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Dukkha: Why the First Noble Truth Is No Laughing Matter (Part 3 of a 13-Part Series)

Mr. MacPherson’s argument begins with the first noble truth, which he describes as: “Life is full of suffering.”  He goes on to say “Every human life without exception witnesses to this truth. It is in particular a recurrent theme in the Psalms of the Old Testament.”  That’s it.  This is all he says.    

As presented by Mr. MacPherson, the Buddha’s Noble Truth of Suffering is a rather banal truth, something a five year old with a stubbed toe could probably tell you.  And one is left to wonder, “Did we really need the Buddha to tell us this?”  Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately, depending on how you look at it—that is not what the first truth actually says or even implies.  

Let’s start with a definition.  The word “suffering” is really just the best the English language can do with the Pali word dukkha.  Other translations that have been offered over the years are “anguish” (by Stephen Batchelor), “ill” (by Edward Conze), “stress” (by Thanissaro Bhikkhu), “frustration” (by an old friend of mine), and various other nouns denoting general unpleasantness.  All of these capture some of the flavor and character of dukkha, but to appreciate what the Buddha really meant one must go to the texts.  The following is from his first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: 

Birth is dukkha, decay is dukkha, disease is dukkha, death is dukkha, to be united with the unpleasant is dukkha, to be separated from the pleasant is dukkha, not to get what one desires is dukkha.  In brief, the five aggregates of clinging (panc’upadanakkhandha) are dukkha

That last line is the clincher: the five aggregates of clinging are suffering.  What are they?  Briefly, the panc’upadanakkhandha are everything that can be experienced.  Bodily form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness with clingingall are dukkha.  

In an excellent summary from his introduction to the Khandhavagga of the Samyutta Nikaya (The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 842), Bhikkhu Bodhi writes the following:

The aggregates are suffering because they tend to affliction and cannot be made to conform with our desires (S.22:59); because attachment to them leads to sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure and despair (S.22:1); because their change induces fear, distress, and anxiety (S.22:7).  Even more pointedly, the five aggregates are already suffering simply because they are impermanent (S.22:15) and thus can never fulfil our hopes for perfect happiness and security.  While they give pleasure and joy, which is the gratification (assada) in them, eventually they must change and pass away, and this instability is the danger (adinava) perpetually concealed with them (S.22:26).  Though we habitually assume that we are in control of the aggregates, in truth they are perpectually devouring us, making us their hapless victims (S.22:79).  To identify with the aggregates and seek fulfilment in them is to be like a man who employs as his servant a vicious murderer out to take his life (S.22:85).

Not the sort to mince words, the Buddha declares that

Whatever exists therein of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness he sees those states as impermanent, as suffering, as a disease, as a tumor, as a barb, as a calamity, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as empty, as not-self (Mahamalunkya Sutta, M.64:9). 

The Buddha then applies this formula to progressively more rarified, “spiritual” states (the jhanas), thus demonstrating that even the attainments of great contemplatives do not escape suffering as he defines it. 

In short: If you can think it, know it, be it, sense it and you are not an arahant, it is dukkha.  From the most blissful sexual experience, the trippiest drug trip, to cosmic consciousness, visions of Jesus, a new Ferrari, and life in heaven—all are dukkha.  One must know in the bones that all these things, all these experiences, are liable to suffering.  They are unsatisfactory.  They are unstable.  They end.  All depend on a self that is elusive, protean, in constant need of defense.  Experience itself is alien and you will grow weary of it, even Heaven.  So, going back to Mr. Macpherson’s definition, rather than saying “life is full of suffering” the first noble truth says—quite emphatically—“life is suffering.”  (For an exposition of the putthujjana’s experience of himself, see my post “The Buddha On the Nature of Personality and Suffering.”  Much of what I say there applies directly to the present discussion, as well as to future posts in this series.) 

Far from being a garden variety truism, the truth of dukkha is actually a profound and subtle recognition, requiring considerable maturity to understand.  It is best known in the course of insight (vipassana) practice, where the mental formations (sankharas) are seen to follow one upon the other in a ceaseless, impersonal torrent of cause and effect.  Consider this description of several of the insight knowledges from the Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw:  

6. Awareness of Fearfulness

When that knowledge of dissolution is mature, there will gradually arise, just by seeing the dissolution of all object-and-subject-formations, awareness of fearfulness and other (higher) knowledges, together with their respective aspects of fear, and so on.  Having seen how the dissolution of two things—that is, any object noticed and the insight-thought engaged in noticing it—takes place moment by moment, the meditator also understands by inference that in the past, too, every conditioned thing (formation) has broken up in the same way, that just so it will break up also in the future, and that at the present it breaks up, too. And just at the time of noticing any formations that are evident, these formations will appear to him in their aspect of fearfulness. 

Therefore, during the very act of noticing, the meditator will also come to understand: “These formations are indeed fearful.”  Such understanding of their fearfulness is called “knowledge of the awareness of fearfulness”; it has also the name “knowledge of fear.”  At that time, his mind itself is gripped by fear and seems helpless. 

