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Common Ground Series: The Four Noble Truths - Part I
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dharma_ben wrote in buddhistgroup
Now that we have had fun (hopefully) talking about the various controversies that abound in Buddhism (although we barely scratched the surface), I thought it would be a good idea to begin a discussion on the things that unite us all as Buddhists.

For those of you new to Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths express the essence of the Buddha's teaching in the form of an Ancient Indian medical diagnosis - problem, cause, cure, and prescription. They serve as the framework by which the entire range of Buddhist teachings can be structured.

This first post will focus on the first of the Four Noble Truths - the Truth of Dukkha.
"Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha." SN 56.11

What is Dukkha?

Dukkha is a Pali and Sanskrit word that has no direct English equivalent. Etymologically it has been broken down into Duh + akasa, meaning difficulty shining forth, or bad illumination. A popular analysis has it as an analogous antonym of Sukha, which means pleasant or blissfull. Translators have struggled with finding the right word for as long as Buddhist texts have been translated. Popular choices are suffering, stressful, painful, woeful, dis-ease and unpleasant.

Translation issues aside, the word Dukkha signifies the affliction that besets all unawakened sentient beings. It is an honest acknowledgment of the events and elements of our lives that keep us from being at peace.

The Buddha enumerates specifically what he considers Dukkha in the passage above. Birth, aging, and death remind us of the three inevitable fates that will come to pass for each of us. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief & despair reflect the emotional struggles that everyone will encounter in life. Association with the unbeloved and separation from the loved signify the power of our feelings and preferences over our mental state.

The Five Clinging Aggregates

In the last line of the passage, the Buddha summarizes his previous statements with "In short, the five clinging aggregates are dukkha." This requires a little more explanation.

The Buddha liked to use the five aggregates as a model for talking about beings. Not only does it allow him to avoid talking about selves and souls, it also allows him to drill down to a more fundamental level of psycho-physical processes when talking about the mechanics of his path. The five aggregates are form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness. It is important to remember that the Buddha is explaining these things from a first-person perspective, since the teaching was aimed at meditators, who have embarked on a radical exploration of that first-person perspective. This was not meant to be scientific.

The first aggregate, form, encompasses all of the possible objects of the five external senses. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations. The second aggregate, feeling, encompasses the pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral qualities that accompany every experience. Perception is a category that encompasses recognition and identification of our sensory experiences. Mental fabrication is a catch-all category for all higher level cognitive processes not covered by the previous aggregates. It includes thinking, reasoning, language, etc. Consciousness is divided into six classes - one for each sense plus a mind-consciousness that experiences the objects of the mind.

Why are the Five Clinging Aggregates dukkha?

The key to answering this question lies in the word 'clinging'. The Buddha uses the model of the Five Aggregates not only as a tool for meditators to investigate their experience, but also because these five categories tend to be what unawakened beings use to construct their false notion of a self. In any given day, we think about ourselves innumerable times. Yet each one of those times a different aspect of our self is being referred to. "I think" "I feel" "I remember" "I see" "I hear". Same "I", different "I". What the Five Aggregates gives us is a way of deconstructing that "I" so that it can no longer deceive us as a monolithic, indivisible thing. And when we do that, we begin to see that each of the five aggregates serve as the structure upon which we build our house of craving. And craving... is the subject of the Second Noble Truth, and the next post.

Further Study:


What are your thoughts on the First Noble Truth? Do you agree or disagree with the Buddha's assessment of what constitutes Dukkha? How does your tradition interpret this Truth in light of their other teachings?

We have a great community here. All questions, comments and criticisms are welcome!

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Dukkha, in my practice, is simply the unpleasant aspect of the aggregate of feeling. That is what a human being strives to get rid of, usually by getting rid of the physical things associated with those unpleasant feelings. That's the Dukkha I work with in my practice. Any more advanced ideas of Dukkha tend to get too intellectual for me. I'm not rejecting those ideas necessarily, but I like to work with my own experience, if that makes sense. Like the CSI guys, not straying too far from the evidence and into speculation.

What about sorrow, grief and despair? What about being associated with what you dislike and separated from what you like? Are these things too intellectual? Are they absent from your experience?

In all those conditions, it's the unpleasant feeling that is the suffering. If you were separated from what you liked, but had no unpleasant feeling, there would be no problem. I'm not denying the things you mentioned, because they are not different from unpleasant feeling.

