Precursors to Buddha's Four Noble Truths

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a precursor as "one that precedes and indicates the approach of another." Most of the fundamentals of Buddhism have clear and extensive precursors in Solomon's writings in the biblical books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs.1

In this excerpt, we will be making comparisons between the Four Noble Truths (from Buddha's proverbs) and excerpts from Solomon's writings. We will be examining parallels between each of the steps in the Noble Eightfold Path (also from Buddha's proverbs) and Solomon's writings. The Dhammapada is the earliest work purporting to contain the sayings of Buddha, and as such would be more likely to show marks of influence from outside sources than later collections.

First Noble Truth: Life Is Suffering

Even though Solomon was the richest and most famous king of his day, in his later years he developed a very negative view of the fundamental nature of life. Several parts of his Book of Ecclesiastes make this very clear. This same idea is the first of Buddha's noble truths. We will look at four aspects of the "truth" that life is suffering, as expressed by Solomon.

Life Is Suffering and Is Full of Sorrow

Solomon gave a very bleak picture of the nature of life:
    And what profit has he who has labored for the wind? All his days he also eats in darkness, and he has much sorrow and sickness and anger.2

Similarly, Buddha saw life in this world as inherently involving suffering and sorrow:
    "All created things are grief and pain," he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way that leads to purity.3

Suffering Is Pervasive in This World

As Buddha noted in the proverb quoted above, a world full of suffering is pervasive. Solomon shared this view:
    Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.4

Life Is Fleeting

Solomon was painfully aware of the brevity of life and of his future death:
    As he came from his mother's womb, naked shall he return, to go as he came; and he shall take nothing from his labor which he may carry away in his hand. And this also is a severe evil—just exactly as he came, so shall he go.5

Buddha put it this way in the Dhammapada, in a proverb that appears just before the one quoted earlier:
    "All created things perish," he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way to purity.6

It Is Difficult to Be Happy

Both Solomon and Buddha said that happiness is very elusive.
    All things are weary with toil and all words are feeble; man cannot utter it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.7

Similarly, Buddha noted that finding happiness as an ordinary person in society is difficult, much as it is in a monastery:
    It is hard to leave the world (to become a friar), it is hard to enjoy the world; hard is the monastery, painful are the houses.8

Second Noble Truth: Desire Is the Cause of Suffering

A number of Solomon's proverbs focus on specific types of people for whom desire is clearly the cause of suffering. Here is a dramatic example:
    The desire of the lazy [slothful] man kills him, For his hands refuse to labor. He covets greedily all day long, But the righteous gives and does not spare.9

Desire, in this case, leads to death. Likewise, Buddha foresaw death awaiting the pleasure seeker:
    Death subdues a man who is gathering flowers, and whose mind is distracted, before he is satiated in his pleasures.10

Solomon presented coveting as one of the worst forms of desire, for it is a longing to have what someone else has. It is a violation of the Tenth Commandment. Coveting involves envy and jealousy, against which Solomon gave specific warnings about ensuing suffering:
    Envy is rottenness to the bones.11

    An anxious heart weighs a man down.12

    I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.13

Third Noble Truth: The Path to Liberation from Suffering Is to Renounce All Desire

The four-step process is as follows: (1) begin with Solomon's writings, excluding references to God; (2) assume reincarnation; (3) renounce the world; and (4) retreat within to insulate yourself from suffering.

Steps Steps from Solomon to Buddha
Begin with a saying of Solomon's. Banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body.14
Remove all references to God. Him I call indeed a Brahmana who, after leaving all bondage to men, has risen above all bondage to the gods, and is free from all and every bondage.15
Possibly add some element of Indian belief or practice (e.g., reincarnation and the existence of many "worlds"). Him I call indeed a Brahmana who has left what gives pleasure and what gives pain, who is cold, and free from all germs (of renewed life), the hero who has conquered all the worlds.16
Renounce all desires. The Third Noble Truth: The path of liberation from suffering is to renounce all desire.

In the first verse, peace is presumably achieved by renouncing claims to whatever you have been seeking. The alternative is tenaciously desiring something someone else has, which "rots the bones." In other words, envy is bad for one's health. The second verse implies that one is better off with less if striving after more is causing stress.

Fourth Noble Truth: The Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering Is the Noble Eightfold Path

The steps of the righteous person that Solomon advocated are virtually identical to those espoused by Buddha. The dedication that Solomon advised in following his path was substantial, though not as radical as Buddha advocated. Solomon said:
    My son, keep my words and store up my commands within you. Keep my commands and you will live; guard my teachings as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart.17

How might someone write a set of commands "on the tablet" of his or her heart? Would it not be through memorization and meditation? Since meditation was a well-known practice in Judaism during Solomon's life, this would naturally be a reference to such practices.

In a parallel way, Buddha gave this teaching:
    And what, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that 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.18

Buddha also offered this proverb:
    Cut out the love of self, like an autumn lotus, with thy hand! Cherish the road of peace. Nirvana has been shown by Sugata (Buddha).19

The Three Jewels

The 190th proverb in the Dhammapada presents the Three Jewels of Buddhism. Each of these Jewels has a distinct counterpart in orthodox as well as secular Judaism.

The Three Jewels of Buddhism Parallels in Orthodox Judaism Parallels in Secular Judaism
Buddha Moses Solomon
The Dhamma (Buddha's writings) The Torah (Moses' writings) Proverbs and Ecclesiastes
Community of monks (sangha) The Levites (priests) Jewish philosophers

Return to Interrelationships.

Continue to Precursors to Buddha's Eightfold Path: 1) Right View and 2) Right Intention.


1In this book I cite only proverbs attributed to Solomon when referring to the Bible's Book of Proverbs, unless noted otherwise in the text. A few chapters of Proverbs (i.e., chapters 29-31) are attributed to other authors.
2Ecclesiastes 5:16-17 (NKJV).
3Dhammapada 278.
4Ecclesiastes 4:1-2 (NIV).
5Ecclesiastes 5:15-16a (NKJV).
6Dhammapada 277.
7Ecclesiastes 1:8 (AMP).
8Dhammapada 302a.
9Proverbs 21:25-26 (NKJV) (emphasis added).
10Dhammapada 48.
11Proverbs14:30b (NKJV).
12Proverbs 12:25a (NIV).
13Ecclesiastes 4:4b (NASB).
14Ecclesiastes 11:10b (NIV).
15Dhammapada 417.
16Ibid., 418, (emphasis added).
17Proverbs 7:1-3 (NIV).
18Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed., In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005), 75-76 (SN 56:11: Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta; V 420-424).
19Dhammapada 285.

Dhammapada Reference

Friedrich Max Muller, trans., The Dhammapada: A Collection of Verses, Being One of the Canonical Works of the Buddhists, in vol. 10, Part 1, The Sacred Books of the East, translated by Various Oriental Scholars, edited by F. Max Muller, available at Dhammapada (Muller), Wikisource. This work is cited as "Dhammapada" hereafter. To save space, line breaks in quotations from the Dhammapada have not been retained.

Scripture References

Scripture quotations marked (AMP) are taken from the Amplified Bible, Copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations marked (NASB) taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (

Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NKJV) are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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