Reality and Wisdom

1. The First Noble Truth: Suffering

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The First Noble Truth: Suffering


THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS are the central teachings of the Buddhist tradition. They provide the framework upon which all Buddhist philosophy and meditation are based. Although we may already be familiar with them, by repeatedly studying them and their sixteen corresponding aspects, our realizations on the spiritual path can become more transformative and profound.

These noble truths are the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

These four truths are based on the realizations of Prince Siddhartha, who reached enlightenment to become the Buddha Shakyamuni. It is said that the Buddha’s very first teachings after attaining enlightenment were these teachings on the four noble truths.

Prince Siddhartha’s early life in India was one of great wealth and privilege. He was given every luxury imaginable, but he soon realized that none of these comforts were bringing him true happiness, and he began to venture outside the palace walls.


On these early trips, the young prince was first exposed to the sufferings of impermanence. As he toured the town, he saw sick, aging, and dying people in the streets. He recognized that, despite all the comforts one may possess, no one can avoid the sufferings of sickness, old age, and death.

As he continued to venture from the palace, Prince Siddhartha also saw a meditator and was introduced to the idea of a spiritual life. This was the moment in which he saw that there was another way to live.

At this point he abandoned his life as a prince and renounced the kingdom. He dedicated his life to spiritual practice and eventually came to the profound realization of enlightenment. Through this awakening he came to recognize the four noble truths, including the noble eightfold path, which outlines the essence of Buddhist practice and provides eight practical instructions that lead to the cessation of all suffering.

These eight interconnected factors are to be developed simultaneously in our lives, and they instruct us on the following ways to live: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

It is essential in our perfection of the practice that we not only comprehend these four noble truths intellectually but also integrate such wisdom into our meditation and into every aspect of our lives.


The most effective method to begin cultivating some realization of the first noble truth, the noble truth of suffering, is to begin practicing shamatha meditation. Through gradually training our minds to remain focused on one object of meditation for a period of time, we start to familiarize ourselves with the underlying thought patterns and afflictive emotions that cause so much restlessness and suffering in our lives.

To those who have not done any meditation, shamatha practice may at first sound very easy or relaxing. We are instructed to focus our attention on a single object, most often a blue flower or our breath.


As we begin this practice, we discover it is actually very challenging to sit still. The mind is constantly distracted with racing thoughts and conflicting emotions. What we believed might be relaxing is actually very difficult at first! Our physical bodies are filled with discomfort, and our minds suddenly seem more restless and distracted than ever before. This early stage is crucial to our recognition of the nature of suffering. Through observing this discomfort, we begin to see that we are always running away from these feelings. When we cease to distract ourselves with worldly activities, we notice that there is tremendous suffering just beneath the surface of even a seemingly happy or privileged life.

If we persevere with our shamatha practice for a period of time, we will begin to gain some experience. There are five different levels of realization in shamatha meditation that are compared to different states of water, ranging from the first stage, in which the mind is a waterfall of rushing thoughts, to the fifth stage, in which the mind has attained a state like that of an ocean without waves.

At this fifth level of shamatha meditation, we have reached a stage of very good attention without much distraction and disturbance. When we experience this fifth level of concentration, we will observe that our minds have become very clear and mindful. Now shamatha meditation can become the base on which we further cultivate insight meditation.

With that insight we will begin to see something we have never seen before. We will begin to recognize that what we believed was real in the past is not actually true. Perhaps the four noble truths are called noble truths because they help us to move beyond our conditioning toward a more accurate view of the reality of our human existence.

Through very deep insight during meditation, our old view of the nature of our lives begins to fall apart. This can be very frightening without proper training and guidance because all our former conceptions of reality are shattered. Our way of looking at life is completely transformed, and we come to understand that our previous ways of seeing were all based on misperceptions.

Our old view of life was based on lies, on relativity, on false conditioning. With the cultivation of shamatha and insight meditations, 6we come to deeply understand the profound meaning of the four noble truths, and we are introduced to the path that can lead us beyond the confines of our suffering.

