First Noble Truth is Suffering? Myths about Suffering

Most people believe that the First Noble Truth just says there is suffering. Some also think that it is possible to “remove” this existing suffering IN THIS LIFE by following extensive and elaborate meditation techniques.

1. The Buddha said, “My Dhamma has not been known in this world. It is something people have never heard of previously”. So we should carefully examine to see what is really new about the suffering that he talked about.

  • What is new about knowing that there is suffering around us? Everybody knows that there is suffering with old age, diseases, poverty, etc.
  • And it is possible to REMOVE existing suffering by doing meditation? For example, if one has come down with a disease, can one overcome that by doing meditation? If someone is getting old and is feeling the pains and aches of old age, can that be PERMANENTLY removed by doing meditation? Even though some issues can be handled due to special reasons, in most cases we CANNOT change such EFFECTS or end results.

Let us discuss these two points one at a time.

3. Let us first see whether it is possible to REMOVE the existing suffering.

  • For example, if someone has aches and pains due to old age, it is not possible to get rid of them other than to use medications or therapy to lessen the pain and manage it.  If someone gets cancer, it is normally not possible to get rid of it by meditation. It may be handled by medication. Even the Buddha had pains and aches due to old age, and had a severe stomach ache at the end.
  • In the context of that last sentence, It must be noted that there are two types of vedana (feelings): those due to kamma vipaka and those due to sankhara (attachment to sensual pleasures), and an Arahant gets rid of only the second kind until the Parinibbana (death); see, “Vedana (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways“.
  • In fact, it may not even be possible to do meditation under any of such conditions. Even someone who has developed jhanas, may not be able to get into jhanas if the pains are too distracting.
  • The purpose behind Buddhist meditation is to contemplate on the true nature of the world and find the CAUSES of such suffering, so that those causes can be stopped and FUTURE suffering can be stopped.
  • It is true that one can get a relief from day-to-day stresses by doing different kinds of meditation. And it is good to do them. But such practices were there even before the Buddha. There was no need for a Buddha to reveal to the world that one could get some “calming down” by doing breath meditation or kasina meditation.
  • In a way, such “samatha” meditations are comparable to taking an aspirin for a headache. One can get relief in the short term but it is temporary.  But the problem that the Buddha addressed involved a much longer time scale, and will lead to a niramisa sukha that is permanent.

4. So, what was the “never heard truth about suffering” that the Buddha revealed to the world? In short it is the “suffering that is hidden in sense pleasures; the suffering that WILL ARISE in future lives”.

  • Let us take an example to get a simple version of this “new idea”.
  • When a fish bites the bait, it does not see the suffering hidden in that action. Looking from the ground we can see the whole picture and we know what is going to happen to the fish if it bites the bait. But the fish is unable to see that whole picture, and thus does not see the hidden suffering. It only sees a delicious bit of food.
  • In the same way, if we do not know about the wider world of 31 realms (with the suffering-laden four lowest realms), and that we have gone through unimaginable suffering in those realms in the past, we only focus on what is easily accessible to our six senses.
  • In order to really comprehend suffering through repeated rebirths, one needs to comprehend that most suffering is encountered in the 4 lowest realms (apayas); see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“.
  • Thus, stopping suffering requires one to first stop the causes for rebirths in the apayas by attaining the Sotapanna stage of Nibbana; see, “Nibbana in the Big Picture“.

5. Seeing this hidden suffering is indeed difficult. It is not possible to convey the whole message in one essay, but I will try to get across the main idea. One really needs to spend some time thinking through these issues. When the Buddha attained the Buddhahood, it said that he was worried whether he could convey this deep ideas to most people.

  • Everything happens due to one or (usually) many causes. The famous Third Law of motion in physics says that every action has a reaction; and the First Law says that  an object will not change its status unless a force acts on it. It is easy to see these “cause and effect” principles at work in mechanical objects. If something needs to be moved, it needs to be pushed or pulled. If a stone is thrown up, it must come down if there is gravity pulling it down.
  • We seek pleasures that are highly visible. But if we gain such pleasures with immoral acts, the consequences of such immoral acts are not apparent. We can see a stone thrown up coming down, but we cannot see any bad consequences to the drug dealer who seems to be enjoying life.

6. The main problem in clearly seeing the “cause and effect of mind actions” is that the results of those actions have a time delay and that time delay itself is not predictable. In contrast, it is easy to predict what is going to happen with material things (moving an object, a vehicle, a rocket, etc). The success of physical sciences is due to this reason. Once the underlying laws are found (laws of gravity, laws of motion, electromagnetism, nuclear forces, quantum mechanics, etc), one has complete control.

