The Suffering (Dukkha) in the First Noble Truth

February 29, 2020


1. In the previous post, “The Framework of Buddha Dhamma” we discussed the framework  of Buddha Dhamma as laid out by the Buddha in the Dhamma­cakkap­pa­vat­ta­na Sutta (SN 56.11.) That is the “view from the 30,000 feet.”

  • The “30,000-foot view” is a common phrase that describes getting to a high enough level to see the “big picture.” The next time you are in a commercial airplane and cruising around 30,000 feet, take a look out the window and note what you see—some clouds, large swaths of land, maybe a mountain range. The reality is you’re too high up to see much of anything with any precision.
  • Take a helicopter-ride between 500 to 1,000 feet, and you’ll be able to recognize what you’re looking at, with the benefit of seeing it from a new, higher perspective.
  • Starting with this post, we will take a “1000-foot view” of the Buddha Dhamma by getting into a bit more detail, specifically on the First Noble Truth.
  • First of all, we need to figure out “the suffering” that the Buddha wanted us to understand.
  • By the way, I have discussed these ideas previously over the past five years. However, the website now has over 500 posts. Therefore, this series of posts is an excellent way to present a systematic approach. I will refer to existing posts as needed. Please make sure to read them.
What Is the “Previous Unheard” Suffering (Dukkha)?

2. In #6 and #7 of the previous post, we mentioned that the verse, “..pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu cakkhuṃ udapādi, ñāṇaṃ udapādi, paññā udapādi, vijjā udapādi, āloko udapādi,” that appears 12 times in Sections 4 through 7 of the sutta. See, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – Printout.

  • The word “ananussutesu” comes from “na” + “anussuta” or “not heard.” Pubbe means “previous,” and thus “..pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu..” means a Dhamma (teaching) that has never been known to the world (except during the times of previous Buddhā.)
  • The First Noble Truth is “Dukkha Sacca” so it should state “the previously unheard suffering.” That is in Section 3 of the printout and #5 of the previous post. Remember that “sacca” is pronounced as “sachcha.” See the two posts on “Tipiṭaka English” at “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1″ and “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 2.”
  • The First Noble Truth of suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering; death is suffering. Union with what is undesirable is suffering. Separation from what is desirable is suffering. Not to get what one wants (icchā) is suffering. In brief, clinging (upādāna) to the five aggregates is suffering.
First Noble Truth of suffering

3. In the above statement on the First Noble Truth of suffering, I have highlighted in blue the “previously unheard parts.” 

  • Anyone knows that “aging is suffering, illness is suffering; death is suffering. Union with what is undesirable is suffering. Separation from what is desirable is suffering.”
  • Anyone would also agree that “Not to get what one wants (icchā) is suffering.” But it has more profound implications that an average human would not contemplate. One needs to know the “broader worldview” to see those more profound implications, as we will see later.
  • But why did the Buddha say that “Birth is suffering”? Why did he state that “In brief, clinging (upādāna) to the five aggregates is suffering”? 
  • It is NOT correct to translate the word “saṃkhittena” as “in brief.” The verse, “saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā” has a deeper meaning than In brief, clinging (upādāna) to the five aggregates is suffering”? We will discuss that later.
  • Instead, it is easier to get started with Section 8 of the printout on “Tiparivaṭṭa.” We discussed that briefly in #8 of the previous post. We will expand it a bit more here.
Tiparivaṭṭa – The Three Rounds of Bondage

4. The word “tiparivaṭṭa” comes from “ti” for three and “vaṭṭa” for “round” (actually a circular wall.) A “parivaṭṭa” is a complete circular wall. Thus, the word tiparivaṭṭa provides a good visualization of a living-being trapped in the middle of a prison with three concentric walls.

