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The First Noble Truth ( Dukkha Saccha) :

There is no one English word which fully conveys the true meaning of dukkha. Dukkha has been often translated into English as “suffering”, but it means more than this.The literal meaning of the word is DU (difficult) and KHA (endure), i.e. that which is difficult to endure. The English words which come close to the meaning are: suffering, imperfection, impermanence, insubstantiality, unsatisfactoriness, inadequacy, uncontrollability, incompleteness, separation, the desire to become something other than what one is.

There are three kinds of dukkha:

1. Dukkha dukkha : which means straightforward suffering as the word is generally understood, for example the suffering caused by birth, old age, sickness and death. It also means the more subtle discomfort we experience as a result of petty disagreements, fits of anger, jealousy and other negative mental states. “Association with the unpleasant is suffering”. This means being stuck in situations we do not enjoy, like being jammed into the tube during the rush hour, or caught by a very boring person at a party and and having to listen to all sorts of things which do not interest us.

“Dissociation from the pleasant is dukkha. Not to get what one wants is dukkha”. If there is something which we want very much but cannot have, then we experience a feeling of unease or dissatisfaction – that is a form of dukkha. Even when we get something that we want very much, we may still feel a vague sense of incompleteness or that something is missing. We may want the perfect day never to end, and this vague form of dissatisfaction is dukkha. The feeling of wanting to hold onto something, not wanting to be separated from it. We may be searching for a spiritual teacher, and when we eventually find someone we respect, then we want him or her to be perfect. If he turns out not to be perfect, then we feel dissatisfaction, even perhaps disillusionment.

2. Viparinama dukkha : which means the suffering caused by change. It is a fundamental principle of the Buddha’s teaching that everything is impermanent. His last words were, “Impermanent are all conditioned things”. There is nothing in this world which is permanent. Everything is subject to change – only the rate of change varies. The Pali word is A-nicca (not permanent). Some things change quickly – a bubble bursts after only a few seconds; some things change slowly – rocks may take thousands of years to waste away, but there is nothing which lasts forever. However, it is the nature of the mind to seek after things which are permanent, and when we find that they are changing, this causes us to experience dukkha. (Yad aniccam tad dukkham – whatever is impermanent, that is dukkha). New possessions, such as new shoes, may give us pleasure to begin with, but after a while they deteriorate and we experience dissatisfaction. Our shiny new car will eventually rust away. Friendships may fade; our bodies will wear out. This fundamental condition of change is unavoidable, yet it causes us much dukkha. It is not the change itself, but our resistance to it which is the problem. In fact we should welcome change – otherwise we could not even boil an egg. This is a much more subtle form of dukkha; it is not the gross dukkha of old age, sickness and death. The Buddha said we should understand three things with regard to the pleasures of life. They are:-

  • Attraction (assada)
  • The evil consequence or unsatisfactoriness (adinava)
  • Freedom or liberation (nissarana) Enjoyment causes attachment, which is dangerous because it is subject to impermanence. If one can overcome attachment, that is relief.

For example, we may enjoy the company of a friend. We want to see that person as much as possible. This is assada. But there may come a time when this enjoyment is no longer possible; perhaps we cannot see that person or we think that the person’s attractive qualities have changed. This is adinava. If, however, we can become free from attractions like this, then we have achieved detachment – nissarana .The first two kinds of dukkha do not completely exclude the possibilities of happiness, e.g. association with the pleasant, and dissociation from the unpleasant, to get what one wants. But at the third level, suffering is a part of the fabric of existence. Even though we are more affluent today, still this kind of dukkha remains. Dukkha cannot be eradicated by increasing affluence, although some of the more straightforward kinds may be.

3. Samkhara dukkha : which means the suffering of conditioned states. What does this mean? We must look in detail at the Buddha’s ideas of what constitutes a person. When we are speaking in terms of conventional truth, we talk about a being or a person, but in ultimate truth the Buddha defined an individual as 5 aggregates. He taught that we are no more than a temporary and ever-changing combination of physical and mental forces. He called these “aggregates” (khandas) and there are five of these:-

*Rupa – matter

*Vedana – feelings

*Sanna – perception

*Sankhara – mental formations, constructing activities

*Vinnana – consciousness.

