The Dawn of the DhammaSucitto Bhikkhu

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Chapter 5

The First Noble Truth:
Having To Hold On Is Suffering

The Buddha then goes on to expound the Four Noble Truths, the centre-piece of his teaching. They are central because they point to a universal human experience: a feeling of lack in our lives. At times, we feel a sense of need, or lack, or dissatisfaction that can vary from mild weariness to utter despair. This can be triggered off by physical feelings, or by mental impressions concerning ourselves or other beings. It is characterized by feeling there is not enough. Even if we are physically well and mentally skilled, we can feel disappointed that life isn’t offering us enough, or we are not making enough of it or doing enough; or that there’s not enough time, space and freedom. We can feel anxiety over the state of the planet and the environment; our perceptions of the present and the future are not secure and problem-free. Even “too much” means not having enough space, future and ease. The list is endless. Just reflect upon your activities and pursuits: notice that there is a constant effort to change or cope with what is disagreeable, or to stimulate well-being. This is universal.

It is worthwhile considering that, however altruistic one’s actions are, the feeling of unsatisfactoriness is the same. This feeling is what the Buddha called dukkha—and fittingly, there just isn’t a satisfactory English word to cover its meaning. Dukkha is not an objective physical reality such as disease and famine. Sometimes having little is fine or even peaceful; at other times, we can feel devastated that there’s a stain on the dining-room tablecloth. Just to get in touch with that feeling is an entrance to the spiritual realm, because it provides a reference point to where and how the experiences of life are actually affecting us. We may assume that we are beings guided by rational principles, but we only choose to be rational when that cool and objective mode suits us. What drives us, what we find pleasing, inspiring, worthwhile (and the reverse) is calibrated in a different zone of the psyche. To get in touch with that other zone is essential if one wants to live in an undeluded way.

By pointing at dukkha, the Buddha highlights a fundamental that we may have only glimpsed or seen as related to a particular set of circumstances. He is not implying that life is miserable; most things have a mixture of pleasure and pain and neutrality in them. However, there is a constant restless quality of disquiet. With happiness, there is an undertone of wanting more of it, holding onto it or even continuing to stimulate it; because by itself, it changes. And when the source of happiness passes, we begin to feel bored or dissatisfied, and seek out something else. If we don’t find it, we feel much worse.

Life does have its dark side, it can be painful at times; but we can make it more painful for ourselves, psychologically and emotionally, by wanting the happiness to last, or the painful aspects never to manifest. But even the most acute pain and fear can be borne. We can actually practice with pain; we can work with it; we can become serene through it. What is really painful is the mental perception that you can’t bear it for another moment. You can see this without having acute pain. Just with life being the way it is, things go wrong and the mind will feel, “Why should this happen to me?” When you feel sick, thoughts may arise saying, “Why should I have to put up with this? I wanted to do something, and this has spoiled it all.” Or: “The weather’s not very good, and it’s ruined my day.” Or: “Why do you have to say things like that, you know how that hurts me!” This kind of suffering goes on and on. We never seem to be able to get rid of it in normal activities, regardless of where we go, and no matter what we do. Trying to avoid being blamed, losing one’s job or disappointing others can lead people to states of extreme stress and nervous breakdown. Then, even if our personal situation is not causing us any anxiety, we are still aware of the suffering of others.

For many of us, the urge to take on spiritual practice arises through recognizing that whatever we do, wherever we go, this mood prevails; and it even follows us into spiritual practice! I’ve seen this myself: being in a quiet place and living as a meditating monk not having to worry about anything, I could feel irritated at a frog croaking: “Why do there have to be frogs croaking, why don’t they shut up—and stop disturbing me!” It’s not a deliberate intended response—it’s an instinctive reaction. So we feel that that’s the way we are, and the possibility for change, even if we wish to change, seems remote. Habits and instincts define our identity, and that’s where dukkha gnaws more deeply into our hearts.

