The Four Noble Truths are often the first thing that one hears when s/he seeks to learn more about Buddhism.
In English, we often use the word “suffering” or “dissatisfaction,” but the original word in the Pali language was dukkha (Sanskrit: duḥkha).
When the idea of “suffering” is tromped out as the first Buddhist discussion topic, many think we’re a negative lot. We’re not; we’re among the happiest people you’ll meet. We’re realists who are willing to take the facts head-on: you will get old, you will get sick, and you will die. You will experience the loss of loved ones, you’ll fail from time to time, and you’ll experience conflict.
If you want to put your head in the sand, that’s okay… we all feel that urge from time to time. But here’s the reality: we live in a world where stronger things eat weaker things. There might be an asteroid the likes of which killed the dinosaurs en route to us as I type this, or that insanely massive Yellowstone caldera could blow, and that could be the end of humanity. Our incessant greed or our warlike nature could result in circumstances that make our planet uninhabitable to life as we know it.
We do not believe that there’s a god coming to save us, nor a deus ex machina savior that’s planning to rush in and deliver a happy ending. The only chance that humanity has is getting real about the sometimes-troubling facts of life. And the only way we can make that happen is one person at a time.
So let’s talk about dukkha, shall we?
The Truth of Suffering
“This is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”
“Life’s a bitch.”
We humans say these things… because shit does happen and life can, in fact, be a bitch at times.
Looking on the bright side, finding the proverbial silver linings… these are good things. But we should also be realistic and accept that life is full of things that make us hurt, piss us off, stress us out.
Even good things come to an end, and when they do, we suffer. Or, in many cases, we suffer because we’re worried about the end of good things.
The Origin of Suffering
“This is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving (taṇhā, “thirst”) which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.”
The Buddha concluded that the big problem is in our heads… that we get hung up on “if I just had that house,” or “if I were with him,” or “if I could just get that promotion,” things would be great. When we get what we want, there’s usually a short period of elation but then it dissipates… and we want something else.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve, make a little more money, find a life partner, etc. The problem comes in when those things become an imagined panacea that we expect to fully and ultimately satisfy us. We become obsessed… we crave.
Much of this craving is bound up in our ego, the false belief in an independent self.
The Cessation of Suffering
“This is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.”
The core element of Buddhism lies in the belief that this suffering can be brought to an end, and that the teachings – the Dharma – offer a method by which this can be done.
The Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering
“This is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”
Buddhism provides the Noble Eightfold Path as a means to bring about an end to suffering. While they sound simple, the effect of integrating them into one’s life and worldview is profound.
What’s the point?
We can’t fix a problem that we refuse to admit that we have. The magical thinking of which we Americans, in particular, are so fond only exacerbates the situation. Buddism says, let’s take a realistic look at our situation and then find ways that we humans – individually and cooperatively – can improve upon it.