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First Noble Truth

Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This is the noble truth of suffering.’ Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This noble truth of suffering is to be comprehended.’ Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This noble truth of suffering has been comprehended.’ — Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 56.11)

The Disease of Dukkha

The First Noble Truth is “There is suffering”. Some people, upon reading this, may think ‘But I’m not suffering; I’m doing OK.’ Indeed, people often have to tell themselves this kind of a story to keep motivated and functioning in life. But when you have time, or make the time in your busy schedule, you owe it to yourself to take a deeper look.

There is suffering in life, and it is unavoidable. Everyone is born, and there are so many difficult experiences and lessons during childhood. Adolescence brings issues of love and relationship, and these are always difficult. Adulthood thrusts us into a competitive world where there are so many responsibilities and we must struggle to survive. No one can avoid old age, sickness and death—and these are naturally painful.

So suffering is present, even in the most apparently ideal life. One may be tempted to think that famous entertainers, powerful politicians or the super-rich are free from suffering; but actually, these people suffer as much as, or even more than the average individual. The Buddha’s teaching is an effective method to reduce this suffering or even eliminate it entirely by isolating and removing its cause.

Many people go along in life, having fabricated some story that they are not suffering. But then at some point, something unexpected occurs that throws them into a crisis: a crucible event. A crucible is a severe, searching test given by life; a potentially transformative experience. Of course, a crucible experience can also destroy you—it depends on how well you deal with it. If you deal with the crucible experience with integrity, it can motivate you to find a new way of being, create a new or altered sense of identity—and that can help you go deep in the Buddha’s teaching.

The Buddha uses four slightly different terms for suffering:

Monks, there are these three kinds of suffering [1]. What three? Suffering caused by pain [2], suffering caused by conditioned existence [3], suffering due to change [4].” — Dukkhata Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 45.165)

In the Sutta quoted above, they are:

  1. Dukkhatā: suffering in the most general sense.
  2. Dukkha-dukkhatā: the sensation of physical or mental pain or anguish.
  3. Saṅkhāra-dukkhatā: the suffering produced by mental fabrications and determinations.
  4. Viparināma-dukkhatā: the suffering caused when pleasant bodily and mental feelings inevitably change.

In The Luminous Mind, we will focus on saṅkhāra-dukkhatā, the suffering produced by our own mental fabrications and determinations, because it is the cause of suffering that we have the most control over. After all, mental fabrications and determinations are in our own minds. They are similar to software programs, and software is easy to change—just download and install an updated version.

By the time you finish the four sections of this book, the nature of the disease of dukkha, its source, and the means of its treatment and eradication will be obvious to you. Then it will be up to you to do the work of curing yourself—and this treatment is something that only you can do.

A Deeper View of Dukkha: Impermanence and No-self

Dukkha, dukkha it is said, friend Sāriputta. But what, indeed, friend, is dukkha?” “Friend, these three are displeasurable: the displeasurableness of displeasure, the displeasurableness of determinations, and the displeasurableness of change. These indeed, friend, are the three kinds of displeasurableness.” — Dukkhapañhā Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 38.14)

This Sutta indicates that the phenomenon of dukkha includes three kinds of displeasurableness (dukkhatā). So an appropriate rendering for dukkha would be ‘displeasurableness’ or ‘suffering’. Yet neither of these words precisely indicate the meaning of dukkha. There is probably no precisely equivalent word in any language other than Pāli that includes all the implications of dukkha. And the reason for this is that there is no realization of anicca-dukkha-anattā outside of the Buddha’s teaching—at least not in the same sense as the Buddha intended them.

The first type of displeasurableness (dukkhatā) mentioned in the Sutta quoted above is the displeasurableness of felt displeasure—worry, fear, anxiety, sorrow, grief, doubt, etc. Change is also a displeasurableness of felt displeasure that arises when things—especially things perceived as pleasurable—change or undergo transformation. The puthujjana can perceive these two feelings as displeasurable in a crude way. The second type is the displeasurableness of determinations: “all determinations are displeasurable.” This type of dukkha is perceived only by one who has dukkhasañña—who can perceive dukkha in every experience. In Pāli this vision is called sankhāradukkhatā: ‘the displeasureableness of determinations’.