It’s important to understand that the Buddha’s teaching separates the dukkha that we experience because of the way life apparently is from the dukkha that is created emotionally from not wanting things to be that way, or from assuming that life is wretched. As is pointed out in this Sutta, things change, and change can be effected without the naiveté that assumes that solutions are going to be permanently satisfactory or the pessimism that assumes that it’s all hopeless. The Buddha taught dukkha and the cessation of dukkha. The particulars of unpleasant circumstances can come to an end or be brought to an end, even if problems then surface in other areas. Accepting that life has its dark, problematic side needn’t be depressing. Most fruitfully, the kind of suffering that is the mental reaction to a situation, even on an instinctive plane, can be completely abolished. With the ending of that kind of suffering, the mind is clearer and wiser, and more capable of effecting positive change in the world of ever-changing circumstances.

The Buddha talked about dukkha in a succession of examples that begin with the way life appears, and then take us into the heart of the matter—firstly with how we respond, and then with what we take ourselves to be:

Idam kho pana bhikkhave … yampiccham na labhati tampi dukkham
Bhikkhus, there is this Noble Truth about dissatisfaction. Birth is problematic; aging is hard; dying is also hard to bear. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are all painful. Association with what you dislike is unpleasant; being apart from what you like is unpleasant; not getting what you want is unpleasant.

To illustrate this, I have drawn the picture of the Buddha’s hand raised in the mudra or gesture of teaching. Underneath it, an anguished person is carrying a mass of blazing chains. These are looped in a repetitive pattern that forms a circle linking up a baby, an old man and a skull. To add to his suffering, two snakes wind themselves around the arms and neck of the struggling being.

How is birth problematic or suffering? Well, giving birth is physically painful; and also birth is appearance into an uncertain realm. Notice how babies suffer: coming into the world must be a desperate and frightening experience. For the majority of beings, including people in the world today, it means the end of guaranteed nourishment, and the beginning of the struggle to survive. Even for the small percentage of privileged humans in affluent societies, with birth begins a life of physical discomfort and the need to sustain or defend what has been born. Yet the obvious long- or short-term consequence of birth is death. It leads not to an eventual high, but to an unavoidable decline. So whatever the joy, there is an element of suffering or stress arising sooner or later because of birth.

Then there is what we can make of birth: birth is the unfulfilled; and it seeks fulfillment. So birth is the beginning of need, a mood that accompanies anything that arises which we attach to.

When something new arises in one’s life, if it’s pleasant and wished for, there is happiness—and the need to sustain it, or the wish not to be parted from it. When something beautiful to behold arises, how long can you continue to be thrilled by it? A few minutes? Can you make it through an hour before it starts to pall? How about a day, let alone a year? Of course, we live with many options. If we get bored with looking at the painting, read something; when that becomes boring, go for a walk, visit a friend, go out for dinner together, watch a movie; if this routine gets tedious, regress into your past life, astral travel; then write a book about it … and so on. All these are more births, or as the Buddha put it, birth—the same habit taking different forms. But that new birth is suffering too, because sooner or later we meet with another obstacle, another disappointment, or we tire of the whole merry-go-round. High-option cultures just give you a few more spins on the wheel.

 

Watching TVThe sheer momentum of birth after birth has its disquieting aspects too: you can only be born into one thing at a time—are you sure you’re doing the right thing? Maybe you’re missing out on a really great opportunity somewhere else. Then these multiple options become a strain. Can you develop shamanism, play classical guitar, study ecology and cybernetics, have a successful fulfilling relationship with your partner, your parents and relatives, and your children, come to a mature understanding of the political arena, grow your own organic food and hold down a suitable job working with the right kinds of people for the right ends, all at the same time? It’s a lot to keep going, isn’t it? But if any of these go wrong or if you miss out on a really fulfilling experience, you’re likely to feel disappointed or personally to blame, so cram it in and hold on tight!

Jara is the aging process, this means maturing—not only just getting old. Growing up is unsatisfactory because you start to get affected by all the stuff of a confused world. There’s a lot said nowadays about having been emotionally, let alone physically, damaged as a child. Is there anybody who hasn’t been damaged—by their parents, their uncle, their school or their dog? Then what about falling under the influence of social prejudice, competitive behavior patterning, sexism, racism … whatever happened to our childhood innocence? Scarred and stained by something sooner or later, isn’t it? Psychologically one starts to develop instincts and habits, and even good habits blunt the joyful wonder of childhood consciousness.