We recognize these noble truths when we first begin to see things with a very clear mind and without any emotions. This perceptual change affects not only how we see ourselves but also how we view all other objects. For the first time we realize that what we have seen and experienced in the past is mostly due to our inner emotional conditions. We understand that we have falsely projected many things onto outer objects as well as onto our own idea of ourselves. As our insight deepens, all these projections start to dissolve. This false reality we have constructed begins to shatter. As we progress from shamatha meditation to the practice of insight meditation, our realizations will counteract many of the misconceptions we have projected onto different objects.

Each of the four noble truths has four different aspects, and we will explore these sixteen aspects more thoroughly through the course of these teachings. Understanding these aspects is based on our insight and on the clarity of each of our minds. As our vision grows purer, these aspects become more apparent.


The first aspect of the first noble truth is the aspect of impermanence. Impermanence is the understanding that whatever is created due to causes and conditions is subject to decay. Everything is changing, and nothing can remain forever.

In order to understand our own impermanence, we must first examine what we are made of. According to Buddhist philosophy we consist of five aggregates, which are the foundation of our current experience. These five aggregates are the form of the physical body, feeling, ideation, formation (which includes all of the other emotions), and mental consciousness. These are the five aggregates that are the basis of all our physical and mental experiences.

Normally in our lives we possess a very strong attachment to the five aggregates. 7Due to our strong attachment, we have many misconceptions. Although subconsciously at some level we know that we are constantly changing and that we will eventually grow old and die, due to our very strong attachment to our bodies, we remain in denial about our own impermanence.

Although intellectually we understand that whatever is born must decay, due to our attachments we become ignorant of this reality in our daily lives. No one wants to get older. No one wants to get sick. No one wants to experience the death of a loved one. Due to this fear, we create a strong sense of denial around impermanence.

There is a real conflict between our attachment to these five aggregates and the truth of impermanence. No matter how much attachment we may have to our physical bodies, they are constantly changing. Our feelings are changing. Our ideas are changing. Our emotional states are changing. Our consciousness is constantly shifting. All these aggregates are impermanent, and they are continuously in a state of flux.

So the truth of impermanence and change versus our attachment to the five aggregates creates an underlying conflict in our lives. As a consequence, whenever we are confronted with the truth of impermanence, we experience tremendous pain and suffering.


The second aspect of the first noble truth is suffering itself. There are three main types of suffering. First, we have the suffering of suffering, which includes all the physical illnesses and discomforts. Sickness is called the suffering of suffering because it is adding physical or emotional pain to our underlying state of suffering.

The second type of suffering is the suffering of change. The source of this suffering is often very surprising to people. This suffering actually stems from all of our pleasurable experiences and all of our conditional states of happiness.

Nothing in this life can stay the same, but we often remain ignorant of this impermanence. When you fall in love with someone, 8you expect that blissful state of happiness to be permanent. When the relationship begins to change, when you begin to see your partner’s flaws and you start to argue, you experience much suffering.

When you first have a child, you are so excited. You feel that your baby is lovely and has made your life complete. Then when the child gets older and begins to separate from you and becomes a difficult teenager, the child can become a source of pain. You miss the early days when your child was an infant, and you wish you could go back to that happy time in your life.

What we fail to see is that our suffering is actually rooted in that original happiness. All of these delightful experiences are actually the suffering of change because they become the causes and conditions for future pain and suffering. Since anything good will inevitably change, our greatest pleasure is already sowing the seeds of loss and disappointment.

The third type of suffering is the suffering of conditioning. We will all grow old and die. Nothing in this life can stay the same. Everything will decay and change over time.

This third form of suffering is actually the basis for both the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change. The suffering of conditioning refers to conception and the very beginning of the five aggregates within a person. You could say that from the very moment that we are conceived, we are already beginning to die. Everything in this life is conditioned, and this impermanence is at the root of all our suffering.

