Buddhas First Noble Truth – The Truth of Suffering

The Buddhas First Noble Truth

buddhas first noble truthWhen 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.

buddhas first noble truth

The Wheel of Samsara

The Three Types of Suffering

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.

    buddhas first noble truth

    7th Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso (1708 – 1757)The 7th Dalai Lama put it this way:

“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.

buddhas first noble truth

Avalokiteshvara The Buddha of Infinite Compassion (from Lotus Sutra)

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”

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21 Responses to Buddhas First Noble Truth – The Truth of Suffering

  1. Jenny says:

    An interesting site, I have not much religious experience. However I can see the principles of the ‘truth of Suffering’ is very relevant to today’s modern stresses. An encourages mindfulness that is much talked about in order to live a less stressful life.

    The site is clear and easy to read and you are obviously knowledgeable on your subject.
    I like the short, but not too short paragraphs. I sometimes find that in an effort to keep the reader interested writers cut their writing too short for ‘punchiness’ but you have achieved a nice balance.

    • Ian H says:

      Thanks! Balance is what I was going for so I’m delighted that it comes across well.

      I think that many people do talk about mindfulness out of context but very few people actually practice it. And sometimes people who claim to teach mindfulness aren’t being mindful at all.

      Buddhism isn’t about a religious experience, Buddhism is essentially Realism since we are looking within into the very nature of reality.

      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  2. Alice says:

    Im also a very spiritual person and i enjoyed reading your article.
    What you say is true: suffering is a part of everyones life. Especially when your a spiritual person and you want to grow, some people dont understand you. That can hurt yes, but its also important that you dont stuck in your pain and handle it in the best way.
    Im not so familiar with buddhism, but what helps me in difficult situations are the lessons of the thoughtlessness. This gives me some peace and clarity in my mind.
    Nice site, i wish you the best in your spiritual journey!

    Best regards,

    • Ian H says:

      Thank you Alice! Yes, I can certainly understand how some people can react negatively to one’s path and a lot of the time people can grow apart because they feel threatened by their friends or partners commitment to a different mindset. But this cannot be escaped because dukkha, instead we should sit with our suffering and feel compassion for that part of us, and let it go. Definitely easier said than done, but not impossible.

  3. Carol says:

    Hi Alice. I found this article quite inspiring. With our western lifestyle and focus on ‘separateness’ and ‘materialism’ it is easy to forget that suffering has a spiritual dimension. I see parallels between this and the practice of mindfulness and acceptance. Unfortunately growth takes time and effort which makes it difficult! But I shall be taking a closer look at some of the books you have recommended – I would like to know more about Buddhism.

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Carol, I’m not Alice, I’m Ian haha

      Yes, mindfulness and acceptance are definitely big parts of the Buddhist path. Sometimes when we contemplate some of the teachings it might lead us to a shift in our understanding of the nature of reality.

      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  4. Joon says:

    This is the best article I came across so far. Mostly because this is something that I’m truly interested in. I am not a buddhist and I don’t know much in details about buddhism. I’m not particularly religious but I take from everything which I deem is very beneficial in life. I do “fully” understand first two sufferings. The third one may take time to understand. Maybe along my journey in the future, I may be able to grasp what the third suffering is talking about more clearly. Please do keep sharing these stuff….I know I’m being a bit selfish(?) but in this way I’ll learn more about these great “wisdoms.” Thank you so much.

    • Ian H says:

      Thank you! The Buddha did not say to take his findings on blind faith, but encouraged all to see for themselves.

      I will definitely be posting more. Stay tuned!

  5. tatihden says:

    Fun memories! Buddhism was one of the several topics I studied in my humanity class. I was facinated by all the religions I studied. In my class we were taught that Siddhartha was a prince by birth ( with is usually represented in statues or imagery by a big ear lobe ) and had spent all of his life in the palace protected from the pains of the outside world. One day, I think on his birthday he took a ride out of the palace and was exposed to the truth of death, sickness and old age. He decided to dedicate his life to the persuit of the four noble truths. Thanks for this amazing post. It stirred up some nice old memories.

    • Ian H says:

      Siddhartha was indeed a prince and it was foretold that he would either be a great king or a great spiritual teacher.

      I’m glad I stirred up some good memories. Thats awesome.

  6. bmanha2015 says:

    Hello, at first I was a bit confused since not being a religious person, it caught me a bit off guard as to the intention of the site. However, as the site moved along I realized that the message you were trying to give was about how we deal with the suffering that we get in life and not the suffering itself. I think that this quote is the mindset of what this site is trying to teach as this suffering is not only limited to humans as well. Good message.

    • Ian H says:

      That is one of the intentions. The main intention is to educate others about the teachings of the Buddha. To give others the tools needed to awaken to the ultimate nature of reality.

  7. dan700 says:

    Hi Ian,

    Back in high school I was really interested in Buddhism and I read a lot about it. Since then I have been reading about it less and I kept on living my life running from one experience to another. Whenever I do read something about Buddhism, I again remember the much deeper layer of tranquility that lies underneath all experience. Thank you for reminding me.

  8. NemiraB says:

    Hello here, thanks for engaging read. I did not know about Buddha before and his teachings, but now I have more knowledge about it, thanks to your website.
    I guess if we accept our suffering, it can be easier to handle, especially if we would ask help from Supreme Being or God.
    Of course, it is not fun when I and you are okay, but a lot people and animals experience illnesses, hunger or they fear for their lives, when somebody is in war zone.
    I wonder if in theses cases empathy helps or prayers ?
    All the best, happy writing, Nemira.

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Nemira,

      Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you were able to learn some things by reading my blog. And yes if we accept our suffering and stop resisting and fighting against it, then we can observe it and direct loving-kindness toward our suffering and to relieve the suffering of all living beings.

      I think even the smallest intention of love and compassion is more powerful than the forces of hate.

      • NemiraB says:

        Yes, you are right, the love heals and diminishes fear, pain and lack of security. We need to learn how to be humble and at the same time trust ourselves, not blaming circumstances or fate.
        All the best, Nemira.

  9. Kiefer says:

    Thanks for this interesting article. I myself am interested in various religions, but am much more familiar with western religions than eastern religions like Buddhism. That said, I am very eager to learn more about Buddhist views.

    One thing I find that is constant among religious traditions is the affirmation of the truth of suffering. Where they differ is in their solutions to suffering. How would you characterize the Buddhist view of how to resolve suffering? Or are there other pages on your site I could read where this question is addressed?

    Thanks again!

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Kiefer,

      Thanks for the comment! The Buddhist “solution” would be the Eightfold Path which is the Buddha’s Fourth Noble Truth. I wrote about it in more detail in another article on my site. I also have articles on the Second and Third Noble Truths as well.

  10. Jared says:

    I am reminded of Bill Moyer’s interview with Joseph Campbell when I read your website. Campbell iterated what I saw on your site: the idea that we experience eternity in the here and now by moving beyond the world of pain and suffering. Suffering is a way of life and there is nothing we can do about. How we respond is what’s important. In the words of Yoda, we “do or do not, there is no try.”

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Jared,

      Joseph Campbell was a brilliant man and I definitely have come across his lectures on Indian religions which are very interesting. I think you nailed it when you say that how we respond the the pain and dissatisfaction of life is what is important.

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