Parsing This is Suffering
The first noble truth, when translated the way the Buddha said it, is: “This is suffering.”
Buddhism can, in a practical (skillful means) sense, be thought of as simply realizing the this of “This is suffering.” For once this is realized, there is no longer any clinging. In practice, the more we understand this as we walk the path to full realization, the less clinging we can do.
In my own life, the more profoundly I have grown to understand the this of “This is suffering,” the less and less strongly I have been able to crave and cling, not only to material stuff, but to the emotional stuff as well. Going, going and gone are so many of my material needs, and going, going, gone is so much of my moodiness and depression, the latter almost completely, that I am amazed. The more I have come to understand this, the more peaceful and happy my life has become.
The Buddha starts his explanation of dukkha in his first discourse, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta [SN 56.11], by simply listing eight types of dukkha: (1) birth, (2) aging, (3) disease, (4) death, (5) sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, (6) being united with the unpleasant, (7) being separated from the pleasant, and (8) not getting what we desire.
Those eight are what is commonly understood as dukkha or suffering: birth, aging, disease, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair, being stuck with unpleasant things, being separated from pleasant things, and not getting what we want.
But the Buddha immediately expands his explanation, saying: “In brief, the five aggregates of clinging are dukkha". Understanding this idea is central to developing a deeper understanding of our lives and ourselves. Colloquially speaking, we are the sum total of our sensory experiences, past and present, an amalgam of our five aggregates: form, feeling, perception, volitional formation and consciousness. We are the five aggregates, which are suffering. Ergo we are suffering.
So the Buddha is saying: everything we experience is dukkha. Now we’re beginning to get to the this in “This is suffering.”
All of our physical and mental experiences are included in the footprint of dukkha because they are all impermanent, all arising and ceasing from moment to moment. We see this on the cushion when we sit and observe ourselves, when we notice our consciousness arising singularly in each moment, constantly defining and redefining who we think we are.
Though we cling to the idea of “a self, a person, a living being, a life span,” to use the words of the Diamond Sutra, in fact it's the aggregates, and not us, that are born, grow old and die; it’s the aggregates that we are cling to.
The first noble truth, then, is the central and overriding characteristic of existence in samsara.
The pronoun this represents both what is realized and the one who realizes it. In other words, I am suffering from what I am and from what the world is, which constitutes what I am. All suffering, then, is my suffering. That's why THIS is suffering.
The ultimate cause of suffering, which is designated as this, is my way of being and the way of being of the world which constitutes my way of being. And that is the this of the first noble truth.
ONE: Peruse the meaning of each of the eight types of dukkha the Buddha lists in his first discourse and reflect on them contemplatively as dukkha:
Birth here means the period from conception to exiting the womb. Birth in itself is a painful experience. Being thrust out from the womb, being thrown out into the world without a choice, without any understanding is also traumatic–dukkha.
Aging is what happens from the moment something arises until it ceases–“birth, aging, and death” in scriptural jargon. In the more colloquial sense, we get older, weaker, our skin wrinkles, our sense faculties lose their sharpness, our hair turns gray, our memory fades and so . All this is dukkha.
Sickness, whether physical or mental, is suffering, dukkha.
Dying in each moment is dukkha. Death at the end of this lifetime is also dukkha. The breaking up and dissolution of the body and the loss of the strongest attachment of all, the attachment to our breath, is for many the source of their deepest dukkha.
5. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair
Sorrow is the despair caused when something unwanted occurs; lamentation is an expression of sadness, often expressed through weeping and crying; pain is a “hurting” bodily sensation; grief is any kind of trouble, from mild to intense; despair is the mental anguish that arises when all hope lost. All these are dukkha.
6. Being united with the unpleasant
Facing unpleasant situations and people we don't want to face is dukkha.
7. Being separated from the pleasant
These are pleasant and agreeable situations or people that we want to cling to, or hold on to; separation from these is dukkha.
8. Not getting what one desires
Generally we desire things that we think of as pleasurable, like being young and strong and healthy. But the natural course of phenomena is that we get old and weak; young and strong forever is not possible. All this is dukkha.
TWO: For Intermediate Students – This exercise was suggested in the Right Speech blog several weeks ago: Choose one full day to practice not saying "I," "me," "my," or "mine." (It’s suggested that you not do this on an "office or school day," as speech tends to become stilted for much of the day.)
While this exercise is certainly conducive to right speech, it is also profoundly effective, if you succeed in practicing it for a whole day, in demonstrating that dukkha is intrinsic to the five clinging aggregates; i.e., in showing the this of “This is suffering” IS suffering.
THREE: For Advanced Students – Contemplate how the this of “This is suffering” relates to ignorance (avijja), the first of the twelve links of dependent origination, and the implications of that connection for easing one’s everyday dukkha as well as for liberation. Just as the second, third and fourth noble truths are implicit in the first, and if, as this question is suggesting, so is the first link of dependent origination, then the this of “This is suffering” is the dharma. Unraveling this connection is a contemplative task of considerable profundity which is suggested for advanced students.
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