Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?

I advise reading through any post one time without clicking on the links first; once you get the main concept, then the links can be used to clarify the other related key concepts.

Buddha Dhamma describes nature’s laws. Many people think that dukkha sacca (the first Noble Truth, pronounced “dukkha sachchä”) 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 panna  or wisdom to see the dukkha that is hidden. And one does not necessarily need to feel suffering in order to understand the dukkha sacca, even though it may motivate one to investigate. There is a difference between suffering (the feeling or vedana) and the ability to understand the causes for it (panna or wisdom).

  • It is obvious that there are bouts of happiness everywhere. If everything FELT LIKE suffering, everyone will be seeking Nibbana. The reality is otherwise. It is hard for people to even see the real suffering out there.
  • Whatever suffering is out there, it is hidden. In the HUMAN REALM, suffering and happiness are mixed together; one can see both.
  • In the realms higher than the human realm, suffering is relatively much less, and that is why it is hard for Devas to even think about Nibbana. However, even those Devas and Brahmas end up eventually in the lowest four realms, and will be subjected to suffering.
  • Beings in the lowest four realms are the ones who really feel dukha. Of course they have no idea about the dukkha sacca. Only at the Sotapanna stage one is able to comprehend dukkha sacca at least partially.

In the human realm (what we experience), is both suffering and happiness; some people are happier than others (and that is due to kamma vipaka). Thus we have the ABILITY to see AND examine (i.e., spend some time investigating), because we CAN see there is suffering out there even if we may not be experiencing it at the moment. But EVERYONE experiences it as they get old; decay and death are inevitable.

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

Idam kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkham ariyasaccam:

Jati’pi dukkha, jara’pi dukkha, vyadhi’pi dukkha, maranam’pi dukkham, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yamp’iccham na labhati tam’pi dukkham, sankhittena pancupadanakkhandha dukkha.

What is the Noble Truth of Dukkha?

1. In the first part it says, “jathi pi dukkha, jara pi dukkha, vyadhi’pi dukkha, maranan pi dukkha…….”. Most people translate this incorrectly as, “birth is suffering, getting old is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering”.

  • Does one suffer when a baby is born to the family? Do we not celebrate births (of loved ones), and even celebrate birthdays? So it is incorrect to interpret “jathi pi dukkha” literally as “birth is suffering”.
  • When person A gets old or sick or die, that causes suffering for A’s friends and family, but may cause happiness among A’s enemies. Thus, such literal interpretation is NOT correct.
  • Another important thing to remember is that the suttas are CONDENSED versions, formulated for easy recitation and transmission. A sutta that was delivered over many hours is condensed into a few pages of text; see, “Sutta – Introduction“.

2. “Jathi pi dukkha” is shortened for the verse; it is “jathi api dukkha; the  other two “jara pi dukkha, maranan pi dukkha” are meant to have the “pi” suffix. Be patient and read through carefully:

pi” in Pali or “priya” in Sinhala is “like”,  and “api” in Pali or “apriya” in Sinhala is dislike. Thus,  “jathi api dukkha” means “birth of something that is not liked by one causes suffering”.  “Jara pi dukkha” means, “decay of something that is liked causes suffering”, and “maranan pi dukkha” means, “Death of a liked causes suffering”. One can look at each case and easily see which one to use; see #5 below.

  • The reverse is true too: “Birth of something that one likes causes happiness”, “decay of something that is hated brings happiness” and “death of a hated person brings happiness”. You can think of any example and this is ALWAYS true. It brings happiness to many people to hear about the destruction of a property of an enemy . 
  • In a war, one is happy about the loss of lives on the other side but heartbroken by the deaths on one’s own side.

3. The Buddha further clarified “pi” and “api” in the next verse, where he explicitly said: “piyehi vippayogo dukkho, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho” means “it brings sorrow when a loved one has to depart, and it also brings sorrow to be with a hated person” (“piya” is same as “pi”, and “apiya” is same as “api”). We all know the truth of this first hand. When a man dies of in a plane crash, it causes great suffering to his family; less to his distant relatives; even less to those who just know him informally; and for someone at the other end of country who has had no association with him, it is “just some news”.

  • Of course the reverse of those are true too: “it brings happiness when a hated person has to depart, and it also brings happiness to be with a loved one”.

4. Then comes, “yamp’iccham na labhati tam’pi dukkham”. Here we see, “ichcha” that we encountered in both anicca, dukka, anatta and also in paticca samuppada (“pati+ichcha” “sama+uppada”). And “labhati” means “get”, and “na labhati” means “not get”. Thus, “If one does not get one likes, that leads to suffering”.

