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The First Noble Truth

After his experiences as a prince and as a wandering monk, the Buddha had learnt that all people have one thing in common: if they think about their own life, or look at the world around them, they will see that life is full of suffering.

Suffering, he said, may be physical or mental. The Buddha's most important teachings were focused on a way to end the suffering he had experienced and had seen in other people. His discovery of the solution began with the recognition that life is suffering. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths.

Physical Suffering

Physical suffering takes many forms. All of us have seen at some time an elderly person with aches and pains in their joints, maybe finding it hard to move by themselves or worried about falling over on their sore bones and delicate skin. As we get older all of us find that life can become more difficult for all kinds of reasons; our eyes may not see as well, our hears may not hear as well or our teeth may not be as strong making it harder for us to eat. The pain of disease, which strikes young and old alike, is a reality for us all from time to time, and the pain of death brings much grief and suffering. Even the moment of birth gives pain both to the mother and the child that is born.

The First Noble Truth is that the suffering of birth, old age, sickness and death is unavoidable. Some fortunate people may now be enjoying relatively happy and carefree lives, but it is only a matter of time before they, too, will experience suffering of some kind. What is also true is that this suffering — whether it is a cold, an injury or a sad event — must be borne alone. When you have a cold, it is your cold and only you experience how it feels for you. In another example, a man may be very concerned that his mother is growing old. No matter how much he cares for her he cannot take her place and suffer the pains of aging on her behalf. In the same way, if a boy falls very ill, his mother cannot experience the pains of his illness for him. The Buddha taught people to recognise that suffering is part of life and that it cannot be avoided.

The Story of Kisa Gautami

Mental Suffering

The Buddha also taught that suffering does not only come from the body. There are also forms of mental suffering. People feel sad, lonely or depressed. They suffer when they lose a loved one through separation or death. They feel irritated or uncomfortable when they are in the company of people they dislike or who are unpleasant. People also suffer when they are unable to satisfy their limitless needs and wants. A baby cries when he cannot communicate his hunger, or when he wants something he cannot have. Teenagers may feel utterly frustrated and dejected if their parents won't let them join a late-night party, watch certain movies or buy the clothes they want. Adults too can feel unhappy when they cannot pay their bills, frustrated when their job bores them or lonely when their relationships are unfulfilling or complicated. All these experiences are examples of what Buddhists call mental suffering — they can be summed up as painful feelings that arise from being separated from the people we love, or having to be with people we don't like, or not getting what we want.

Happiness in Life

When the Buddha said that there is suffering in life, He also spoke about happiness. Buddhists speak of many different kinds of happiness; the happiness of friendship; of family life; of a healthy body and mind; happiness from celebration and gifts, as well as from sharing and giving. Buddhists believe that happiness is real but impermanent — that is does not last forever — and that when happiness fades it leads to suffering. Imagine a person who is given a beautiful vase as a gift from a close friend. They feel happy that their friend cares about them and has chosen them a gift that suits their house perfectly. But if the vase was to smash accidentally, then the happiness would vanish and turn into suffering. The person suffers because their attachment to pleasure has not lasted.

Buddhists learn that many people try to escape from the suffering in life by distracting themselves with temporary pleasures. There are many examples of people who try to block out sadness, pain, loss and grief by indulging in pleasures they think will bring happiness but actually end up disguising their real feelings, and making them feel even worse when the temporary happiness runs out. Imagine a person who likes chocolate, for example, and thinks that the wonderful experience of eating chocolate will always make them happy. If that person has a toothache and tries to make themselves feel better by eating chocolate, it might work once or twice, but the chocolate will never solve the toothache and soon it will make it worse.

In this way, the Buddha taught his followers not to be distracted by momentary pleasures, but to look at the bigger picture of their life experiences. He taught that happiness and pleasures are temporary and therefore that people should learn more about what Buddha taught as the True way to end suffering. He taught these lessons in the next Three Noble Truths.


Suffering is a fact of life. There are four unavoidable physical sufferings; birth, old age, sickness and death. There are also three forms of mental suffering; separation from the people we love; contact with people we dislike and frustration of desires. Happiness is real and comes in many ways, but happiness does not last forever and does not stop suffering. Buddhists believe that the way to end suffering is to first accept the fact that suffering is actually a fact of life.

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