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4x Truths - First - Dukkha

life - rosy red

all day every day
The Buddha begins his teaching not by proposing some lofty spiritual state or the promise of some future 'heaven' but by pointing to a very simple - and universal - human experience. The Pali term is dukkha and it literally means 'pain' or painful feeling. Common translations are: suffering, unsatisfactoriness, stress. It can be either physical or mental but the teaching is mainly concerned with the mental aspect. If we look at the definition of dukkha from the Dhamma Cakka Sutta - the Buddha's first teaching:
"birth is dukkha; ageing is dukkha; and death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha; association with the unloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not attaining one's wishes is dukkha..."
Does this seem 'true'? Has this been part of your life-experience so far? If so, read on!

In beginning with suffering the Buddha was not suggesting that all of life is a misery but was merely pointing to this common experience - the fact that all things change [see: 3 CONDITIONS] - it can't stay sunny forever. In this underlying instability there is this an ever present, latent potential in all of our experience for it to change from pleasant (sukha) to unpleasant (dukkha). That the reverse is equally true provides an access to understanding this teaching - there is the arising of dukkha and there is its cessation. We experience this regularly - rain to sun, happy to sad, to glad... and on and on. And we like the sunny bits, and the happy bits - we want that. The other bits - well, we don't want those! And so there is this wanting. The examples here are childishly simply and wanting sunshine is not wicked or evil but hopefully this reflects the huge structure of desires and expectations we have built up in relation to our 'world.' We want and expect so much and, if (my) life was 'right', the apples would (should) be as big as big - rosy red and peachy keen. You betcha mr boss man!

this grasping

this pain
The sutta ends the definition of dukkha with:
"...in brief, the five categories of the grasping mind are dukkha."
This is an initial introduction to the second truth (craving, grasping, desire) and a very important introduction to one of the unique aspects of Buddhism - the teaching on not-self [see: anatta   ]. This short statement, as a 'summary' of dukkha has enormous implications. It sets grasping as the 'doing bit' but the relationship of this grasping with 'the five categories' is crucial to understanding the Four Noble Truths. The five categories (khandha    = heap, aggregate, group) is a simple definition of a human being; we are these khandha grouped together. It is the grasping of this 'collection' as a substantial 'me', as a 'person' that is at the root of all suffering. There are many threads in the Buddha's teaching that have this one line as their origin. This will be looked at in more detail in the 2nd Truth.

Our spiritual journey can begin in many different ways but it is quite common for dukkha to be the spur that either gets us started or keeps us going. It may be the death of a loved one, a financial crisis, divorce, losing a job, and so forth - the list is long. In the pursuit of happiness we have invested in certain areas, come to rely on certain things and certain people as supporting factors for our happiness. A variety of unfortunate, unforseen changes can cause that structure to collapse - or at least come a bit unravelled - and this can lead us to question our life-values, to reflect on the true nature of happiness. It becomes apparent that the material world is limited as a source. The first truth points to the five khandhas as being unreliable but it is important to be clear that it is not the khandhas themselves that are in question or at fault but the relationship that we establish with them - that is, one of grasping; or more particularly, holding them to be 'mine' or to be 'who I am.' To set them up as my identity, as 'me.' This is the true origin of suffering; dukkha is at heart an issue of identity. One translation of dukkha might be 'existential angst?'