This is the first of a series of posts in which I hope to explore ideas Stephen Batchelor discussed in a series of dharma talks in Fall 2010. You can hear them at dharmaseed.org.
What is the First Noble Truth? If you’re deep enough in the Buddhist weeds to be reading this, you will probably answer, “The noble truth of suffering.” Perhaps you might even say “Life is suffering.” This is, after all, part of the standard Western formulation of the Four Noble Truths: Life is suffering, suffering is caused by craving, the cessation of craving is Nirvana, the Eightfold Path leads to Nirvana.
But that’s not what the Pali canon says.
The word so habitually translated as “suffering” is dukkha. In his first sermon in theDeer Park, Gotama tells us what dukkha means:
“This is dukkha: birth is painful, aging is painful, sickness is painful, death is painful, encountering what is not dear is painful, separation from what is dear is painful, not getting what one wants is painful. This psycho-physical condition is painful.” (Mv.I)
In the twentieth chapter of the Dhammapada, we read, “All conditioned things are dukkha.” In other words, dukkha is part of the fundamental nature of our phenomenal world. It’s clear that the noble truth of dukkha means much more than the subjective experience of “suffering.”
This observation may seem like a quibble – after all, painful things cause us to suffer. But realizing that dukkha is not simply how we feel, but is instead a characteristic that inheres in the nature of the world as we experience it, undermines the meaning of the Four Truths as so many of our dharma teachers present them. For what would it mean for nirvana to be the cessation of suffering, if that suffering includes birth, sickness, death and loss? Is there any practice or realization that will keep us from getting sick or old? That will keep us from dying?
Well, of course, there is – if that practice keeps us from being born in the first place. And as Buddhist doctrine had evolved by the time the Pali canon was composed, that’s precisely what was meant. We can see this in the traditional 12-step version of the chain of conditioned arising, a version that can only be understood as extending over three lifetimes. Steps 9 through 11 tell us that Craving leads to Grasping, which leads to Existence, which leads to Birth—rebirth in the next life. In this rebirth-oriented presentation, the cessation of craving isn’t about ending the suffering I experience in this life – it’s primarily about ending the cycle of birth and death.
When dukkha is translated into English as “suffering,” however, this essentially metaphysical understanding of the Four Noble Truths is elided. We have instead a presentation that seems to offer a straightforward therapeutic formula: suffering is the problem, craving is the cause; the cessation of craving is the cure, the Eightfold Path is the treatment. But does craving cause the fundamentally painful and unreliable nature of existence? And did Gotama teach that we can, or should, free ourselves from suffering?
The First Sermon again clarifies what dukkha is and how it fits in with the rest of the Four Truths:
“Such is dukkha. It can be fully known. It has been fully known.
Such is craving. It can be let go of. It has been let go of.
Such is cessation. It can be experienced. It has been experienced.
Such is the path. It can be cultivated. It has been cultivated. . .
Only when my knowledge and vision was clear in all these ways did I claim to have had such an awakening.” (Mv I)
Instead of freeing ourselves from suffering, the First Sermon advises us to embrace it, to know it fully. That embrace is the first and fundamental step of the awakening Gotama describes in this sutta. Only when we fully internalize the dukkha-nature of our human condition will we recognize the folly of our habitual reactions to dukkha—clinging and aversion—and begin to abandon them.
If we read this presentation of the Four Truths the same way we read the chain of dependent origination – that is, as a series of cause-effect relationships – a very different formulation appears from either the traditional or the standard Western presentations. By fully knowing dukkha, we can release craving. By releasing craving, we can experience the cessation of craving. And when we are no longer in the grip of craving, we have the freedom to cultivate the Path.
In a future post, I will explore the significance this formulation for our practice. But I will observe for now that this presentation of the Four Truths frees us from both the metaphysical basis of the traditional presentation in the Pali canon and from the mistranslation and misunderstanding on which the standard Western presentation is based. It has the additional advantage of having its basis in the very first teaching Gotama is purported to have given following his awakening, and of being consistent with the principle of conditioned arising on which all of his ideas, and his awakening itself, are predicated.
At minimum, it’s clear that, if dukkha is the fundamental characteristic of our phenomenal existence, fully knowing dukkha starts with retiring the practice of defining the word as “suffering.”