“We have only this moment,
sparkling like a star in our hand...
and melting like a snowflake.”

The First Noble Truth


Excerpt from "The Four Noble Truths" by Ajahn Sumedho:


The Blessed One was once living at Kosambi in a wood of simsapa trees. He picked up a few leaves in his hand, and he asked the bhikkhus, ‘How do you conceive this, bhikkhus, which is more, the few leaves that I have picked up in my hand or those on the trees in the wood?

‘The leaves that the Blessed One has picked up in his hand are few, Lord; those in the wood are far more.’

‘So too, bhikkhus, the things that I have known by direct knowledge are more; the things that I have told you are only a few. Why have I not told them? Because they bring no benefit, no advancement in the Holy Life, and because they do not lead to dispassion, to fading, to ceasing, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. That is why I have not told them. And what have I told you? This is suffering; this is the origin of suffering; this is the cessation of suffering; this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering. That is what I have told you. Why have I told it? Because it brings benefit, and advancement in the Holy Life, and because it leads to dispassion, to fading, to ceasing, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. So bhikkhus, let your task be this: This is suffering; this is the origin of suffering; this is the cessation of suffering; this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’

[Samyutta Nikaya, LVI, 31]

The First Noble Truth with its three aspects is: 'There is suffering, dukkha. Dukkha should be understood. Dukkha has been understood.'

    This is a very skillful teaching because it is expressed in a simple formula which is easy to remember, and it also applies to everything that you can possibly experience or do or think concerning the past, the present or the future.

    Suffering or dukkha is the common bond we all share. Everybody everywhere suffers. Human beings suffered in the past, in ancient India; they suffer in modern Britain; and in the future, human beings will also suffer ... What do we have in common with Queen Elizabeth? -- we suffer. With a tramp in Charing Cross, what do we have in common? -- suffering. It includes all levels from the most privileged human beings to the most desperate and underprivileged ones, and all ranges in between. Everybody everywhere suffers. It is a bond we have with each other, something we all understand.

    When we talk about our human suffering, it brings out our compassionate tendencies. But when we talk about our opinions, about what I think and what you think about politics and religion, then we can get into wars. I remember seeing a film in London about ten years ago. It tried to portray Russian people as human beings by showing Russian women with babies and Russian men taking their children out for picnics. At the time, this presentation of the Russian people was unusual because most of the propaganda of the West made them out to be titanic monsters or cold-hearted, reptilian people -- and so you never thought of them as human beings. If you want to kill people, you have to make them out to be that way; you cannot very well kill somebody if you realise they suffer the way you do. You have to think that they are cold-hearted, immoral, worthless and bad, and that it is better to get rid of them. You have to think that they are evil and that it is good to get rid of evil. With this attitude, you might feel justified in bombing and machine-gunning them. If you keep in mind our common bond of suffering, that makes you quite incapable of doing those things.

    The First Noble Truth is not a dismal metaphysical statement saying that everything is suffering. Notice that there is a difference between a metaphysical doctrine in which you are making a statement about the Absolute and a Noble Truth which is a reflection. A Noble Truth is a truth to reflect upon; it is not an absolute; it is not The Absolute. This is where Western people get very confused because they interpret this Noble Truth as a kind of metaphysical truth of Buddhism -- but it was never meant to be that.

    You can see that the First Noble Truth is not an absolute statement because of the Fourth Noble Truth, which is the way of non-suffering. You cannot have absolute suffering and then have a way out of it, can you? That doesn't make sense. Yet some people will pick up on the First Noble Truth and say that the Buddha taught that everything is suffering.

    The Pali word, dukkha, means 'incapable of satisfying' or 'not able to bear or withstand anything': always changing, incapable of truly fulfilling us or making us happy. The sensual world is like that, a vibration in nature. It would, in fact, be terrible if we did find satisfaction in the sensory world because then we wouldn't search beyond it; we'd just be bound to it. However, as we awaken to this dukkha, we begin to find the way out so that we are no longer constantly trapped in sensory consciousness.

Suffering and self-view

It is important to reflect on the phrasing of the First Noble Truth. It is phrased in a very clear way: 'There is suffering,' rather than, 'I suffer.' Psychologically, that reflection is a much more skillful way to put it. We tend to interpret our suffering as 'I'm really suffering. I suffer a lot -- and I don't want to suffer.' This is the way our thinking mind is conditioned.

    'I am suffering' always conveys the sense of 'I am somebody who is suffering a lot. This suffering is mine; I've had a lot of suffering in my life.' Then the whole process, the association with one's self and one's memory, takes off. You remember what happened when you were a baby ... and so on.

    But note, we are not saying there is someone who has suffering. It is not personal suffering anymore when we see it as 'There is suffering'. It is not: 'Oh, poor me, why do I have to suffer so much? What did I do to deserve this? Why do I have to get old? Why do I have to have sorrow, pain, grief and despair? It is not fair! I do not want it. I only want happiness and security.' This kind of thinking comes from ignorance which complicates everything and results in personality problems.