These three kinds of suffering become much more intensified when our emotions are involved. If we have no meditation experience, then the changing aspects of our lives will create many difficult feelings for us.

So we see that all three kinds of suffering are magnified because they are related to destructive emotions. The suffering of suffering is related to the destructive emotion of anger. The suffering of change is related to emotions of desire and attachment. And the suffering of conditioning is based on our ignorance.

Suffering is constant in our lives because every moment is filled with change and impermanence. Even when things are going well, 9we have an underlying fear of our inevitable death. On a deep level we are still trying to distract ourselves from the truth of our conditioned existence.

In our lives we are constantly striving for happiness and pleasure. Everything we do in our lives is motivated by our desire for pleasure and comfort. We are completely driven by our attachments, and we are ignoring the suffering nature of our lives. This ignorance to the causes of suffering and this effort to cling to our pleasurable experiences creates tremendous conflict in us.

When we practice insight meditation, we begin to see deeper and deeper into the nature of our lives. We recognize the truth of change and impermanence. This seeing helps us begin accepting the reality of our lives.

This acceptance happens when we truly understand our attachment as the cause of our emotional pain. We do not want to die, but the nature of life is impermanence. Through meditation, when we begin to accept the truth of suffering and its causes, the conflict at the very core of our existence begins to dissolve.

Only through insight meditation, when our minds are clearer and we are free from destructive emotions, will we see impermanence more clearly. We will begin to see the suffering of conditioned existence.

When we can observe that every moment everything is changing, we can stop clinging to our lives. We can stop living in fear of our own deaths. We can begin to move beyond our ignorance to see the noble truth of suffering.


The third aspect of the first noble truth is insubstantiality. Another way for us to understand the truth of suffering is for us to integrate it into our five aggregates. As we have discussed, each person has the five aggregates of form, feeling, ideation, formation, and consciousness. Through developing stronger insight meditation, we come to know the characteristics of all these aggregates.


The first aggregate of form is, of course, what our material body consists of. While we are alive, we have this physical component. This is the aggregate of matter. Once we know the nature of our physical bodies, we will also understand the nature of other people’s bodies. Their bodies are impermanent just like ours. This observation will help us to understand how all other material things outside of our bodies are also impermanent.

The Buddha said that as our insight meditation deepens, not only do we see impermanence in ourselves, but we also begin to see impermanence in all living beings. We begin to see impermanence in all material things. By realizing the changing nature of our own bodies, we learn to recognize this impermanence in all sentient beings and all physical matter.

By nature, all physical matter is composed of material atoms. According to Buddhist philosophy, these atoms are comprised of the four basic elements of earth, water, fire, and air. If we look deeper into these atoms, then all material things begin to lose their identification. At the atomic level, what reference do we have with which to identify an object? At the level of the atom, we discover the insubstantiality of all objects.

Generally in our lives, we do not break things down to the atomic level, and instead we assign an identity or label to each object in the material world. Then, based on its usefulness to us, we get attached. It is one thing to enjoy something and to let it go. But if we get emotionally attached to it and then something happens to that object, we will experience so much suffering of change.

The second aggregate is that of feeling. Based on the recognition of our own feelings, we can comprehend that other beings have feelings. If we look closely at feelings, whether they are pleasure or pain, happiness or unhappiness, even neutral feelings, they are all a form of suffering. This is because feelings are based on the five aggregates, and the five aggregates are defiled.

Even a neutral feeling is a form of suffering. Neutral feelings are a result of our underlying ignorance. This ignorance is the basis of all the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change.


Through contemplation we can recognize the insubstantiality of feelings. If we look closely, can we find any lasting feeling? Can we find any substantial or permanent state? The same principles apply to the rest of the five aggregates: ideations, formations, and consciousness. They are all insubstantial.

Insubstantiality is not limited only to material things. Consciousness and emotions are not material. But what is the mind? Even with strong insight, if we look into the mind, we cannot actually find it! The mind loses its identity.


