Is Suffering the Same as the First Noble Truth on Suffering?

A common misconception is that dukkha means the feeling of suffering. The Pali word for suffering is dukha, with one “k.” The First Noble Truth (Dukkha Sacca) is not merely about dukha but how to get rid of it or dukkha (dukha + khaya.)

Re-written November 18, 2022

Misconception 1 – Sensory Pleasures Can Overcome Suffering

1. There was this question in a discussion forum, apparently by a young person, “With so many pleasurable things around us with the innovations from science and technology, why do people need to think about suffering? Isn’t Buddha’s message outdated?”

  • We all are seeking to avoid suffering. Modern society gives the impression that pursuing sensory pleasures will lead to happiness. But we have ample evidence that it does not work. Many people have enough wealth to acquire any sensory pleasure they desire. But don’t they suffer just like everyone else?
  • Suffering due to injuries, sicknesses, old age, etc., will be there irrespective of one’s wealth or accessibility to sensory pleasures.
  • Some wealthy people have committed suicide because they could not cope with depression. If they have enough wealth to access any sensory pleasures they desire, how can they become depressed?
  • Buddha taught something that no one has ever taught: “We suffer in the long run BECAUSE of our attachment to sensory pleasures.”

2. The Buddha never said that “there are no sensory pleasures to be had in this world.” There are plenty of mind-pleasing things and activities. He said people could not SEE the suffering hidden in sensory pleasures.

  • A fish bites into a tasty worm on a hook only because that worm is tasty! The fish would not take the bite otherwise. The problem is the “hook” that is hidden — which the fish does not see –, but we can see. In the same way, an average human can only “see” the apparent pleasures accessible.
  • Only a Buddha can “see” the long-term consequences of indulging in such apparent pleasures; see below.
  • We can get into trouble at different levels depending on how we pursue such sensory pleasures. The bad outcomes are evident if one does immoral things (stealing, sexual misconduct, etc.) in pursuing sensory pleasures.
  • However, even “apparently harmless” sensory pleasures can bring about suffering in the rebirth process. That is the “previously unheard teachings” of a Buddha.
  • But that does not mean one should start giving up sensory pleasures from this moment. That will only lead to frustration. There is a step-by-step to be followed. See “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?
Misconception 2 – First Noble Truth Is About Getting Rid of Physical Suffering

3. Some believe practicing Buddha Dhamma frees oneself of physical suffering in this life.

  • They have the wrong idea that the First Noble Truth on Suffering is about physical suffering and that one can get rid of it by practicing Buddhism, i.e., by “doing meditation.”
  • Any suffering experienced in this life arises due to causes in the past. Even the Buddha had some ailments. Paṭicca Samuppāda can explain all that.
  • The following comment by another person can be a starting point: “I understand what the Buddha meant by suffering because I came down with this ailment.” Even worse types of suffering await us if we don’t try to understand the critical message of the Buddha.

4. But some vipāka can be “managed” or even avoided by understanding Paṭicca Samuppāda.  For example, we can avoid CONDITIONS for some bad kamma vipāka to materialize by eating healthy and exercising. But some other strong vipāka cannot be avoided.

  • In another example, practicing Buddhism/meditation can also bring relief in this life. But that is relief from depression or other “mental suffering.” See “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Nirāmisa Sukha?” However, relief from sicknesses or other ailments cannot be overcome that way. One must seek medical advice in those cases.
  • A Buddhist’s goal is to stop ANY future suffering. Most people do not worry about that suffering because they don’t believe in rebirth. But not believing in something would not make that go away. One needs to realize that suffering is “built-in” with the laws of nature described by Paṭicca Samuppāda. 
  • Every death inevitably leads to another birth as long as CONDITIONS exist. Similarly, every birth ends in decay and death. Furthermore, some births have unimaginable suffering built in. All that is explained by various Paṭicca Samuppāda cycles. 
First Noble Truth on Suffering Has a Solution Built-In

5. The First Noble Truth on Suffering or Dukkha Sacca (pronounced “sachchā”) is about suffering in future lives (dukha) and how to overcome it. That is why it is “dukkha sacca” where “dukkha” means “dukha that can be overcome” (“dukha” + “khaya.”)

  • It is the ultimate truth about suffering. Any suffering that one may be experiencing in this life is negligible compared to that when born in the four lowest realms (apāyās.) The animal realm is included there.
  • Buddha Dhamma needs to be understood with wisdom. Wisdom (paññā) is a mental factor (cetasika) that needs to be cultivated mainly through reading about (or listening to) Buddha’s worldview first.

