On Suffering and The First Noble Truth

When you start studying Buddhism you start running into lists, lots and lots of lists.  This probably has a lot to do with Buddhism originating in an oral culture where monks had to remember a ton of religious material entirely by memory.  Numbered lists were one way to help give the memory a boost.  Rhyming and rhythmic patterns are another.

I remember an example of this when I got married to my wife who is from Laos in a traditional Laotian ceremony called a basi.  The man who was responsible for marrying us was held up in traffic and it was unclear when he would get there.  Guests were getting restless.  Without a second thought my now mother-in-law went around the crowd asking who could perform a marriage ceremony.  There was a traditional Lao band there and the band leader, an older Laotian man, volunteered.  I mean, totally normal right?  Just ask a crowd of people if someone will lead a marriage ceremony on the spur of the moment and someone steps up, sure.  To nobody’s amazement except mine, the band leader promptly started reciting a traditional marriage ceremony entirely in rhyming verse for the next couple of hours off the cuff, without planning or rehearsal.  He even had time to make funny jokes and tell anecdotes in ancient Pali, roughly the English equivalent of Latin.  Apparently, this is fairly mundane stuff in an oral culture.   But back to the story of the Noble Truths.

There are Four Noble Truths.  The Four Noble Truths are the cornerstone of Buddhist psychology so its critical to understand them.  If the Buddha was a modern medical doctor or psychologist the First Noble Truth would be the diagnosis.  What was he diagnosing?  He was diagnosing the human condition.  And what was the diagnosis?  Suffering – that human life is full of suffering.

Sounds kind of grim right?  Life is full of suffering.  Hmm.  A lot of people get turned off from Buddhism right there.  Suffering?  I don’t want none of that!  And who could blame you.  But let’s look at what the Buddha was referring to and why.

When the Buddha was talking about suffering he was referring to dukkha (pronounced duke-ah), a Pali word which roughly translates to constant dissatisfaction.  Cue the Rolling Stones.  In the time of the Buddha in ancient Asia it referred to the wheel of an ox cart where the hole holding the axle was slightly off center.  The constant bumpiness experienced when riding in a cart with an off center wheel was an analogy for the constant frustrations we face in life.

Let me list a few examples.  It’s too cold and we get a blanket, but then after a while we’re too hot and sweating so we throw the blanket off.  We’re sleepy so we drink some coffee but now we’re feeling jittery and anxious and too alert to fall asleep when we want to.  We want a raise and a new job, we get it and all of the sudden we’re overwhelmed by deadlines and stress.  We buy a new bigger car with our raise to make ourselves happy and a short while later we’re bored with it and need an even bigger car but we’re having trouble making the payments of the current car.  Same with the house.  Same with the spouse.   We’re eating some delicious food and then we over do it and then we get a stomach ache.  We also worry that we’re gaining weight from all that delicious food and that our partner will find us unattractive and leave us.

In short, we crave things we frequently can’t have, when we get what we want we quickly bore of them and then want some other new shiny object, we get old when we want to stay young, we get sick at the most inconvenient time possible, then we die when there’s more stuff we wanted to do.  That’s dukkha in a nutshell.

The Buddha believed that it was better to own up to this truth of what was happening to us rather than ignore it.  The reason being is if we don’t see what’s happening we end up trapped in this cycle of suffering and unknowingly perpetuate it.

The good news is along with the diagnosis the Buddha determined the cause of this suffering and its cure.  More on this in future posts so stay tuned.

With Loving-Kindness,

W.C. Ark, PsyD
PSY29365

As always, if you find yourself struggling with mental health issues please seek a professional’s help.  Blog posts not intended to replace a professional’s advice.