Part I, Dukkha
Mary Jaksch

The First Noble Truth investigates the nature of Dukkha, which is variously translated into English as 'suffering', 'unease', or 'unsatisfactoriness'. All of us human beings know intimately about Dukkha. We know not only about the huge waves of sorrow, fear, despair, rage, or shame, or fear that threaten to swamp our lives—we also have experience of the little ripples of niggling anxiety, sadness, or unease that can colour even our best moments. Even though we try and avoid the thought of our own impending death, there is still a part of us that counts down to that moment. We know that we live on borrowed time and that everything in life is fleeting and will come to an end.
And yet some people find tranquillity and joy in life in the midst of all of this Dukkha, whereas others are wracked by anguish. This is very apparent when someone moves toward death. Some are at peace and others suffer agonies of regret and fear. One of my students, Linda Davies, who finally succumbed to cancer, told me how she first found out:

I got told I had bowel cancer and I would have to have an operation and I thought, "Yep, that's fine, no worries. I'm indestructible. There'll be a bit of cancer and we will remove it and just carry on as usual." I had no worry or concern. And then when I woke up after the operation and was told that I didn't only have bowel cancer but I had secondary liver cancer and probably only six to nine months to live and there was nothing, absolutely nothing they could do except sew me up and send me home to die, that was really, really a shock as anyone could understand. And then my bowel leaked from the surgery and I got very sick and nearly died in hospital so they had to operate again. I look back now and realise how close I was to giving up then. You know, I feel that you could do that; you could just die because you chose to.

Linda was thirty-five years old at the time. She was healthy, beautiful, strong and accomplished in the martial arts. And she had a son who was nearly five. She struggled with the suffering she was creating for her child and her parents, but she was at peace with her own death and faced it with courage and a great sense of humour. It was an inspiration to be with her as she approached death. Everyone around her was touched with a joy and found a new realness, groundedness and appreciation for beauty in their own life.
Conversely, some people who are terminally ill cling desperately to life and remain in stubborn denial of their own impending death. I once had a flute student, when I was teaching in Germany. She was in her twenties and had recurring cancer. It was obvious to all around her that she was in the process of dying but she was in complete denial. One day I received a phone call from her. She was in hospital and the doctors had just told her that she was going to die. We talked for an hour on the phone as I was living quite far away and couldn't visit her. It was a heartbreaking conversation because she was in anguish and terror and had not started to ready herself in any way for her great journey. Two hours after this phonecall she fell into a terminal coma.
When we study the Four Noble Truths, which are core teachings of all Buddhist traditions, we can find out the cause of Dukkha and what role we play in its creation. And we can find a path that leads us to a new way of living this life with joy in the midst of suffering. When we first enter the Way, we hope that suffering will disappear if we only practise long enough, or if we get enlightened. But, as Ayya Khema points out : 'Suffering isn't going to go away; the one who suffers is going to go away.' So, when we look closely at the key aspects of the First Noble Truth, Dukkha and Skandha, we get to understand how we construct and experience our sense of 'self' and how Dukkha arises when we cling to this construct. On one hand, we ourselves bear some responsibility for our anguish, and, on the other hand, if we understand and accept this responsibility, we can do something about it. When we stop running away and turn around to be completely with whatever the moment offers, we find, as Aitken Roshi says, ''that the true pleasure of being human lies'in the poignant nature of things -the joy of ambiguity and complementarity—of life in the world of difficulties'

Let's now take a close look at Dukkha. In one of the earliest sutras, the First Noble Truth is explained as follows:

Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering -in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.

Here is how Robert Aitken Roshi paraphrases the First Noble Truth:
An anguished sense of lack is everywhere.

When we look closely at how we experience Dukkha in our life, we can see that there is something intrinsically unsatisfactory about life and that we have a part to play in creating and experiencing Dukkha. However, to really see that, we need to be able to observe our own mind and our own experience of being with tender care. That is why the Four Noble Truths have always been seen as advanced teachings that students need to be prepared for. An early sutra shows the kind of mind (Sanskrit: citta) with which it is most useful to approach the Noble Truths. The following is from the introduction of the story of General Sha who became a follower of the Buddha. He was taught the Four Noble Truths, but not before he had reached a receptive state of mind.

