SUFFERING and DUKKHA: A DISCUSSION OF THE FIRST TRUTH
The extreme forms of Dukkha – suffering, clinging and craving – make Buddha's message awesome, but they diminish its universal application.
I believe this has confused countless generations of Buddhists.
ReferencesThe Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna is the most detailed version of the Four Truths in the Pali literature.
This page uses the translation from the Pali Tipitaka www.tipitaka.org/stp-pali-eng-series#41. Please read the original text – all the translations in the references are similar.
The Second and Third Truths – The Origin and Cessation of DukkhaThe Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna's Second and Third Truth discuss all the small steps in the origins and cessation of Dukkha, Though they are incredibly long winded and perhaps difficult to read, the Second and Third Truths are pure cognitive psychology, with a touch of philosophy. There is absolutely no mention of any worldly examples of suffering.
The subject matter in the Second and Third Truth, is exclusively a discussion of the Five Aggregates, expanded to a list of Ten Aggregates, and related to each of the six sense bases.
The First Truth – Worldly Suffering
However, the First Truth is the exception. It is on a completely different level to the Second and Third Truths. It discusses many forms of worldly suffering, like illness, old age, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and distress etc. lamentation, wailing, misfortune and grief, etc. with only two short references to the Aggregates.
The First Truth has a laborious style of definition, even emotional at times – quite different to the incredibly long interconnecting logical detail in the Second and Third Truths.
The Dukkha of Getting what one WantsThis is one of the key points which allow us to clearly recognise the difference between the First and the Second Truth.
The First Truth tells us "the association with something that one does not like is suffering, the disassociation with something that one does like is suffering". Everyone already knows that not getting what you want, and getting what you don't want, is bad news. It hardly takes a Buddha to tell us this!
The Second Truth discusses the dukkha of getting what one wants. This is a far more difficult nut to crack. It is because pleasure and wanting lead to repetition. Repetition is the first step in the sequence which binds us to karma.
Why does The First Truth emphasise worldly suffering in such a banal way?
The Development of the First TruthI can well believe that later in his teaching, Buddha developed compassion for everyday worldly suffering, old age and illness.
However the Four Noble Truths and The Middle Way are placed at the beginning of Buddha's teachings, immediately after his enlightenment. At this time he was concerned with spiritual freedom, nirvana, and the ultimate truth.
The main reason the original sense of Buddha's dukkha was adapted in the first truth, was because 'not running smoothly' or 'problematic' wasn't dramatic enough to catch the popular imagination. It didn't speak to the common suffering in the everyday lives of normal people.
Many people converting to religions do so when they actually feel suffering – they seek some hope, understanding, or at least a sense of identity with their own suffering – rather than seeking for truth.
Suffering, and all the other exaggerated terms used in Buddhism like 'clinging' and 'craving'; made the message more magnificent and awesome.
However, if you believe that Buddha found the truth. Then i think you must agree that he found the truth about fulfillment in life – not just the truth about worldly suffering, clinging and craving.
The Story LineBuddhism has followed up this development of the First Truth with supporting stories. One of the main justifications for the idea that dukkha meant worldly suffering is found in the story line.
The story is that Buddha was a prince who, after a sheltered life, one day when he was around 30 years old, asked to go outside his palace walls where he saw old-age, sickness and death for the first time. And so he left his home to seek the answer to this worldly suffering. (So the obvious logical conclusion to this story is for him to find the answer to worldly suffering.)
This story is incredible. It is unexplainable behaviour for any enterprising youngster. Was Buddha so uninterested in normal life that he took 30 years till he went outside for the first time?
As a prince, his teachers would have been Hindu priests who would have taught from religious texts, which discussed truth, life and death, and thus made him aware of these and instilled a thirst for the truth in him.
I believe he left his home with the intention of finding the truth without any consideration of other people's worldly suffering. Even if Buddha left his home to find the answer to common worldly suffering, illness, old age and death; the answer he found was so much more.
This story line about worldly suffering is so limiting – i repeat yet again : what Buddha found was the truth. The truth about how to find fulfillment in life – not just the truth about suffering.
A secondary consideration is that it seems highly unlikely that an intelligent, rich and powerful person who was deeply concerned about other people's illness, old age and death, callously ignored this, and left his home without establishing hospitals and hospices.
The First TruthThe First Truth is corrupt. It is incongruous with the Second and Third Truths, and in itself it is illogical even irrational and unintelligent.
In the First Truth "What is Dukkha?" – "What is Suffering?", dukkha is defined as birth, death and a detailed list of examples of suffering such as "sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and distress are suffering," – but then without any connecting logic, makes the conclusion, "in short, the clinging to the five aggregates is suffering."
A detailed analysis of the text reveals a number of different levels of thinking. This indicates that several early teachers and scribes added interpretations and commentaries.
"And what, monks, is the Noble Truth of Suffering?" (remember suffering is the translation for Dukkha).
This is a very impressive collection of unpleasant worldly things which can happen – with one short mention of the five aggregates.
O.K. i'd agree that illness is suffering, though usually only temporarily; and i find it questionable if birth, death and old age are always and inevitably suffering, but i will make no big point about it. On the other hand I must agree: sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and distress are suffering... suffering is suffering... not very bright – but reassuring if you are suffering ...
Then note the incongruity of the Five Aggregates in this context "... in short, the clinging to the five aggregates is suffering.". All the other examples are so blatant and in the manifest world... and then comes: in short, (the summary), something with real psychological depth, the Aggregates.
The Aggregates are only mentioned once more, at the end of the first truth – all the other manifest examples of suffering are developed in great detail.