6. In his first sermon, Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta, the Buddha stated that his teachings are: “pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu” or “a Dhamma that has never been known to the world.” See “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.”

  •  However, those teachings can not be understood if we only focus on this life, like the young person who commented in #1 above.
  • In other words, the First Noble Truth is primarily about the suffering in the rebirth process. If one does not believe in rebirth, it would be worthwhile to look into the evidence for rebirth. See “Starting on the Path Even without Belief in Rebirth” and “Evidence for Rebirth.”
The worldview of the Buddha

7. The “wider worldview” of the Buddha can be briefly stated as follows:

  • There is a broader world out there, with many more beings living in 29 more realms than the human and animal realms that we experience, AND the real suffering is in the lower four realms.
  • This life is only a brief stop in our long journey through the cycle of rebirths called saṃsāra.
  • Even in this life, there is hidden suffering even when one seems to be enjoying life, AND there is real suffering in old age and death that is inevitable for everyone. That last part is apparent to anyone but is not thought about much. As one gets old, when the real suffering starts, the mind could be too weak to learn Dhamma.
  • Many people are confused about Nibbāna, “the state with no suffering.” For a brief explanation, see “Nibbāna “Exists”, but Not in This World.”
Importance of “Understanding the Big Picture”

8. Analogy 1: When a fish bites a 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 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.
  • That analogy is in the “Baḷisa Sutta (SN 17.2).” You can read the English translation there.

9. Analogy 2: Suppose someone makes you an offer. He says, “I will put you in one of the best resorts with all amenities paid for a month. But there is a catch. The food will taste great but have traces of poison that will become effective in a few months and lead to death within the year”.

Will anyone accept the offer, knowing it will lead to suffering and death? Of course not.

  • But they would gladly accept the offer if they were not told about the poison in the food. They will have a good time but bear the same consequences as the fish in the above analogy.
  • In the same way, we enjoy sensory pleasures without knowing their long-term consequences, especially if we do immoral things to get them. Only a Buddha can discover that “wider worldview” that thoroughly explains everything about life. Nothing happens without causes AND conditions. I have tried to explain that in various ways: “Paṭicca Samuppāda During a Lifetime” and “Origin of Life” are two examples.
Things to Contemplate (This is Meditation!)

10. We all have seen how a parent, a grandparent, or even an unrelated celebrity from past years transforms from a dynamic, self-confident, and sometimes imposing character to a feeble, helpless person in the latter years. Sometimes they die under pathetic conditions that would have been unimaginable for them when they were young. But this change is gradual, and even they do not realize it until it is too late.

  • When one becomes too old, it may be too late to start thinking about these facts; one needs to spend a little time contemplating these “facts of life” now.
  • Not to get depressed about this inevitability, but to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT; this will enable one to enjoy the latter days of life with nirāmisa sukha, even if no stage of Nibbāna is attained.

11. However, it DOES NOT MEAN one should rush to get away from all sensory pleasures even if one becomes convinced of the core message of the Buddha.

  • Abandoning everything abruptly may have even worse consequences if it is not done with proper understanding. It takes time to digest the whole message. It has taken me several years to reach where I am now. I have not given up anything with remorse; I do not “miss” anything that I have given up. The only things one may want to “forcefully give up” are things that directly hurt other beings, like killing, stealing, etc., which most people don’t do anyway.
  • Giving up sensory pleasures comes gradually with understanding when one sees the benefits of giving up.

12. There is no need to rush into taking drastic actions. The urgent task is to get started. Allocate a little time each day to learn Dhamma, preferably when the mind is a bit calmer so that one can focus and contemplate. As the Buddha said, this Dhamma differs from what we are used to.

  • As one begins to understand the message of the Buddha, the learning process will become easier. What I hope to do with this site is to present all the background material I have gone through so that others do not have to repeat it all.
  • Of course, you may want to do additional research. Each person evaluates things differently.

13. The First Noble Truth on suffering is NOT so much about current suffering, especially physical suffering. It is not about just the dukha vedanā.  It is about the fact that there is even more intense dukha vedanā possible in future lives, but any future dukha vedanā can be stopped entirely.  That “full picture” needs to be UNDERSTOOD with wisdom (paññā).

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