The study of Buddhism begins with the Four Noble Truths, a teaching given by the Buddha in his first sermon after his enlightenment. The Truths contain the whole dharma. All teachings of Buddhism flow from them.
The First Noble Truth often is the first thing people hear about Buddhism, and often it is translated into English as "life is suffering." Right away, people often throw up their hands and say, that's so pessimistic. Why shouldn't we expect life to be good?
Unfortunately, "life is suffering" doesn't really convey what the Buddha said. Let's take a look at what he did say.
The Meaning of Dukkha
In Sanskrit and Pali, the First Noble Truth is expressed as dukkha sacca (Sanskrit) or dukkha-satya (Pali), meaning "the truth of dukkha." Dukkha is the Pali/Sanskrit word that has often been translated as "suffering."
The First Noble Truth, then, is all about dukkha, whatever that is. To understand this truth, be open to more than one view of what dukkha may be. Dukkha can mean suffering, but it can also mean stress, discomfort, unease, dissatisfaction, and other things. Don't remain stuck on just "suffering."
Read More: "Life Is Suffering? What Does That Mean?"
What the Buddha Said
Here is what the Buddha said about dukkha in his first sermon, translated from Pali. Note that the translator, Theravada monk and scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu, chose to translate "dukkha" as "stress."
"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful."
The Buddha's isn't saying that everything about life is absolutely awful. In other sermons, the Buddha spoke of many types of happiness, such as the happiness of family life. But as we delve more deeply into the nature of dukkha, we see that it touches everything in our lives, including good fortune and happy times.
The Reach of Dukkha
Let's look at the last clause from the quotation above -- "In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful." This is a reference to the Five Skandhas Very roughly, the skandhas might be thought of as components that come together to make an individual -- our bodies, senses, thoughts, predilections, and consciousness.
Theravadin monk and scholar Bikkhu Bodhi wrote,
"This last clause -- referring to a fivefold grouping of all the factors of existence -- implies a deeper dimension to suffering than is covered by our ordinary ideas of pain, sorrow, and despondency. What it points to, as the fundamental meaning of the first noble truth, is the unsatisfactoriness and radical inadequacy of everything conditioned, owing to the fact that whatever is impermanent and ultimately bound to perish." [From The Buddha and His Teachings [Shambhala, 1993], edited by Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chodzin Kohn, page 62]
You may not think of yourself or other phenomena as "conditioned." What this means is that nothing exists independently of other things; all phenomena are conditioned by other phenomena.
Read More: Dependent Origination
Pessimistic or Realistic?
Why is it so important to understand and acknowledge that everything in our lives is marked by dukkha? Isn't optimism a virtue? Isn't it better to expect life to be good?
The problem with the rose-colored glasses view is that it sets us up for failure. As the Second Noble Truth teaches us, we go through life grasping at things we think will make us happy while avoiding things we think will hurt us. We are perpetually being pulled and pushed this way and that by our likes and dislikes, our desires and our fears. And we can never settle in a happy place for very long.
Buddhism is not a means to cocoon ourselves in pleasant beliefs and hopes to make life more bearable. Instead, it is a way to liberate ourselves from the constant push-pull of attraction and aversion and the cycle of samsara. The first step in this process is understanding the nature of dukkha.
Teachers often present the First Noble Truth by stressing three insights. The first insight is acknowledgment -- there is suffering, or dukkha. The second is a kind of encouragement -- dukkha is to be understood. The third is realization -- dukkha is understood.
The Buddha didn't leave us with a belief system, but with a path. The path begins by acknowledging dukkha and seeing it for what it is. We stop running away from what bothers us and pretending the unease isn't there. We stop assigning blame or being angry because life isn't what we think it should be.
Thich Nhat Hanh said,
"Recognizing and identifying our suffering is like the work of a doctor diagnosing an illness. He or she says, 'If I press here, does it hurt?' and we say, 'Yes, this is my suffering. This has come to be.' The wounds in our heart become the object of our meditation. We show them to the doctor, and we show them to the Buddha, which means we show them to ourselves." [From The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (Parallax Press, 1998) page 28]
Theravadin teacher Ajahn Sumedho advises us to not identify with the suffering.
"The ignorant person says, 'I'm suffering. I don't want to suffer. I meditate and I go on retreats to get out of suffering, but I'm still suffering and I don't want to suffer.... How can I get out of suffering? What can I do to get rid of it?' But that is not the First Noble Truth; it is not: 'I am suffering and I want to end it.' The insight is, 'There is suffering'... The insight is simply the acknowledgment that there is this suffering without making it personal." [From The Four Noble Truths (Amaravati Publications), page 9]
The First Noble Truth is the diagnosis -- identifying the disease -- the Second explains the cause of the disease. The Third assures us that there is a cure, and the Fourth prescribes the remedy.