But this indeed, monk, has also been stated by me: ‘Whatever is felt counts as displeasure (suffering).’ That, however, monk, was said by me in connection with the impermanence of determinations.” — Rahogata-sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 36.11)

This sankhāradukkhatā covers all situations. Thus to one who rightly sees, any experience is felt as displeasurable because it is an instance of sankhāradukkhatā. Neither-pleasurable-nor-displeasurable feeling would be pleasurable when known and displeasurable when not known. Therefore dukkha in its broadest sense covers experience at all times.

This means that, given certain conditions, the perception (not the feeling) of displeasurableness (dukkhatā) is common to all experience. The conditions are the perceptions of impermanence (aniccasaññā) and not-self (anattasaññā). Thus to one who perceives dukkha in its broadest sense—who has dukkhasaññā (which means he also has aniccasaññā and anattasaññā)—the puthujjana’s experience is dukkha from top to bottom, from beginning to end. One must be quite clear on this point: experience is dukkha at all times only to one who has dukkhasaññā. For, unless one has dukkhasaññā he cannot perceive the all-embracing determination-displeasurableness (sankhāradukkhatā), though he can perceive the other forms of displeasurableness in some crude way when they occur. It is precisely because the First Noble Truth tells us that the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha in the broadest sense that the First Noble Truth, and therefore the Buddha’s teaching, is not seen by the puthujjana.

We find that dukkha is used in the Suttas in varying contexts. It is obviously very necessary to have a clear picture of its varied usage. When used as an adjective dukkha means unpleasant, displeasurable or painful. Please note that we use the words ‘pleasant’, ‘unpleasant’ and ‘painful’ in connection with both bodily and mental feelings; but we use the words ‘pleasurable’, ‘pleasurableness’, ‘displeasure’ and ‘displeasurableness’ only in connection with mental feelings. Dukkha is used as a noun in two senses: in the first sense it means unpleasant mental feeling—worry, fear, anxiety etc. that are always felt as displeasurable. In this sense dukkha means displeasure.

In the second sense of dukkha used as a noun, it covers more than just simple felt displeasure; it refers to the five clinging-aggregates or to experience at any given time. Hence dukkhasaññā refers to the perception of dukkha in this second, broader sense. The importance of this sense is in its applicability to the five clinging-aggregates at all times. The First Noble Truth tells us that the five clinging-aggregates is actually just this phenomenon of dukkha. One of the main reasons puthujjanas find themselves puzzled by the First Noble Truth is that they imagine it to mean that the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha in the first sense of simple felt displeasure. He thus puts himself in a position where he disagrees with the Buddha, and therefore turns away from the teaching. After all, he feels pleasure as well as displeasure. The five clinging-aggregates are not a mater of felt displeasure at all times; the Buddha confirms this when he says that when one kind of feeling is there, the others are not there. But if the puthujjana gets the impression that the First Noble Truth is saying something different and certainly more subtle—that it does not refer merely to simple felt displeasure—he may at least try to understand it and so pursue the Buddha’s teaching.

Often we find dukkha used as a noun in both senses in one and the same Sutta; this can cause confusion if one misunderstands the distinction. This situation arises particularly in passages where dukkha is part of a compound word such as sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyūsā, and then again used in its all-embracing sense (as the sum total of the three type of displeasurableness) in the following sentences. For example:

jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti. evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.

“With birth as a condition, aging-&-death, sorrow, lamentation, displeasure, grief and despair come into being. Thus is the arising of this whole aggregate of dukkha.” — Paṭiccasamuppāda Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 12.1)

The word dukkha is used in two different senses in this familiar passage, often chanted by Buddhists. In sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā it means the particular displeasure due to the body (explained as ‘discomfort due to bodily contact’ in Dīgha-nikāya 22)—in other words, the unpleasant mental feeling due to some bodily condition. Thus this passage could be rendered “… sorrow, lamentation, displeasure due to one’s own body, grief and despair…” but dukkha in the next sentence (dukkhakkhandhassa) refers to the all-embracing sense of everything that is suffering, as when saying, “The five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.” From now on we will use the world dukkha as a noun without qualification only in the second sense: the sum total of the three kinds of displeasurableness.

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  1. Padmalal Wijesinghe permalink

    Dear Sir,
    I listened to the Dhamma discussion in the Buddhist Radio. It was quite fruitful.
    Thank you for your generosity and effort made in disseminating the Buddha Dhamma. Blessings of the Holy Triple Gem!
    Warm regards,

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