First Noble Truth is Suffering? Myths about Suffering

Most people believe that the First Noble Truth only says there is suffering. Some also think 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 new about the suffering that he talked about.

  • What is new about knowing that there is suffering around us? Everybody knows there is suffering from old age, diseases, poverty, etc.
  • Is it possible to REMOVE existing suffering by doing meditation? For example, if one has come down with a disease, can one overcome that by meditation? If someone is getting old and feeling the pains and aches of old age, can that be PERMANENTLY removed by meditation? Even though some issues can be handled for special reasons, in most cases, we CAN NOT overcome them. They are the RESULTS (vipāka) of previous actions (kamma.)
  • We can stop similar future suffering by abstaining from engaging in such actions.

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 impossible to get rid of them other than to use medications or therapy to lessen and manage the pain. If someone gets cancer, it is impossible to get rid of it through 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). (i) Those due to kamma vipāka, and (ii) Those due to saṅkhāra (attachment to sensual pleasures.) An Arahant gets rid of only the second kind until the Parinibbana (death); see “Vedana (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways.”
  • It may not even be possible to do meditation under such conditions. Even someone who has developed jhānā may not be able to get into jhānā if the pains are too distracting.
  • The goal of Buddhist meditation is to contemplate the world’s true nature and find the CAUSES of such suffering. Then we can stop those causes, and FUTURE suffering will cease.
  • One can get 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. A Buddha did not need to reveal to the world that one could get some “calming down” by doing breath 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, leading to a permanent nirāmisa sukha.

4. What was the “never heard truth about suffering” that the Buddha revealed to the world? In short, it is the “suffering hidden in sensory 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 know what will happen to the fish if it bites the bait. But the fish cannot see the entire situation and thus does not see the hidden suffering. It is unable to see the hook hidden in the bait. 
  • 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.
  • To comprehend suffering through repeated rebirths, one needs to understand that most suffering is encountered in the four lowest realms (apāyā); see “Does the Hell (Niraya) Exist?.”
  • Thus, stopping suffering requires one to first stop the causes for rebirths in the apāyā by attaining the Sotāpanna stage of Nibbāna; see “Nibbāna “Exists”, but Not in This World.”

5. Seeing this hidden suffering is tricky. It is not possible to convey the whole message in one essay, but I will try to get across the main idea. One needs to spend some time thinking through these issues. When the Buddha attained Buddhahood, he was worried about whether he could convey this profound idea 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 an opposite action or a reaction. The First Law states that an object will not change its status unless a force acts on it. It is easy to see these “cause and effect” principles in inert objects. If an object needs moving, it needs to be pushed or pulled. If we throw a stone up, it must come down since gravity pulls it down.
  • We seek pleasures apparent to all. But if we gain such pleasures through immoral acts, the consequences of such evil actions are not obvious. We can see a stone thrown up needs to come down, but we cannot see the (future) dire consequences for the drug dealer who seems to enjoy life right now.

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 are unpredictable. In contrast, it is easy to predict what will 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. Two minds never work the same way. Under a given set of conditions, each person will choose to act differently. With physical objects, that is not so; under a given set of suitable 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, mental phenomena are complex: This is why economics is not a “real science.” It involves how people sometimes act “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, their RESULTS may not manifest for many lives into the future. That is a crucial point to contemplate.

  • But cause and effect is nature’s fundamental principle. When something is done, it will lead to one or more effects. In mind-related causes, the effects may take time, sometimes 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 vipāka in Buddha Dhamma.
  • But unlike in Hinduism, Kamma is not deterministic, i.e., not all kamma vipāka have to come to fruition; see, “What is Kamma? does Kamma determine Everything?“. All unspent kamma vipāka become null and void when Arahant passes away.

8. Our life as a human is a RESULT of a past good deed (punna kamma.) The life of a dog or an ant results from a past action by that sentient being.

  • And what happens to us in this life is a COMBINATION of what we have done in the past (kamma vipāka) AND what we do in this life.
  • What happens to an animal is MOSTLY due to kamma vipāka from the past.
  • The difference between a human and an animal is that the animal has little control over what will happen to it. But human birth is special: We have a higher-level mind that CAN change the future to some extent, with possible enormous consequences.

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

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

10. The second Noble Truth describes the CAUSES we need to work on. The root causes are greed, hate, and ignorance. They need to be removed mainly via understanding the Three Characteristics (see #12 below) and also via removing our bad sansaric habits. See “Habits, Goals, Character (Gati)” to “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā.”

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 Sotāpanna stage and culminating at the Arahant stage. There are several related posts, starting with “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“.

12. Fourth Noble Truth is the way to attain nirāmisa sukha and then various stages of Nibbāna. 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 Sotāpanna stage by 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 Sotāpanna stage, one can find the rest of the way by oneself.

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

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