Exploring the 4 Noble Truths Part 1: Life is Suffering

buddha varanasi The giant Buddha statue in Varanasi, India, commemorating the spot where the Buddha first revealed the 4 Noble Truths to humanity.  I was there is 2015.


Buddhism is often misrepresented as a cynical religion, a frequently espoused inaccuracy based on only a superficial understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.  I have practiced Buddhist meditation and studied Buddhist teachings for years, and many of my good friends are either Buddhist monks or teachers.  I can tell you from experience that Buddhist practitioners are some of the most joyful people I know.  And I myself have become a far happier person after integrating the Buddha’s meditation methods into my own life, although I still do not consider myself “Buddhist.”

One of the reasons why many people associate Buddhism with negativity is the single-minded focus on human suffering in the Buddha’s historical teachings.  The Buddha famously said that if you were shot by an arrow and were bleeding to death, you would not ask irrelevant metaphysical questions about where the arrow came from, who shot it, or why it exists.  The Buddha was reluctant to comment on questions about the existence or non-existence of the gods, or the ultimate fate of the universe, because he believed that the essential purpose of the spiritual life is the pragmatic search for human happiness.  He wanted to actually remove the arrow instead of merely “explain” its mysterious origins.

According to legend, the Buddha was originally a wealthy prince who dramatically renounced his pleasure palace, and thereafter entered the forest to lead a nearly inconceivably demanding life as a wandering monk (he later claimed that no seeker before him had practiced spiritual disciplines as intensely in the history of the world). When he later became a public teacher, he claimed that what motivated him to engage in such awe inspiring spiritual practice was finding the root causes of human suffering, and how it can be transcended.

Buddhism is unique among religions because it does not emphasize humanity’s relationship to God or the gods.  It can be thought of as a practical program for freeing the human mind from its own ignorance. My view is that people of any religion can benefit from what the Buddha taught, because we all have human minds that produce suffering.  Even though I worship what I call the Personal God as a form of enjoyment, I practice the Buddha’s methods in my own life because I have found that they are a practical way to eliminate suffering, and to more deeply experience my own Buddha Nature or God-Consciousness.  Just as a Christian, a Buddhist, or a Muslim can take a polio vaccine and benefit from its universal medicinal qualities, so a member of any religion can follow the path to spiritual freedom discovered by the Buddha, that great scientist of the human mind whose ancient teachings still resonate today with stirring relevancy. 

Buddhism, like Islam, Christianity, or any other major religion, has hundreds of sects that all interpret the Buddha’s teachings in different ways.  Most Buddhist sects are in agreement, however, that the most historical, and perhaps the most essential, Buddhist teachings are encapsulated in the 4 Noble Truths that the Buddha revealed in the first sermon after his enlightenment.  These core teachings are similar to “The Sermon of the Mount” for Christians, a teaching that encapsulates the core essence of Jesus’ “program” for human spirituality.  The Buddha gave this famous teaching outside the city of Varanasi shortly after his own enlightenment, and all his subsequent teachings can be thought of as an elaboration on this first sermon.  My teacher likes to call them the “4 Noble Observations,” because in Buddhism no teachings are taken on blind faith.  All Buddhist teachings are meant to inspire us to look more deeply at our own experience in meditation to empirically verify them for ourselves.  In this post I will explore some thoughts on the 1st Noble Truth, and I plan to make a new post for each Noble Truth as I go.  I hope somebody somewhere is inspired by my effort!

Life is Suffering: A Surface Understanding

The Four noble Truths:

  1. There is suffering. (Often translated as “Life is suffering.”)
  2. Suffering has a cause.
  3. Suffering can be ended.
  4. There is a path that leads to the end of suffering. (The Noble 8-fold Path)

Many versions of religion attempt to explain human suffering through mythological constructs, such as the fundamentalist Christian notion that we live in “a fallen world” habitually tormented by the demigod Satan. Other religions tend to focus on the bliss of the afterlife as a reward for enduring the often appalling suffering that unfortunately seems to recur in every historical age.   Yet the Buddha, like a scientist observing the world without adding any mythological explanation, begins his religious program by simply stating the basic fact that there is suffering, and that it is inescapable in this world. 

