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The Four Noble Truths

Chapter .2 .The First Noble Truth : "Dukkha"

The heart of Buddha's teaching lies in the Four Noble Truths (Cattari
Ariyasaccani) which he expounded in his very first sermon to his old colleagues, the
five ascetics, at Isipatana (modern Sarnath) near Benares. In this sermon, as we have
it in the original texts, these four Truths are given briefly. But there are innumerable
places in the early buddhist scriptures where they are explained again and again,
with greater detail and in different ways. If we study the Four Noble Truths with the
help of these references and explanations, we get a fairly good and accurate
account of the essential teachings of the Buddha according to the original texts.
The Four noble Truths are:
1. Dukkha
2. Samudaya, the arisingor origin of dukkha
3. Nirodha, the cessation of dukkha
4. Megga, the way leading to the cessation of dukkha
The First Noble Truth (Dukkha-ariyasacca) is generally translated by almost
all scholars as " The Noble Truth of Suffering", and it is interpreted to mean that life
according to Buddhism is nothing but suffering and pain. Both translation and
interpretation are highly unsatisfactory and misleading. It is because of this limited,
free easy translation, and its superficial interpretation, that many people have been
misled into regarding Buddhism as pessimistic.
First of all, Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. If anything at all, it
is realistic, for it takes a realistic view of life and of the world. It looks at things
objectively (yathabhutam). It does not falsely lull you into living in a fool's paradise,
nor does not frighten and agonize you with all kinds of imaginary fears and sins. It
tells you exactly and objectively what you are and what the world around you is,
and shows you the way to perfect freedom, peace, tranquility and happiness.
One physician may gravely exaggerate an illness and give up hope
altogether. Another may ignorantly declare that there is no illness and that no
treatment is necessary, thus deceiving the patient with false consolation. You may
call the first one pessimistic and the second optimistic. Both are equally dangerous.
But a third physician diagnose the symptoms correctly, understands the cause and
the nature of the illness, see clearly that it can be cured, and courageously
administers a course of treatment, thus saving his patient. The Buddha is like the last
physician. He is the wise and scientific doctor for the ills of the world (Bhisakka or
It is true that the Pali word dukkha (or Sanskrit dukkha) in ordinary usage
means 'suffering', 'pain', 'sorrow' or 'misery', as opposed to the word sukha meaning
'happiness', 'comfort' or 'ease'. But the term dukkha as the First Noble Truth, which
represents the Buddha's view of life and the world, has a deeper philosophical
meaning and connotes enormously wider senses. It is admitted that the term dukkha
in the First Noble Truth contains, quite obviously, the ordinary meaning of
'suffering', but in addition it also includes deeper ideas such as 'imperfection',
'impermanence', 'emptiness', insubstantiality'. It is difficult therefore to find one word
to embrace the whole conception of the term dukkha as the First Noble Truth, and
so, it is better to leave it untranslated, than to give an inadequate and wrong idea of
it by conveniently translating it as 'suffering' or 'pain'.
The Buddha does not deny happiness in life when he says there is suffering.
On the contrary he admits different forms of happiness, both material and spiritual,
for layman and monks. In the Anguttara-nikaya, one of the five original Collections
in Pali containing the Buddha's discourses, there is a list of happinesses (sukhani),
such as the happiness of family and the happiness of the life of recluse, the
happiness of sense pleasures and the happiness of renunciation, the happiness of
attachment and the happiness of detachment, physical happiness and mental
happiness, etc. But all these are included in dukkha.
Even the very pure spiritual states of dhyana (recueillement or trance)
attained by the practice of higher meditation, free from even a shadow of suffering
in the accepted sense of the word, states which may be described as unmixed
happiness, as well as the state of dhyana which is free from sensations both pleasant
(sukha) and unpleasant (dukkha) and is only pure equanimity and awareness - even
these very high spiritual states are included in dukkha. In one of the suttas of the
Majjhima-nikaya, (again one of the five original Collections), after praising the
spiritual happiness of these dhyanas, the Buddha says that they are 'impermanent,
dukkha, and subject to change' (anicca dukkha viparnamadhamma). Notice that
the word dukkha is explicitly used. It is dukkha, not because there is 'suffering' in
ordinary sense of the word, but because 'whatever is impermanent is dukkha' (yad
aniccam tam dukkham).
The Buddha was realistic and objective.
He says, with regard to life and the enjoyment of sense-pleasures, that one
should clearly understand three things: (1) attraction or enjoyment (assada), (2) evil
consequence or danger or unsatisfactoriness (adinava), and (3) freedom or liberation
When you see a pleasant, charming and beautiful person, you like him (or
her), you are attracted, you enjoy seeing that person again and again, you derive
pleasure and satisfaction from that person. This is enjoyment (assada). It is fact of
experience. But this enjoyment is not permanent, just as that person and his (or her)
attractions are not permanent either. When the situation changes, when you cannot
see that person, when you are deprived of this enjoyment, you become sad, you may
become unreasonable and unbalanced, you may even behave foolishly. This is evil,
unsatisfactory and dangerous side of the picture (adinava). This, too, is a fact of
Now if you have no attachment to the person, if you are completely
detached, that is freedom, liberation (nissarana). These three things are true with
regard to all enjoyment in life. From this it is evident that it is no question of
pessimism or optimism, but that we must take account of the pleasure of life as well
as of its pains and sorrows, and also of freedom from them, in order to understand life
completely and objectively. Only then is true liberation is possible.
Regarding this question the Buddha says:
"O bhikkhus, if any recluses or brahmanas do not understand objectively in
this way that the enjoyment of sense-pleasures is enjoyment, that their
unsatifactoriness is unsatisfactoriness, that liberation from them is liberation, then it
is not possible that they themselves will certainly understand the desire for sensepleasures
completely, or that they will be able to instruct another person to that
end, or that person following their instruction will completely understand the desire
for sensepleasures.
But, O bhikkhus, if any recluses, or brahmanas understand objectively in this
way that the enjoyment of sense-pleasures is enjoyment, that their
unsatisfactoriness is unsatisfactoriness, that liberation from them is liberation, that it
is possible that they themselves will certainly understand the desire for sensepleasures
completely, and that they will be able to instruct another person to that
end, and that the person following their instruction will completely understand the
desire of sense-pleasures.
The conception of dukkha may be viewed from three aspects: (1) dukkha as
ordinary suffering (dukkha-hukkha), (2)dukkha as produced by change
(veparinama-dukkha) and (3) dukkha as conditioned states (samkhara-dukkha).
All kinds of suffering in life like births, old age, sickness, death, association with
unpleasant persons and conditions, separation from beloved ones and pleasant
conditions, not getting what one desires, grief, lamentation, distress - all such forms
of physical and mental suffering, which are universally accepted as suffering or
pain, are included in dukkha as ordinary suffering (dukkha-dukkha).
A happy feeling, a happy condition in life, is not permanent, not everlasting.
It changes sooner or later. When it changes, it produces pain, suffering produced by
change (viparinama-dukkha) mentioned above. No one will dispute them. This
aspect of the First Noble Truth is more popularly known because it is easy to
understand. It is common experience in our daily life.
But the third form of dukkha as conditioned states (samkhara-dukkha) is the
most important philosophical aspect of the First Noble Truth, and it requires some
analytical explanation of what we consider as a 'being', as an 'individual', or as 'I'.
What we call a 'being', or an 'individual', or 'I', according to Buddhist philosophy, is
only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces of energies, which
may be divided into five groups or aggregates (pancakkhandha). The Buddha says :
'In short these five aggregates of attachment are dukkha'. Elsewhere he distinctly
defines dukkha as the five aggregates: 'O bhikkhus, what is dukkha? It should be
said that it is the five aggregates of attachment'. Here it should be clearly
understood that dukkha and the five aggregates are not two different things; the
five aggregates themselves are dukkha. We will understand this point better when
we have some notion of the five aggregates which constitute the so-called 'being'.
Now, what are these five?
The Five Aggregates
The first is the Aggregate of Matter (Rupakkhandha). In this term
'Aggregate of Matter' are included the traditional Four Great Elements (cattari
mahabhutani), namely, solidity, fluidity, heat and motion, and also the Derivatives
(upadaya-rupa) of the Four Great Elements. In the term 'Derivatives of Four Great
Elements' are included our five material sense-organs, i.e., the faculties of eye, ear,
nose, tongue, and body, and their corresponding objects in the external world, i.e.,
visible form, sound, odour, taste, and tangible things, and also some thoughts or ideas
or conceptions which are in the sphere of mind-objects (dharmayatana). Thus the
whole realm of matter, both internal and external, is included in the Aggregate of
The second is the Aggregate of Sensations (Vedanakkgandha). In this group
are included all our sensation, pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, experienced
through the contact of physical and mental organs with the external world. They
are of six kinds: the sensations experienced through the contact of the eye with
visible forms, ear with sounds, nose with odour, tongue with taste, body with
tangible objects, and mind (which is the sixth faculty in Buddhist Philosophy) with
mindobjects or thoughts or ideas. All our physical and mental sensations are
included in this group.
A word about what is meant by the term ‘Mind’ (manas) in Buddhist
philosophy may be useful here. It should clearly be understood that mind is not
spirit as opposed to matter. It should always be remembered that Buddhism does
not recognize a spirit opposed to matter, as is accepted by most other systems of
philosophies and religions. Mind is only a faculty or organ (indriya) like the eye or
the ear. It can be controlled and developed like any other faculty, and the Buddha
speaks quite often of the value of controlling and disciplining these six faculties. The
difference between the eye and the mind as faculties is that the former senses the
world of colours and visible forms, while the latter senses the world of ideas and
thoughts and mental objects.
We experience different fields of the world with different senses. We cannot
hear colours, but we can see them. Nor can we see sounds, but we can hear them.
Thus with our five physical sense-organs - eye, ear, nose, tongue, body – we
experience only the world of visible forms, sounds, odours, tastes and tangible
objects. But these represent only a part of the world, not the whole world. What of
ideas and thoughts? They are also a part of the world. But they cannot be sensed,
they cannot be conceived by the faculty of the eye, ear, nose, tongue or body. Yet
they can be conceived by another faculty, which is mind. Now ideas and thoughts
are not independent of the world experienced by these five physical sense faculties.
In fact they depend on, and are conditioned by, physical experiences. Hence a
person born blind cannot have ideas of colour, experienced through his other
faculties. Ideas and thoughts which form a part of the world are thus produced and
conditioned by physical experiences and are conceived by the mind. Hence mind
(manas) is considered a sense faculty or organ (indriya), like the eye or the ear.
The third is the Aggregate of Perceptions (Sannakkhandha). Like sensations,
perceptions also are of six kinds, in relation to six internal faculties and the
corresponding six external objects. Like sensations, they are produced through the
contact of our six faculties with the external world. It is the perception that
recognize objects whether physical or mental.
The fourth is the Aggregate of Mental Formations (Samkharakkhandha). In
this group are included all volitional activities both good and bad. What is
generally known as karma (or kamma) comes under this group. The Buddha's own
definition of karma should be remembered here: 'O bhikkhus, it is volition (cetana)
that I call karma. Having willed, one acts through body, speech and mind.' Volition
is 'mental construction, mental activity. Its function is to direct the mind in the
sphere of good, bad or neutral activities.' Just like sensations and perceptions,
volition is of six kinds, connected with the six internal faculties and the
corresponding six objects (both physical and mental) in the external world.
Sensations and perceptions are not volitional actions. They do not produce karmic
effects. It is the only volitional actions- such as attention, will, determination,
confidence, concentration, wisdom, energy, desire, repugnance or hate, ignorance,
conceit, idea of self, etc.- that can produce karmic effects. There are 52 such mental
activities which constitute the Aggregate of Mental Formation.
The fifth is the Aggregate of Consciousness (Vinnanakkhandha).
Consciousness is a reaction or response which has one of the six faculties (eye, ear,
nose, tongue, body and mind) as its basis, and one of the six corresponding external
phenomena (visible form, sound, odour, taste, tangible things and mind-objects, i.e.,
an idea or thought) as its object. For instance, visual consciousness has the eye as its
basis and a visible form as its object. Mental consciousness has the mind as its basis
and a mental object, i.e., an idea or thought as its object. So consciousness is
connected with other faculties. Thus, like sensation, perception and volition,
consciousness also is of six kinds, in relation to six internal faculties and
corresponding six external objects.
It should be clearly understood that consciousness does not recognize an
object. It is only a sort of awareness-awareness of the presence of an object. When
the eye comes in contact with a colour, for instance blue, visual consciousness arises
which simply is awareness of the presence of a colour: but it does not recognize that
it is blue. There is no recognition at this stage. It is perception (the third Aggregate
discussed above) that recognizes that it is blue. The term 'visual consciousness' is a
philosophical expression denoting the same idea as is conveyed by the ordinary
word 'seeing'. Seeing does not mean recognizing. So are the other forms of
It must be repeated here that according to Buddhist philosophy there is no
permanent, unchanging spirit which can be considered 'Self', or 'Soul', or 'Ego', as
opposed to matter, and that consciousness should not be taken as 'spirit' in
opposition to matter. This point has to be particularly emphasized, because a wrong
notion that consciousness is a sort of Self or Soul that continues as a permanent
substance through life, has persisted from the earliest time to present day.
One of the Buddha's own disciples, Sati by name, held that the Master
taught: 'It is the same consciousness that transmigrates and wanders about.' The
Buddha asked him what he meant by 'consciousness'. Sati's reply is classical: 'It is
that which expresses, which feels, which experiences the results of good and bad
deeds here and there'. 'To whomever, you stupid one', remonstrated the Master, 'have
you heard me expounding the doctrine in this manner? Haven't I in many ways
explained consciousness as arising out of conditions: that there is no arising of
consciousness without conditions.'
Then the Buddha went on to explain consciousness in detail: 'Consciousness is
named according to whatever condition through which it arises: on account of the
eye and visible forms arises a consciousness, and it is called visual consciousness; on
account of ear and sounds arises a consciousness, and it is called auditory
consciousness; on account of nose and odour arises a consciousness, and it is called
olfactory consciousness; on account of tongue and tastes arises a consciousness, and it
is called gustatory consciousness; on account of body and tangible objects arises a
consciousness, and it is called tactile consciousness; on account of the mind and
mind-objects (ideas and thoughts) arises a consciousness, and it is called mental
consciousness.' Then the Buddha explained it further by an illustration: A fire is
named according to the material on account of which it burns. A fire may burn on
account of wood, and it is called wood-fire. It may burn on account of straw, and
then it is called straw-fire. So consciousness is named according to the condition
through which it arises.
Dwelling on this point, Buddhaghosa, the great commentator, explains: '… a
fire that burns on account of wood burns only when there is a supply, but dies down
in the very place when it (the supply) is no longer there, because then the condition
has changed, but (the fire) does not cross over to splinters, etc., and become a
splinter-fire and so on; even so the consciousness that arises on account of the eye
and visible forms arises in that gate of sense organ (i.e., in the eye), only when there is
the condition of the eye, visible forms, light and attention, but ceases then and there
when it (the condition) has changed, but (the consciousness) does not cross over to
the ear, etc., and become auditory consciousness and so on…'.
The Buddha declared in unequivocal terms that consciousness depends on
matter, sensation, perception and mental formations, and that it cannot exist
independently from them. He says: 'Consciousness may exist having matter as it
means, matter as its object, matter as its support, and seeking delight it may grow,
increase and develop; or consciousness may exist having sensation as it means… or
perception as it means… or mental formation as it means, mental formation as its
object, mental formation as its support, and seeking delight it may grow, increase
and develop. 'Were a man to say: I shall show the coming, the going, the passing
away, the arising, the growth, the increase or the development of consciousness
apart from matter, sensation, perception and mental formations, he would be
speaking of something that does not exist.
Very briefly these are the five Aggregates. What we call a 'being' or an
'individual', or 'I' is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of
these five groups. They are all impermanent, all constantly changing. "Whatever is
impermanent is dukkha. This is the true meaning of the Buddha's words: 'In brief the
five Aggregates of Attachment are dukkha.' They are not the same for two
consecutive moments. Here A is not equal to A. They are in flux of momentary
arising and disappearing.
'O Brahmana, it is just like a mountain river, flowing far and swift, taking
everything with it; there is no moment, no instant, no second when it stops flowing,
but it goes on flowing and continuing. So Brahmana, is human life, like a mountain
river.' As the Buddha told Ratthapala: 'The world is in continuous flux and is
impermanent.' One thing disappears, conditioning the appearance of the next in a
series of cause and effect. There is no unchanging substance in them. There is
nothing behind them that can be called a permanent Self (Atman), individuality, or
anything that can in reality be called 'I'.
Every one will agree that neither matter, nor sensation, nor perception, nor
any of those mental activities, nor consciousness can be really called 'I'. But when
these five physical and mental aggregates which are independent are working
together in combination as a physio-psychological machine, we get the idea of 'I'.
But this is only a false idea, a mental formation, which is nothing but one of those 52
mental formations of the fourth Aggregate which we have just discussed, namely, it
is the idea of self (sakkhaya-ditthi). These five Aggregates together, which we
popularly call a 'being' are dukkha itself. There is no other 'being' or 'I' standing
behind these five aggregates, who experiences dukkha. As Buddhaghosa says:
'Mere suffering exists, but no sufferer is found; The deed are, but no doer is found.'
There is no unmoving mover behind the movement. It is only movement. It is
not correct to say that life is moving, but life is movement itself. Life and movement
are not two different things. In other words there is no thinker behind the thought.
Thought itself is the thinker. If you remove the thought, there is no thinker to be
found. Here we cannot fail to notice how this Buddhist view is diametrically
opposed to the Cartesian cogito ergo sum: 'I think, therefore I am.'
Now a question may be raised whether life has a beginning. According to the
Buddha's teaching the beginning of the lifestream of living beings is unthinkable.
The believer in the creation of life by God may be astonished at this reply. But if you
were to ask him 'What is the beginning of God?' he would answer without hesitation
'God has no beginning', and he is not astonished at his own reply. The Buddha says:
'O bikkhus, this cycle of continuity (samsara) is without a visible end, and the first
beginning of beings wandering and running round, enveloped in ignorance (avijja)
and bound down by the fetters of thirst (desire, tanha) is not to be perceived. And
further, referring to ignorance which is the main cause of the continuity of life, the
Buddha states: 'The first beginning of ignorance is not to be perceived in such a way
as to postulate that there was no ignorance beyond a certain point.' Thus it is not
possible to say that there was no life beyond a certain definite point.
This in short is the meaning of the Noble Truth of Dukkha. It is extremely
important to understand this First Noble Truth clearly because, as the Buddha says,
'he who sees dukkha sees also the arising of dukkha, sees also the cessation of
dukkha, and sees also the path leading to the cessation of dukkha.'
This does not at all make the life of a Buddhist melancholy or sorrowful, as
some people wrongly imagine. On the contrary, a true Buddhist is the happiest of
beings. He has no fears or anxieties. He is always calm and serene, and cannot be
upset or dismayed by changes or calamities, because he sees things as they are. The
Buddha was never melancholy or gloomy. He was described by his contemporaries
as ever-smiling'. In Buddhist painting and sculpture the Buddha is always
represented with a countenance happy, serene, contented and compassionate.
Never a trace of suffering or agony or pain is to be seen.
Buddhist art and architecture, Buddhist temples never give the impression
of gloom or sorrow, but produce an atmosphere of calm and serene joy. Although
there is suffering in life, a Buddhist should not be gloomy over it, should not be
angry or impatient at it. One of the principal evils in life, according to Buddhism, is
'repugnance' or hatred. Repugnance is expained as 'ill-will with regard to living
beings, with regard to suffering and with regard to things pertaining to suffering. Its
function is to produce a basis for unhappy states and bad conduct.' Thus it is wrong
to be impatient at suffering. Being impatient or angry at suffering does not remove
it. On the contrary, it adds a little more to one's troubles, and aggravates and
exacerbates a situation already disagreeable.
What is necessary is not anger or impatience, but the understanding of the
question of suffering, how it comes about, and how to get rid of it, and then to work
accordingly with patience, intelligence, determination and energy.
There are two ancient Buddhist texts called the Theragatha and Therigatha
which are full of the joyful utterances of the Buddha's disciples, both male and
female, who found peace and happiness in life through his teaching.
The king of Kosala once told the Buddha that unlike many a disciple of other
religious systems who looked haggard, coarse, pale, emaciated and unprepossessing,
his disciples were 'joyful and elated, jubilant and exultant, enjoying the spiritual
life, with faculties pleased, free from anxiety, serene, peaceful and living with a
gazelle's mind, i.e., light-hearted.' The king added that he believed that this healthy
disposition was due to the fact that 'these venerable ones had certainly realized the
great and full significance of the Blessed One's teaching.'
Buddhism is quite opposed to the melancholic, sorrowful, penitent and
gloomy attitude of mind which is considered a hindrance to the realization of Truth.
On the other hand, it is interesting to remember here that joy is one of the seven
Bojjamgas or 'Factors of Enlightment', the essential qualities to be cultivated for the
realization of Nirvana.

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