If you haven't yet, you may wish to read about the First and Second Noble Truth before continuing.
The first two Noble Truths are common sense. Everyone knows there is suffering. Not everyone knows it is caused by craving, but it is possible to figure out.
Nevertheless, it is not clear just what is so noble about these truths (one might think of a lot of other adjectives). At least not until they are viewed along with the Third Noble Truth, The Noble Truth Of The Extinction Of Suffering:
What, now, is the Noble Truth of the Extinction of Suffering? It is the complete fading away and extinction of this craving, its forsaking and abandonment, liberation and detachment from it.
But where may this craving vanish, where may it be extinguished? Wherever in the world there are delightful and pleasurable things, there this craving may vanish, there it may be extinguished.
(Digha Nikaya, 22. Translated by Nyanatiloka with permission to reprint as long as it is free.)
If we thought of the First Noble Truth as symptoms, the Second as diagnosis, the Third Noble Truth is prognosis: Suffering can be extinguished in its entirety.
To me, the Third Noble Truth is the most exciting of all Four Noble Truths, indeed, the most exciting discovery in history of mankind. Why?
Well, just think about what it says: Suffering is curable. All we have to do is eliminate the cause.
You may be thinking, duh, that's obvious. But is it? Removing the cause of a disease does not necessarily produce the cure. If you get lung cancer and quit smoking, you do not get cured. At least not without additional therapy.
But not so with dukkha, the suffering present in the lives of all sentient beings. This suffering is curable, and the cure is fairly simple: Just quit craving. Simple at least notionally. The Third Noble Truth does not say how to quit craving (the Fourth does). But it says it is possible, and within reach of everyone.
There is more to it: It does not say there is a point of no return. That is precisely why I view this Truth as so exciting. Let us consider some implications:
Positively no pressure. Contrast this with the teachings of Christianity. Most Christians believe they have one shot at it. Whether they believe in salvation through good works, or salvation through faith, if you don't get it right by the time you die, you're lost forever.
On the other hand, according to the Third Noble Truth, if you don't get it right the first time, you get a second chance. And a third, fourth, umpteenth, until you get it right. It's never too late.
Ironically, this realization makes it easier to get it right. One might think it would lead Buddhists to slacking off. It does not. Most Buddhists are very relaxed, precisely because of the realization of the Third Noble Truth. And it is easier to think clearly when you are relaxed. And it is a lot easier to get it right when you can think clearly.
- No one is lost. Because it is never too late, everyone can get it right eventually. And because we are essentially smart, we all will get it right. Whether it takes one lifetime or ten million is irrelevant.
When I was a Christian, it was a cause of great anguish and pain seeing my friends I cared for deeply, believing they might end up in hell. As a Buddhist I don't have this problem anymore. I know they'll get it right eventually, many probably even before I do.
Different paths lead to liberation. Indeed, it is not necessary for one to be a Buddhist. That's another thing I don't have to worry about with my friends. I don't need to convert anyone to my way to save him.
Indeed, as a former Catholic priest I am often asked by my Christian friends (not necessarily Catholic either) for advice about their spiritual path. I am quite honored when that happens. And I am happy to help them. I'd rather see them grow and mature on the path they are walking than try to confuse them with a new path and perhaps delay their final liberation.
One final note: I said anyone can figure out the first two Noble Truths. Not so with the Third. I mean, we could speculate that quitting craving stops suffering. But that would be only theory. Only a Buddha can state it as a truth. A Buddha has quit craving and stopped suffering. To him the Third Noble Truth is beyond speculation. He knows what he is talking about because he has done it.