The fourth aspect of the first noble truth is emptiness. When we look deeper into any of the five aggregates, we cannot find lasting evidence of them. They are insubstantial. As our meditation deepens, we begin to go beyond all concepts, beyond all identification of objects, to discover the empty nature of things.

Right now in our lives we have a lot of attachment to objects. Whenever something happens to those objects of attachment, we experience pain and suffering. This is because we have believed that these objects are real and substantial. It is very difficult for us to see the empty nature of things without meditation experience.

An understanding of impermanence can only arise from deep insight meditation experience. Through reflection, we see the impermanent and empty nature of all things. This realization counteracts our misconceptions of reality. We even come to accept and eventually embrace the inevitability of our own death.

By learning to view even our happy feelings as a cause of suffering, we can counteract the misconception that life should always be pleasurable. As long as we are expecting life to be pleasurable, we will constantly be disappointed and experience pain instead. As long as we have emotional attachment to objects, thinking that they are real, we will experience much pain and sadness when we lose them.

To counteract these attachments, we need to develop a profound 12understanding of the insubstantiality and empty nature of those objects, emotions, thoughts, and even of the mind itself. Reflecting and meditating on each aspect of the four noble truths helps to counteract our misconceptions about reality.

In our lives we cling to the idea of a self. Most of what we do in our lives is based on self-cherishing because we believe that the self and ego truly exist. As we have discussed, the objects of our attachments are rooted in the five aggregates. This self-cherishing is based on our bodies, our feelings, our ideas, our habitual formations, and our consciousness.

When we look deeper, we discover there is no substance to what we thought existed. That is why emptiness, the fourth aspect of the first noble truth, includes not only the empty nature of ourselves, but of other objects as well. They are all empty. Insubstantiality and emptiness help us to overcome the misconception of self, which is based on our five aggregates.

These aspects also help us to overcome all our ideas of ownership based on our sense of self. Concepts like “my” are based on the idea of the phenomenal self arising from the five aggregates. These notions of “my house” or “my car” arise from misconceptions related to the five aggregates. We each have attachment to ourselves and to the whole universe. It is very important to understand the aspects of insubstantiality and emptiness in order to counteract these attachments.

We can study the four noble truths and gain some intellectual understanding of them. But only when they become true experiences through deep insight meditation will they become noble truths. Through meditation we learn to see these four aspects: impermanence, suffering, insubstantiality, and emptiness. We see these four aspects in ourselves, other beings, and all other things in the conditioned world.

When we see in this way, then we are seeing the first noble truth because we are seeing right through our misconceptions. We are no longer clouded by our desires. We are no longer seeing reality through anger or ignorance.

At this level, we have gone beyond all three afflictive emotions of attachment, anger, and ignorance. We have stopped viewing the world 13through the lens of these emotions, and we have stopped relating to ourselves and those around us with desire, anger, or indifference. Now we are gaining some wisdom, some equanimity in our experience.

The noble truth or insight means seeing with wisdom; seeing with equanimity that is free from all destructive emotions. We no longer have the inner conditions with which we falsely project our emotions onto an object. The way we see reality will be very different.

That is why it is called a noble truth. When we see beyond our delusions, we will realize for the first time that what we saw before was actually defiled. We will realize that our old way of seeing was tainted. It was all based on misconceptions.

The way yogis see, and the way we see now, are two completely different experiences of reality. What we see is based on ignoble perceptions. If we have ignorance, then we will have all the other emotions. Then everything we see will be affected by those other emotions.

But when we can see through our delusions to the noble truth, we recognize that the nature of all our feelings was suffering. Only nirvana is unconditioned and is beyond death. Nirvana is the cessation of feelings that were rooted in the ego. All feelings, even neutral feelings, are rooted in the ego. The seed of these feelings is poisonous. Whatever grows from such a seed is always poisonous.

But through practice, as we recognize the wisdom of the four noble truths, we will see that there is an entirely new way to experience our lives.

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