Note: Before reading this, please note the title. I am offering my interpretation of what the Buddha said. I do this from my experiences and view of life, and think it is the most useful one to me personally. I put it my interpretations bluntly, but it is not meant to offend, rather to provide a contrast to the language usually used and thereby provide insight. In short, no offence, mate.
I am asked from time to time about the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha discovered in his experience of enlightenment. Most Buddhists today would rank this one of the fundamental tenets of their religion. I talk about it here because I think it has value for everyone, regardless of religion or path.
So, to quote Wikipedia:
Truth Numero Uno: The Nature of Suffering (Dukkha): "Now this ... is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering."
My interpretation: Life sucks.
That's it. The experience of suffering is very closely bound up with life. The very act of traversing life will bring up the potential for the experience of suffering. Why? Because life's intrinsic nature is cyclical. It has ups and downs. "Good" things happen and "bad" things happen. Simple as that.
Truth Number Two:
Suffering's Origin (Samudaya): "Now this ... is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination."
My interpretation: Life sucks because you want things.
The second truth is actually remarkably profound. It points out that it is not the intrinsic nature of existence which creates suffering. Rather, it is the emotional push-pull of want that creates pain. When reality exceeds our wildest dreams, we experience joy. When reality falls below our hopes, we experience suffering. It's rather silly, but there we are.
The proposition is actually obvious once you think about it: It's not life that is out to get you. You get yourself by setting desires and expectations one way or the other. Hence the saying, "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional."
Truth Number Three:
Suffering's Cessation (Nirodha): "Now this ... is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it."
My interpretation: So stop wanting things. Then life won't suck anymore.
This is where it gets tricky. To stop wanting things is different from stopping to have goals and causes. It simply is an exhortation to free yourself of the chains of want. At no point was it said that you have to stop moving towards an end, or to stop choosing to create ends. I somehow doubt Buddha wanted us to become rocks, not even bothering to move or eat. A more likely interpretation is: You can have a destination, but enjoy the journey and quit going on those ego trips.
Truth Number Four:
The Way (Mārga) Leading to the Cessation of Suffering: "Now this ... is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration."
My interpretation: Deal with it.
I actually think Buddha pulled a quick one here. No kidding. I know he gave the path as the Noble Eightfold Path, but I have yet to see a clear exposition of what the right view, right intention, etc actually are. My own experience is that what is "right" changes as you advance through different life experiences. Thus, someone on the Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) path would act in one way. The Mahayanist (practitioner of the Mahayana/Greater Vehicle path) would act in another. The Vajrayana/Tantrayana (Diamond Vehicle) path practitioner might do something totally different. Interestingly enough, each is likely to tell the other they've gotten it wrong.
So how do we deal with it? Hey, if Buddha saw fit to fudge that one, I'm not going to contradict him! (Actually, it's because I'd launch into a lecture, and we don't want that...)
PostScript: After I wrote this piece, I found this on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXmdKWVirUA&feature=related
The Dalai Lama on the subject of the Four Noble Truths. If anyone is qualified to speak on the subject, he is.