What Are the Four Pillars of Suffering According to Buddhism?

Learn how to find happiness and meaning through the four pillars of suffering according to Buddhism.

Aug 18, 2023By Bojan George, MA Law w/ major in Philosophy
buddhism four pillars of suffering


Ever since the birth of man, suffering has been part of the human experience. The more we try to stop suffering by force, the stronger it returns. But according to the great teacher Buddha, we can finally rise above it through proper understanding of the “four pillars” and constant practice.


Like most great religions and ways of living, Buddhism is based on the reduction or total mastery of suffering in man. What makes Buddhism unique is that unlike the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) that accept suffering as punishment or atonement for one’s sins, Buddhism sees suffering as an ultimately unnecessary phenomenon. They believe that suffering is a by-product of our cognitive evolution and something that can and should be overcome. However, they recognize the epochal impact of suffering on humanity and the alleged impossibility of escaping or overcoming it.


Understanding Suffering Through the Four Pillars

buddha meditating
Buddha meditating, author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons


When Gautama Buddha gathered his first few followers, including his first cousin Ananda and other family members, the question arose: what is the Buddha’s teaching? Where to start laying the foundation of Buddhism?


Buddha started with what he considered the most important thing in the world: suffering. Even in the first moments of his spiritual path, he was tormented by the supposed inevitability of suffering. At the very end, when he became enlightened, he finally understood what suffering was all about and how we should manage it.


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When he began to teach his followers, he first laid down the four pillars of Buddhism:


  • Dukkha – an explanation of what suffering really is,
  • Samudāya – an explanation of why suffering arises,
  • Nirodha – an explanation of whether we can and whether we should stop suffering,
  • Magga – an explanation of how to stop suffering.


Dukkha: What Suffering Really Is

four sufferings buddha
Encounter with the Four Sufferings of Birth, Old Age, Sickness, and Death from the Life of Buddha, early 15th century Japan, via the Met Museum.


Dukkha literally means “life is insufficient.” It is a constant wheel that turns and takes one from happiness to unhappiness and again to happiness, and we, as addicts of those short, beautiful moments, just run away from unhappiness and hunger to taste a little happiness again.


And so all the time, we either suffer because we are in a bad moment or because the good moment slowly leaves and is replaced by a new, bad moment.


There are three types of suffering. The first is the inevitable physical pain, old age, sickness, and death. The second is psychological pain: failure, loss, envy, jealousy, sadness, anger, ruthlessness, etc. Emotions and feelings depend mainly on our thoughts and the state we are in. This type of suffering is different for everyone; something that causes sadness for one may cause happiness for another. The third type of suffering is a little more esoteric. It is about the difficulty of man to be alive, to be trapped in irrepressible human needs, and to be separated from the totality of the universe.


What Does the Second Pillar Tell Us?

buddha immeasurable light charlesworth
Buddha of Immeasurable Light by Sarah Charlesworth, 1987, via the MoMa.


The second pillar of Buddhism – Samudāya, explains to us the feeling we have when we really want to possess something. Whether it is another person, object, job, fame, or otherwise. Whatever we desire, when we get, it is never enough and never lasts. Then, again, we are unhappy and look for something else. What we desire is never enough and never lasts.


And what if we don’t even get what we want? That’s a whole other tragedy. We feel as if we are not complete, as if life has no meaning. This is the source of all our suffering. This hunger for things we want to bring into our identity, to become a part of us, or to build us up so that we are not empty. Because ultimately, we feel a void deep within us and try to fill it with whatever society deems important and good.


All this is easy to understand and self-evident to be true. It is not difficult to look at our own lives and see that the Buddha was indeed right. Those of his disciples who quickly understood these two truths began to ask: is it possible then to get out of this vicious circle of suffering?


To answer this question, the Buddha established the third pillar of Buddhism. Until this point, he only talked about the theoretical part of suffering, but this third point marks the passage toward the practical.


Nirodha: How to Stop Suffering

green plant
A sprouting plant starting to grow. Source: swgreenhouses.co.uk


Nirodha means “cessation.” An end to suffering, an end to the constant compulsive human urges that lead people towards constantly seeking something and living life in dissatisfaction, punctuated by small moments of happiness that trick them into not giving up suffering.


According to Buddhism, suffering can only end in two ways. The first way is to fulfill all our desires, which would be a campaign that would last countless lifetimes and reincarnations because our desires are endless.


