Understanding the First Noble Truth.


Life is suffering. The truth of suffering.

You’ve heard these statements of the Buddha about the nature of this life. Over the past one hundred years, much of the Buddha’s teachings have made their way into Western thought and culture. Knowing that all of the Buddha’s teachings revolve around the four noble truths, we should be sure to come to a correct understanding about what he meant when he laid out his foundational teachings.

In his first sermon, the Buddha taught:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha.

 It is easy to see how the early translators of the dharma may have chosen suffering or pain as a substitute for the Sanskrit term dukkha (Tib. sdug bsngal). It makes sense, birth is painful, aging is suffering, not getting what you want is painful. Those translations offer insight into what the Buddha was trying to convey.

But words are limited in their meaning.

The Buddha first states that birth, aging, illness and death are all dukkha. Every stage of human life is dukkha. The human condition is subject to pain and suffering, discomfort and unease.

The Buddha then says that uniting with what is displeasing is dukkha. It is unsatisfying, frustrating, miserable.

Next we find that separation from what is pleasing is dukkha. It is grief, sadness, distress.

The Buddha goes on to say that not getting what one wants is dukkha. It is despair, disappointing, upsetting.

Finally, the Buddha states that the five aggregates, or all conditioned phenomena, are dukkha. There is a basic unsatisfactoriness that pervades all forms of the human condition, which is subject to change, impermanent, and without any lasting substance. That which changes, is impermanent and incapable of satisfying us.

Later in his first discourse, the Buddha taught that dukkha was to be fully understood. What are we to understand? Is it enough to understand that life is suffering?

We need to understand the human condition in its entirety. The central tenet of the Buddha’s teachings is that we need to understand our own pain and suffering, but also the myriad ways in which we fall into states of loss and sadness, dissatisfaction and despair. We need to fully understand how all things change, how the very nature of this life and this world is that it is impermanent and without any lasting substance.

Dukkha includes understanding suffering, but it is much more than suffering. It is understanding the human condition, and all that it entails.

Finally, we should take a look at what is meant by ‘understand’. Is it to be known, acknowledged, or perceived?

It is not enough to know the words or even the meaning. To fully understand dukkha we have to be aware of dukkha, acknowledge it, feel it, and sit with it. We need to see it and listen to it. We need to fight the urge to wallow in it, push it away, or pretend it isn’t there.

Then we might understand the first noble truth, the truth of dukkha.