First Noble Truth paints a frustrating picture of life. Although we experience periods of happiness and peace, in Buddhist thought, life is ultimately marked by suffering. We are born into the world crying, confused, and immediately dependent on our parents to save us from starvation and death. As we develop, we experience bodily injury as well as mental anxieties. We find things in life that promise to please us; we strive for them, and yet often can't have them. Even when we do attain what we desire, the enjoyment seems to only last a moment before we are attracted to something new, with its own promise. "It never seems to be enough." If we find something that does seem to give lasting happiness, we immediately develop anxiety around the need to keep it, lest we lose the object that completes us. Over it all looms old age, sickness, and death. All this is duhkha – suffering, unsatisfactoriness.
The Origin of Suffering
The origin of suffering lies in our natural way of approaching life. Various authors (and I believe various texts in the Pail Canon, although I am not sure on this point) present the Origin of Suffering in different ways. I have seen the root cause of suffering referred to as craving/desire (as it is in this text), attachment, and ignorance.
Craving/Desire and Attachment: The most common way the Origin of Suffering is presented is in terms of desire and attachment. These seem to be two ways of saying virtually the same thing, desire referring to our inner disposition and attachment usually referring more to the actual things we desire (i.e. What are we "attached to"?). In this particular sutta, the phrase "seeking delight here and there" stands out as an appropriate image. We seek delight for ourselves here and there. I want physical comfort. I want money. I want sex. I want to be seen as attractive. I want to be seen as intelligent and successful. I want a nice house in a good part of town. We desire many exterior things in the world and become attached to them because we believe they will bring us happiness. Attachment can be to physical things, to people, and often to ideas about ourselves. The attractive young woman worries about wrinkles. The wealthy man worries about having more money or status than his neighbor. Any threat to losing something which we are attached to brings ongoing anxiety. Thomas Keating, speaking from a Christian contemplative perspective, refers to this state of being (a state of being we naturally inherit as human beings) as "The False Self." Our craving is never quite satisfied and leads to ongoing unrest and suffering.
Ignorance: Some authors present the Origin of Suffering in terms of ignorance. From this point of view, suffering arises because we do not experientially know the truth about reality (i.e. the Four Noble Truths and the entire Dhamma). Ignorance leads to seeking happiness in places it cannot be found.
Although these ideas are complimentary, I find it confusing that different authors present the Second Noble truth in different ways. Correct translation of this concept seems to be an ongoing debate within Buddhism as a whole.
The Cessation of Suffering
The Third Noble Truth essentially states that there is a way to end suffering. To do so, personal craving needs to be extinguished and one must become "unattached" to all things.
The Path to The Cessation of Suffering
The way to the Cessation of Suffering is to follow the Eightfold Noble Path.
The Four Noble Truths lead directly to the Eightfold Noble Path. The Truths are the philosophical underpinning, the Path is the concrete and pragmatic Way.
Here is also a short take on the Four Noble Truths from Alan Watts: