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Four Noble Truths, Part I


This is suffering, This is what causes suffering, This is the cessation of suffering, This is the path which leads to the cessation of suffering.1

In this post, I’ll be talking briefly about what many scholars believe to be the central point of Buddhist philosophy and religious activity: the four noble truths.

It is said that the Buddha gained enlightenment after realizing these four truths, which can be understood as the method to the realization of suffering and the method to end suffering. The preceding summary of the four noble truths is from Gishin Tokiwa, who expounds further: “The subject of the Four Noble Truths is always ‘this.’ …I am suffering from ‘this’- from what I am and from what the world is, which constitutes what I am. In its ultimate sense, all the suffering that takes place in this world is ‘my’ suffering. That is why this is suffering.”2 Tokiwa accents the pervasive nature of suffering and implies that the very same ubiquitousness is also its solution, and so I think Tokiwa’s explanation is typical of what one is likely to hear of the essence of the four noble truths; the causes and end of suffering are as knowable as suffering itself, and suffering and peace come from the same place: ‘this place.’

I will continue this post, and likely series of posts, by describing each of the four truths in detail.

I. Life is Dukkha

The Buddha teaches the four noble truths most notably in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (roughly, Turning the Wheel of Dharma Sutra), and starts, logically, at the beginning:

Now this monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, and death is suffering; to obtain what is despised is suffering, being separated from what is dear is suffering, and to not obtain what one longs for is suffering.  In brief, the five constituent groups (of mind and body) that provide fuel for attachment are suffering.3

Unsurprisingly, the first truth is about the fact of suffering’s existence, for as the myth states it,  the Buddha’s religious quest began when he became aware of the problem of suffering, or dukkha in Pali.  Throughout his young life, Siddhartha Gotama (another name for the future Buddha) was sheltered by his father, King Shuddhodana, who went to great lengths to afford his son every possible pleasure.  He assumed that Siddhartha would then desire for nothing more and would remain in his household, for a prophecy foretold that Siddhartha might choose to become a mendicant and a buddha instead of a warrior and a king.  Despite his father’s efforts, Siddhartha eventually did experience dukkha, and, deeply disturbed, left his life of comfort to find its solution.4Obviously then, it is important understand what exactly the Buddha meant by this first noble truth, and to do that we need a clear understanding of what is meant by its key word, dukkha.

As a student of Buddhism, I have a hard time understanding why dukkha is almost always translated as ‘suffering’, since there seems to be a consensus among scholars that the word is inadequate (which might be a better word itself!).  If ‘suffering’ is inadequate, then, how should we define dukkha?  Let’s look at the structure of the word first: dukkham is a compound of  duh, meaning bad, and kham, a form of the verb khamati, meaning to bear or to endure.  Thus, one rendering of dukkha is ‘difficult to endure.’   Dhammananda Bhikkuni mentions that in Sanskrit, the meaning of dukkha carries the connotation of an ill-fitting spoke on the wheel of a cart.5 Every time the cart rolls on it’s broken spoke, the rider is jolted.  The word also elicits the action of a poorly functioning potter’s wheel, spinning around in an uneven motion.6 While this sounds similar to ‘suffering,’ dukkha can also refer to pleasant experiences that are transient in nature.7 Not only does dukkha connote a mental or physical fact, but also a metaphysical one.  Bhikku Bodhi says that the implication of the first noble truth is that dukkha “is the unsatisfactoriness and radical inadequacy of everything conditioned, owing to the fact that whatever is conditioned is impermanent and ultimately bound to perish.”8 So we can see that the meaning of dukkha is highly nuanced, and does not have a perfect match in the English language.

Instead, defining ‘suffering’ as a state of mental or physical pain, a much narrower meaning than that of dukkha, the English speaker assumes that the first noble truth says that “life in every way and at all times causes mental and physical pain.”  In reality, the first noble truth states that “a difficult to endure transiency underpins life at all times and in every way.”  The difference is subtle, but profound.

Thinking then of all the intricacies of dukkha, let’s rephrase the first noble truth:

Now this monks, is the noble truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, old age is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, and death is dukkha; to obtain what is despised is dukkha, being separated from what is dear is dukkha, and to not obtain what one longs for is dukkha.  In brief, the five constituent groups (of mind and body) that provide fuel for attachment are dukkha.

We can conclude then, that this first noble truth talks about the difficulty, unsatisfactoriness, and transiency of life.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll talk about the second noble truth that is ‘the cause of suffering.’

1Gishin Tokiwa, “Chan (Zen) View of Suffering”,  Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 5 (1985), pp. 103.
3This is a slightly streamlined version of Anandajoti Bhikku’s translation,9 cross-referenced with Bhikku Bodhi’s translation10 and U Ko Lay’s translation.11
4Sherab Chodzin Kohn,”The Life of the Buddha,” in Samuel Bercholz, Sherab Chodzin Kohn, ed., Entering the Stream (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1993), 4-10.
5Dhammananda Bhikkuni, The Connection Between Atta & Dukkha: Buddhist Analysis of Human Experience and the Ways to Transcend Unsatisfactoriness, Ch. 3, (16 Sept. 2010).
6Dukkha, Wikipedia, (16 Sept. 2010).
8Bikkhu Bodhi, “The Buddha’s Teaching,” in Samuel Bercholz, Sherab Chodzin Kohn, ed., Entering the Stream (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1993), 62.
9Anandajoti Bhikku, Dhammacakkapattavanasuttam,
10Bodhi, 62.
11U Ko Lay, Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, (16 Sept. 2010).

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