Our habits prescribe the way we relate to others, and of course model our own future. This habitual activity is what is called kamma.¹ Its key feature is that its effects don’t die away when the action is completed; it actually changes how we will perceive things and act—it moulds our identity. Through the workings of kamma, our own good and bad actions of body and speech affect ourselves and others. Life offers many opportunities to create good kamma, through actions of kindness for example; however, even good kamma creates an identity which can become moralizing, or is constantly needing to do something, and hasn’t transcended the experience of pain, separation from the loved, and death.

We are born into a kammic predicament in which everything affects everything else. So our own traumas and problems get perpetuated in others. As we recognize what effect others may have on us, our relationships become guarded, or take on the form of manipulating or being manipulated by fellow humans. Many people would cherish a totally trustworthy harmonious relationship, but that’s not going to be possible until each individual finds harmony within. So people like to hold onto a few safeguards, and have a few alternatives in mind in case this one doesn’t work out.

But having to live with feelings of insecurity, and an inability to commit oneself, is also far from blissful. So you see a therapist who might tell you that, yes, you do have some problems. Because of this, you decide to have a course of counselling—which can be a pretty painful experience and hard on the pocket. And meanwhile, as you grow up, you are saturated with the woes and horrors of the media, disillusioned by humanity, depressed by global warming. No-one can take too much despair, so you seek out some place or someone or some habit to absorb into, just to limit the amount of stuff you have to be sensitive to. It’s a shame that, even then, the body, with its needs and illnesses, doesn’t leave you alone … then there are the medical bills … so you bluff your way into a meaningless job, and get some insurance (if you are in a society where such things exist); anyway, hold on … because here comes maranam, death.

Death and dying generally involve a certain amount of pain and degradation; and grieving. We imagine that death only happens to older people, but that’s not true—human beings are always surrounded by forces of destruction that can terminate their lives at any moment. Life involves a lot of stressful holding on, even for ducks and squirrels, let alone for human beings who have surrounded themselves with, or invented, fire, electricity, cars, and lots of weapons. These are all created to make our lives more secure. The fear of death, or even of discomfort, actually fills our lives with potentially deadly things.

According to the Buddha’s usage, death may also refer to the disappearance of any mental or physical experience. When something pleasant ends, we can feel sad; or, if it wasn’t too important, we can remember it and form some kind of view or opinion about it. When it’s something you’ve done, like these paintings, you can feel critical of them; or, maybe if you have no criticisms, then it sets up a pattern of expectation for the next painting, or for someone else’s painting. This can happen with anything that you’ve done; you think back on it and always see its flaws. Alternatively, if it was something you enjoyed doing and now it is finished—that also brings an unhappy feeling, a feeling of longing or nostalgia. Death is the ending of the known and the familiar. So when we come to the end of something, we reach out for something new to hold onto. For example, after the meal, we can go for a walk, or maybe have a rest, or there’s conversation in which we can bring back the pleasant past, or plan for a pleasant future, or create and sustain a pleasant present. All that is the movement towards birth. And birth is the opportunity to go through this whole dukkha one more time …

… because each birth is about getting what is pleasing, getting away from what we don’t like and fulfilling our desires. This involves a lot of stressful reaching out, holding, jealousy, possessiveness and defensiveness. We could try to get away from it all, become a hermit say … or maybe meditation would be the way to stop these desires and possessiveness … only to find out that that is another wish to get away from that is no longer pleasant. So after the trip to India, the three month retreat, we’ve had enough of that, what is wanted now is the “integration into daily life,” “sharing with another being” or becoming a teacher. And those same old instincts crop up again in different forms. Birth is pretty deluding: it always looks like a fresh thing until we’ve learned to look at that feeling in the heart—the same old compulsive drives, needs, holding on … suffering. Frustrating, isn’t it?

A few important words finish this section of the Sutta:

Sankhittena pancupadanakkkandha dukkha.
In brief, the five grasped aggregates are unsatisfactory.

