How to Understand the 4 Noble Truths – Part 1

The 1st Noble Truth – What is the Noble Truth of Suffering?

In the Buddha’s first teaching, Dhammacakkhapavattana Sutta, the Buddha asks, what is the Noble Truth of Dukkha?

Analogy of the Unbalanced Wheel

Dukkha has been translated as suffering but it can also mean unsatisfactoriness, discontent, not perfect, not ultimate:

  • Imagine a wheel with its axle off centre – so that each time the wheel rotates, it goes clunk, clunk, clunk, rotating slowly, noisy, fighting against itself, wasting energy.  This wheel is not perfectly balanced – there is dukkha here.
  • Now imagine a wheel that is perfectly balanced – such that each time it rotates, it rotates silently, spinning with the utmost efficiency, perfectly balance.  There is no dukkha here, there is sukha.

So what is Dukkha?

The Buddha answers in 2 ways and then summarizes:

  1. Impermanence is dukkha – Birth, old age, sickness and death is suffering
  2. Whatever is not-self is dukkha:
  • Being with what you hate is suffering
  • Not being around what you love is suffering
  • Not getting what you want is suffering

In short, the 5 aggregates of grasping (the 5 skandhas) is suffering.


So let’s go through each of these one by one…

1.  Impermanence is Suffering (Anicca is dukkha)

“Birth, old age, sickness and death are dukkha”

What’s the Buddha doing here?

He’s describing the universal pattern of impermanence from start to finish:

  • With birth – comes old age, sickness and death.
  • With creation, comes decay and extinction.

People are usually really joyful at births but they are sad at deaths.  Suffering is already inherent within the impermanent phenomena from birth (but lies dormant) – the suffering only becomes apparent when decay and death come along.

What’s the implications of impermanence?
Anything impermanent is dukkha.  In other words, anything impermanent is unsatisfactory because it has dukkha latent within it. Impermanence is inseparable from suffering.  Anicca is inseparable from dukkha.

In the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the Buddha asks his monks:

“Monks, what do you think?  Is the body permanent or impermanent?

“Impermanent, Venerable Sir”

“Now are impermanent things painful or pleasant?” (is it dukkha or sukkha?)

“Painful, Venerable Sir”

“Now whatever is impermanent, subject to change and therefore painful, stressful – is that worthy to be regarded as, “This is me, this is mine, this is my self?”

“No, Venerable Sir”.

So anything impermanent even though nice at the start, will eventually lead to decay and death – and the associated suffering that comes along with that (sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair).  Therefore anything impermanent is unsatisfactory and not ultimate – dukkha.  So don’t attach to anything that’s impermanent – don’t attach to anything that arises!

Ajahn Sumedho provides some insights on how Anna Kondanna was enlightened upon hearing the 4 Noble Truths:

What did Kondanna know? What was his insight?

It was: ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.’

Now this may not sound like any great knowledge but what it really implies is a universal pattern: whatever is subject to arising is subject to ceasing; it is impermanent and not self

  • So don’t attach, don’t be deluded by what arises and ceases.
  • Don’t look for your refuges, that which you want to abide in and trust, in anything that arises – because those things will cease.

If you want to suffer and waste your life, go around seeking things that arise. They will all take you to the end, to cessation, and you will not be any the wiser for it. You will just go around repeating the same old dreary habits and when you die, you will not have learned anything important from your life. Rather than just thinking about it, really contemplate: ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.’ Apply it to life in general, to your own experience. Then you will understand. Just note: beginning … ending. Contemplate how things are. This sensory realm is all about arising and ceasing, beginning and ending; there can be perfect understanding, samma ditthi, in this lifetime.

So that is the first aspect of the Noble Truth of Dukkha – anything impermanent has dukkha inherent within it from the start – but this dukkha, this unsatisfactoriness – only becomes manifest when things start to decay, break-up, disintegrate and die. 

  • Whatever you obtain within the realm of impermanence is unsatisfactory because it simply can not last forever.  It is of the nature to change and become otherwise.
  • Whatever happiness you get within the realm of impermanence is limited and finite – this type of happiness will eventually break down, decay, die and be separated from you.

This joy, happiness, pleasure within the realm of impermanence continually changes to something else.  So whatever joy we get lasts only lasts as long as the object giving it lasts for, or it lasts only as long as the external conditions to give that joy last – and when it changes – the joy will become otherwise – it won’t be pleasurable, joyful or happy for you anymore.


And since the Buddha said that the universal pattern of impermanence is inseparable from suffering – the way out of suffering is therefore outside the bounds of the realm of impermanence – the way out of suffering is therefore outside the realm of change.  And indeed, this is exactly the way the Buddha thinks when he explains the Noble Quest in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta.  And what is this Noble Quest?  It is:

  • When someone is subject to birth, ageing, decay and death – they see the peril of this realm of birth and death, they see the dangers of this realm of change and impermanence.
  • Instead, they seek that which is not born, that which does not age, that which does not decay and that which does not die – Nirvana.

So the Noble Quest is the Quest for Nirvana, which lies outside the realm of impermanence.  Nirvana is the escape from the realm of birth and death – it is beyond birth, beyond death – and so, is beyond all suffering as it can not decay nor die.  It is the Deathless Realm – Amaravati.


2.  Not-self is suffering (Anatta is dukkha)

In the Buddha’s second teaching, the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta, the Buddha explains that:

If something were your Self – then:
I.  It would NOT lead to affliction (dukkha)

II.  You would be able think to your Self, “May it be like this, may it not be like this” – and it will be so!

So Self:

I.  Does NOT lead to dukkha AND

II.  You have full, absolute command over your real self.

Because you can’t control something – it tells you that it’s not really you.

