Our story so far: Gautama, the World-Honored One, Sage of the Shakya clan, drop out, has devoted years to understanding the source of frustration, unsatisfactoriness, suffering, dukkha; one morning, upon seeing the Morning Star, he saw through suffering to the source of suffering, realized that suffering is something that comes about through our own thoughts, our own clinging to things that because of their very nature are transitory, and thus woke up to the true nature of things, and became the Buddha, “the one who woke up.”
So, now what?
Gautama had solved the problem; he had gone beyond clinging, gone beyond attachment, had liberated himself from the Wheel of Causes and Effects — all technical terms for laughing at himself as he saw that he, along with every other human on the planet, had been making himself miserable and that he could have, at any moment, stopped. So he got up from his place under the ficus tree that would forever after be called the Bodhi Tree, Shri Maha Bodhi, and wandered off to look for breakfast.
No one really noticed. He was just another wandering holy man, cleaner and better fed than most perhaps. He didn’t need to be noticed, although anyone who saw him or met him was struck by how gentle he seemed, by how he was everyone’s equal, by how children and animals trusted him. He went on like this for weeks, until one man, perhaps a little more observant than most, saw the calm and poise in his face and thought it … not quite human.
He stopped Buddha on the road and asked, “Are you a God?”
Buddha smiled at the question, and said “No, not a God.”
“Are you an Angel, a Deva? A Rakasha, a demon?”
“No, neither an angel nor a demon.”
“Are you a saint then? A holy man?”
“No, I’m not a saint.”
“But you are clearly not a man like other men.”
“No, I am not.”
“What are you then?”
Buddha said, “I am awake.”
In due time, Buddha came to the Deer Park in Sarnath and met the other shramanas he had accompanied for the years of his time as an ascetic. When they saw him coming, the yelled at him, called him names, called him a quitter and an apostate … until they noticed it wasn’t bothering him, and in fact that he was so gentle with them that they realized they were angry — they, holy men, renunciates, devoted ones, had become angry — and out of embarrassment stopped. Then one of them shyly asked him “what has happened to you Siddhartha Gautama?”
“I woke up.”
Then they realized that here was one man who had achieved what they wanted to achieve, and they begged him to teach them how they too could become awake. So Buddha told them about the first three Great Truths, and seeing that merely hearing the Great Truths wasn’t enough, went on to describe a method by which they, too could awaken. This was the Fourth Great Truth: that there is a way to learn to wake up.
This method, Buddha’s original self-help program, was called the Noble Eightfold Path, because Buddha gave the shramanas who became his first followers eight basic steps for their own practice.
So these are the Four Great Truths: that ordinary life is unsatisfactory; that the unsatisfactory nature of life arises because we cling to things that are by their nature impermanent; that by ceasing to cling to impermanent things, life ceases to be unsatisfactory; and that there is a way, a program, called the Eightfold Path through which any human can wake up.