This sums up what has been said before about dukkha, but it does so in a significant way. The five khandhas represent the classification by which the Buddha, perhaps following the terminology of the time, analyzed the experience of life. The word khandha is translated as “aggregate” (meaning a “heap”), because the khandhas are categories or groups of phenomena heaped together for the sake of reference. It should be remembered that they have only conventional reality. The khandhas are: form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (sañña), mind formations (sankhara) and sense consciousness (viññana). I’ll explain those terms in more detail later; what the list implies is—everything.

The principle at work here is not one of physical science. Rational science has dominated Western ways of perception and activity, and, despite its technical brilliance, has created a gap between the observer and a universe from which he or she feels separate. The intuitive sense of connection with the universe (which is the root meaning of the word “religion”) is thereby lost. This has led to all kinds of disorders of the repressed intuitive faculties. The analysis of the five khandhas begins with the understanding (as of science after Einstein) that we are only observing our experience of the universe. There is no separation; our perceptions and state of consciousness are aspects of the raw material of the experienced universe.

Things are experienced in terms of their form (rupa)—this khandha is made up of four ways in which matter “behaves.” Matter is experienced in terms of its ability to extend and have size (symbolized as earth), to stick together and have shape (symbolized as water), to have the possibility of movement (symbolized as air) and to be measured in terms of temperature (symbolized as fire). What things are we don’t know: thousands of years of more refined and complex definitions in terms of elements, atoms, particles, subatomic particles and quarks has created a richer classification, but is no nearer to Absolute Truth. And for most people, these scientific definitions are mind-boggling; they are not accessible in terms of direct experience. Earth, water, air and fire are, and for the sake of proper relationships within the Universe, they are adequate. As always, the Buddha used systems and conceptual truth only for the purpose of directing the mind towards Ultimate Truth—the experience of Nibbana, enlightenment. And in terms of the practice of liberation, most of the work we need to do is on the forces that bind us. For this reason, coming to some manageable definitions of the Universe is all that is necessary.

Things are experienced in terms of mental or physical feeling (vedana) which may be painful, pleasant or neutral. Vedana is no more specific than this. As with form, there are many further ways in which one can describe feeling, but this classification gives you a simple way of understanding how things affect you. In the process of cognition, first of all there is a feeling, which attracts attention, and then a perception arises. Perception (sañña) means the way in which you recognize something: as dark or light, hostile, familiar, human, emotional … whatever. The analysis points out that things are interpreted swiftly, and it is on this interpretation that mental impulses and attitudes (sankhara) are founded. Fashion, cosmetics, advertisements and propaganda are notable examples of how perceptions are created; sañña is the image-maker. And examples of sañña in operation are: we mistrust some people because of the way they move, detest “creepy” spiders, adore “cuddly” furry creatures like cats, and buy a soft drink because of the shape of the bottle or because we saw a commercial with some good-looking people drinking it on a beach.

Consciousness (viññana) is that which makes phenomena present for us. It is sixfold, that is, eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, olfactory-, taste-, touch- and mind-consciousness. The phenomena that arise dependent on mind-consciousness (i.e., thoughts, emotions, perceptions) we call “mental,” the “inner” world; things arising because of the other five aspects of sense-consciousness, we call “physical,” the “external” world. However, in the analysis of the Buddha, this division is not so absolute. In fact, in his teaching, he often makes a point of overriding this apparent division by referring to “any feeling, mental or physical” or “contemplating things internally and externally.” This is because the teaching does not discriminate between what appears as mind and what appears as matter; it comes from understanding the experience of all things—and that occurs within the matrix of the sixfold sense consciousness and its designations:

That by which one is conscious of the world, by which one has conceit of the world—that is called ‘world’ … And through what is one conscious of the world? Through what has one conceit of the world? Through the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body and the mind.… (Samyutta Nikaya: [IV], Sense, Worldly Sense, 3)

These five khandhas are described as “grasped aggregates” or “categories” and not as causing suffering, but as suffering itself. They are also seen as equivalent to birth, aging, death and desire. Grasping is a vivid metaphor for what we otherwise term “attachment;” it means that something is held as permanent or absolute which is actually not that way. When one is attached to cigarettes for example, they become an absolute necessity in life. You always have to have a pack with you. However, in reality, cigarettes are not necessary. So what, then, is the attachment involved with these aggregates that makes them unsatisfactory?

