What is the Noble Truth of Suffering?
Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering:
in short the five categories affected by clinging are suffering.
There is this Noble Truth of Suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing, light that arose in me about things not heard before.
This Noble Truth must be penetrated by fully understanding suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing, and light that arose in me about things not heard before.
This Noble Truth has been penetrated by fully understanding suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing, and light that arose in me about things not heard before.
[Samyutta Nikaya, LVI, 11]
The First Noble Truth with its three aspects is: 'There is suffering, dukkha. Dukkha should be understood. Dukkha has been understood.'
This is a very skilful teaching because it is expressed in a simple formula which is easy to remember, and it also applies to everything that you can possibly experience or do or think concerning the past, the present or the future.
Suffering or dukkha is the common bond we all share. Everybody everywhere suffers. Human beings suffered in the past, in ancient India; they suffer in modern Britain; and in the future, human beings will also suffer ... What do we have in common with Queen Elizabeth? -- we suffer. With a tramp in Charing Cross, what do we have in common? -- suffering. It includes all levels from the most privileged human beings to the most desperate and underprivileged ones, and all ranges in between. Everybody everywhere suffers. It is a bond we have with each other, something we all understand.
When we talk about our human suffering, it brings out our compassionate tendencies. But when we talk about our opinions, about what I think and what you think about politics and religion, then we can get into wars. I remember seeing a film in London about ten years ago. It tried to portray Russian people as human beings by showing Russian women with babies and Russian men taking their children out for picnics. At the time, this presentation of the Russian people was unusual because most of the propaganda of the West made them out to be titanic monsters or cold-hearted, reptilian people -- and so you never thought of them as human beings. If you want to kill people, you have to make them out to be that way; you cannot very well kill somebody if you realise they suffer the way you do. You have to think that they are cold-hearted, immoral, worthless and bad, and that it is better to get rid of them. You have to think that they are evil and that it is good to get rid of evil. With this attitude, you might feel justified in bombing and machine-gunning them. If you keep in mind our common bond of suffering, that makes you quite incapable of doing those things.
The First Noble Truth is not a dismal metaphysical statement saying that everything is suffering. Notice that there is a difference between a metaphysical doctrine in which you are making a statement about the Absolute and a Noble Truth which is a reflection. A Noble Truth is a truth to reflect upon; it is not an absolute; it is not The Absolute. This is where Western people get very confused because they interpret this Noble Truth as a kind of metaphysical truth of Buddhism -- but it was never meant to be that.
You can see that the First Noble Truth is not an absolute statement because of the Fourth Noble Truth, which is the way of non-suffering. You cannot have absolute suffering and then have a way out of it, can you? That doesn't make sense. Yet some people will pick up on the First Noble Truth and say that the Buddha taught that everything is suffering.
The Pali word, dukkha, means 'incapable of satisfying' or 'not able to bear or withstand anything': always changing, incapable of truly fulfilling us or making us happy. The sensual world is like that, a vibration in nature. It would, in fact, be terrible if we did find satisfaction in the sensory world because then we wouldn't search beyond it; we'd just be bound to it. However, as we awaken to this dukkha, we begin to find the way out so that we are no longer constantly trapped in sensory consciousness.
It is important to reflect on the phrasing of the First Noble Truth. It is phrased in a very clear way: 'There is suffering,' rather than, 'I suffer.' Psychologically, that reflection is a much more skilful way to put it. We tend to interpret our suffering as 'I'm really suffering. I suffer a lot -- and I don't want to suffer.' This is the way our thinking mind is conditioned.
'I am suffering' always conveys the sense of 'I am somebody who is suffering a lot. This suffering is mine; I've had a lot of suffering in my life.' Then the whole process, the association with one's self and one's memory, takes off. You remember what happened when you were a baby ... and so on.
But note, we are not saying there is someone who has suffering. It is not personal suffering anymore when we see it as 'There is suffering'. It is not: 'Oh, poor me, why do I have to suffer so much? What did I do to deserve this? Why do I have to get old? Why do I have to have sorrow, pain, grief and despair? It is not fair! I do not want it. I only want happiness and security.' This kind of thinking comes from ignorance which complicates everything and results in personality problems.