If you think about it, it makes sense:

  • If something is truly and really you – then you would naturally have full, absolute control over it without even needing to try – because it’s really a part of who you are.
  • BUT if something is not really you – then you won’t be able to really control it – it would just do its own thing.

Whatever you can’t control therefore is not really you – it’s something external to you, doing its own thing, following its own course – it’s not really doing what you want.

That’s why the Buddha said:

  • Being with what you hate is suffering
  • Not able to be with what you love is suffering
  •  Not getting what you want is suffering

These are the different ways in which your will gets obstructed – so you suffer because things aren’t going how you wanted it to go.  In all these cases, it’s external circumstances not going your way – external circumstances that are out of your control (not-self) that afflict you – that’s suffering:

  • So you have to be with someone you hate – what suffering!
  • You’re stuck in a job or a predicament that you don’t like – you’ll suffer.
  • Can’t be with the love of your life?  You’ll suffer big time! – especially if they speak harsh words to you.
  • Can’t be with your kids or grandkids?  You’ll miss them and there will be discontent and uneasiness.
  • Not happy with the situation and complaining about everyone and everything around you?  That’s suffering.

Whatever is not-self is suffering.


So whatever is not really you leads to suffering because it’s out of your control.  Anatta leads to dukkha.  Why?  Whatever you can’t control is going to go however it’s going to go (it’s an external process that’s out of your hands) – it won’t go how you want.  And if some external thing beyond your control is afflicting you – that’s suffering.  So once again, whatever is not-self, whatever is not really you – is suffering.  So you should let go of whatever is not-self, let go of whatever is not really you.


In short, the 5 Aggregates of Grasping is Suffering (Sakkyaditthi is Dukkha)

The 5 skandhas are basically the ordinary mind and body.  They are not just 5 groups of mental and bodily factors but 5 groups of clinging – they are 5 aggregates that we mistakenly cling to and grasp at to be our Self.

This clinging to the 5 aggregates to be our Self (called Self-identification or sakkyaditthi) is suffering because these mental and bodily factors when taken individually or as a whole – are all impermanent, subject to change, and so are not fit to be regarded as me, mine or my self.

Bodily factor (Rupa)
1.  The body

Mental Factors (Nama) – the ordinary mind, which comprise our intellect and personality:
2.  Feelings/sensations

3.  Perceptions

4.  Habitual formations

5.  Sense consciousness/intellect

So this body of ours with all it’s feelings, habits and intellectual processes – we mistaken grasp at and cling to as being “me”.  Hence why we think in terms of “my” body, “my” thoughts, “my” feelings, “my” personality etc…  We assume these things as being “me”, and “mine”.

But if we think about it, we can sit back and observe the body, we can observe our thoughts and feelings.  And because we can sit back and observe these things – therefore they are not us.

Further, in the Cula Saccaka Sutta, the Buddha gives us this reasoning for how our body and ordinary thinking mind is not self – can you say of of your body and mental activities, “May it be like this, may it not be like this?”  Because if you can not really say so, then it means that you do NOT have legitimate power over the domain of your body and mental activities.

For example, the body gets sick – can you say of the body, “May it be healthy, may it not be suffering from this illness?”  No.  We need to take get medical treatment of our illnesses.  So this tells us that the body doesn’t really belong to us – it belongs to nature.

Another example, our thoughts and emotions – sometimes we can’t stop thinking about things that are worrying us.  And we can’t control what comes up in our minds.  Can we say to our thoughts, “May I not think of this any longer”?  You can try – but you’ll still be thinking of it.  So this shows that our thoughts and emotions aren’t really ours either because we do not have full legitimate power over the domain of our thoughts and emotions – they still do their own thing.  And if something is doing its own thing by itself – obviously it’s not me or part of me, is it?  Therefore, our mental activities like our thoughts and emotions are not self as well.

Hence the 5 skandhas are not self.


The Analogy of the Computer

One way we can consider it is that the skandhas are like the computers that we use with its hardware, software, CPU and internet.  A computer is a machine that we use to get what we want – like for entertainment, news, to process information, to connect with others and express ourselves to others.

The computer is one of the instruments of our will to do what we want.  But we would never say that the computer is the user.  Of course the computer is not us!  But if the computer breaks down or doesn’t do as we want – then we’re not happy (suffering).

In the same way, we make use of our body and mental factors to do what the will (tanha – desire or craving) wants – to get what we want in life.  The 5 skandhas are like the machinery of the will to get what we desire in life in order to try and be happy:

  • If the will is impeded – then suffering occurs (Not getting what we want, things not going our way – is suffering).
  • Even if we get what we want, but because of impermanence, it lasts only a short while before it changes and disintegrates before our eyes – the will won’t be happy either – so that’s suffering too.

So the sensory realm (of which the 5 skandhas of grasping operate within) where we get momentary happiness and transitory pleasures through the senses – is of the nature to change, impermanent and so, ultimately lead to decay and death of what we’ve found happy with – so it is unsatisfactory, dukkha, imperfect – and so suffering.

Take Home Points

1.  Impermanence is suffering (anicca is dukkha)

2.  Not-self is suffering (anatta is dukkha)

3.  Taking the ordinary mind and body to be your self is suffering (sakkyaditthi is dukkha).

Anicca, dukkha and anatta are inseparable – they overlap and are inextricably tied to each other as the 3 characteristics of conditioned, compounded, created existence (i.e., existence within the realm of birth and death/creation and destruction – the realm of impermanence).

Anicca, dukkha, anatta only characterize conditioned existence.  They do NOT characterize all existence though because unconditioned existence has the opposite qualities – nicca, sukha, Atta according to the Patisambhidamagga and many major Mahayana Sutras.

3 thoughts on “How to Understand the 4 Noble Truths – Part 1

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