The Buddhist teaching begins with the first discourse given by Gautama Shakyamuni, the spiritual leader who lived around 500 BC. in India before five friends who had separated from him when he gave up the life of an ascetic.
When they next saw him, they called him the “Buddha”, the awakened one, after his deep insight into the nature of reality (enlightenment). HIS first teaching dealt with the Four Noble Truths: 1) The nature of life includes both suffering and happiness; 2) suffering has causes; 3) suffering can be ended or transformed; and 4) the way out of suffering is the Eightfold Path.
The Sanskrit word for “suffering” is dukkha, which has a broader range of meanings than our common understanding of suffering. Dukkha is any degree of stress, distress, dissatisfaction, fear, frustration, discomfort, sadness, discomfort or discomfort, and physical pain.
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When I first learned about Buddhism, I read Life is Suffering. I didn’t like that – it didn’t match my experience. My life has been happy overall. But like the word dukkha itself, saying that life is suffering is an unfortunate oversimplification of what the Buddha taught. He said that there is suffering in life, which every experience is true—who hasn’t felt sorrow, or acted out of anger, or stubbed their toe?
But the Buddha did not deny that there is happiness in life, and he recognized that everyone wants to be happy. His awakening had to do with discerning what leads to misery (dukkha) and what leads to happiness (sukkha).
I felt a sense of freedom in the First Noble Truth because it told me that it is natural that life is uncomfortable at times. I think in our culture we assume that life should always be happy, like an endless Disneyland where all our wishes come true.
And if they don’t, it’s our fault – because we weren’t smart enough, rich enough, or good enough. When the natural state is that sometimes things don’t go the way we want them to, then it’s easier to accept them and not blame ourselves or others for an event. This is a great antidote to perfectionism and ego.
Another way the Buddha described dukkha was “not getting what we want or getting what we don’t want.” How many times has this happened? Denied choice, no toilet paper in the store, the wrong birthday present? The most basic dukkha in life is aging, sickness and death, processes that none of us aspire to. Also, dukkha is “association with those we dislike, separation from those we love.” Novels and songs are written on these subjects.
The Buddha tells a story about a man being hit by an arrow (which is definitely dukkha!), but instead of removing the arrow and tending to the wound, he instead begins to ask, “Who shot the arrow? Where did it come from? How was it constructed? etc.
The Buddha called this type of questioning “the second arrow,” which is also dukkha. It builds on the original wound with a story we can hold on to and assign guilt, shame, guilt and revenge on. My experience is that the first arrow can come from life events, but the second arrow comes from my mind and can be just as (or even more painful).
The Second Noble Truth is that dukkha has a cause. I have already mentioned some of these causes. We often hear that the cause of suffering is craving. Again, this is one of those abbreviated references that leads to misunderstandings. Desire is first in a list of ailments that can cause suffering, and often in early Buddhism the first word was used to represent the whole list.
The first three are sometimes called “kleshas” (poisons): greed (craving); hatred (anger); and ignorance (delusion). Each of these has gradations, such as selfishness, irritation, and confusion. Buddhism identifies 26 unwholesome mental formations and four others that can be either wholesome or unwholesome. Individually and collectively, these afflictions can cause dukkha.
The third noble truth is that dukkha can end. Sometimes dukkha ends because everything in life is impermanent. Bad moods don’t last forever and political regimes change. But we don’t have to passively wait for dukkha to fade away and new suffering to arise. We also have the ability to transform the dukkha in our lives into something healthier, happier, and more peaceful.
The Fourth Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path is the vehicle for transformation: view (perspective, understanding); Think; Speech; Action; livelihood; Care; mindfulness; and concentration. If we pay attention to these eight aspects of our lives and move them towards a healthy, wholesome life, we will live happier lives with less suffering.
A happy life is one in which we are able to be free from mental suffering, we feel peaceful and relaxed, we are content, and we can see life clearly. A happy life is expressed in both wisdom and compassion.
I leave you with some resources to explore: the book Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, specifically on the Eightfold Path; “Old Path, White Clouds”, book by Thich Nhat Hanh, novelization of the story of the life and teachings of the Buddha with annotated bibliography; and a Ted Talk available on YouTube entitled “Happy Brain: How To Overcome Our Neural Predisposition to Suffering” by Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic.
Bio: Sandra (“Zan”) Murray is an ordained lay member of the Order of Interentity founded by Thich Nhat Hanh and a founding member of the Flowing Mountains Sangha, an Open Way Community of Mindful Living (www.openway.org). Flowing Mountains meets weekly in Helena for meditation and programs (see website for details).