The First Noble Truth – Not getting what you want is suffering

So as we all know, the 1st Noble Truth of the Buddha is the Noble Truth of Dukkha – which is usually translated as suffering, yet it also means unsatisfactoriness as well as imperfection.  So the 1st Noble Truth is also the Noble Truth of imperfection, the Noble Truth of discontent – why are things imperfect?  Why are things unsatisfactory?  What makes it so?

It’s no good just to be able to recite the 4 Noble Truths – oh yes, the 1st Noble Truth – suffering.  So what?  What does that mean?  You need to understand each of the Noble Truths – not just being able to recite it as if you’ve just memorized some lines.

Well, 1 simple way to understand the 1st Noble Truth is – “Not getting what you want is suffering”:

“The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha), monks, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering — in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.

Now, you’ll see people just recite – The 1st Noble Truth – Desire is the cause of suffering.  Not bad, but that doesn’t tell the whole story and people can’t explain how desire causes suffering.

Actually, it is when desire is blocked – that you get suffering.

Most Buddhists would balk at that, saying, “Desires cause suffering – now you’re telling me that blocked desires cause suffering?!”  Look at the bolded lines in the Sutta above – it’s right there – not getting what you want is suffering.

Example of having a crush

Suppose you really developed a crush on someone – so you really want their love and affection – a desire.  But let’s say that they belittle you or put you down, “Yeah right!  Are you kidding me?!  As if I’d go out with someone like you!” – this is when your heart’s desire is blocked – that is when it hurts the most.  And the more you desired them, and you more you can’t get them – the more it hurts.  That is what suffering is like – not getting what you want is suffering.

Example of losing a romantic partner

Or suppose you have been going out with or married to the person of your dreams for a long time.  All your heart’s desires are contented.  But suppose they turn around and say to you, “I don’t love you anymore.” in a cold-hearted fashion.  In an instant, what you thought you had for the rest of your life – now is lost – and that would hurt big time!  Losing what you had is a form of not getting what you want – not getting what you want is suffering.

Example of really wanting to win – and then losing at the last second

Suppose you really want to win something – you’ve put several months, maybe even years into something – perhaps a sporting competition.  So you win all the early rounds and then get into the quarterfinals and then semifinals – things are looking fantastic for you.  You’re nearly there, you are nearly going to win this thing for yourself!  Then you get into the finals and you are up by a lot on the scoreboard for the whole match, but then, slowly, your opponent creeps back into the scorecard… until… at the final seconds – they hit the winning shot.  Dayummm…!  A come from behind victory!  They are ecstatic, but you are fuming!  How could that happen!

Whilst the winners are ecstatic and are jumping around in their excitement, it’s the people who come second who suffer the most.  Why?  Because they were almost there and they had to put in the most amount of work out of all the people who missed out.  And the resulting difference could’ve just been a point or two or a split second.    And the more you wanted to win, the more effort you put in yet you lost – the more suffering you will be experiencing.  Not getting what you want is suffering.

Example of a kid throwing a tantrum

Kid wants a toy.  Parents both the the kid “No!”  Kid screams and shouts – cos they can’t get the toy.  Not getting what you want is suffering.

So let’s look at the principles behind this.

In our everyday world, how do we make ourselves happy?  How do we seek happiness?

We go out there to seek the things that we like and enjoy.  Be it good times with our friends and families, seeking the enjoyment of nice food, seeking expensive toys to play with, seeking new experiences.  Nothing wrong with this because that’s how life works – you want something – you go out and seek it (it only becomes wrong when you hurt people in the process of seeking what you want).  All these enjoyments are sensory in nature – they stimulate the senses – so that you experience something pleasurable – pleasant sense-ations.  This is called vedana (sensations/feelings).

So all our lives, we do 2 things:

  1. Seek for pleasant sensations – because they are nice to experience (this is called bhava tanha – the desire to get).
  2. Try to get away from unpleasant sensations – just because they are not pleasant.

Once again, nothing wrong with this.

The thing is though – that how our everyday world works – it is you, using your body and mind (also called 5 skandhas) to get something external (a sensory object like food or a sensory experience like a theme park ride or a movie or even just a happy stroll).  Where does the dukkha lie in these?  Because they are all enjoyable experiences.  Why are these sensory experiences dukkha/imperfect?

The imperfection lies in the transience, the instability, the uncertainty of these pleasant experiences to keep giving you the pleasant sensation – it is the impermanence that gives you the dukkha – that is why these things are imperfect, not ultimate – they are just temporary happinesses.  They are nice, and the good things in life are nice to have – but they can only provide a finite amount of pleasure for us – they don’t last.  And so they are not ultimate forms of happiness – therein lies the dukkha.  These forms of happiness were not good enough for the Buddha because they are too short, they all have an expiry date – and before you know it, it’s gone.  And when the happiness ends – that’s the imperfection, the unsatisfactoriness of this type of happiness.

As long as you have to rely on external things (things that are not-self – called anatta) to make you happy – know that that type of happiness is unstable. As Ajahn Chah would say, “Why seek stability in things that are inherently unstable?”

Because something is external to you – you have to go and get it – and whatever you get, you eventually have to unget – so even if you go and get it and grasp on tight to it – eventually, it will change (anicca/impermanence) and you will be separated from it.  That’s just the nature of this world of sensorial experience that we live in.  And this is another form of not getting what you want (when something nice that you want changes into not as nice and even changing into something that you hate, e.g., some couples can be really in love at the beginning but as their feelings change towards each other – they can easily end up hating each others’ guts).

So it’s nice to try and get external things (things that are not-self) that we want to have as our own to use and to enjoy – but just realize they won’t last forever – it’s the impermanence that gives the imperfection, the dukkha.

So don’t try to rely on external things too much for your happiness (although inevitably, we need to rely on them a lot because of the modern world that we live in – just don’t get too attached to them – use them when you need to and lay them down when you need to).  Because these things are external to you – you don’t have full, complete control of them – so they may change in a way that you don’t like (uncertainty, instability, anicca) – and when that happens – that is a form of suffering.

And also, with external things you have to go and get what you want.  And if your efforts to get what you really, really, really want become blocked – not getting what you want is suffering.

Instead, try to find a happiness inside of yourself that is not unstable, that is not subject to the transience of sensory experience.  Something inside of yourself that you don’t have to rely on outside factors to get – because its strength, its peace, its joy is naturally always there with you.  This thing will not have to depend on external conditions – which are unreliable – because see how if we have to get conditions perfect for us to be happy and the slightest thing changes it – see how fragile that type of happiness that depends on externals is – the slightest movement (anicca) destroys that type of happiness.

So try to find a peace, a serenity, a joy, a strength, a wisdom, a happiness within yourself that transcends externals and you will never be separated from it!  Because that way, you can take refuge in it and like a skill, call upon it whenever you like, wherever you like – no matter the external conditions, no matter the cirumstances.

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