    To let go of suffering, we have to admit it into consciousness. But the admission in Buddhist meditation is not from a position of: 'I am suffering' but rather 'There is the presence of suffering' because we are not trying to identify with the problem but simply acknowledge that there is one. It is unskilful to think in terms of: 'I am an angry person; I get angry so easily; how do I get rid of it?' -- that triggers off all the underlying assumptions of a self and it is very hard to get any perspective on that. It becomes very confused because the sense of my problems or my thoughts takes us very easily to suppression or to making judgements about it and criticising ourselves. We tend to grasp and identify rather than to observe, witness and understand things as they are. When you are just admitting that there is this feeling of confusion, that there is this greed or anger, then there is an honest reflection on the way it is and you have taken out all the underlying assumptions -- or at least undermined them.

    So do not grasp these things as personal faults but keep contemplating these conditions as impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self. Keep reflecting, seeing them as they are. The tendency is to view life from the sense that these are my problems, and that one is being very honest and forthright in admitting this. Then our life tends to reaffirm that because we keep operating from that wrong assumption. But that very viewpoint is impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self.

    'There is suffering' is a very clear, precise acknowledgement that at this time, there is some feeling of unhappiness. It can range from anguish and despair to mild irritation, dukkha does not necessarily mean severe suffering. You do not have to be brutalised by life; you do not have to come from Auschwitz or Belsen to say that there is suffering. Even Queen Elizabeth could say, 'There is suffering.' I'm sure she has moments of great anguish and despair or, at least, moments of irritation.

    The sensory world is a sensitive experience. It means you are always being exposed to pleasure and pain and the dualism of samsara. It is like being in something that is very vulnerable and picking up everything that happens to come in contact with these bodies and their senses. That is the way it is. That is the result of birth.

Denial of suffering

Suffering is something we usually do not want to know -- we just want to get rid of it. As soon as there is any inconvenience or annoyance, the tendency of an unawakened human being is to get rid of it or suppress it. One can see why modern society is so caught up in seeking pleasures and delights in what is new, exciting or romantic. We tend to emphasise the beauties and pleasures of youth whilst the ugly side of life -- old age, sickness, death, boredom, despair and depression, are pushed aside. When we find ourselves with something we do not like, we try to get away from it to something we do like. If we feel boredom, we go to something interesting. If we feel frightened, we try to find safety. This is a perfectly natural thing to do. We are associated with that pleasure/pain principle of being attracted and repelled. So if the mind is not full and receptive, then it is selective -- it selects what it likes and tries to suppress what it does not like. Much of our experience has to be suppressed because a lot of what we are inevitably involved with is unpleasant in some way.

    If anything unpleasant arises we say, 'Run away!' If anyone gets in our way we say, 'Kill him!' This tendency is often apparent in what our governments do ... Frightening, isn't it, when you think of the kind of people who run our countries -- because they are still very ignorant and unenlightened. But that is the way it is. The ignorant mind thinks of extermination: 'Here's a mosquito; kill it!', 'These ants are taking over the room; spray them with ant killer!' There is a company in London called Rent-o-Kil. I don't know if it is a kind of British mafia or what, but it specialises in killing pests - however you want to interpret the word 'pests'.

Morality and compassion

That is why we have to have laws such as, 'I will refrain from intentionally killing,' because our instinctual nature is to kill: if it is in the way, kill it. You can see this in the animal kingdom. We are quite predatory creatures ourselves; we think we are civilised but we have a really bloody history -- literally. It is just filled with endless slaughters and justification for all kinds of iniquities against other human beings -- not to mention animals -- and it is all because of this basic ignorance, this unreflecting human mind, that tells us to annihilate what is in our way.

    However, with reflection we are changing that; we are transcending that basic instinctual, animal pattern. We are not just being law-abiding puppets of society, afraid to kill because we are afraid of being punished. Now we are really taking on responsibility. We respect the lives of other creatures, even the lives of insects and creatures we do not like. Nobody is ever going to like mosquitoes or ants, but we can reflect on the fact that they have a right to live. That is a reflection of the mind; it is not just a reaction: 'Where is the insecticide spray.' I also don't like to see ants crawling over my floor; my first reaction is, 'Where's the insecticide spray.' But then the reflective mind shows me that even though these creatures are annoying me and I would rather they go away, they have a right to be, a right to exist. That is a reflection of the human mind.

    The same applies to unpleasant mind states. So when you are experiencing anger, rather than saying: 'Oh, here I go -- angry again!' we reflect: 'There is anger'. Just like with fear -- if you start seeing it as my mother's fear or my father's fear or the dog's fear or my fear, then it all becomes a sticky web of different creatures related in some ways, unrelated in others; and it becomes difficult to have any understanding. And yet, the fear in this being and the fear in that mangy cur is the same thing. 'There is fear.' It is just that. The fear that I have experienced is no different from the fear others have. So this is where we have compassion even for mangy old dogs. We understand that fear is as horrible for mangy dogs as it is for us. When a dog is kicked with a heavy boot and you are kicked with a heavy boot, that feeling of pain is the same. Pain is just pain, cold is just cold, anger is just anger. It is not mine but rather: 'There is pain.' This is a skillful use of thinking that helps us to see things more clearly rather than reinforcing the personal view. Then as a result of recognising the state of suffering -- that there is suffering -- the second insight of this First Noble Truth comes: 'It should be understood.' This suffering is to be investigated.

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