This observation that inescapable suffering exists for all is built into the archetypal structure of the Buddha’s own life story.  It is said that when he left his pleasure palace as a young man, the Buddha saw 4 signs: a sick man, a dying man, a poor person, and a wondering monk.  It is said that the Buddha was unaware of these human ailments while he was growing up, for he was not allowed to leave the palace walls by his over-protective father.  Seeing these signs for himself made the Buddha aware that suffering is inescapable in this world, even for a prince.  He realized that, “I too will physically deteriorate, I too will lose everything I cherish, I too will die.”  This is not an “emo” version of spirituality; it is simply the recognition of basic observable facts about the physical world.  That appalling suffering exists in this world, and that death comes to even the most fortunate people, is not something that can be refuted by an intelligent person.

At the heart of religion is the realization that death is inevitable for all people.  The Buddha begins his teachings with this foundational notion that everything is impermanent, perhaps the key to understanding the first noble truth.   When you take an honest look at the impermanence of things, you realize that any form of “happiness” based on impermanence is fundamentally unstable, and will inevitably produce suffering in the end.   For instance, if I base my happiness on my body, that happiness is unstable because the body must be given up.  If my happiness is based on my children or my spouse, I must eventually part with them too, and therefore this happiness is also unreliable.  If my happiness is based on my wealth or success, this too will change and lead to suffering.

By teaching that “life is suffering,” the Buddha philosophically expanded observations about his own life to include the human race as a whole.  But could human life itself really be characterized by suffering? There are obvious “hell realms” that exist on this planet, such as war zones or refugee camps steeped in extreme poverty.  Yet the Buddha realized that the vast majority of human beings are suffering in a way they are spiritually blind to.  As he bluntly puts it in The Lotus Sutra, they like people living in a house on fire that are not even aware of the danger they are in. For even the most seemingly fortunate people ignorantly seek happiness in things that are obviously transitory, and cling to them as if they would never have to give them up.

Like an arrow shot into the sky that must return to the earth, even the highest heavenly realms of success, bliss, power, and pleasure are bound to end, leaving the person who sought happiness in them with only an insatiable craving that never satisfies.  Most people seek happiness in transitory things, and are setting themselves up for lifetimes upon lifetimes of misery based on this illusion.  Anyone who looks at their own mind in meditation with complete honesty will realize this fundamental flaw in the human condition, and understand the meaning of the first noble truth.

This explanation of suffering is more accurately defined as “Dukkha,” the Sanskrit word with a subtler definition sometimes translated as “un-satisfactoriness.”  Dukkha is not necessarily the overt suffering of extreme pain or dramatic loss, but a sense of being incomplete, of never being truly satisfied with the present moment as it is.  Realizing that you have been trapped in this fundamentally flawed mode of operating (what the Buddha called the “wheel of samsara,” or the ocean of suffering) is the first step on the path to enlightenment.  It is seeing that you have been shot by an arrow, and that no mythological explanation, however comforting it may be, can remove it for you.

Life is Suffering: The Deathless Perspective 

Perhaps a subtler way to understand the first noble truth is to phrase it that, “All conditioned life is suffering,” or “Any form of life based in ignorance is suffering.”  Conversely, a life rooted in wisdom is the very antithesis of suffering, the “divine” life of Nirvana, or enlightened activity, that is not a place but a state of mind freed from all karmic conditioning.  When we understand the first noble truth in this way, it fits more harmoniously with seemingly contradictory Mahayana Buddhist teachings like, “Samsara is Nirvana,” or Zen teachings like, “This very body is the body of Buddha.”  The first noble truth is therefore not a negative assessment of earthly life.  It is only a condemnation of an earthly life based in ignorance.

The root of suffering in Buddhism is not an evil force outside of you, but the ignorance of your own True Nature.  Any mode of living based on this ignorance is bound to produce suffering, because it is based upon an unreality, and is therefore inherently flawed.  If your whole life is based on pleasing your ego, how you find genuine happiness if your ego does not even exist?  If you are a puppet in a puppet show who does not realize you are a puppet, you are a slave, even if you happen to be playing a temporarily “enjoyable” part.   Yet the puppet show is only a form of suffering if you mistakenly identify with being a puppet.  An enlightened being realizes that they are actually the Deathless Puppet Master pretending to be a puppet.  This type of life is not suffering but is actually Nirvana, Enlightenment, or the Kingdom of Heaven.  An enlightened person still experiences the surface “suffering” that arises from the dualities inherent in the material world, yet they do not identify with it, realizing that it has no affect whatsoever on their changeless True Nature.