  • But the mind is very different.  To begin with, no two minds work the same way. Under a given set of conditions, each mind will chose to act differently. With physical objects, that is not so; under a given set of conditions, what will happen can be predicted accurately.
  • Effects of some actions (kamma) may not materialize in this life and sometimes it may come to fruition only in many lives down the road (but with accumulated interest).
  • Even in this life, mind phenomena are complex: This is why economics is not a “real science”. It involves how people act sometimes “irrationally” for perceived gains. No economic theory can precisely predict how a given stock market will perform.

7. When mechanical systems have time lags, those are predictable. We can set off a device to work in a certain way AT A CERTAIN TIME, and we know that it will happen at that time if all mechanical components work properly. Not so with the mind. When we act in a certain way, the RESULTS of those actions may not be manifested for many lives. This is a key point to contemplate on.

  • But cause and effect is a nature’s basic principle. When something is done, it will lead to one or more effects. In mind-related causes, the effects may take time, sometime a long time over many lives, to trigger the “corresponding effect”.
  • Thus it should be clear that “action and reaction” associated with mind effects REQUIRE the rebirth process. It is not readily apparent and is an essential part of the “previously unheard Dhamma” that the Buddha revealed to the world.
  • This “cause and effect” that involves the mind is the principle of kamma and kamma vipaka in Buddha Dhamma.
  • But unlike in Hinduism, Kamma is not deterministic, i.e., not all kamma vipaka have to come to fruition; see, “What is Kamma? Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“. All unspent kamma vipaka become null and void when an Arahant passes away.

8. The life we have as a human is a RESULT of a past good deed. The life of a dog or an ant is the result of a past deed by that sentient being.

  • And what happens to us in this life is a COMBINATION of what we have done in the past (kamma vipaka) AND what we do in this life.
  • What happens to an animal is MOSTLY due to kamma vipaka from the past.
  • The difference between a human and an animal is that the animal does not have much control over what is going to happen to it. But human birth is a special one: We have a higher level mind that CAN change the future to some extent, and with possible enormous consequences.

9. What can we change and what cannot be changed?

  • We are born with a certain kamma vipaka built in. Our body features, major illnesses (such as cancer) are mostly, not completely, built-in. We can avoid many kamma vipaka by acting with mindfulness, i.e., by planning well, taking precautions, etc.
  • But we CANNOT change the fact that we are going to get old and eventually die, no matter what we do. Our life a RESULT.
  • What we CAN change are the CAUSES for future lives.
  • Even though meditation cannot relieve us of most of the pre-determined suffering, proper meditation CAN provide temporary relief, as well as PERMANENTLY removing future suffering.

10. The second Noble Truth is describes those CAUSES that we need to work on. The root causes are greed, hate, and ignorance, but they need to be removed mainly via understanding the Three Characteristics (see #12 below) and also via removing our bad sansaric habits; see a series of posts starting with, “Habits, Goals, Character (Gathi)” to “The Way to Nibbana – Removal of Asavas“.

11. The Third Noble Truth is about what can be achieved by systematically removing those causes. Niramisa sukha increases from the point of embarking on the Path, and has four levels of PERMANENT increases starting at the Sotapanna stage and culminating at the Arahant stage; there are several posts starting with, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“.

12. And then Fourth Noble Truth is the way to attain niramisa sukha and then various stages of Nibbana. Niramisa sukha starts when one lives a moral life (see, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)” and follow-up posts). The root causes of immoral behavior are greed, hate, and ignorance.  Ignorance can be reduced to the extent of attaining the Sotapanna stage just via comprehending the Three Characteristics of “this world of 31 realms”, i.e., anicca, dukkha, anatta; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“, and the follow-up posts. It is that powerful.

  • Once one attains the Sotapanna stage, one can find the rest of the way by oneself.

13. There are many different ways to describe and analyze what I summarized above. Different people can grasp Dhamma by looking at it from different angles. That is what I try to cover with sections like “Dhamma and Science”, “Dhamma and Philosophy”, and for those who like to dig deeper into Dhamma, the section on “Abhidhamma” which means “Higher or Deeper Dhamma”.

  • My goal is to provide a “wide view” that accommodates most people. Even though I cannot even begin to cover even a significant fraction of Buddha Dhamma, one does not need to understand “everything” even to attain the Arahanthood. The Buddha has said that one could attain all four stages of Nibbana just via comprehending anicca, dukkha, anatta at deeper and deeper levels. This is because with deeper understanding, one’s mind automatically directs one in the right direction.
  • Another reason that I try to cover many topics is to illustrate the point that Buddha Dhamma is a complete description of nature.
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