And when the Exalted One knew that the heart of Sha, the general was clear, malleable, free from hindrance, uplifted and lucid, then he revealed that teaching of Dharma which Buddhas alone have won.

The term translated as clear also carries the meaning of ready or responsive. It means here a mind that has been well prepared by basic Buddhist teachings. Malleable also implies tender or pliable or soft—this is the mind of tender regard. Free from hindrance carries the meaning unobstructed, unbiased and unprejudiced' . This means that we need to approach the teaching with 'beginner mind'. Uplifted means elated and joyful. When we realise that these teachings have the power to transform our lives and lead us to a life of tenderness and joy that can bring happiness to us and all beings, our heart lifts. The last of these mind-states, here translated as lucid can also mean with devotion in one's heart. We don't tend to talk much about devotion in Zen. However, when we walk this path, we offer up our lives and devote our lives to the welfare of the many beings. This list of mind-states suggests that it may be useful to do some zazen before reading further so that you can approach this matter with a receptive frame of mind.

In the sutra known as Buddha's first sermon, or 'the first turning of the Dharma wheel', he outlines very clearly how we are to work with the teachings of the Four Noble Truths. They are to be understood, to be abandoned, to be directly experienced, and to be cultivated. Here the Buddha lays out a path for us to follow. The first task is to study the teachings and to make sense of them in any way we can. It's useful to ask 'what resonates with my life here'? so that you discover the relevance of the teachings to your own life. However, there is then the danger that we cling to the teachings. And this clinging blocks the light. That is why the next step is to abandon the teachings. That is, you need to let go of your ideas of the teachings. I am reminded of great Master Dogen. He said, 'To study the Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self.' It is the same point. To abandon the teachings means to let go of our reference system that evaluates them: 'I think this means'', 'in my experience it is'', or 'the way I view it is'' We need to let go of our concept of the 'self'. Then we are able to directly experience the teachings. This is like putting our hand in water and knowing whether it is hot or cold. Once we have become intimate with the teachings, we then go on to cultivate them. This means a lifelong practice of musing on, questioning and practising the Dharma, letting it seep deeper and deeper into our bones and marrow. To study the Dharma is a great undertaking. In another ancient sutra the Buddha said,

The Dharma won by me is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand, peaceful, excellent, not within the scope of reason, subtle, to be experienced by the learned.

When we look at the Four Noble Truths, the word 'noble' jumps out at us. Why does the Buddha refer to these truths as 'noble'' Actually, the original text allows various translations. It can be seen to mean 'the truth of the noble one' or 'the truth that ennobles'. Aitken Roshi says:

The Four Noble Truths are called 'noble' because they present the vocation of deepest wisdom and boundless compassion.

That is, the Noble Truths call and lead us to our deepest potential as human beings. The Buddhist tradition has sometimes compared the four Truths to a healing process. In this model dukkha is the disease, the origin of dukkha is the cause of disease, the cessation of duhkka is the cure of the disease, and the path leading to the cessation of dukkha is the medicine necessary for the cure.
Let's take a closer look at the meaning of Dukkha. This is variously translated in English as suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, anguish, unease, stress, ill, sense of lack and so on. The author Francis Story came up with a long list:

Disturbance, irritation, dejection, worry, despair, fear, dread, anguish, anxiety; vulnerability, injury, inability, inferiority; sickness, aging, decay of body and faculties, senility; pain/pleasure; excitement/boredom; deprivation/excess; desire/frustration, suppression; longing/aimlessness; hope/hopelessness; effort, activity, striving/repression; loss, want, insufficiency/satiety; love/lovelessness, friendlessness; dislike, aversion/attraction; parenthood/childlessness; submission/rebellion; decision/indecisiveness, vacillation, uncertainty.

You can see from this list that Dukkha includes pleasant as well as unpleasant experiences. Our Chinese and Japanese ancestors felt unable to adequately translate this Sanskrit term and its use offers us a richness of meaning which English translations lack.

