Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?

Revised October 24, 2018; re-written August 5, 2019; revised July 28, 2022

Difference Between Dukkha and Dukkha Sacca

1. Buddha Dhamma describes nature’s laws. Many think that dukkha Sacca (the First Noble Truth, pronounced “dukkha sachcha”) says everything is suffering. That is not true; there is a lot of apparent happiness, which makes people unaware of the hidden suffering until it is too late.

  • The key is to develop paññā or wisdom to see the suffering hidden in sensory pleasures.
  • That is why Noble Persons consider sensory pleasures as suffering and painful feelings as acute suffering! I highly recommend reading the “Verses of the Elder Sumedhā” utterances by an Arahant bhikkhuni. The following verse is among many insightful verses:
         “Sensual pleasures are like the stake of a spear,
          a disease, an abscess, a calamity, an affliction;
          Like a fire pit,
          the root of calamity, fear, and destruction.”
  • One does not necessarily need to feel pain/suffering to understand the dukkha sacca, even though that may motivate one to investigate.

2. There is a difference between suffering (the feeling or vedanā) and the ability to understand the causes for it (paññā or wisdom.) The latter can lead to future suffering, and that is what the First Noble Truth explains.

  • Pāli word for suffering is dukha. On the other hand, dukkha (with two “k”) is dukhakha or the “removal of dukha” in the sense that there is dukha in the world, but it can be overcome. Thus, in most places in the Tipiṭaka, dukkha conveys “suffering” but implies that it can be overcome.
  • Dukha (suffering) is the opposite of sukha (pleasure). That is in several suttā. For example, in the “Bhāra Sutta (SN 22.22)“:

Bhārā have pañcakkhandhā, 
bhārahāro ca puggalo;
Bhārādānaṃ dukhaṃ loke,
bhāra­nikkhepa­naṃ sukhaṃ”.

Translated: “The five aggregates are burdens,
The burden-carrier is the person;
Carrying the burden is suffering in the world,
Laying the burden down is blissful“.

  • Of course, the word dukkha appears in most suttā because that is what Buddha Dhamma is all about, i.e., the removal of suffering.

3. We do not realize that the five aggregates are burdens. We like our bodies and mind-pleasing objects in the world (rupakkhandha). We crave what we experience with the mind (aggregates of vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāna).

  • There are bouts of happiness everywhere. If everything FELT LIKE suffering, everyone will be seeking Nibbāna. It is hard for people even to see the real suffering out there.

4. Apparent pleasures mask the pain and suffering we experience. In the HUMAN REALM, suffering and happiness exist; one can experience both.

  • In the realms higher than the human plane, suffering is relatively much less, which is why it is hard for devās to even think about Nibbāna. However, even those devās and Brahmā end up in the lowest four realms. Of course, each birth in any realm ends with death, which is unavoidable as long as one is in the rebirth process.
  • Beings in the lowest four realms (apāyās) are the ones who experience a lot of dukha. Of course, they have no idea about the Dukkha Sacca. The key point is that each living being spends a lot of time in the apāyās compared to other realms in the rebirth process, see “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm.”
  • That is why the rebirth process is filled with suffering. The good news is that suffering can be stopped.
What is the Noble Truth of Dukkha?

5. Let us see how the Buddha described the First Noble Truth on suffering in the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta:

Idaṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ—

jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ—saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā“.

  • Let us go through this “definition” of dukkha step-by-step.

6. In the first part, it says, “jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ..”.

Translated: “birth is suffering (that can be overcome). Getting old is suffering (that can be overcome). Sickness is suffering (that can be overcome). Death is suffering (that can be overcome)..”.

  • Other than “birth,” the others (getting old, sickness, and death) are associated with suffering.
  • However, the other three types of inevitable suffering are attached to every birth.
  • Furthermore, the other three types of suffering cannot be eliminated without stopping birth, i.e., the rebirth process.
  • Even though this is easy to see logically, understanding requires much more contemplation.

7. The Buddha clarified dukkha in the next verse, where he explicitly said: “appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho.” That means, “it brings sorrow to associate with persons/things one does not like. It also brings sorrow when one dissociates from people/things that one likes”.

  • We all know the truth of this first hand. It is unpleasant to associate with people one does not like and have a job that one does not like, etc.
  • Of course, the reverse is true too: “it brings sorrow when a loved one has to depart, and it also to lose a job or an object that one likes.”
Dukkha Arises Due to Anicca Nature

8. Then comes “yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ, which is shortened for yam pi icchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ.

Here we see “iccha” (same as “icca“) that we encountered in both anicca, dukkha, and anatta, and also in Paṭicca Samuppāda (“pati+icca” “sama+uppāda”). And “labhati” means “get”, and “na labhati” means “not get”. Note that “iccha” (in Sinhala ඉච්ඡ) emphasizes the “liking” in “icca” (in Sinhala ඉච්ච).

  • Translated: “If one does not get what one wants or likes, that leads to suffering.”
  • We also note that anicca comes from “na” + “icca” or “not getting what one desires.” Of course, anicca is the first of the three characteristics of Nature (Tilakkhana).
  • Therefore, this statement of the anicca nature, i.e., it is a natural law that one WILL NOT get what one desires in the long run. That is why it is not possible to eliminate suffering in the long term within the rebirth process.
  • Suffering ends only with the ending of the rebirth process.

9. That same concept is in the Yadanicca sutta (SN 22.15) as, “yadaniccam tam dukkham, yam dukkham tadanattā.” That is the abbreviated version of “yad aniccam tam dukkham, yam dukkham tad anattā.“ Translated: “if something is aniccadukkha arises, and one becomes helpless (anatta).”

