About 2500 years ago, the pampered, sheltered son of a minor king in a tiny satrapy about the size of Los Angeles looked around himself one day and said “Why are things so unsatisfactory? I have everything — the most beautiful wife in the country, concubines, a beautiful son, I spend my days practicing archery and playing games with my friends. But none of that lasts — the game ends. We grow old. My father is grey, and my mother prefers to watch our games now instead of playing. Someday I shall grow old. Someday I shall die. Is there nothing to be done?”
This pampered prince was so naive that he didn’t realize he wasn’t the first to ask these questions, and he was so arrogant that he thought if he could ask a question, he could find an answer. So he kissed his wife and son goodbye and left his palace, resolved that he would find the answer to that burning question: why are things so unsatisfactory? Why do we suffer?
This annoying yuppie prince was a man named Gautama (or Gotama), and after years of searching, studying, pursuing his answer in every way he could find in the Himalayan foothills in the fifth century BC, and one day, at the instant he saw the Morning Star rise over the horizon, he saw through to the essential nature of suffering and pain, and realized there was an answer. He woke up.
The root verb in Sanskrit for “to awaken” is budh-, and so now we call this yuppie prince Buddha, “the one who woke up.” And what he understood when he woke up became the basis for what we in the West consider a great religion, Buddhism, even though Gautama didn’t believe in Gods and refused to be pinned down on all the usual questions of where the universe came from and where we go when we die.
When Gautama woke up, he saw this one perfect syllogism, which was now call the Four Great Truths.
The First Great Truth is that life, ordinary life, is unsatisfactory. It’s painful. Bad things happen and we can’t stop them, and good things end no matter how hard we try to hang on, and we suffer as we do so, because try as we might, we can’t make time stop, and things change.
The Second Great Truth is that this special sense of frustration and unsatisfactoriness arises from our very attempts to hang on to the good and push away the bad. We can ignore pain; everyone has had the experience of becoming engrossed in something and, for a while, ceasing to notice a nagging injury, and everyone has at least heard of soldiers, horribly wounded, who have to be reminded that they’re bleeding. But once we notice, once our attention returns to the pain, then, oh, it’s awful.
The Third Great Truth is that we can stop the suffering, the frustration, the unsatisfactory way things seem, if we can learn to see where it comes from — our attention, our thoughts — and thus learn how to turn our attention elsewhere, and stop grasping and pushing.
Finally, the Fourth Great Truth says that there are skills we can learn, “skillful means” (Upaya) they’re called, that help us stop grasping, and thus stop the suffering.
This article, the first of five, examine these Four Great Truths in plain language. I’ll be including the “technical” terms as well, but it’s my conviction that Buddhism is clear and simple; it was introduced into the West by Orientalists and mystics, and the language they used, the translations they made, obscure as often as they make clear.
 Buddhism has traditional core texts in two related languages, Sanskrit and Pali, and the particular lineage you follow determines which one you’re more comfortable with. American Buddhists read translations and commentaries by people from both traditions, so we tend to mix and match. In this case, Gautama is Sanskrit, Gotama, Pali. I’m generally more comfortable with Sanskrit and it’s more common, but I’ll sometimes use the Pali word instead. I’ll try to warn you.