A Clarification about the First Noble Truth

Good day, everyone!

I want to see if I can clear up a misunderstanding about the First Noble Truth of the Buddha. This is something I was confused about for a long time, and perhaps you’ve been confused as well in a similar way.

Here is an articulation of the First Noble Truth that I found in the same book I referenced yesterday: The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy, by Junjiro Takakusu….

“The First Noble Truth of the Buddha says this, that life consists entirely of suffering.”

There actually are two places of confusion that people run into around this teaching, in my experience. One that we regularly talk about in practice has to do with the word ‘suffering’. ‘Suffering’ is the translation of a Buddhist technical term, dukkha, which, at least in my understanding, indicates the state we can fall into in which we conceive ourselves to be and believe ourselves to be an artificial, fictional ‘self’ that is outside of and attempting to control the spontaneous unfolding of Life. Suffering in a Buddhist sense is not the same as pain, then, which is the more common way to use that word. We talk about this distinction regularly within our sangha.

The other confusion, which we talk about less, has to do with the word ‘is’ in the articulation of the First Truth quoted above. People often baulk when they hear that life is suffering, because it simply isn’t their experience. The word ‘is’ implies that life is suffering all the time under all circumstances, and this is not the case. Sometimes life is beautiful, wonderful, dazzling, magical, and deeply satisfying. How can we say that life is suffering, given that?

I think the First Noble Truth would be better rendered this way:

“Life as a separate self consists entirely of suffering.”

This makes more sense, doesn’t it? And that very much fits with my experience. If I am identified with an imaginary self within conditioned mind then I’m going to suffer, inevitably, unavoidably, and completely. If I am not identified with a self, however, and instead if I am being and living from authentic nature (the same nature which flows through ‘me’ and all existing things), then there is no suffering. That is the truth which inspires and directs our practice.

Just in case you’re curious, here’s the way the author lists all of the Four Noble Truths, with the clarification that I just suggested:

1. Life as a separate self consists entirely of suffering.

2. That suffering has causes.

3. The causes of suffering can be extinguished.

4. There is a way to extinguish the causes.

There’s a way to extinguish the causes of suffering! Oh, that’s so good, isn’t it? This is what life is all about, at least to me: to learn the way to extinguish the causes of suffering, to practice that way, and through that practice to have the great privilege of experiencing the truth of who we are, and the joy that comes with that understanding.

Have a beautiful day, friends.

In peace,