The Buddhas First Noble Truth
When Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree, he resolved that he would not rise until he found the way out of suffering. And when he rose after his enlightenment he came to the realization of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
The Buddhas First Noble Truth (Arya satya in Sanskrit) is that all sentient beings are subject to Dukkha which is commonly translated as “suffering, pain, sorrow, misery” but it also has a deeper meaning of “unsatisfactoriness, frustration, seperation”.
As Piyadassi Thera writes in the book “The Buddha’s Ancient Path” : “To the Buddha the entire teaching is just the understanding of dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of all phenomenal existence, and the understanding of the way out of this unsatisfactoriness.”
Examples of dukkha (I will use the word suffering to keep it simple) include sickness, old age, and death as well as living in poverty, not getting things you might want.
However this does not mean that life sucks or that Buddhism teaches nihilism (existence being pointless), though when we are experiencing dukkha it may seem that way. Buddhism teaches neither idealism or nihilism, but instead is about seeing the world realistically.
Even happiness that we experience in our daily lives are subject to change so even they will not last when your happiness is rooted in things outside of you. Instead the Buddha encourages us to go within and experience our true nature, which can be summed up in one word: BLISS!
So this is why when you see many Buddhist monks looking happy and joyful, when your happiness comes from within and from a realistic view, often called Right View in the Eightfold Path, though I don’t like using the term Right since that implies dualism, which Buddhism definitely is not.
The Three Types of Suffering
- Suffering of suffering – This is the suffering we experience day to day which can include sickness and old age. Since we as humans have an innate fear of suffering, we tend to engage in behaviors that will eliminate our suffering or at least make it a little more bearable.It also means that we suffer when we don’t get what we want or when we start thinking about what we should’ve done in the past or obsess over the future.It is for this reason that so many people turn to alcohol, drugs, work, video games, or any other distractions. And in fact, the Buddha discouraged using substances since it just clouds the mind and is will not liberate us from our suffering.In the Lotus Sutra Buddha says the following:
“What is suffering upon suffering? It is that which is painful when arising, painful when remaining, and pleasant when changing.”
- Suffering of change – This refers to the suffering we feel when change occurs. It could be that all that you have accumulated to bring you happiness, now bring you deep dissatisfaction.Everything in this world is ultimately impermanent, everything arises and passes away.A good example is when we go on vacation and are having a good time. But when we have to return to our normal lives, we experience suffering because we want the good times to go on forever.However this is not a realistic way of seeing the world. Again Buddha states in the Lotus Sutra: “The suffering of change is that which is pleasant when arising, pleasant when remaining, but painful when ceasing.”
- All-pervasive Suffering of Conditioning –
In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha explains this as “The suffering of being conditioned that is not readily apparent when it arises, remains, or ceases, but it is still the cause of suffering”This is considered to be the root of the three sufferings, since this suffering arises out of the actions we take when we desire liberation from the first two kinds of sufferings. Basically you can see this as the subconscious undercurrent of suffering.This also refers to the fact that there is always the potential for suffering when our minds are focused on Samsara (this world where we believe we are separate from everyone and everything else).But this doesn’t end with death since we are then reborn in a different body (great emphasis is placed on this in Tibetan Buddhism).And when we are reborn we will again experience problems and have the potential for future suffering. This is the undercurrent of suffering that we experience living in what appears to be a dualistic reality.
“Hundreds of stupid flies gather
On a piece of rotten meat,
Enjoying, they think, a delicious feast.
This image fits with the song
Of the myriads of foolish living beings
Who seek happiness in superficial pleasures;
In countless ways they try,
Yet I have never seen them satisfied.”
– The 7th Dalai Lama from Glenn Mullin’s book ‘Songs of Spiritual Change’
So essentially, Buddhas First Noble Truth teaches that we experience suffering in life but how we respond to that suffering is what’s important. We can either try to cover it up with substances or distractions out of fear, or we can sit with the suffering, feel compassion for the suffering, and not run from it.
We experience so many different types of suffering though we may not always be aware of their suffering. I think this in part because we are so used to it or may be in denial thinking that all there is to experience is suffering and that there is no liberation from it.
This suffering is also felt by other animals, humans are not the only sentient beings in our world, so removing humans from the equation wouldn’t solve the suffering
But the Buddha when asked about what he taught, he replied:
“I teach only dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.” So with these words the Buddha implied that we should look to the present moment.
Here is a great talk by Dr. Robert Thurman that will give even more insights regarding the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path:
May we attain perfect Buddhahood for the sake of all living beings!
Please share your thoughts on this in the comments.
Also and if you’d like to read more on the topic or want to get the gift of Dharma to a friend or loved one, please check out the books below.
Next post: “Buddhas Second Noble Truth”