Friday, February 03, 2006

The First Noble Truth

From The Sword and the Flute, by David R. Kinsley:

The First Noble Truth of the Buddha is "All is suffering [duhkha]," a truth that the Hindu tradition, too, has assumed for most of its history. What the Buddha articulated in his formula and what duhkha means to the Indian tradition is not simply that life has its misfortunes, bad luck, or tragedies. Duhkha suggests something much more fundamental in Indian spirituality: it underlines the inevitable realities of sickness, old age, and death, the inevitable change and passing away of things.

I first read this book a few years ago, and just re-read it this week. Here are my reflections:

A couple months ago, a friend of mine asked if I knew what duhkha was. I had completely forgotten about that passage quoted above, so I said no. But I did remember the First Noble Truth, and we talked about the existence of suffering for a while. I wish I had remembered what I read about duhkha, because then I would have said, that even though sickness, old age, and death are inevitable, we can still seek happiness in this life, whereever possible.

Reading that passage again naturally made me think about my own old age and death. It was not something I wanted to think about. I put it out of my mind.

Yesterday, riding to work on the bus, I saw an old person disembarking. He had to move very slowly. I thought, "That is duhkha right there: old age and disability." In that moment I realized: The fact that suffering is inevitable means that it is our duty as human beings to avoid increasing the amount of suffering in the world. There is already enough.

Having said all that though, I do wonder about one thing: the cause of suffering. The Second Noble Truth explains that suffering is caused by desire, or attachment. Or, as this web site puts it: "the cause of this suffering is Craving, born of the illusion of a soul." To say that old age, sickness and death are caused by desire seems odd. Although I would kind of agree that they are "caused" by the illusion of a soul--that is to say, the illusion that each one of us exists as a separate entity. (I would use the term "ego" instead of "soul.")

Suffering exists. There you have it.


Anonymous said...

My understanding is that suffering isn't just that unpleasant things happen in our lives, but that we all tend to get extra-upset about unpleasant things, and in our minds actually make it worse than it is.

If you think about your own attitude/feelings/experience around your inevitable sickness, old age, and death -- as opposed to your feelings about the sickness, old age, and death of some stranger -- you'll probably find the experience to be quite different. This is one contemplation that could point to suffering.

LDR said...

That's definitely true, that a lot of suffering is all in our minds, and that's why they say that suffering is caused by attachment (which is also in our minds.)

Then again, there are some kinds of suffering that are real. To use a cliche, there's no point in telling someone who's starving in Africa, "Oh, it's all in your mind."