The First Noble Truth of Dukkha in Buddhism

Buddha in Contemplation

Brahma, the God of Pure Consciousness

by Jayaram V

Summary: A detailed explanation of the First Noble Truth of Dukkha and its four associate truths which will help develop a proper understanding of how suffering is inbuilt in our very minds and bodies and how we are predisposed to experience suffering.

The First Noble Truth of the Buddha is known as the Noble Truth of Dukkha or suffering. He declared it in the following manner in his first sermon, which he delivered at Saranath to his first five disciples.

"Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha." (Samyutta Nikaya LVI.11)

In the context of Buddhism, dukkha or suffering has a broader meaning. It is not just physical pain and suffering but any physical or mental formation, transformation or movement which may arise from birth, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair, association with the undesirable, unattractive or painful, or separation from the desirable, attractive, pleasing or comforting. In short, it encompasses all that which happens in us, which happens to us and which arises from us.

The Buddha himself explained in detail the true meaning of dukkha and the meaning of each of the words which he used in his exposition of the First Noble Truth. Through contemplation and mindful observation, a Buddhist monk not only learns the subtle meaning of each of them but also discerns them in action within himself. With the knowledge and awareness thus gained, he understands the nature of dukkha and learns to bear with it or cope with it or resolve it amidst the turmoil of life.

The First Noble Truth of Dukkha points to the undeniable fact that we are made of suffering and produce suffering. We are the walking, breathing, sensing and experiencing aggregates or formations of dukkha only. In other words, dukkha is inherent in our very formation and constitution and we can never escape from it, unless we find the right way to deal with it. This is well emphasized in the assertion by the Buddha that the “five clinging aggregates are but dukkha only.”

The five clinging aggregates are the body, feelings, perception, mental formations and consciousness. They are known as clinging aggregates because they tend to become attached to the things with which they constantly interact. They are impure, imperfect and defective because they are produced by karma and ignorance, and they in turn produce karma and ignorance. By ignorance we mean lack of discretion (buddhi) and not knowing the truth of suffering, its causes and remedies.

Since karma is continuous and cumulative, and beings are made up of the aggregates of dukkha only, they are in a perpetual state of suffering. They suffer in birth and in death, and keep suffering in the intervening period in between. It continues from one life to another, until the cycle of karma is broken and nirvana is attained.

To counter the thoughts, beliefs and attitudes which aggravate the dukkha which arises from the aggregates of our minds and bodies and to develop a proper understanding of it, Buddhist traditions speak of four facts which are associated with the First Noble Truth. When suffering arises from any of the clinging aggregates in our minds and bodies, we can use them to contain the suffering and learn to live with it or develop a proper understanding of it. These four approaches are briefly explained below.

1. Knowing that the impure aggregates are impermanent

One of the distortions which aggravate our suffering is to hold impermanent things as permanent. Our suffering increases when we lose hope and believe that it is going to continue forever. The truth is, nothing lasts forever. It is true even in case of the suffering, which arises from the impure aggregates of our minds and bodies. The aggregates themselves are impairment and subject to constant, and momentary change, although the momentary changes may not be apparent.

It is a great relief in itself to know that just as everything else in the world, the suffering which arises from us and within us also has a beginning and end and will not last forever. It gives us the hope that we can improve our lives or change or create causes and conditions to alleviate our suffering or cultivate sameness and equanimity. By mindfully observing how our thoughts, desires, suffering, afflictions, feelings, and perceptions arise and subside in our consciousness, we not only perceive impermanence through direct experience but also learn through practice to remain undisturbed by them.

2. Knowing that the impure aggregates are ill-equipped to produce happiness

The second distorted thinking which aggravates our suffering is the belief that we can expect happiness from things and situations that are meant to produce suffering only. The aggregates of our minds and body are defective, imperfect and impure, since they are created by karma and ignorance. They are meant to produce suffering only. Hence, it would be foolish to expect them to act differently or produce effects that are contrary to what they are meant to produce.

We may occasionally experience happiness or joy or pleasure, because even sorrow will not last forever, but it will not be pure happiness because it can disappear any moment or become tainted by disturbing thoughts. Things and activities which initially produce happiness or excitement may become so routine and boring through overuse that they cease to interest us, or may even prove to be painful.

Expecting prolonged and incorruptible happiness from the impure causes (in this case the aggregates of the mind and body) is the same as having unrealistic expectations from a situation which in the end may prove counterproductive and leave one more dissatisfied and unhappy. Knowing that all phenomena tend to produce suffering only since they are imperfect, unwholesome and unstable within themselves, we cultivate detachment and indifference to them and free our minds and bodies from cravings, attraction and aversion.

3. Knowing that the impure aggregates are empty

Another distorted belief which produces suffering is the mistaken notion that suffering is experienced by a pure entity who resides in the body or its parts. The truth is, the mind and body are but formations. They are empty in the sense that they are not filled with any essence or residue which can be separated from them or which can independently exist by itself. If you separate their parts, you will find nothing but the separated or disjointed parts only.

The same is true with the five aggregates which constitute them. Their aggregation or coming together do not create a permanent, unitary and independent reality or entity that can hold them, contain them or support them as its owner, possessor or creator. If you separate them, you will find nothing in them, except emptiness. Things are thus empty in themselves. If you join them, that emptiness is not going to be filled by anything else. They remain empty when they are alone or when they are together.

The same is the case with the personality or the beingness, which arises from the five impure aggregates. It disappears the moment you separate them from each other. You do not find it having any independent or permanent existence of its own. The emptiness of things is an undeniable truth of existence. The realization of it should help us overcome our attachment to our names and forms, so that we can objectively view the mind and body as they are, empty, devoid of an owner or possessor, impermanent and brought into existence by karma and ignorance.

4. Knowing that impure aggregates lack a permanent self.

This is meant to dispel the distorted notion that the mind and body are inhabited by a permanent Self who acts as their ruler, controller and enjoyer. The impure aggregates of the mind and body are devoid of an independent and eternal self. However, the impurities in them create the illusion of self-identity or ego which one may mistake for the real self and act accordingly. The belief that there is an entity, permanent or otherwise, behind the impure aggregates makes our suffering personal, significant and painful. It arises due to ignorance

The Buddha taught that things are empty in themselves. There is no subjective and permanent self in the aggregation of our minds and bodies or in things which we experience or crave or want to possess. If we want to develop a true understanding of the nature of suffering, we must meditate upon suffering, impermanence and emptiness or not-self. With the insight which arises from it, we cease to take our suffering personally and become detached from it. Instead, we objectively view it also as an empty and impermanent formation which arises and subsides in the consciousness as a consequence of karma and ignorance

Contemplating upon these four associate truths, in conjunction with the First Noble Truth of Dukkha, is a wholesome practice. It leads to insightful awareness into the nature of suffering through direct experience. We mindfully become aware of how our minds and bodies and their aggregates are impure and predisposed to create and perpetuate suffering due to karma and ignorance. Knowing that we are responsible for our suffering and the causes of our suffering, and just as we create our suffering by our actions, we can also mitigate it with right actions, we can dispel our ignorance and progress on the Eightfold Path to attain Nirvana.

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