When I first came across Buddhism, I heard that the First Noble Truth was “Life is suffering.” I quickly dismissed Buddhism as a pessimistic philosophy. Fortunately, I was later introduced to teachers who taught the Buddha’s path as one of wisdom and of joy, and now I’ve even become a nun! I come back to the Four Noble Truths often, and see that while a lot has been written about them, their daily application is not often discussed. Titled as “Truths,” it’s easy to assume that they are something to believe—but the Buddha’s path is one of experience, not blind faith. With this in mind, I’d like to begin a four-part series exploring the Four Noble Truths in daily life.
The First Noble Truth centers around suffering, or dukkha in Pali. Rather than using the standard “Life is suffering,” my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, translates the First Truth as “the existence of suffering” (Thich Nhat Hanh 1998, 6). Pema Chödrön writes, “The first noble truth says that it’s part of being human to feel discomfort” (Pema Chödrön 2002, 25). I particularly enjoy what the Access to Insight website has to say about dukkha:
“No single English word adequately captures the full depth, range, and subtlety of the crucial Pali term dukkha. Over the years, many translations of the word have been used (‘stress,’ ‘unsatisfactoriness,’ ‘suffering,’ etc.). Each has its own merits in a given context. . . . One helpful rule of thumb: as soon as you think you’ve found the single best translation for the word, think again: for no matter how you describe dukkha, it’s always deeper, subtler, and more unsatisfactory than that.”*
Often we hear about the Four Noble Truths as statements cut off from any context, which makes them rather difficult to understand. The Four Noble Truths are found in the Discourse on The Turning the Wheel of the Dharma (Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta, SN 56:11). The sutta covers the Middle Way, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Four Noble Truths. After the Buddha lists the Four Noble Truths (dukkha, arising, cessation, and the path), he explains what happened to him in regards to the Four that brought him to complete awakening. These can then be seen as instructions to us. In regards to the First Noble Truth, the Buddha said “. . . the Noble Truth of suffering needs to be understood” (Thich Nhat Hanh 1998, 258). How different from the traditional “Life is suffering!” Stephen Batchelor goes even further, calling the Four Noble Truths simply “The Four,” based on the work of Pali philologist K. R. Norman. Batchelor writes:
“Norman offers a detailed, philological analysis of The First Discourse, and arrives at the startling conclusion that ‘the earliest form of this suttadid not include the word ariya-sacca (noble truth)’ (Norman 2003, 223). On grammatical and syntactical grounds, he shows how the expression ‘noble truth’ was inexpertly interpolated into the text at a later date than its original composition. One implication of Norman’s discovery is that the Buddha may not have been concerned with questions of ‘truth’ at all.”**
I need not speculate whether the Buddha actually used the words “Noble Truth” or not. As a practitioner, though, I appreciate taking focus away from the word “Truth” and bringing attention to what to do when suffering. Simply put, we must look into suffering in order to understand it. But how do we get to understanding when it causes, well, so much suffering?
It was only when my mother died that I started to really discover the importance of this teaching for my own life. As my mother lay in a coma, I found myself thinking, “If only we had caught the cancer sooner . . .” Then I asked myself, “What? Then she wouldn’t die?” I knew that it was absurd but I couldn’t stop thoughts like these from invading my mind. Yes, I would have liked to have had more time with her—but everyone dies. As I watched my mind, I realized that I was struggling with the basic existence of suffering.
Now I see the same tendency around me, for saying one understands that suffering is a part of life is very different from embodying this wisdom. The rejection of suffering shows up in reactions to everything from red lights and cold coffee to racism or in the denial of or despair over climate change. Yet, the beauty of this teaching is that when we see that it’s just suffering, acceptance is on its way and understanding usually follows right behind. For me, acceptance is choosing to no longer cause myself more pain over things as they are. Until it’s plain “suffering” and not “Why am I suffering?!” then I’m just stuck. Acceptance has become my path to understanding and freeing myself from suffering.
Sometimes, the First Noble Truth is simply a reminder that, “Suffering happens, not because I made a mistake or am being punished but just because it happens.” A friend was recently in a car accident, and when I went to see her in hospital, she burst into tears, asking “Why did this happen to me?” Seeing her in the Emergency Room lying on a stretcher showed me yet again that asking “why” was neither going to help her heal nor to help me support her. Calming the fear and blame was the only way for her to heal, which she is now bravely doing. The accepting and understanding actually give us more energy to heal the suffering than fighting against it, as counter-intuitive as it may feel.
The other way that I practice with this is when I hear about the suffering of the world, whether it’s a natural disaster, a suicide, or another young black man being killed by a police officer. I say to myself, “There is suffering here.” I often put my hand on my heart and let the sadness well up. By giving it the space to rise up, it can settle down on its own and compassion takes its place. Once I can just see the suffering (rather than ignoring it or suppressing it), I am already calm. In the light of acceptance, understanding arises and wise action becomes possible. It’s a small act, but in its simplicity lies its power.
Pema Chödrön. 2002. Comfortable with Uncertainty. Boston: Shambhala.
K. R. Norman. 2003. Collected Papers. Vol II. Oxford: Pali Text Society.
Thich Nhat Hanh. 1998. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings. New York: Broadway Books.