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Introduction

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The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
"The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma" Sutra
The Buddha's First Sermon

Lesson 2:  The First Noble Truth: Suffering

Before you read:



The Text



The Text

Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth
translated by
Đanamoli Thera

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Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion
translated by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth
translated by
Piyadassi Thera

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"Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering -- in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects. "Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress:1  Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

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1 Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu's note on "Noble Truth":
The Pali phrases for the four noble truths are grammatical anomalies. From these anomalies, some scholars have argued that the expression "noble truth" is a later addition to the texts. Others have argued even further that the content of the four truths is also a later addition. Both of these arguments are based on the unproven assumption that the language the Buddha spoke was grammatically regular, and that any irregularities were later corruptions of the language. This assumption forgets that the languages of the Buddha's time were oral dialects, and that the nature of such dialects is to contain many grammatical irregularities. Languages tend to become regular only when being used to govern a large nation state or to produce a large body of literature: 
events that happened in India only after the Buddha's time. (A European example: Italian was a group of irregular oral dialects until Dante fashioned it into a regular language for the sake of his poetry.) Thus the irregularity of the Pali here is no proof either for the earliness or lateness of this particular teaching.

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"The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha), monks, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering -- in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.



 



The Questions



The Questions

To answer the Questions, please use the Comments page.  Please send your comments on this lesson by Wednesday, July 12, 2006.  (Comments are welcome any time; this "deadline" is just for those keeping pace with the study.)

Question #1: The "First Noble Truth" is often summarized: "All life is suffering." Do you agree with this statement? (see responses)

Question #2: The Pali term for "suffering" is dukkha. What do you know of this term that can add to our understanding of it? (see responses)

Question #3: The Buddha gives a list of the causes of suffering: "Birth...aging... sickness... death... association with the unpleasant... dissociation from the pleasant... not to receive what one desires..." Are all of these indeed "suffering"? Which seems to be the greatest suffering?  Which the least? (see responses)

Question #4: Finally, the Buddha says that "the five categories of clinging objects" (also translated "the five clinging-aggregates" and "the five aggregates subject to grasping") are suffering. What do you know of these aggregates that can add to our understanding of the term? (see responses)

Question #5: Thanissaro Bhikkhu has translated the word "suffering" as "stress."  What do you make of the comparison of "suffering" with "stress"? (see responses)

Application #1: What are the major sources of suffering (stress) in your life?  What do you think lies behind this? (see responses)

Application #2: What do you think causes most of the suffering in the world?  What can be done about this? (see responses)

Application #3: How can we minimize suffering (stress) in our lives? (see responses)

Comments and questions regarding other aspects of this passage are also welcome.

Make your Comments here!



 



The Comments



The Comments



 


Question #1


Question #1: The "First Noble Truth" is often summarized: "All life is suffering." Do you agree with this statement? 

Response by James:

Of course, the word "suffering" is an overstatement.  Thanissaro Bhikku uses "stress"; one of my teachers from Sri Lanka called it "unsatisfactoriness."  And certainly that is closer to the mark.  Even in joy we sometimes sense the seeds of that joy's end: "I wish it could last forever!"

See the response to Question #2 for more.

(Posted July 14, 2006)


 


Question #2


Question #2: The Pali term for "suffering" is dukkha. What do you know of this term that can add to our understanding of it?

Response by James:

Venerable Nyanatiloka's Pali Dictionary says dukkha:

...is not limited to painful experience... but refers to the unsatisfactory nature and the general insecurity of all conditioned phenomena which, on account of their impermanence, are all liable to suffering, and this includes also pleasurable experience. Hence 'unsatisfactoriness' or 'liability to suffering' would be more adequate renderings, if not for stylistic reasons. Hence the first truth does not deny the existence of pleasurable experience, as is sometimes wrongly assumed.

In discussing dukkhata, the abstract noun derived freom dukkha (which means something like "the state of suffering"), he says that dukkha has three causes: pain, the suffering associated with having been formed (like the existentialists?), and change.

To illustrate this "suffering" we can use a simple idea: Imagine a kid on Christmas morning.  What could be more joyous than that?  He has spent the night in anticipation, imagining all the great things Santa will bring.  The big day arrives, he opens all his toys, and when finished, he says "Thank you" like a good boy, but he's feeling sad that it's over.  He may go so far as to feel, even when opening presents, "Is that all it is?" speeding from one to the next, hoping for something better.  The let-down is enormous.  This is dukkha.

(Posted July 14, 2006)


 


Question #3


Question #3: The Buddha gives a list of the causes of suffering: "Birth...aging... sickness... death... association with the unpleasant... dissociation from the pleasant... not to receive what one desires..." Are all of these indeed "suffering"? Which seems to be the greatest suffering?  Which the least?

Response by James:

Well, from a strictly logical point of view, birth would be the worst, because if we hadn't been born, we wouldn't suffer!

But psychologically, I think death is high on the list.  Or, more than death, the fear of death. All of the others can be bypassed, ameliorated, or accepted.  But death is the toughest of all to face.