It is important to say that the first noble truth is NOT saying that it is wrong to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of worldly life like family, hobbies, friendships, or other enjoyable activities.  It is also NOT saying that to work toward outer career success, with the ultimate goal of helping others, is unimportant.  Yet to make such things the foundation of our happiness is foolish… The essential teaching is that Enlightenment comes FIRST, and that everything we do should be a means to that end.  This does not mean, however, that the beauties of life, art, service and our sacred relationships are nullified: rather, they are the very expressions of enlightenment itself!  Just because our life is ultimately a dream does not mean that the dream is meaningless, or that we should not wholeheartedly enjoy it!

Once you see that the ego we normally think of as “I” does not actually exist, life is instantly improved.  A great Zen master once said that “99 percent of your problems arise from trying to please a self that doesn’t exist.”  After years of meditation practice, the Buddha realized that his own sense of “I” was a complete illusion, and that this illusion was at the core of his own misery. At the root of every form of suffering is a sense of “I” that is suffering, an illusion created by attachments to impermanent feeling tones or desired outcomes.  To see this, however, is no easy matter, and requires actual meditation practice and, in most cases, the guidance of a seasoned teacher.

The Buddhist ideas of non-self or True Nature are not philosophical pronouncements, but expressions of experiences in meditation.  With a calm mind, one can clearly see that “I am not my thoughts.” “I am not my feelings.” “I am not body sensations.” Ultimately, the Buddhist masters realized that their own True Nature is unaffected by the world of change, and is, in fact, enjoying it as a play.  On an even deeper level, they realized that the world of change is the miraculous expression of True Nature Itself, that the physical universe is the Buddha’s own body. To realize this experientially is to be freed from slavery to an ego that, from the beginning, has always been an illusion.

Therefore, when the Buddha says that, “life is suffering,” he is referring only to the mode of life experienced by a person still ignorant of their True Nature. The great Zen Master Dogen once wrote that, “Because the Place (of Awakening) is right here, and the Way leads everywhere, the limits to what can be known cannot be known.”  If the Place of Enlightenment is right here, how can “life is suffering” apply to an enlightened person?  According to the Buddha, anything short of this realization, even the wholesome feeling that comes from “helping others,” can only be a form of suffering because it merely reinforces the illusion of an ego that is the root cause of suffering itself.  Anyone who understands this truth should be considered highly fortunate, and is infinitely more enviable than a “successful” person, or even a Deva.

Better than a Thousand: The Conclusion

The Buddha’s assessment that all conditioned life is based in suffering is not a grim inevitability, but a tantalizing invitation to transcend it by following his path to Awakening.  The practical repercussions of the First Noble Truth, when taken seriously, result in a radical shifting of life’s priorities.  When the Buddha saw the 4th sign of the wandering monk after he left his pleasure palace for the first time, he realized that his own destiny was calling him to the spiritual path.  He realized that enlightenment had become his life’s highest goal.

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha famously says that, “Better than ruling this world, better than attaining the realm of the gods, better than being lord of all the worlds, is one step taken on the path to Nirvana.”  In other words, any life goal that you have is worthless if it does not lead you closer to Enlightenment or God-Realization.  Let me repeat that: any life goal that you have is utterly worthless if it does not lead you closer to Enlightenment or God-Realization, which is the goal of life itself.

The logical conclusion that egoic life is rooted in suffering leads to the logical conclusion that we can only find lasting satisfaction in spiritual awakening.  How to realize and actualize enlightenment in your daily life is another discussion.  My main point here is that enlightenment should be the great Pole Star of our life, the ultimate goal that everything else is a means to achieving.  Anyone who does not understand this, however seemingly happy they are, is deeply unfortunate.  I would rather be a homeless beggar who is progressing toward the inner riches of God-Realization than a powerful King or Queen who appears enviable to the world, but who is merely a slave to their own ignorance.

Like Jesus, the Buddha appeared in a humble guise as a wandering monk with no material possessions.  Yet what he experientially realized is the Supreme Envy of the three worlds, and is the goal of life itself.  How many more seasons of suffering, how many more lifetimes of fruitless effort, will it take before you set your heart on the Highest Happiness, which is what you have always been seeking?

I offer this post for the benefit of all beings, and for the propagation of the highest good.  May I and all beings awaken to our True Nature, and set our hearts on life’s supreme goal of enlightenment. Thank you for reading!

-Jeffrey Rothman

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