For a lifetime, at least, we are endowed with aspects of sense-consciousness, perceptions and mind stuff. They certainly appear to be a real foundation for what we are. Is the Buddha implying that we shouldn’t experience these, that as long as these aggregates are manifesting, we will suffer? Well, no. The Buddha points out that holding onto these is suffering; in other words, grasping and believing in the thoughts of the mind, and the perceptions that arise; or grasping and believing that the sensory appearance of the world is Ultimate Reality—will always take you to dissatisfaction, and even to despair. Thoughts and perceptions are notoriously unreliable; people can believe in the craziest ideas and assumptions about the nature of the world, life after death, men, women, and God; not to mention their continually biased perceptions about ordinary daily life.

Moreover, even the most innocuous thoughts and perceptions, when attached to, give rise to the experience of being separate from the world; an “inner being” is inferred who thinks and feels and perceives. Why are our opinions and attitudes so important to us? How about form? Have you ever felt self-conscious about the form of your body, or winced when somebody called you fat or thin? And yet is form really what you are?

Is that almost incessant babble of thoughts or the ups and downs of the emotions your true nature? Yet we worry about them, defend them and will motivate our lives around them. Why? Because our whole sense of personal existence is based upon clinging to these five aggregates as our inner being, our self. Although this “inner being” can never be located, and is really just a mood created by attachment to the khandhas, it is held to be the author of thoughts and feelings, the owner and senior incumbent within the body, the director and controller of the senses. Once an identity gets created around the khandhas, we expect fulfillment from them. We instinctively assume that we will find fulfillment in our own bodily form or in someone else’s; or in feelings that are pleasing, stimulating or soothing; or in great views and ideas; or out of some combination of all these as they manifest in sense consciousness. And although we always fail to do so, we feel that this is just a temporary fault in the system, just an unlucky break—or that it is our fault. In the West, guilt and shame are more common aspects of self-view than pride. We feel there is something wrong with us if we are not able to be fulfilled in the sensory world because we believe that we should be.

Thereby, we can fall into the two extremes of, on the one hand, naive optimism (things will work out all right in the end) or, on the other, despairing pessimism (I’m getting a bad deal, or, I’m a loser). In between those two we drift—blaming others and asserting ourselves, blaming the society and defending ourselves, or blaming ourselves and worshipping others. We may feel that somehow we have to get ourselves out of this predicament, but when we are the predicament, how to get out? This endless going-on, this samsara, is called grasping at the five aggregates as self. It is suffering; check it out for yourself.

Then consider when you see a newborn baby, who is born? Is it a man, a woman, a kind sensitive soul, a burden on the earth’s resources, an element of the divine, another mouth to feed or what? And when someone dies? Who is that? And in between that, is it your friend, your peer, someone you yearn for, someone who disgusts you, or nobody special? Something is there, but all that we designate as the being (whether it is ourselves or someone else) is the arising and ceasing of these five aggregates affected by birth, aging and death, and by the attitudes of the society (which hasn’t got past suffering and grasping either).

As with the man at the bottom of the picture, the twin experiences of suffering and grasping coil like serpents around our arms (symbolizing activities) and head (which represents views and perceptions). What we hold onto, what the mind perceives as self and the “apparent” real world to be protected from, are the very positions and habits that make up the experience of suffering. What if we didn’t hold onto those chains—would they still burn and bind? There is the possibility, as the Buddha realized and tried to exemplify and explain, to live with this process of the five aggregates without attachment—without seeing self in the processes of birth, aging and death. And with that clarity there is the end of all sorrow and a realization of an Ultimate Truth beyond grasping. Whoever understands where and what dukkha really is, is on the Path to that realization.


  1. The Sanskrit form of the word—“karma”—is more common, but can be confused with the Vedic view on karma which has a “predestined” slant to it. [return to text]