Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?

Revised October 24, 2018

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 dukkhā sacca (the first Noble Truth, pronounced “dukkhā sachchā”) 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 dukkhā that is hidden. And one does not necessarily need to feel suffering in order to understand the dukkhā sacca, even though it may motivate one to investigate. There is a difference between suffering (the feeling or vedanā) and the ability to understand the causes for it (paññā or wisdom).

  • It is obvious that there are bouts of happiness everywhere. If everything FELT LIKE suffering, everyone will be seeking Nibbāna. 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 devās to even think about Nibbāna. However, even those devās 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 dukkhā sacca. Only at the Sōtapanna stage one is able to comprehend dukkhā 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 vipāka). 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:

Jāti’pi dukkhā, jarā’pi dukkhā, vyadhi’pi dukkhā, maranam’pi dukkham, appiyehi sampayogo dukkhō, piyehi vippayogo dukkhō, yamp’iccham na labhati tam’pi dukkham, sankhittena pancupādanakkhandhā dukkhā.

What is the Noble Truth of Dukkha?

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

  • We may think that there is a contradiction in the above verse. Does one suffer when a baby is born to the family? No. Everyone in the family is delighted. But it is the baby that suffers during the birth; see, “Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta“.
  •  “jāti pi dukkhā” needs to be analyzed within the context of the particular case. In this post, we will focus the more general case, not the specific case (for just one person) discussed in the above mentioned post. Please read that post too, to get a better understanding.
  • 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.
  • An 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“. As we just saw, the explanation depends on the particular situation one is addressing.

2. “Jathi pi dukkhā” is shortened for the verse; it is “jāti api dukkhā; the  other two “jarā pi dukkhā, maranan pi dukkhā” 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,  “jāti api dukkhā” means “birth of something that is not liked by one causes suffering”.  “Jarā pi dukkhā” means, “decay of something that is liked causes suffering”, and “maranan pi dukkhā” 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 dukkhō, appiyehi sampayogo dukkhō” 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 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, “tam dukkam tad  anatta” 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; see, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta“.
  • 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 samuppāda. 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 (icca) — and thus has upādāna for. This is the last line: “saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā“.

  • Here, “samkhittena” (“san” + “kittha” 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, vedanā, 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 (pancupādanakkhandhā = panca upadana khandha or 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.

9. Therefore, dukha (suffering or vedanā) arises BECAUSE we crave for things in this world and do “san” to  acquire such things and that is condensed in the phrase: samkhittena pancupādanakkhandhā. Thus the truth of how dukha arises out of “samkhittena pancupādanakkhandhā” is stated as, “samkhittena pancupādanakkhandhā dukkhā”. This truth (dukkha scacca) is realized by cultivating wisdom (paññā) 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 Sōtapanna 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 (tanhā due to upādāna), which in turn leads to the release from the 31 realms, i.e., Nibbāna. The pancupādanakkhandhā becomes just pancakkhandha (i.e., no attachments even if the “world exists as before”) when “samkittena” is not there.
  1. 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.
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