7. Knowledge of Misery

When he has realized the fearfulness (of the formations) through the knowledge of fear, and keeps on noticing continuously, then the “knowledge of misery” will arise in him before long. When it has arisen, all formations everywhere whether among the objects noticed, or among the states of consciousness engaged in noticing, or in any kind of life or existence that is brought to mind—will appear insipid, without a vitalizing factor, and unsatisfying. So he sees, at that time, only suffering, only unsatisfactoriness, only misery. Therefore this state is called “knowledge of misery.” 

8. Knowledge of Disgust

Seeing thus the misery in conditioned things (formations), his mind finds no delight in those miserable things but is entirely disgusted with them. At times, his mind becomes, as it were, discontented and listless. Even so he does not give up the practice of insight, but spends his time continuously engaging in it. He therefore should know that this state of mind is not dissatisfaction with meditation, but is precisely the “knowledge of disgust” that has the aspect of being disgusted with the formations. Even if he directs his thought to the happiest sort of life and existence, or to the most pleasant and desirable objects, his mind will not take delight in them, will find no satisfaction in them. On the contrary, his mind will incline and lean and tend only towards Nibbana. Therefore the following thought will arise in him between moments of noticing: “The ceasing of all formations that are dissolving from moment to moment—that alone is happiness” (The Progress of Insight [1994], pp. 23ff). 

When you have seen and known this directly, and realize this is what you’ve been calling your self, your life, then you will understand what suffering really is.   

Needless to say, the Biblical texts do not come anywhere near this, not even Ecclesiastes, by far the most sober and reality-based in the Judaeo-Christian canon (and also my favorite).  As for the suffering Mr. MacPherson alludes to in the Psalms, all too often it is the suffering of a man (traditionally King David) railing against his enemies and partakes nothing of the ñanadassana of the Noble Ones, which “knowledge and vision” must be seen before the First Noble Truth can be penetrated and known.  I can thus state categorically: There is no knowledge or understanding in the Biblical tradition of dukkha as it is described in the Buddha’s Teaching.    

I’ll finish this post with two favorite quotes that touch on the subject of suffering.  The first is Ñanavira Thera’s reflection on James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.  The second, one of the most chilling from the Buddha himself, gives an indication of the vastness of suffering through time and space; the Bible has no equivalent conception. 

I am glad to hear that you have managed to make something of Ulysses after all. Your reaction to the book (a feeling of sadness) is appropriate and shows that you have not misread it; but surely the sympathy you feel for the ageing Molly Bloom should be extended to Mr. Bloom himself (and, in a lesser degree, to most of the other characters)? Bloom has lost his first-born son, Rudi, and this has affected his relations with his wife: he himself says somewhere that he is now less happy than he used to be in earlier days. 

Actually, when I first read the book, it was not so much the ageing of the characters that affected me as the ultimate meaninglessness and futility of all their actions and aspirations. They are busy, all of them, seeking their immediate satisfactions and avoiding their immediate discomforts; and everything that they do—whether it is making money, making music, making love, or simply making water—is quite pointless—in terms, that is to say, of an ultimate purpose or meaning in life. 

At the time I read it—when I was about twenty—I had already suspected (from my reading of Huxley and others) that there is no point in life, but this was still all rather abstract and theoretical. But Ulysses gets down to details, and I found I recognized myself, mutatis mutandis, in the futile occupations that fill the days of Joyce’s characters. And so I came to understand that all our actions, from the most deliberate to the most thoughtless, and without exception, are determined by present pleasure and present pain. Even what we pompously call our “duty” is included in this law—if we do our duty, that is only because we should feel uncomfortable if we neglected it, and we seek to avoid discomfort. Even the wise man, who renounces a present pleasure for the sake of a greater pleasure in the future, obeys this law—he enjoys the present pleasure of knowing (or believing) that he is providing for his future pleasure, whereas the foolish man, preferring the present pleasure to his future pleasure, is perpetually gnawed with apprehension about his future. And when I had understood this, the Buddha’s statement, “Both now and formerly, monks, it is just suffering that I make known and the ceasing of suffering” (M.22:38), came to seem (when eventually I heard it) the most obvious thing in the world—“What else,” I exclaimed, “could the Buddha possibly teach?” (Clearing the Path [1987], pp. 407-8). 

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 Inconceivable is the beginning of this samsara, not to be discovered is a first beginning of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths. 

Which do you think is more: the flood of tears which weeping and wailing you have shed upon this long way—hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths, united with the undesired, separated from the desired—this or the waters of the four oceans? 

Long time have you suffered the death of father and mother, of sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, and while you were thus suffering, truly you have shed more tears upon this long way than there is water in the four oceans. 

Which do you think is more: the streams of blood that, through your being beheaded, have flowed upon this long way, or the waters in the four oceans? 

Long time have you been caught as thieves or highway men or adulterers, and through your being beheaded truly more blood has flowed upon this long way than there is water in the four oceans. 

But how is this possible? 

Inconceivable is the beginning of this samsara, not to be discovered is a first beginning of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths. 

And thus have you long time undergone suffering, undergone torment, undergone misfortune and filled the graveyards full, truly long enough to be dissatisfied with every form of existence, long enough to turn away and free yourselves from them all (S.15:3,13).

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