To let go of suffering, we have to admit it into consciousness. But the admission in Buddhist meditation is not from a position of: 'I am suffering' but rather 'There is the presence of suffering' because we are not trying to identify with the problem but simply acknowledge that there is one. It is unskilful to think in terms of: 'I am an angry person; I get angry so easily; how do I get rid of it?' -- that triggers off all the underlying assumptions of a self and it is very hard to get any perspective on that. It becomes very confused because the sense of my problems or my thoughts takes us very easily to suppression or to making judgements about it and criticising ourselves. We tend to grasp and identify rather than to observe, witness and understand things as they are. When you are just admitting that there is this feeling of confusion, that there is this greed or anger, then there is an honest reflection on the way it is and you have taken out all the underlying assumptions -- or at least undermined them.
So do not grasp these things as personal faults but keep contemplating these conditions as impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self. Keep reflecting, seeing them as they are. The tendency is to view life from the sense that these are my problems, and that one is being very honest and forthright in admitting this. Then our life tends to reaffirm that because we keep operating from that wrong assumption. But that very viewpoint is impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self.
'There is suffering' is a very clear, precise acknowledgement that at this time, there is some feeling of unhappiness. It can range from anguish and despair to mild irritation, dukkha does not necessarily mean severe suffering. You do not have to be brutalised by life; you do not have to come from Auschwitz or Belsen to say that there is suffering. Even Queen Elizabeth could say, 'There is suffering.' I'm sure she has moments of great anguish and despair or, at least, moments of irritation.
The sensory world is a sensitive experience. It means you are always being exposed to pleasure and pain and the dualism of samsara. It is like being in something that is very vulnerable and picking up everything that happens to come in contact with these bodies and their senses. That is the way it is. That is the result of birth.
Suffering is something we usually do not want to know -- we just want to get rid of it. As soon as there is any inconvenience or annoyance, the tendency of an unawakened human being is to get rid of it or suppress it. One can see why modern society is so caught up in seeking pleasures and delights in what is new, exciting or romantic. We tend to emphasise the beauties and pleasures of youth whilst the ugly side of life -- old age, sickness, death, boredom, despair and depression, are pushed aside. When we find ourselves with something we do not like, we try to get away from it to something we do like. If we feel boredom, we go to something interesting. If we feel frightened, we try to find safety. This is a perfectly natural thing to do. We are associated with that pleasure/pain principle of being attracted and repelled. So if the mind is not full and receptive, then it is selective -- it selects what it likes and tries to suppress what it does not like. Much of our experience has to be suppressed because a lot of what we are inevitably involved with is unpleasant in some way.
If anything unpleasant arises we say, 'Run away!' If anyone gets in our way we say, 'Kill him!' This tendency is often apparent in what our governments do ... Frightening, isn't it, when you think of the kind of people who run our countries -- because they are still very ignorant and unenlightened. But that is the way it is. The ignorant mind thinks of extermination: 'Here's a mosquito; kill it!', 'These ants are taking over the room; spray them with ant killer!' There is a company in London called Rent-o-Kil. I don't know if it is a kind of British mafia or what, but it specialises in killing pests - however you want to interpret the word 'pests'.
That is why we have to have laws such as, 'I will refrain from intentionally killing,' because our instinctual nature is to kill: if it is in the way, kill it. You can see this in the animal kingdom. We are quite predatory creatures ourselves; we think we are civilised but we have a really bloody history -- literally. It is just filled with endless slaughters and justification for all kinds of iniquities against other human beings -- not to mention animals -- and it is all because of this basic ignorance, this unreflecting human mind, that tells us to annihilate what is in our way.
However, with reflection we are changing that; we are transcending that basic instinctual, animal pattern. We are not just being law-abiding puppets of society, afraid to kill because we are afraid of being punished. Now we are really taking on responsibility. We respect the lives of other creatures, even the lives of insects and creatures we do not like. Nobody is ever going to like mosquitoes or ants, but we can reflect on the fact that they have a right to live. That is a reflection of the mind; it is not just a reaction: 'Where is the insecticide spray.' I also don't like to see ants crawling over my floor; my first reaction is, 'Where's the insecticide spray.' But then the reflective mind shows me that even though these creatures are annoying me and I would rather they go away, they have a right to be, a right to exist. That is a reflection of the human mind.
The same applies to unpleasant mind states. So when you are experiencing anger, rather than saying: 'Oh, here I go -- angry again!' we reflect: 'There is anger'. Just like with fear -- if you start seeing it as my mother's fear or my father's fear or the dog's fear or my fear, then it all becomes a sticky web of different creatures related in some ways, unrelated in others; and it becomes difficult to have any understanding. And yet, the fear in this being and the fear in that mangy cur is the same thing. 'There is fear.' It is just that. The fear that I have experienced is no different from the fear others have. So this is where we have compassion even for mangy old dogs. We understand that fear is as horrible for mangy dogs as it is for us. When a dog is kicked with a heavy boot and you are kicked with a heavy boot, that feeling of pain is the same. Pain is just pain, cold is just cold, anger is just anger. It is not mine but rather: 'There is pain.' This is a skilful use of thinking that helps us to see things more clearly rather than reinforcing the personal view. Then as a result of recognising the state of suffering -- that there is suffering -- the second insight of this First Noble Truth comes: 'It should be understood.' This suffering is to be investigated.