There is also a second, faster, and nobler way. This way is to understand the nature of these desires. Instead of running from one desire to another all the time, we need to stop and ask ourselves why we have this desire. What is the real inner reason for all these desires?


Buddhists who have arrived at the answer to this question claim that desires and suffering are actually two sides of the same coin. Desires create attachment, and attachment creates suffering. When one is freed from that hypnotic power of desire, they are practically freed from all suffering. That point is nirvana.


buddha statue meditating
A statue of the Buddha meditating


Of course, even after realizing that desire and suffering are one and the same, it is possible to have desires and make them come true. But the difference is that they no longer have that magnetic and hypnotic element. We no longer get lost in them and can work even more calmly and are more concentrated on fulfilling them.


Is it really that easy? Yes and no. According to Buddhism, this realization is simple but not at all easy. Thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and desires have their own momentum; even if one wants to reject them, they return. This phenomenon in Buddhism is called karma. Karma is a kind of invisible glue. Whatever thought, emotion, and activity individuals undertake sticks to them.


When we finally decide that we have had enough of suffering and want to get rid of it once and for all, then the invisible glue of karma comes into force, and we notice that it is not that easy. All the wishes we’ve made and all the attitudes we’ve believed in now come back and drag us back to suffering again. The more we have invested in a venture, the more we have stuck to the glue of karma, and the more difficult it is for us to get rid of it now.


So we need to analyze the ways in which the karmic glue pulls us back into suffering.


How to Resist the Effects of Karma

mandala sand painting
A Buddhist monk stands over a sand mandala, which is to be ritualistically destroyed after completion to symbolize unattachment. Source: Asiasociety.com


The effects of karma can be seen mainly in the form of thoughts or emotions that lead toward the return to old habits or create doubt in our spirituality and in the desire to leave actions that are known to cause suffering. It can be embodied in a feeling of laziness, a strong desire to return to a toxic partner, or a sudden urge for a long-overcome vice. It can be a thought that all this is nonsense and that it’s best to return to old desires, or even a new idea that creates ulterior attachment to the world.


Briefly explained, karma is a type of accelerated movement. Even if one has decided to change direction in their life, minds and tendencies do not change so quickly, and can drag them back to old habits.


Because of this law of karma, salvation from suffering is difficult. People do not have the strength to resist the tendencies of their minds and their karma and can’t get out of the magic circle.


Knowing this and understanding karma in its entirety, the Buddha presented the solution in the form of the fourth and final pillar of Buddhism – Magga.


Magga: Rising Above Suffering

eightfold buddhism
Photo by Deepak Bhatia, via Getty Images


The word Magga literally means “road.” In fact, the complete practical teachings of Buddhism are contained here. Magga is a constellation of ways, rules, actions, and indications that – if practiced with dedication – can present a real chance to get rid of the glue of karma.


According to Buddhism, the true way to rise above suffering is to follow the middle path. The middle path is essentially a kind of moderate living. It is to experience life (or rather life situations) with passion and enthusiasm while maintaining a relative detachment from it.


Maintaining detachment is actually the simplest thing in the world; all that is required is to be still in our consciousness without allowing fluctuations of the mind. After all, people are conscious and should be able to “feel” themselves without a problem.


However, in reality, it is not quite like that. According to Buddhism, one’s mind is greatly influenced by the action of karma and is subject to constant change. Changeability and the unhindered thoughts that run through our heads are the main obstacles that prevent us from being present and in touch with our consciousness (ourselves).


The Key to the Four Pillars: Meditation as a Weapon Against Karma

fasting buddha
Statue depicting a fasting Buddha, 3rd-5th century Pakistan, via the Met Museum.


Meditation is the Buddhist’s main method to quiet the mind. Through it, our mind gradually separates from our karma and calms down. Those undisturbed thoughts that are constantly spinning slowly move into the background, and our true nature comes to the fore.


Our true nature is what Buddhists call “Buddha nature.” It is pure consciousness from which emanates immeasurable happiness and love and is itself formless. It is us, and we are the true end of suffering.

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By Bojan GeorgeMA Law w/ major in PhilosophyBojan is a writer and researcher based in Skopje, Macedonia. He enjoys reading and is often found hunched over a desk writing. During his bachelor years, he devoured the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Lately, he’s been obsessed with everything related to Stoicism and Moral Philosophy. In his spare time, Bojan loves to practice Brasilian Jiu-Jitsu and read some good sci-fi.