  • Again, the reverse is true too: “If one gets one likes, that leads to happiness”.

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

  • Therefore, there is both suffering and happiness out there. The key is to see the suffering that is hidden in apparent happiness.
  • 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 is not capable of seeing that “whole picture”, with the suffering hidden (the hook).  In the same way, humans cannot see the suffering hidden in apparent sense pleasures until a Buddha comes to the world and reveals it.
  • On television we see mostly the glamorous people. Yet, look at what happens to such glamorous people when they get old:
  • We need to realize that we all will go through such inevitable changes as we get old; no matter how hard we try, it is not possible to maintain ANYTHING to our satisfaction in the LONG-TERM.
  • Furthermore, there is both suffering and happiness in the wider world of 31 realms. There is actually much more happiness in the realms above the human realm. And there is unimaginable suffering in the lower four, especially in the lowest. We can see some of this suffering in the animal world, but even then the television programs highlight the “beauty” of wild life. We do not think how much suffering is in the animal world; may be not in domesticated animals, but in the wild.

6. The verses discussed in #4 and #5 above describes anicca. In the long run “we cannot maintain things to our satisfaction and that leads to suffering”; This is “ya da niccam tan dukkahan” that was discussed in, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.

  • Later in the sutta it says, “……dukkho anariyo anatta sanhitho“.  One becomes anatta or helpless because of that. That is, “tan dukkam ta da natta” that was discussed in, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.
  • In the second sutta that was delivered after the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana sutta, the Anatta Lakkhana sutta, these concepts were further detailed.
  • Anicca, dukkha, 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.

7. This 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, paticca samuppada. Then we realize that most beings, due to their ignorance, are trapped in the lower four realms.

  • There are only 7 billion or so people on Earth, but each of us carry in/on our bodies millions of living beings; 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 there in that house and in the yard? Millions, possibly billions. In a single scoop of dirt there are thousands of tiny creatures.

8. Finally, the end result is suffering (even though there may be bouts of happiness in between) from the things one craves (upadana) for. This is the last line: “sankhittena pancupadanakkhandha dukkha”. 

  • Here, “sankhittena” (“san” + “kitta” or “kruthya” or “kriya“) means acts of accumulating “san” via the three defilements; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“. Because of that, people crave rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, vinnana (pancakkhandha or “five heaps”), and get bound to “this world” by doing things to accumulate “san“. And that inevitably leads to suffering IN THE LONG TERM, especially in the sansaric time scale.
  • We stay in “this world” of 31 realms not because anyone or anything is forcing us, but because we cling to things (pancupadanakkhandha = panca upadanakkhandha = “five heaps that we cling to”) like an octopus clinging to its prey with all eight legs. This is done because of the ignorance of the true characteristics of “this world”: anicca, dukkha, anatta.
  • Therefore, dukha (suffering or vedana) arises BECAUSE we crave for things in this world and do “san” to  acquire such things and that is condensed in the phrase: sankhittena pancupadanakkhandha. Thus the truth of how dukha arises out of  “sankhittena pancupadanakkhandha” is stated as, “sankhittena pancupadanakkhandha dukkha”. This truth (dukkha scacca) is realized by cultivating wisdom (panna) by comprehending anicca, dukkha, anatta. Please re-read this until you get the idea. This is the “pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu…” or the message only a Buddha can discover.
  • We do that because we do not see the suffering hidden in anything in this world. Just like the fish does not see the danger in the “tasty worm”, we do not see the suffering  hidden in the apparent pleasures. There is suffering hidden in ALL sense pleasures; but that is realized via stages. At the Sotapanna stage one willingly gives up only the strong greed and strong hate; ALL cravings are removed only at the Arahant stage.
  • The realization of the true characteristics leads to giving up craving (upadana), which in turn leads to the release from the 31 realms, i.e., Nibbana. The pancupadanakkhandha becomes just pancakkhandha (i.e., no attachments even if the “world exists as before”) when “sankittena” is not there.
  • Don’t worry too much if you don’t quite understand what is meant by some statements in this post and especially in this bullet; come back and re-read the post after reading other posts and the comprehension will grow.
  • But it is important to realize that this craving cannot be removed by force. The mind needs to see the benefits of that through the cultivation of wisdom via comprehending anicca, dukkha, anatta;  see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – True Meanings“.
  • Another key 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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