(Posted July 14, 2006)


 


Question #4


Question #4: Finally, the Buddha says that "the five categories of clinging objects" (also translated "the five clinging-aggregates" and "the five aggregates subject to grasping") are suffering. What do you know of these aggregates that can add to our understanding of the term?

Response by James:

The Sanskrit word is skandha, Pali khandha. These are the five aggregates, or components making up an individual.  As found at Answers.com, they are:

  1. "form" (Sanskrit,  Pali rūpa): the body and the six sense organs and their objects - 18 Dhatus. rūpa is created by four components (sa., pi. mahābhūta): earth, wind, fire and water.

  2. "sensation" or feeling, NOT emotion (Sanskrit,  Pali vedanā): sensing only, without differentiating pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

  3. "perception" or "cognition" (Sanskrit samj˝ā, Pali sa˝˝ā): registers whether sense data is recognized or not (ie sound of a bell or shape of a tree). - (from samyutta-˝ana, conditioned knowledge) perception, recognition. It is ordinarily conditioned by one's past sankhara, and therefore conveys a coloured image of reality. In the practice of Vipassana, sa˝˝a is changed into pa˝˝a, the understanding of reality as it is. It becomes anicca-sa˝˝a, dukkha-sa˝˝a, anatta-sa˝˝a, asubha-sa˝˝a--that is, the perception of impermanence, suffering, egolessness, and of the illusory nature of physical beauty.

  4. "mental formations", "volition" (Sanskrit samskāra, Pali sankhāra - see Sankhara) : all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, compulsions, and decisions that arise after having samj˝ā. Samskāras are the source of karma.

  5. "consciousness" (Sanskrit vij˝āna, Pali vi˝˝āna- see Vijnana): conscious base that support all experience. (ie not asleep, knocked out or unconscious).

The world--and thus suffering, clinging, and karma--are all experienced through the Five Skandhas, and nothing is experienced apart from them.

(Posted July 14, 2006)


 


Question #5


Question #5: Thanissaro Bhikkhu has translated the word "suffering" as "stress."  What do you make of the comparison of "suffering" with "stress"?

Response by James:

Partially covered in my response to Question #1.  As I said there, I think "suffering" is to strong.  But I'm not sure if "stress" isn't too weak, or even a different thing all together.  Subject a plant to under-watering or excessive sun and it can experience "stress," a merely physical response.  I think "unsatisfactoriness" is right on the mark, but as Venerable Nyanatiloka says, it doesn't really work "for stylistic reasons."  Ultimately, none of these words is adequate without explanation, either a teacher or a text to elucidate the meanings.

(Posted July 14, 2006)


 


Application #1


Application #1: What are the major sources of suffering (stress) in your life?  What do you think lies behind this?

For the most part, my stress comes from one place: My mind. Whatever else is happening outside, it seems that my "inner critic" hits me the hardest. "You should've..." or "You'd better..." speaks louder than any of the actual circumstances that I get myself into. Hamlet said, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Agreed.

There is also the famous Chinese story of the horse.

A man's horse runs away. "That's too bad," says his neighbor. "What is good? What is bad?" asks the man.

The horse returns, bringing with it several wild horses. "That's good," says his neighbor. "What is good? What is bad?" asks the man.

The man's son tries to ride one of the wild horses, and breaks his leg. "That's too bad," says his neighbor. "What is good? What is bad?" asks the man.

The army comes through, conscripting soldiers, and can't take the son with the broken leg. "That's good," says his neighbor. "What is good? What is bad?" asks the man.

"Stress" is more a matter of how we take things "in here," than of what actually happens "out there."

(Posted July 14, 2006)


 


Application #2


Application #2: What do you think causes most of the suffering in the world?  What can be done about this?

One of the traditional Buddhist responses would be to point to "The Three Poisons": Hatred (or anger), Greed (or desire), and Ignorance.

Anger certainly gives rise to trouble, from war at the international level to lack of love at the personal level. Just ask someone who is recently divorced.

Desire is the cause of all suffering, as cited in The Second Noble Truth (next lesson). But we can intuit this even without the Buddha's guidance. Learning to "accept things as they are," rather than desiring that they be different, is a great source of peace.

Ignorance--absence of wisdom--lies at the root of every misconceived notion. If we understood the Truth, if we were to Wake Up as the Buddha did, and see things as they really are, we would know that the things that cause us stress are like this world in the words of the Diamond Sutra:

This world is empty, and all things change,
Impermanent as a shooting star, or the Morning Star at Dawn;
Like a bubble in a stream, or a fleeting night's dream,
Like a candle-flame that sputters and is gone.

(Posted July 14, 2006)


 


Application #3


Application #3: How can we minimize suffering (stress) in our lives?

Again, the "orthodox" answer lies in the Fourth Noble Truth, which is the Noble Eightfold Path. Read on. But if you look back through the responses to Application 1 and 2 above, you will see that the basic answer is: learn to see things as they are. Put another way: Develop your wisdom.  In addition, learn to cultivate compassion, so that you can help ease the suffering of others. It just stands to reason that a net reduction in the suffering of the world will also lead to a reduction in my suffering!

(Posted July 14, 2006)


 

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..Contents other than translations (C) 2006 James Baquet

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