Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The First Noble Truth: The Reality of Suffering

Not long after his enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first discourse where he brought to light the Four Noble Truths. In Walpola Rahula's translation of this discourse:

The Noble Truth of suffering (Dukkha) is this: Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering--in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.
What the Buddha Taught, p. 93.

Here we are given three orders of suffering: the first broad level is birth, aging, sickness, and death, the sights that helped the Buddha realize the need for spiritual work. This is the wider context within which suffering occurs: the cycle of birth to death (and, in one interpretation of reincarnation, to re-birth).

The next and more specific level of suffering is particular afflictions: regret for the past and our losses, experience of pain in body and mind, emotional distress, and hopelessness in the face of living. As we go about living, these afflictions, which can also be categorized by their respective temporal frames of reference (i.e. regret is related to the past, pain and emotional distress the present, and hopelessness the future), occur at different times and cause suffering.

Then we have the very grounds from which the previous kinds of suffering arise: experiencing things we find undesirable (aversion) and that the things we like don't stay and many things that we like don't come to us (grasping). These basic afflictions (kleshas), or basic ways of relating to things and events, are the grounds from which regret, pain, distress, and hopelessness arise; they are what waters the seeds of affliction.

Lastly, the basic objects of our attachment are named: the five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, aptly translates the last sentence as, "In other words, to grasp the Five Aggregates as though they constitute a self is suffering" (p. 258). This is the third klesha: ignorance, primarily ignorance of the nature of non-self or, put in other terms, our clinging to the ego as if it were some substantial thing. While the three kleshas are all genuine causes of our suffering, ignorance is generally considered the prime cause: it is because we think of ourselves as substantially existing that we feel a need to protect our selves from things that can hurt us (aversion) and seek things that will build us up (grasping).

One important thing to realize is that the First Noble Truth is not claiming that life is suffering. In fact, to make that claim is to deny the Third Noble Truth: the cessation of suffering. The First Noble Truth is making the fairly obvious claim that we do suffer, that suffering exists. Another important point is that Buddhism, by virtue of the First Noble Truth, is not claiming that suffering is just an illusion: that we really aren't suffering. Rather, suffering is a genuine reality, a real part of our lives. The polysymy of the word "illusion", both in English and as a translation of Buddhist concepts, will require its own analysis later; for now it is sufficient to realize that suffering exists.

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