That the aggregates themselves are Dukkha is what I don't bother with, because I don't believe we are fundamentally flawed as it's often made out in Buddhism. I don't believe that suffering arises from these aggregates because they are the nature of suffering. I don't believe this is a living hell, or a big mistake. Just as there is bad, there is a lot of good in the world, and I don't want to leave this world for a "better one" as some Buddhists do.

That the aggregates themselves are Dukkha is what I don't bother with, because I don't believe we are fundamentally flawed as it's often made out in Buddhism.

I don't think we're fundamentally flawed either. For me, the five aggregates are just categories of analysis. All sentient beings, including Buddhas, can be analyzed in these terms. The distinction between Buddhas and us is that for us, the skandhas serve as a basis of clinging and craving. We cling and crave because we are ignorant about the nature of things. Awakened beings, who have by definition overcome ignorance, no longer cling to the skandhas as the raw material for ego building.

In all those conditions, it's the unpleasant feeling that is the suffering.

I don't disagree with you, but the Buddha takes it a step further:

"There are, O monks, these three feelings: pleasant, painful and neither-painful-nor-pleasant. Pleasant feelings should be known as painful, painful feelings should be known as a thorn, and neither-painful-nor-pleasant feelings should be known as impermanent. If a monk has known the feelings in such a way, it is said of him that he has the right outlook."


Why should we look at pleasant feelings as painful? Because they are transient. Because they cause us to cling to them and crave more of them. Pleasant feelings, by their very nature, cause us to be sad when those feelings inevitably fall away. Yes, this leads to an unpleasant feeling, but that unpleasantness has two things as conditions: the pleasant feeling itself, and ignorance about feelings in general. I think the Buddha grasped something very important about human psychology with this insight. Namely that freedom from dukkha is not just about removing unpleasant feelings, it's also about removing ignorance about the nature of feelings (of everything, really).

This is why I think that anicca, or impermanence, is probably the most profound insight of Buddhism. Even more profound than dependent arising, since it would not be possible without impermanence. I might even go so far as to say that all of Buddhism is an acknowledgment of, and method of understanding and coping with, this fundamental fact of life.

Yeah, I agree with everything you're saying, especially about the ignorance stuff. I don't really understand Buddha though, for saying pleasant feelings are Dukkha. You can't really blame the good feelings. The good feeling ending isn't the problem, it's the ignorance that gives rise to the unpleasant feeling coming next. I don't understand why Buddha says pleasant feelings are painful. You know what I mean?

I dunno. When I read the Suttas I look at the Buddha as more of a coach than a philosopher. Here you have these students, embarking on a radically phenomenological journey of discovery, and the Buddha is just saying, "when this arises, look at it this way, because it will help you". In the case of pleasant feelings, we're so conditioned to cherish them that we don't have the proper 'distance' from them to see them for what they are. So the Buddha says, "hey look at it as just another form of suffering, that way you can step back from it and it won't increase your craving mind."

I look at the Buddha as more of a coach than a philosopher

Would it be too extreme to say that:

a) all the teachings of Buddha were just skilful means to free sentient beings from ignorance, craving and the suffering that arises from ignorance and craving.

b) nothing Buddha teached is to be understood as a definitive affirmation of an ontological reality?

c) Buddha would have teached anything that would liberate sentient beings from suffering?

I think he does this in a lot of cases. Take the meditation on impurity and death, for example. I don't think the Buddha is making some grand philosophical statement about how disgusting people are. He's saying, "hey, your body and the bodies of others are powerful objects of craving. Look at them this way so as to take a step back and not let it control you."

Yeah, it's made clear in those impurity meditations that the view is just a tool, but in regards to pleasure being suffering, it always seemed like a philosophical position to me.

One argument I heard, was that pleasure is just a reduction in previous suffering. So it is still suffering, but just less of it, so we take that for pleasure. But that reasoning's a bit abstract for me. What do you think of it?

When the Buddha first experienced the pleasure of jhana, he reflected on it and called it a better, more refined kind of pleasure because it wasn't based on the objects of the senses. The implication being that pleasure derived from the senses is flawed primarily because they are unstable and dependent on conditions outside of our control. The jhanas are also impermanent, of course, but they are more stable because the conditions for their attainment are all rooted in the mind of the practitioner.