I encourage you to try to understand dukkha: to really look at, stand under and accept your suffering. Try to understand it when you are feeling physical pain or despair and anguish,or hatred and aversion -- whatever form it takes, whatever quality it has, whether it is extreme or slight. This teaching does not mean that to get enlightened you have to be utterly and totally miserable. You do not have to have everything taken away from you or be tortured on the rack; it means being able to look at suffering, even if it is just a mild feeling of discontent, and understand it.
It is easy to find a scapegoat for our problems. 'If my mother had really loved me or if everyone around me had been truly wise, and fully dedicated towards providing a perfect environment for me, then I would not have the emotional problems I have now.' This is really silly! Yet that is how some people actually look at the world, thinking that they are confused and miserable because they did not get a fair deal. But with this formula of the First Noble Truth, even if we have had a pretty miserable life, what we are looking at is not that suffering which comes from out there, but what we create in our own minds around it. This is an awakening in a person -- an awakening to the Truth of suffering. And it is a Noble Truth because it is no longer blaming the suffering that we are experiencing on others. Thus, the Buddhist approach is quite unique with respect to other religions because the emphasis is on the way out of suffering through wisdom, freedom from all delusion, rather than the attainment of some blissful state of union with the Ultimate.
Now I am not saying that others are never the source of our frustration and irritation, but what we are pointing at with this teaching is our own reaction to life. If somebody is being nasty to you or deliberately and malevolently trying to cause you to suffer, and you think it is that person who is making you suffer, you still have not understood this First Noble Truth. Even if he is pulling out your fingernails or doing other terrible things to you -- as long as you think that you are suffering because of that person, you have not understood this First Noble Truth. To understand suffering is to see clearly that it is our reaction to the person pulling out our fingernails, 'I hate you', that is suffering. The actual pulling out of one's fingernails is painful, but the suffering involves 'I hate you' and 'How can you do this to me' and 'I'll never forgive you'.
However, don't wait for somebody to pull out your fingernails in order to practise with the First Noble Truth. Try it with little things, like somebody being insensitive or rude or ignoring you. If you are suffering because that person has slighted you or offended you in some way, you can work with that. There are many times in daily life when we can be offended or upset. We can feel annoyed or irritated just by the way somebody walks or looks, at least I can. Sometimes you can notice yourself feeling aversion just because of the way somebody walks or because they don't do something that they should -- one can get very upset and angry about things like that. The person has not really harmed you or done anything to you, like pulling out your fingernails, but you still suffer. If you cannot look at suffering in these simple cases, you will never be able to be so heroic as to do it, if ever somebody is actually pulling out your fingernails!
We work with the little dissatisfactions in the ordinariness of life. We look at the way we can be hurt and offended or annoyed and irritated by the neighbours, by the people we live with, by Mrs.Thatcher, by the way things are or by ourselves. We know that this suffering should be understood. We practise by really looking at suffering as an object and understanding: 'This is suffering.' So we have the insightful understanding of suffering.
We can investigate: Where has this hedonistic seeking of pleasure as an end in itself brought us? It has continued now for several decades but is humanity any happier as a result? It seems that nowadays we have been given the right and freedom to do anything we like with drugs, sex, travel and so on -- anything goes; anything is allowed; nothing is forbidden. You have to do something really obscene, really violent, before you'll be ostracised. But has being able to follow our impulses made us any happier or more relaxed and contented? In fact, it has tended to make us very selfish; we don't think about how our actions might affect others. We tend to think only about ourselves: me and my happiness, my freedom and my rights. So I become a terrible nuisance, a source of great frustration, annoyance and misery for the people around me. If I think I can do anything I want or say anything I feel like saying, even at the expense of others, then I'm a person who is nothing but a nuisance to society.
When the sense of 'what I want' and 'what I think should and should not be' arises, and we wish to delight in all the pleasures of life, we inevitably get upset because life seems so hopeless and everything seems to go wrong. We just get whirled about by life -- just running around in states of fear and desire. And even when we get everything we want, we will think there is something missing, something incomplete yet. So even when life is at its best, there is still this sense of suffering -- something yet to be done, some kind of doubt or fear haunting us.
