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The First Noble Truth:

the Existence of Suffering

Here again is the English translation of The First Noble Truth that was presented in the previous webpage, The Four Noble Truths:1

"There is the Noble Truth of suffering (Sanskrit: duhkha, Pali: dukkha): Birth is suffering; ageing is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, pain, grief, and despair are suffering, association with the loathed is suffering; disassociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering..."

The original word in The Four Noble Truths that is translated here as "suffering" is duhkha in Sanskrit, and dukkha in Pali. The only differences between the Sanskrit word and the Pali word are the differences in their spellings. They both have the same meaning. But they correspond to a number of terms in English, including: suffering, pain, discontent, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration. Although duhkha/dukkha is often translated as "suffering", its philosophical meaning is more analogous to "disquietude" as in the condition of being disturbed.2

The way Rob Peerce, who has been practicing Tibetan Buddhism since 1973 and psychotherapy since 1988, introduces the concept of duhka in his book The Wisdom of Imperfection in a way that is particularly illuminating here:3

"The call to wake up and change comes in many guises, and it may come at virtually any age. Possibly the most noticeable ingredient of any call, however, is a profound sense of malaise—a growing recognition of what the Buddha would have called the truth of suffering. The Buddha's understanding of suffering was not a simplistic notion of pain or discomfort. Suffering, or dukkha in Sanskrit, relates particularly to a recognition of the fundamental unsatisfactoriness or pointlessness of what we experience. We may put effort and time into things that at first seem to offer a sense of meaning, only to find, at some point, that they begin to feel hollow and unsatisfactory. We may suddenly stop and ask ourselves why we are bothering. Money, status, self-esteem, reputation, security, material success, self-image, self-validation, approval, duty—the list of possible reasons is endless. Life may be insisting that we begin to face ourselves and honestly admit to our self-imposed restrictions and limitations."

Here is another version of The First Noble Truth, translated by Buddhist scholar Paul Carus of a full version of the First Noble Truth and found in his work The Gospel of Buddha:4

"Now, this, O bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning suffering: Birth is attended with pain, decay is painful, disease is painful, death is painful. Union with the unpleasant is painful, painful is separation from the pleasant; and any craving that is unsatisfied, that too is painful. In brief, bodily conditions which spring from attachment are painful. This, then, O bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning suffering."

In his biography of the historical Buddha, Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh gives another version:5

"The first is the existence of suffering. Birth, old age, sickness, and death are suffering. Sadness, anger, jealousy, worry, anxiety, fear, and despair are suffering. Desire, attachment, and clinging to the five aggregates are suffering."

The Buddha distinguished three kinds of suffering (Sanskrit: duhkha). These three are called: (1) the suffering of suffering (Sanskrit: duhkha-duhkata), (2) the suffering of change (Sanskrit: viparinama-duhkata, and (3) the suffering of samsara or all-pervasive suffering (Sanskrit: samsara-duhkha).

The suffering of suffering is raw pain, physical or mental.

The suffering of change occurs when we think that the object of our happiness ceases to bring us happiness.6 Here are some examples:

  • The kind of suffering that occurs when our relationship with someone whom we perceived to be the lover of our dreams turns into a nightmare. Or when the beer that we thought was giving us so much pleasure became the cause of our grief and sorrow.7
  • The kind of disappointment and sadness we feel when our plans for having a good time fail. Suppose you are having a "bad day." It may be the case that it is holiday and all the weather forecasters predicted it would be a warm,sunny day. You had made plans to have a great time at the beach with your girl friend. But then a heavy rain storm unexpectedly swept in from the sea. Now you find yourself stuck at home with nothing special to do, and you would have been happier if it had been a normal day at work.8
  • The kind of anxiety we have from uncertainty about what is around the corner in our future even though everything is satisfactory at the moment. Suppose you are not experiencing any suffering. In fact, you feel happy and peaceful. Then someone comes along and asks you how you are doing. Instead of saying "I am having a good day!", you just say "I'm doing alright" because in the back of your mind you are concerned that something might happen to spoil the good circumstances you are enjoying now.9

The suffering of samsara or, as it is sometimes called, all pervading suffering is something like "the suffering of change," except now you are really looking at the big picture. Change is all-pervasive. Everything moves on, including ourselves, and we cannot hold on to anything. Although we long for complete security, we know that we can never get it. No matter how much insurance you buy, no matter how well you do your financial planning, etc., total security is impossible. There is always the possibility of a big enough disaster that will completely overwhelm your plans—and no matter what you do, it is inevitable that some day you, and each of your loved ones, are going to pass away from this world.

After that last contemplation, it may be good to take a short break. Recall from a previous webpage, titled The Spiritual Goals of Buddhism, the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:10

"The ocean of suffering is immense, but if you turn around, you can see the land. The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don't wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy. When one tree in the garden is sick, you have to take care of it. But don't overlook all the healthy trees. Even while you have pain in your heart, you can enjoy the many wonders of life—the beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, the many flowers and trees. To suffer is not enough. Please don't be imprisoned by your suffering."