That the Buddha condoned the appreciation of jhanic bliss says to me that 1. pleasure is not inherently a bad thing, 2. that pleasure derived from jhana is a good tool to weaken our grasp on the pleasures of the senses, and 3. that ultimately it is ignorance, not pleasure, that creates suffering.

Saying that all unawakened sentient beings experience Dukkha seems to imply that once you're awakened, you exist without Dukkha. Shades of meaning aside, is a Buddha without Dukkha?

Looking at it like a medical diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription, isn't Dukkha at least something that will continue to arise, a disease that you catch and need to treat again and again as you catch it again and again? Thinking one can be cured forever and never experience any Dukkha ever again seems like a promise of an end to our practices, and I'm not sure that's possible.

Looking at it like a medical diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription, isn't Dukkha at least something that will continue to arise, a disease that you catch and need to treat again and again as you catch it again and again? Thinking one can be cured forever and never experience any Dukkha ever again seems like a promise of an end to our practices, and I'm not sure that's possible.

It has a cause ergo it can be eliminated.

Why does the Buddha teach the Buddhadharma?

Isn't that the point of the four noble truths, that suffering has a cause and it can end?

is a Buddha without Dukkha?

Let's assume conditionality/causality is true. We can look at it as a house of cards. Dukkha is at the top, with craving in all its forms being the supporting structures, and ignorance being the base. An awakened being has, by definition, removed ignorance. Without ignorance, there is no foundation for craving/clinging to be built upon, and thus no foundation for dukkha to stand on.

Looking at it like a medical diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription, isn't Dukkha at least something that will continue to arise, a disease that you catch and need to treat again and again as you catch it again and again?

Extending the metaphor, removing craving due to ignorance can be likened to vaccinating against the disease, removing the vectors that transmit the disease, and/or improving sanitation and healthy habits that contribute to catching the disease.

Hi there. I'm happy that this community is starting and ideas are flying. I have a request. Could posts of this length be put behind an LJ cut? Thanks!

Some people like them long, so we can't enforce that. It's just up to the individuals posters. Sorry about this. :)

Beautiful and insightful post, dharma ben.

Another note on the etymology: "su" means good and "du" means bad; originally, "kha" meant axle hole. So duhkha is, literally, "bad axle hole."

I think the Four Noble Truths are the basis one has to agree with if one is to consider himself a Buddhist.

From my point of view, the Four Noble Truths simply mean that we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world.

As long as I understand it, Ch'an/Zen recognizes this imperfection as source of all suffering.

But at the same time, Ch'an/Zen affirms that this imperfection is a false perception of a non-awakened mind and offers the possibility to experience first-hand the true Reality in which there is no place left for Dukkha.


Dukkha is a Pali and Sanskrit word that has no direct English equivalent. Etymologically it has been broken down into Duh + akasa, meaning difficulty shining forth, or bad illumination.

I think suffering is an appropriate translation for dukham.

I also have reservations about the proposed etymology for the word.

The Chinese translated it as ku ( 苦 ) which literally means pain or suffering.

Looking at the Sanskrit dictionary:



duḥkha

(H1) duḥkhá 1 [p= 483,2] [L=93403] mfn. (according to grammarians properly written duṣ-kha and said to be from dus and kha [cf. su-khá] ; but more probably a Prakritized form for duḥ-stha q.v.) uneasy , uncomfortable , unpleasant , difficult R. Hariv. (compar. -tara MBh. R. )

(H1B) duḥkhá 1 [L=93404] n. (ifc. f(ā).) uneasiness , pain , sorrow , trouble , difficulty S3Br. xiv , 7 , 2 , 15 Mn. MBh. &c (personified as the son of naraka and vedanā VP. )

(H1B) duḥkhá 1 [L=93406] n. impers. it is difficult to or to be (inf.with an acc. or nom. R. vii , 6 , 38 Bhag. v , 6)

(H1B) duḥkhá 1 [L=93407] n. duḥkham - √as , to be sad or uneasy Ratn. iv , 19÷20

(H1B) duḥkhá 1 [L=93408] n. - √kṛ , to cause or feel pain Ya1jn5. ii , 218 MBh. xii , 5298.

(H2) duḥkha 2 [p= 483,3] [L=93487] Nom. P. °khati , to pain SaddhP.

(H2) duḥkha [p= 1329,1] [L=333850] (in comp.)


The first entry there has an alternative explanation of the formation of the word.

Yes there are many explanations. The one I gave is Buddhaghosa's.

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