Buddhist thought sees three kinds of Dukkha , the Dukkha of pain, the Dukkha of change, and the Dukkha of conditions. We all know about the Dukkha of pain intimately. Who hasn't experienced a gruelling tooth-ache? Who hasn't experienced the faint whisper of pain in the body that suddenly blooms into agony and lands us on the operating table counting backwards from ten! And then there is the Dukkha of the mind: fear and anxiety, anger, frustration, grief, shame, loss, exhaustion, despair, misery, resentment, jealousy, envy, longing, hopelessness, dejection, sadness, unworthiness, loneliness, aloofness—the list goes on and on.

The Dukkha of change affects even our most pleasurable experiences. Even as we enjoy the moment we are aware that it will not last and we long for it to go on for ever and ever. As we experience the ephemeral nature of everything, there is a feeling of unsatisfactoriness and a lingering wistfulness. In general, change makes us anxious. As Krishnamurti pointed out, fear is the movement from the known to the unknown. And change moves us into the unknown. Take for example our body: at first we feel indestructible and then we notice the slow breaking down of the body and wonder, 'How will I be tomorrow?', 'How will I be next year or ten or twenty years from now?' As we age we feel the shadow of death. Finally we get the message: 'I too am going to die!' What a surprise! Death is the ultimate change and the thought causes fear, and in some people, terror. The Dukkha of change also relates to changes of abode or work or relationship or environment or habits or ingrained points of view.
The Dukkha of conditions pertains primarily to the way we experience the 'self'. That is to say, the very nature of being creates Dukkha. I will say more about this later in Part II when we take a look at the self as skandhas. However, Dukkha as conditions also relates to the complex interactions of the human condition. On a personal level this could be when we are in an uneasy or painful dance with others, such as humiliation, shame, alienation, injustice, or cruelty. Looking at the larger picture of society, the Dukkha of conditions could mean the cycle of poverty, conditions of prejudice, war, genocide and so on.
In the original sutra text there is a pointer that the Dukkha of conditions is linked inextricably to the way we experience the 'self'. The sutra wraps up the first Noble Truth with: '' in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.'
The 'five categories of clinging objects' are the Five Skandhas or aggregates that make up the 'self'. Here the Buddha implies that the whole experience of Dukkha is inextricably tied up with the experience of 'self'. The more we cling to an idea of 'self', the more we are separated and alienated from everything else. The notion of 'self' is like a sickness. Zen Master Unmon said to his assembly:

Medicine and sickness mutually correspond to each other.
The whole universe is medicine.
What is the self?

It's tempting to see Dukkha as something 'outside' of us. As if it was an affliction that we have to get rid of. However, medicine and sickness mutually correspond to each other. This means that there is no other place to escape to. When we try to escape and separate from our experience of the moment, we separate from the medicine that has the power for healing. What is that medicine? There is a legend in the tradition about Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom and Sudhana that bears on this.
One day Manjusri ordered Sudhana to pick medicinal herbs. He said, 'If there is something that is not medicine, bring it to me.' Sudhana searched all over, but there was nothing that was not medicine. So he went back and told Manjusri, 'There is nothing that is not medicine.' Manjusri said, 'Gather something that is medicine.' Sudhana then picked up a blade of grass and handed it to Manjusri. Manrusri held it up and showed it to the assembly, saying, 'This medicine can kill people and it can also bring people to life.

When we enter a moment completely and let our whole being flow into that moment, crying, laughing, dancing, singing, sobbing-at that moment, our sense of 'self' disintegrate and there is nothing any more to be called a 'self' and no-one to experience Dukkha. This is the medicine that kills. When that letting go of 'self' and 'other' allows us to awaken to our True Nature, then that same medicine brings us to life. But this is not the restricted life of the small self; it is vast and includes everything: pebbles and panthers, mountains and sandflies, clouds and deserts, planets and plums—nothing is outside of it at all. Medicine and sickness mutually correspond to each other:

Pain and bliss; love and hate, are like a body and its shadow;
Cold and warm, joy and anger, you and your condition.
Delight in singing verse is a road to Hell,
But at Hell's gate-peach blossoms, plum blossoms.


In The First Noble Truth - Part II I take up the Buddha's view of the self as the interplay of the five Skandhas and look at how Dukkha is linked to our idea of a separate and enduring self.

© Mary Jaksch 2004

© Mary Jaksch 2004

No reproduction without the authors permission please.