The Dictionary DefinitionsAfter the first introductory paragraph, the First Truth continues with a detailed description of all the examples of worldly suffering.
"And what, monks, is sorrow? Whenever one, monks, is affected by various kinds of loss and misfortune, that are followed by this or that kind of painful state of mind, by sorrow, by mourning, by sorrowfulness, by inward grief, and by deep inward woe – this, monks, is called sorrow."
"And what, monks, is lamentation? Whenever one, monks, is affected by various kinds of loss and misfortune, that are followed by this or that kind of painful state of mind, by wailing and crying, by lamentation, by deep wailing, by deep lamentation, by the state of deep wailing and deep lamentation – this, monks, is called lamentation."
Was Buddha so boring that he sounded like a dictionary? These long-winded, laborious, dictionary definitions describe birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and distress. The full text is indeed an excellent collection of misery.
Then follows the definitions of "being associated with what one does not like" and "being disassociated with what one does like". On the first look, this may appear to be an attempt at a general theory – but actually all it is, is the ever continuing dictionary definitions.
"And what, monks, is the suffering of being disassociated with what one does like? Wherever and whenever one finds pleasant, agreeable or liked objects of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch or of the mind, or, whenever and wherever one finds that there are wishers of one’s own fortune, prosperity, comfort or of one’s own security, like mother and father, like brother and sister, like friends and colleagues or relatives; if one gets disassociated, one does not meet, one does not come into contact or does not get combined with them – this, monks, is called the suffering of being disassociated with what one does like."
I cannot believe Buddha was so one-sided, and basically of little intelligence! The list completely lacks the usual logical Buddhist objective view. Everyone already knows that displeasure is suffering – why isn't there any discussion of the association with what one likes and getting what one desires, (see above).
Compare the quote from the First Truth to the completely different style of thought in The Second Truth which discusses why pleasure and delight is suffering. The following passage is one of ten in the Second Truth, which examine the Aggregates in precise mathematical and logical detail.
"The rolling in thoughts of visible objects in the world [of mind and matter] is enticing and pleasurable; there this craving arises and gets established. The rolling in thoughts of sounds … is enticing and pleasurable; there this craving arises and gets established. The rolling in thoughts of smells … is enticing and pleasurable; there this craving arises and gets established. The rolling in thoughts of tastes … is enticing and pleasurable; there this craving arises and gets established. The rolling in thoughts of touch … is enticing and pleasurable; there this craving arises and gets established. The rolling in thoughts of mind objects, mental contents in the world [of mind and matter] is enticing and pleasurable; there this craving arises and gets established."
But – the First Truth hasn't finished yet!Following the dictionary definitions, there is a section which attempts to give an emotional content:
"And what, monks, is not getting what one desires? In beings, monks, who are subject to birth the desire arises: "Oh, truly, that we were not subject to birth! Oh, truly, may there be no new birth for us!" But this cannot be obtained by mere desire; and not to get what one wants is suffering."
"In beings, monks, who are subject to old age the desire arises: "Oh, truly, that we were not subject to old age! Oh, truly, may we not be subject to old age!" But this cannot be obtained by mere desire; and not to get what one wants is suffering."
And then so on, through all the instances of sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and distress... it is suffering merely to read it !... until we get to THIS ONE BIT OF LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS:
"And how, monks, in short, is clinging to the five aggregates suffering? It is as follows – clinging to the aggregate of matter is suffering, clinging to the aggregate of sensation is suffering, clinging to the aggregate of perception is suffering, clinging to the aggregate of reaction is suffering, clinging to the aggregate of consciousness is suffering. This, monks, in short, is called suffering because of clinging to these five aggregates."
We would be lost without the aggregates... and even this section is COMPLETELY CONFUSING because the aggregates are presented only in the context of "the aggregates of clinging" and so the text is inextricably dominated by this idea of clinging.
AND THE PURITY OF THE ESSENTIAL PART "manifest form, sensation, perception, concepts ('reaction' in the above translation) and consciousness" IS ALMOST LOST.
As i discuss in Buddhism, Dukkha, and Repetitions
The Five Aggregates are defined only in terms of "the Five Aggregates of Clinging". 'Clinging' severely limits their interpretation and their potential as a universal theory.
Attachments, especially extreme attachments like clinging, are just one of the possible consequences of the repetitions.
The Five AggregatesThe texts – which were subject to multiple translations and written more than 400 years after Buddha spoke – have also clouded the Five Aggregates.
The original idea is that once the Five Aggregates are set in motion, once the wheels start turning, they keep repeating.
However, the words for such phenomenon didn't exist in Buddha's times. If they did exist in Sanskrit, then certainly not in all the other languages which they were translated in.
Modern cognitive psychology could probably clarify the Aggregates. At present they stretch our understanding beyond common sense...
The Five Aggregates of our sensory apparatus are manifest form, sensation, perception, concepts (mental formations) and consciousness. Consciousness is a manifest form which leads to a sensation, etc... and so the wheel turns again and the momentum is self perpetuating.
I believe the idea behind this is for example: 1. a visual object, 2. the transmission of that stimulus (through the ether), 3. the contact with the eye, 4. the transmission of that stimulus to the mind, and 5. the recognition and effect on the mind or the emotions. And with that recognition, it becomes an object which then produces the same sequence.
At present the sequence gives 2. sensation and 4. concepts (or more usually mental formations), which means that the sequence would start repeating at the 2nd or 4th stage, rather than when it becomes conscious.
I have extensive rough notes on this and other subects, but consider it too complex to explain. First Buddhists need to understand the first step, that pleasure and also wanting lead to repetition.
Please continue with Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna References
Back to Chapter Four : Buddhism and Wheels
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