For example, I've always liked beautiful scenery. Once during a retreat that I led in Switzerland, I was taken to some beautiful mountains and noticed that there was always a sense of anguish in my mind because there was so much beauty, a continual flow of beautiful sights. I had the feeling of wanting to hold on to everything, that I had to keep alert all the time in order to consume everything with my eyes. It was really wearing me out! Now that was dukkha, wasn't it?
I find that if I do things heedlessly -- even something quite harmless like looking at beautiful mountains -- if I'm just reaching out and trying to hold on to something, it always brings an unpleasant feeling. How can you hold on to the Jungfrau and the Eiger? The best you can do is to take a picture of it, trying to capture everything on a piece of paper. That's dukkha; if you want to hold on to something which is beautiful because you don't want to be separated from it -- that is suffering.
Having to be in situations you don't like is also suffering. For example, I never liked riding in the Underground in London. I'd complain about it: 'I don't want to go on the underground with those awful posters and dingy Underground stations. I don't want to be packed into those little trains under the ground.' I found it a totally unpleasant experience. But I'd listen to this complaining, moaning voice -- the suffering of not wanting to be with something unpleasant. Then, having contemplated this, I stopped making anything of it so that I could be with the unpleasant and un-beautiful without suffering about it. I realised that it's just that way and it's all right. We needn't make problems -- either about being in a dingy Underground station or about looking at beautiful scenery. Things are as they are, so we can recognise and appreciate them in their changing forms without grasping. Grasping is wanting to hold on to something we like; wanting to get rid of something we don't like; or wanting to get something we don't have.
We can also suffer a lot because of other people. I remember that in Thailand I used to have quite negative thoughts about one of the monks. Then he'd do something and I'd think, 'He shouldn't do that,' or he'd say something, 'He shouldn't say that!' I'd carry this monk around in my mind and then, even if I went to some other place, I'd think of that monk; the perception of him would arise and the same reactions would come: 'Do you remember when he said this and when he did that?' and: 'He shouldn't have said that and he shouldn't have done that.'
Having found a teacher like Ajahn Chah, I remember wanting him to be perfect. I'd think, 'Oh, he's a marvellous teacher -- marvellous!' But then he might do something that would upset me and I'd think, 'I don't want him to do anything that upsets me because I like to think of him as being marvellous.' That was like saying, 'Ajahn Chah, be marvellous for me all the time. Don't ever do anything that will put any kind of negative thought into my mind.' So even when you find somebody that you really respect and love, there's still the suffering of attachment. Inevitably, they will do or say something that you're not going to like or approve of, causing you some kind of doubt -- and you'll suffer.
At one time, several American monks came to Wat Pah Pong, our monastery in Northeastern Thailand. They were very critical and it seemed that they only saw what was wrong with it. They didn't think Ajahn Chah was a very good teacher and they didn't like the monastery. I felt a great anger and hatred arising because they were criticising something that I loved. I felt indignant -- 'Well, if you don't like it, get out of here. He's the finest teacher in the world and if you can't see that then just GO!' That kind of attachment -- being in love or being devoted -- is suffering because if something or someone you love or like is criticised, you feel angry and indignant.
Sometimes insight arises at the most unexpected times. This happened to me while living at Wat Pah Pong. The Northeastern part of Thailand is not the most beautiful or desirable place in the world with its scrubby forests and flat plain; it also gets extremely hot during the hot season. We'd have to go out in the heat of the mid-afternoon before each of the Observance Days and sweep the leaves off the paths. There were vast areas to sweep. We would spend the whole afternoon in the hot sun, sweating and sweeping the leaves into piles with crude brooms; this was one of our duties. I didn't like doing this. I'd think, 'I don't want to do this. I didn't come here to sweep the leaves off the ground; I came here to get enlightened -- and instead they have me sweeping leaves off the ground. Besides, it's hot and I have a fair skin; I might get skin cancer from being out here in a hot climate.'
I was standing out there one afternoon, feeling really miserable, thinking, 'What am I doing here? Why did I come here? Why am I staying here?' There I stood with my long crude broom and absolutely no energy, feeling sorry for myself and hating everything. Then Ajahn Chah came up, smiled at me and said, 'Wat Pah Pong is a lot of suffering, isn't it?' and walked away. So I thought, 'Why did he say that?' and, 'Actually, you know, it's not all that bad.' He got me to contemplate: Is sweeping the leaves really that unpleasant? ... No, it's not. It's a kind of neutral thing; you sweep the leaves, and it's neither here nor there ... Is sweating all that terrible? Is it really a miserable, humiliating experience? Is it really as bad as I'm pretending it is? ... No -- sweating is all right, it's a perfectly natural thing to be doing. And I don't have skin cancer and the people at Wat Pah Pong are very nice. The teacher is a very kind wise man. The monks have treated me well. The lay people come and give me food to eat, and ... What am I complaining about?'