The first aggregate, matter or form, comprises the Four Great Elements ( pathavi, apo, tejo, vayo; solidity/expansion, fluidity/cohesion, heat/temperature/maturity and motion/ displacement; or earth, water, fire and air). In each case one element predominates, but the other three are also present to a lesser degree.This aggregate also comprises the Derivative Forms of the Great Elements, these are the 5 material sense organs (the faculties of eye, ear, nose, tongue and body) and their corresponding objects in the sense world (form, sound, odour, taste, tangible objects, and thoughts). The second aggregate, feeling, includes all sensations, which may be classified as bodily pleasant/unpleasant, mentally pleasant/ unpleasant or neutral, and which are experienced as a result of contact between our five physical sense organs and the mind with the external world. All physical and mental sensations are included here. The third aggregate, perception, is also of six kinds which are connected to the six internal faculties and their six external objects. Like feeling, perception is produced by the contact of our six faculties with the external world. It is perception which recognises whether an object is physical or mental. Sanna processes all sensory and mental objects; it classifies and labels them, for example as the colour yellow, or a dog or an abstract quality such as anger. The fourth aggregate, mental formations includes all volitional actions, i.e. all actions which are performed as a result of will or volition. It is these mental formations which initiate action and which shape character. It is actions of this kind which produce kamma. There are 52 cetasikas, mental concomitants; two of these are sensation and perception which are not volitional actions and do not produce kamma. The remaining 50 are included in this aggregate. Volitional actions include attention (manasikara), will (chanda), determination (adhimokkha), joy, faith (saddha), concentration (samadhi), wisdom (panna), energy (viriya), passion (raga), hatred, illwill (patigha), ignorance (avijja), conceit (mana), and self-view (sakkaya- ditthi). The fifth aggregate, consciousness, is the receptacle for the 52 mental factors and is the result of contact between one of the six sense faculties (eye, ear, etc.) with one of the corresponding six external phenomena (visible form, sound, etc.) For example, contact between the eye and visible form gives rise to visual consciousness. Without this contact, no consciousness can arise. Very important point. Consciousness does not exist independently of this contact. There is no such thing as pure consciousness existing by itself. A good analogy is like fire. Fire cannot exist by itself; it can only exist as a wood fire, a coal fire, etc. Similarly consciousness can only exist as visual consciousness, auditory consciousness, etc. Sense objects cannot be experienced without the appropriate kind of consciousness. Consciousness has no independent existence – even thoughts and ideas depend on contact.

What we call a “being” or an “individual” is only a convenient label which we give to describe this combination of aggregates. The Buddha taught that there is no such thing as a solid being, but only these five aggregates. Individual like a burning fire or flowing stream, not a solid vessel for holding experience or an unmoving slate on which perceptions are written. The Buddha said very clearly, “The 5 aggregates of clinging are suffering”, and in another place, “As the aggregates arise, decay and die, O monk, so from moment to moment you are born, decay and die.” Strictly speaking, what Buddhism calls the individual is not the five aggregates, but the five aggregates when they are grasped or appropriated. This explains why in the Buddhist definition of suffering, the reference is made to the aggregates of grasping and not to the aggregates themselves. The 5 khandhas are not suffering, but when we grasp them, then dukkha arises. The so-called individual can thus be reduced to a causally conditioned process of grasping. And it is this process of grasping that Buddhism describes as suffering. Hence the Buddhist conclusion is that life, at its very bottom or core, is characterised by suffering.” By whom are the five aggregates grasped? Besides the process of grasping, there is no agent who performs the act of grasping.

This may appear rather paradoxical, nevertheless it is understandable in the context of the Buddhist doctrine of anatta and the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination. What both seek to show is that the individual is a conditioned process, without an agent either inside or outside the process. This process of grasping manifests itself in three ways/ misconceptions: This is mine (etam mama) ; this I am (esoham asmi) ; and this is myself (eso me atta) . This first is due to craving (tanha) ; the second is due to conceit (mana); and the third is due to the mistaken belief in a self-entity (ditthi). It is through this process of three-fold self-identification that the idea of “mine”, “I am” and “my self” arises. If there is a thing called individuality in its samsaric dimension, it is entirely due to the superimposition on the five aggregates of these three ideas. The grasping is inherent in the khandhas, there is no one to do the grasping. This act of self-identification is itself suffering.We are identifying with a process which is itself in constant flux. (Yad aniccam tam dukkham). “What we call ‘I’ or ‘being’ is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect, and there is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence.”

Dukkha is a dynamic process which is suffering by virtue of being uncontrollable, ever-changing, and therefore inadequate and unsatisfying. Dukkha is a subtle but unavoidable part of the human condition and it is very important that we try to understand this as it is so central to the Buddha’s teachings.You may also appreciate why it is so difficult to translate this word into English and why to use the word “suffering” is rather misleading. That is why it is often left untranslated. Dukkha on an everyday level – failures, frustration, missed opportunity, irksome routine, petty irritations. It is all right to use “suffering” provided we know it is only shorthand for something wider and deeper. There is only one problem in the world – that of dukkha. All other problems, known and unknown, are included in this one which is universal. ”

May all beings be well and happy & attains the fruits of Nibbana.

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