  • Most suffering is within the first barrier or the first round. Once one overcomes the first barrier, one is free from the four lowest realms (niraya, peta, asura, and animal.)
  • The next reduced level of suffering is in between the first and second walls, which correspond to seven realms (human and six Deva realms.) Suffering and happiness both present in the human realm. The six Deva realms have much less suffering and much higher levels of “pleasures” compared to the human realm.
  • The twenty Brahma realms lie between the second and third “walls.”. Sixteen of those are in the rupāvacara Brahma realms and the other four in higher arupāvacara Brahma realms. There is hardly any suffering in these higher realms. Even humans, who can cultivate jhāna, can experience such “jhānic pleasures.”
  • The 31 reams discussed in “31 Realms of Existence” and “31 Realms Associated with the Earth.”
Much More Suffering Than Pleasures in the Rebirth Process

5. So, why don’t we just do good deeds (kamma) and be born in a Deva realm and enjoy such “heavenly pleasures”? Or, cultivate jhāna, be born in a Brahma realm, and enjoy jhānic pleasures” for millions of years? The problem is that such “pleasures” are very short-lived (in the rebirth process.) The overall rebirth process subjects any living-being to much more suffering due to the following reasons.

  • Any given living-being spends MUCH MORE time in the lowest four realms compared to the higher-lying reams. In particular, getting a human existence is VERY rare. See “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm.
  • Suffering in the lowest four realms is unbearable, as described in many suttā, for example, Devaduta Sutta (MN 130.) The animal realm is relatively better than the other three, and we can see the suffering in that realm.
Power of Kammic Energy

6. Birth in any realm is due to one’s deeds (kamma.) Good deeds lead to “good births” and evil deeds to “bad births.” There is a high-level of “mental energy” (kammic energy) associated with strong (good or bad) kamma.

We can get a good idea of this “kammic energy” by looking at an angry person. Angry thoughts manifest as changes in the physical body. His/her face becomes distorted and unpleasant to look at. That angry person also has “pumped up” energy” to strike another person or even to kill another person.

  • Such “powerful thoughts” (javana citta) can arise while doing bad or good deeds. They are the source of kammic energy that gives rise to births in different realms.
  • The lifetime in any realm depends on the strength of the corresponding kammic energy.
  • Humans tend to do immoral deeds (akusala kamma) in their desire (icchā) to “enjoy life.” Akusala kamma lead to rebirths in the lowest four realms (apāyā.) Thus it is essential to learn about the laws of kamma. However, they are NOT deterministic, as we will discuss.
  • A good sutta to read about rebirths in bad realms due to dasa akusala and also rebirths in good realms due to the avoidance of dasa akusala is “Paṭhamanirayasagga Sutta (AN 10.211).” That link gives two English translations.
  • Also, see “Anguttara Nikāya – Suttā on Key Concepts” where dasa akusala and dasa kusala discussed with many short suttā.
Wider Worldview Is Necessary to Understand the “Previously Unheard Suffering”

7. From the above, it must be clear that “suffering” in the First Noble Truth is NOT what we perceive to be suffering. Everyone KNOWS about that “mundane suffering” associated with aches and pains, diseases, injuries, etc.

  • As we saw in #4 above, we need to be MOST concerned with possible future suffering in the four lowest realms (apāyā.) Thus, we first need to figure out how to stop rebirths in the apāyā. As we saw in the previous post, that is accomplished by reaching the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna.
  • Some people engage in “breath mediation” to alleviate their day-to-day stresses, or even to cultivate mundane jhāna. Although that will give temporary relief, that is not the “suffering” that the Buddha was concerned with.
  • To put it in a different way, the “mundane suffering” is included in vedanā. Specifically, it is the “kāyika dukkha vedanā” associated with the physical body or “dōmanassa vedanā” associated with mental stress. Even “jhānic pleasures” are vedanā and belong to “this world” (specifically to Brahma realms.)
  • But one needs to “see” the “previously unheard suffering” in future rebirths (especially in the apāyā) with wisdom (paññā.) That is “lokuttara Sammā Diṭṭhi” needed to comprehend the First Noble Truth.
How Can We Believe This “Previously Unheard Teachings” of the Buddha?

8. This is another critical issue that we need to discuss. Many concepts discussed above are not self-evident. We have not seen first hand any harsh suffering in the apāyā, except for in the animal realm.