Reflecting upon the actual experience of being there, I thought, 'I'm all right. People respect me, I'm treated well. I'm being taught by pleasant people in a very pleasant country. There's nothing really wrong with anything, except me; I'm making a problem out of it because I don't want to sweat and I don't want to sweep leaves.' Then I had a very clear insight. I suddenly perceived something in me which was always complaining and criticising, and which was preventing me from ever giving myself to anything or offering myself to any situation.
Another experience I learned from was the custom of washing the feet of the senior monks when they returned from the almsround. After they walked barefoot through the villages and rice paddies, their feet would be muddy. There were foot baths outside the dining hall. When Ajahn Chah would come, all the monks -- maybe twenty or thirty of them -- would rush out and wash Ajahn Chah's feet. When I first saw this I thought, 'I'm not going to do that -- not me!' Then the next day, thirty monks rushed out as soon as Ajahn Chah appeared and washed his feet -- I thought, 'What a stupid thing to be doing - thirty monks washing one man's feet. I'm not going to do that.' The day after that, the reaction became even more violent ... thirty monks rushed out and washed Ajahn Chah's feet and ... 'That really angers me, I'm fed up with it! I just feel that is the most stupid thing I've ever seen -- thirty men going out to wash one man's feet! He probably thinks he deserves it, you know -- it's really building up his ego. He's probably got an enormous ego, having so many people wash his feet every day. I'll never do that!'
I was beginning to build up a strong reaction, an overreaction. I would sit there really feeling miserable and angry. I'd look at the monks and I'd think, 'They all look stupid to me. I don't know what I'm doing here.'
But then I started listening and I thought, 'This is really an unpleasant frame of mind to be in. Is it anything to get upset about? They haven't made me do it. It's all right; there's nothing wrong with thirty men washing one man's feet. It's not immoral or bad behaviour and maybe they enjoy it; maybe they want to do it -- maybe it's all right to do that ... Maybe I should do it!' So the next morning, thirty-one monks ran out and washed Ajahn Chah's feet. There was no problem after that. It felt really good: that nasty thing in me had stopped.
We can reflect upon these things that arouse indignation and anger in us: is something really wrong with them or is it something we create dukkha about? Then we begin to understand the problems we create in our own lives and in the lives of the people around us.
With mindfulness, we are willing to bear with the whole of life; with the excitement and the boredom, the hope and the despair, the pleasure and the pain, the fascination and the weariness, the beginning and the ending, the birth and the death. We are willing to accept the whole of it in the mind rather than absorb into just the pleasant and suppress the unpleasant. The process of insight is the going to dukkha, looking at dukkha, admitting dukkha, recognising dukkha in all its forms. Then you are no longer just reacting in the habitual way of indulgence or suppression. And because of that, you can bear with suffering more, you can be more patient with it.
These teachings are not outside our experience. They are, in fact, reflections of our actual experience -- not complicated intellectual issues. So really put effort into development rather than just getting stuck in a rut. How many times do you have to feel guilty about your abortion or the mistakes you have made in the past? Do you have to spend all your time just regurgitating the things that have happened to you in your life and indulging in endless speculation and analysis? Some people make themselves into such complicated personalities. If you just indulge in your memories and views and opinions, then you will always stay stuck in the world and never transcend it in any way.
You can let go of this burden if you are willing to use the teachings skilfully. Tell yourself: 'I'm not going to get caught in this any more; I refuse to participate in this game. I'm not going to give in to this mood.' Start putting yourself in the position of knowing: 'I know this is dukkha; there is dukkha.' It's really important to make this resolution to go where the suffering is and then abide with it. It is only by examining and confronting suffering in this way that one can hope to have the tremendous insight: 'This suffering has been understood.'
So these are the three aspects of the First Noble Truth. This is the formula that we must use and apply in reflection on our lives. Whenever you feel suffering, first make the recognition: 'There is suffering', then: 'It should be understood', and finally: 'It has been understood'. This understanding of dukkha is the insight into the First Noble Truth.
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2. Observance Day (in Pali: Uposatha): a sacred day or 'sabbath', occurring every lunar fortnight. On this day, Buddhists re-affirm their Dhamma practice in terms of precepts and meditation. [Back to text]