  • Of course, the verse, “yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ” corresponds to just the first part of that verse: “yad aniccam tam dukkham.”
Sensory Pleasures are the Cause of Future Suffering

10. The Buddha never said there is only suffering in this world. These bouts of “apparent happiness” keep the real suffering hidden. We always try to look at the bright side, and our societies also try to “cover up” most of the pain and suffering that is out there.

  • Both suffering and happiness are out there. The key is to see the pain and suffering masked in apparent joy.
  • The Buddha described an analogy in the “Hook/Baḷisa Sutta (SN 17.2).” When a fish bites the bait, it sees only a bit of delicious food and does not see the hook, the string, and the man holding the fishing pole. It cannot understand that “whole picture,” with the suffering hidden (the hook).  In the same way, humans cannot see the pain and suffering hidden in the apparent sensory pleasures until a Buddha comes into the world and reveals it.
  • There is suffering hidden in ALL sensory pleasures, but that can be seen/realized only via stages. At the Sōtapanna stage, one willingly gives up only the intense greed and strong hate; ALL cravings are removed only at the Arahant stage.

11. On television, we see mostly glamorous people. You can see what happens to such beautiful people when they get old. 

  • We must realize that we all will undergo such inevitable changes as we age. No matter how hard we try, it is not possible to maintain ANYTHING to our satisfaction in the LONG-TERM.
  • Furthermore, there is suffering and happiness in the broader world of 31 realms. There is much more happiness in the planes above the human plane (but that happiness is temporary). And there is unimaginable suffering in the lower four, especially in the lowest one, the hell (niraya).
The Necessity of the Rebirth Process in Comprehending Anicca

12. The verses discussed in #8 through #10 above describe anicca nature. In the long run, “we cannot maintain things to our satisfaction, and that leads to suffering”; This is “ya da niccam tam dukkaham” that was discussed in “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations.”

  • Later in the sutta, it says, “……dukkhō anariyō anatta samhitō“.  One becomes anatta or helpless because of that. That is the “tam dukkham tad anatta” part of the verse in #9.
  • These concepts were further detailed in the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta (the second sutta delivered after the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta); see “Anatta – No Refuge in This World.”
  • Anicca, dukkha, and anatta are thus the foundational “vision” that can be achieved only by a Buddha. It is “pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu...” as emphasized at the beginning of the  Dhamma Cakka Pavattana sutta.

13. That is why it is imperative to understand the “big picture” of “this world” with 31 realms, the process of rebirth, laws of kamma, and most importantly, Paṭicca samuppāda. Then we realize that most beings, due to their ignorance, are trapped in the lower four realms.

  • There are only about 7 billion people on Earth, but each carries millions of living beings in our bodies. See, “There are as many creatures on your body as there are people on Earth!
  • A household may have 4-6 people, but how many living beings are in that house and the yard? Millions, possibly billions. In a single scoop of dirt, there are thousands of tiny creatures.

14. The concept of dukkha (dukha that can be stopped) is seen only in the context of the rebirth process. It is all about removing suffering associated with FUTURE births.

  • One’s current life has already started (which is a result of past kamma) and WILL go through until the kammic energy for the physical body runs out. We can only MANAGE any suffering associated with sicknesses, injuries, etc. Those are associated with a life that has already started.
  • However, those future sufferings can be stopped by stopping the rebirth process. That is the Dukkha Sacca.
Five Aggregates – What We Like to Maintain to Our Satisfaction

15. Finally, the last line of the verse in #5 summarizes it all: “saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkha.”

Translated: “The suffering that can be stopped arises because of the craving for the five aggregates.”

  • What we crave in this world can be divided into five groups: rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāna. We want to maintain our bodies and other inert or live bodies to our satisfaction. We want to keep our vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāna (our thoughts) to our satisfaction.
  • In other words, what we crave (icca) — and thus have upādāna for — are the five aggregates (pañcakkhandha). The “portion” of pañcakkhandha that we desire is called pañcupādānakkhandhā (pañca + upādāna + khandha).

16. Therefore, dukha (suffering or the vedanā felt) arises BECAUSE we crave things in this world and do “san” to acquire such things.

  • Again, we crave rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāna, ONLY because we believe those will bring us happiness. But the reality is that those cravings will inevitably bring suffering as the net result. We can stop suffering by stopping those cravings via understanding the real nature of this world, i.e., anicca nature leads to dukkha.
  • This truth (dukkha sacca) is realized by cultivating wisdom (paññā), i.e., by comprehending anicca, dukkha, and anatta. Please re-read this until you get the idea. That is the “pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu…” or the message only a Buddha can discover.
A Living Arahant has Pañcakkhandha but not Pañcupādānakkhandha

17. The realization of the actual characteristics of nature leads to giving up craving (upādāna due to taṇhā), which in turn leads to the release from the 31 realms, i.e., Nibbāna.

  • Thus, one becomes an Arahant when pancupādanakkhandha becomes just pañcakkhandha (i.e., no attachments even if the “world exists as before”). Of course, when the physical body dies, that Arahant will not be reborn in this world, and all suffering will stop.
  • It is essential to realize that this craving cannot be removed by force. See, The mind needs to see the benefits of that through the cultivation of wisdom (paññā) via comprehending anicca, dukkha, and anatta;  see “Anicca – True Meaning” and “Anattā – A Systematic Analysis.”
  • Another critical concept to understand is the benefits one gets by the removal of craving for worldly things; see, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“.
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