  • We do that by first looking at the “preliminary material” taught by the Buddha. When we can see the self-evident truth in them, our confidence in Buddha’s teachings on things that we cannot see for ourselves will grow. That is building faith/confidence (or saddhā) in the Buddha and his teachings (Buddha Dhamma.)
  • One needs to go through primary and secondary schools before being eligible for a college education. In the same way, one needs to learn the fundamental principles in Buddha Dhamma first.
  • Understanding the laws of kamma, the validity of the rebirth process and associated concepts are essential. That is cultivating “conventional Sammā Diṭṭhi.”
  • Only after that one can comprehend “lokuttara Sammā Diṭṭhi” (and the ability to “see” the harsh sufferings in the apāyā.
  • The Buddha clarified that in the Mahā Cattārisaka Sutta (MN 117). I will discuss it in the next post.
Good or Bad Deeds May Bring Their Results Much Later

9. That is another CRITICAL issue. We tend to think only about “near-term results” of our actions. For example, person X may kill someone while robbing that person’s house. X may not be caught and live a luxurious life with the valuables stolen from that house.

  • However, person X’s immoral deed (kamma) will not go unpunished by Nature. The corresponding result (kamma vipāka) can materialize in a future life, if not in this life. A strong bad kamma like killing a human can even be responsible for rebirth in one of the four lowest realms. In the same way, one who does a good kamma like engaging in compassionate deeds may be reborn in a Deva realm.
  • Kammic consequences of either kind of action (good and bad) are stringent. Nature enforces them automatically. There is no “higher-being” reviewing one’s deeds. There is a built-in mechanism in Nature to take into account various complexities automatically. Such laws of kamma can be complicated, but we can get a good general idea. We will discuss them in the future.
  • But most people tend to believe just what they can experience for themselves. Not believing in rebirth is a strong wrong view that, by itself, can lead to rebirth in the apāyā. That is why one needs to remove the ten types of wrong views well before being able to grasp the “previously-unheard teachings” of the Buddha.
There is No Permanently “Good” or “Bad” Person

10. No one is a PERMANENTLY “good person” or a “bad person” forever. Until one becomes at least a Sōtapanna Anugāmi, one’s character/habits (gati) can change. Gati (pronounced “gati”) is a crucial Pāli word even though very few people are aware of it these days. So, that is another topic that I will be discussing in detail.

  • One with “good gati” is likely to do more “good deeds,” and another with “bad gati” is likely to do more of “bad deeds.”
  • However, even one with “good character” may do evil deeds if the temptation is high enough. For example, we often hear about “good people” arrested for bribery or rape charges.
  • In the same way, even a person labeled as a “bad person’ may do meritorious deeds under certain conditions.
  • One’s family, friends, and associates play significant roles in the formation of new gati and getting rid of old gati (good or bad.)
  • More details at, “9. Key to Ānapānasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gati).”
Having Wrong Views Is a Major Akusala Kamma

11. Any realm has a finite lifetime. One will NEVER live in a “good realm” forever or be trapped forever in a “bad realm.” Each of us has been in most of the 31 realms, many times over. The rebirth process has no discernible beginning. See, “Origin of Life – There is No Traceable Origin.”

  • In general, meritorious deeds (kusala kamma) lead to good rebirths (those in the human and higher realms.) Evil deeds (akusala kamma) lead to bad existences (the lowest four realms or the apāyā.)
  • One key factor that many people are not aware of is the following. Even if one does not do any “conventional immoral deeds,” just having wrong views about the world is one of the dasa akusala. SeeTen Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala).”
  • Most people consider immoral deeds to be only “bad bodily deeds” (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct) and “bad speech” (lying, gossiping, slandering, harsh speech.) But one can do three akusala kamma with the mind (greedy and hateful thoughts, AND wrong views.)
  • That is the key to understand the first stage (first round in the tiparivaṭṭa) of the First Noble Truth.

12. There are three akusala kamma done with the mind, i.e., just with one’s THOUGHTS. Those are greedy thoughts (abhijjā), angry thoughts (vyāpāda), and wrong views (micchā diṭṭhi).

  • Those three kinds of evil THOUGHTS lead to bad speech and bodily actions. Furthermore, wrong views are the root cause of greed and anger as well, as we will see.
  • It may be hard to believe, but wrong views are the main reason that most humans are reborn in the apāyā. See “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm.
  • With this post, we are just expanding the worldview a bit more. Some people may be aware of these facts, but many people are not aware of them. I want to make sure everyone is on-board.

In the upcoming posts, we will discuss the above issues in detail. It is not beneficial to try to understand deep suttā without having a good understanding of the “essential fundamentals.”

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