In the teachings of Buddhism, there is a philosophical category called the The Three Marks of Existence or The Three Dharma Seals. In the most well known of the scriptures that retell the discourses of the historical Buddha, the Three Marks of Existence are said to be selflessness (Sanskrit: anatman, literally meaning "non-self"), impermanence, and suffering. But there are some lesser known scriptures of this type in which the Three Marks of Existence are given as selflessness, impermanence, and nirvana.11 Nirvana is the opposite of samsara, and hence the opposite of the state of suffering. The Four Noble Truths are in the classical Indian form of a diagnosis and prescription. The illness here is suffering (duhkha). If health was impossible, there could be no prescription.

But what about this "selflessness", this anatman, this first of The Three Marks of Existence? This question will be answered in this serie's next web page, The Second Noble Truth: the Origin of Suffering.

The First Noble Truth corresponds to the first step in the process of diagnosis and prescription: recognizing the malady. As long as we are in denial of the problem, we will not do anything to remedy the situation. Self-honesty is required to work in any proper way to solve the problem.

But then the First Noble Truth of The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism corresponds to the First Step of The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Both, in practice, tell us to recognize the very nature of our problems in life.

In the First Step of The Twelve Steps of AA, it is not enough to just think that our suffering will all go away if we simply abstain from alcohol long enough. Abstention alone will not automatically make our lives "manageable." For most of us alcoholics, when we really look at the problem of our alcoholism, we realize that it has become deeply connected with every other problem we have in living our life. As is said in every book of AA and at nearly every AA meeting, spiritual growth is needed for recovery.

My experience with practicing Buddhism under the guidance of an authentic Buddhist teacher began in 1969, when I was 21 years old. I persisted in that practice for two years. What spoiled it was that, despite the Buddhist precept against indulging in intoxicants including alcohol, I began to make use of my new "adult" privilege of legally purchasing and consuming alcohol. It was not long before I was hooked.

Before I entered recovery in 2006, there were periods of time when I returned to the practice of Buddhism. Each of these periods lasted no more than two years. The times when I seemed to do the best in my practice were periods when I abstained from drinking. But such periods of withdrawal from alcohol never lasted more than about six months. The idea would get into my head that I had been away from alcohol long enough that I could safely have another drink. Within a short time after that, my addiction would re-appear with stronger force than ever. Then it was only a matter of time before I dropped my Buddhist practice. I would find all kinds of excuses for doing this. But the real reason was that my practice was interfering with my drinking and vise versa.

I returned to practicing Buddhism shortly after entering recovery through AA and beginning to work the Twelve Step Program. My practice of both the Twelve Steps and of Buddhism continues to this day—and so does my sobriety. You might think that my Buddhist practice is better simply because now I have no drinking to interfere with my Buddhist practice. But I say: thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, I have a much better understanding of how The Four Noble Truths apply to my life, one day at a time.

And now it is time to go on to The Second Noble Truth: the Origin of Suffering.


1Translation from Sherab Chodzin Kohn, "The Life of the Buddha" in Entering the Stream: An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings (ed. by Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chodzin Kohn, c. 1993), p. 19.

2 See Wikipedia—"Dukkha".

3Rob Preece, The Wisdom of Imperfection (c. 2006, 2010), p. 21.

4Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha (1915 edition), p. 54. (In chapter 16: "The Sermon at Benares." See Google Books—"The Gospel of Buddha" by Paul Carus —or— Sacred-Texts.com-The Gospel of Buddha—"The Sermon at Benares" —or— Mountain Man Graphics—The Gospel of Buddha—"The Sermon at Benares".)

5Nhat Hanh, Thich, Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha (c. 1991), p. 147. Thich Nhat Hanh is a teacher in the Vietnamese branch of Zen Buddhism. His scriptural sources on Buddha's first sermon that he cites in this book are the following suttas: Lalitavistara, Buddhacarita; Vinaya Mahavagga Khandaka 1; Samyutta-nikaya LVI, 11; Pasarasi Sutta (Majjhima-nikaya 50); Fo Chouo Tchouan Fa Louen King (Taisho Revised Tripitaka 109); Fo Chouo Pa Tcheng Tao King (Taisho Revised Tripitaka 112).

6 This simple, clear definition is from Darren Littlejohn, The 12-Step Buddhist: Enhance Recovery from Any Addiction (c. 2009), p. 101.

7 This fits in with the example of "suffering of change" that Darren Littlejohn writes about in The 12-Step Buddhist: Enhance Recovery From Any Addiction, p. 101.

8This fits in with the "suffering of change" that Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche writes about in The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice (c. 2001), pp. 11 and 105.

9This fits in with the "suffering of change" that Ringu Tulku writes about in Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha (c. 2010), p. 24.

10Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (c. 1998), pp. 3-4.

11 See Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (c. 1998), pp. 21-22 for a discussion of this. Nhat Hanh, on page 22, points out that, in the Samyukta Agama of the Northern Transmission, it is mentioned four times that Nirvana is one of the Three Dharma Seals (Three Marks of Existence).


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