The basics of Buddhism: Dukkha and the Four Noble Truths

The doctrine of dukkha is a central concern of the four Noble Truths of Buddhism:

1. There is dukkha.

2. There is a cause of dukkha

3. There is the cessation of dukkha.

4. There is the path leading to the cessation of dukkha.

What is dukkha? Freidlander notes that the word’s Sanskrit roots give it the meaning “wrong-standing, bad-location, or incorrect-position” [Freidlander, p. 63]. This starting point gives it a rather inaccessible meaning if any of these terms are inserted into the Four Noble Truths in the place of the word dukkha. Instead, several English words are used, the most common one being ‘suffering’. Freidlander highlights the Hindi uses of the word, including ,“emotional qualities such as ‘sorrow, grief, distress, dejection, vexation, regret, annoyance‘, and physical aspects such as ‘pain, misfortune, difficulty, trouble”‘ [lbid, p.63]. Most commentators note that no English word can wholly encapsulate the meaning of dukkha. Others, such as Olson, are content to use the word “suffering” [eg. Olson p. 46].

In his discourse on the First Noble Truth, the Buddha provides this insight into the centrality and universality of dukkha:

This, monks, is the noble truth about suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is ill; likewise is sorrow, grief, woe, lamentation and despair. To be related with things that we dislike, to be separated from things that we like – that also is suffering. Not to get what one wants is also suffering. In brief, the five aggregates, which are based on grasping, is suffering.” [Olson, p. 47]

It is apparent that almost all aspects of unenlightened existence are dukkha. Williams identifies three types of dukkha. The first is literal, physical pain. The second is the dukkha of change, “a dukkha things have simply because they are impermanent. Thus, even happiness is dukkha in this sense, because even happiness is liable to change” [Williams, p. 42]. The third is the dukkha of conditions. “This is the dukkha that is part of our very being as conditioned individuals….. intrinsic to our state of imperfection, unenlightenment” [Williams, p. 43].

If dukkha is intrinsic to imperfection and unenlightenment, then it follows that true awareness of the universality of dukkha is only achievable from the outside, from a perfect, enlightened state. Otherwise, unenlightened beings may experience pain, for example, but be unaware that it is intrinsic to their existence. Thus, Buddhists would maintain that the Buddha did not invent dukkha, but that it always existed, and that from time to time when individuals achieve enlightenment, they fully realise the true nature and full extent, of dukkha.

This is apparently what occurred in the case of the Buddha. On achieving enlightenment under the bodhi tree, he sought out several former companions and delivered his first sermon to them, which included the Four Noble Truths. Thus was the true nature of existence revealed (at least in an academic or ontological sense), to unenlightened people.

So what is the foundation of the Four Noble Truths, if not dukkha? I suggest that it may be existence itself — our consciousness, self-awareness, and awareness of our own mortality. The Four Noble Truths are, in effect, insight into the true nature of existence, and at their core, holding them up, is dukkha. Anderson notes, “As a proposition, the Four Noble Truths map out the construction and associated deconstruction of reality’ [Anderson, p. 86]. Thus, l would argue that, whilst the doctrine of dukkha is central to the Four Noble Truths, the actual foundation of the Four Noble Truths maybe viewed as ‘the reality of existence‘, and the structural framework of the Four Noble Truths is dukkha.

This relationship between the Four Noble Truths and existence poses two interesting questions:

  • Do the Four NobleTruths apply universally, or are they specific to human existence on Planet Earth?

  • Do they hold for other forms of existence (e.g. animals)?

There is seemingly nothing in the First Noble Truth – “aIl existence is dukkha” – to restrict it to humans only, or to Earthly existence only. If sentient beings lived on other planets, it would follow that the Buddha considered that their existence was also dukkha. In later Buddhist thought, animal forms are part of samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth.

However, the Fourth Noble Truth (there is a path to the cessation of dukkha) is a path that can only be trodden by sentient, conditioned beings capable of applying the Eightfold Path to their own existence, seemingly excluding other organisms, even though they can be seen to ‘exist’.

Many references allude to the Four Noble Truths as being of the nature of a medical prescription to achieve wellness. For example, Harvey frames it thus: “(i) diagnose a disease, (ii) identify its cause, (iii) determine whether it is curable, and (iv) outline a course of treatment to cure it” [Harvey, p. 47]. The Four Noble Truths identify the disease (suffering/pain), its cause (craving), its cure (cessation of craving and attainment of nibbana), and a course of treatment (the Eightfold Path).

Several Buddhist writers suggest that ‘Buddhism is accused of being a pessimistic religion’. Their argument proceeds something like this: “Critics base their views on the First Noble Truth that all conditioned things are in a state of suffering. They seem to have forgotten that not only had the Buddha taught the cause of Suffering, but he had taught the way to end Suffering” [Dhammananda, p. 126]. In other words, the view that Buddhism is pessimistic is based solely on the First Noble Truth, and ignores the other three Noble Truths, that show the path out of suffering consistent with the medical allusion above.

Ergo, according to these writers, the Four Noble Truths are a realistic assessment of existence.

ln a fairly extensive oniine search, l had difficulty finding where this ‘pessimistic’ view had originated and was beginning to think that the above opinion was a straw man argument. However, Tweed points out that early (19th Century) Western scholars of Buddhism did indeed view it as pessimistic. ln a Victorian atmosphere of Christianity at its zenith, such scholars “implied or argued that Buddhism was pessimistic because of its emphasis on pervasive suffering and nirvanic negation” [Tweed, p. 140]. Tweed cites in particular the American Sanskrit scholar Edward Washburn Hopkins as finding in Buddhism a “formal and complete pessimism”, due to “the implications of (the Buddha’s) denial of a state of bliss beyond the grave (nirvana as annihilation). Buddhism, Hopkins suggested, “also was world-denying and passive. The belief in karma “lessens man’s compassionate interest in his fellows”’ [Tweed, p. 142]. There is, then, some basis for the charge that, at least in the past, the Buddhist world view has been characterised in the West as pessimistic.

However, (in the language of Western religions), the dukkha/nibbana doctrine is a path to a ‘salvation’ of sorts, albeit an internal salvation of the mind, rather than an afterlife salvation awarded by a divine power for acts of belief or morality. The Buddha “puts forward a mode of life for higher men which he regards as well worth living, and claims that by this life the highest good is attainable, and in this conviction that ‘Paradise is still upon earth’ he is anything but pessimistic… Dukkha cannot be called pessimistic, because it merely states the obvious: we know that a conditioned life of eternal happiness is a contradiction in terms” [Coomaraswamy, p. 176, 177].

The Buddhist desire to have these basic doctrines seen as ‘realistic’, and neither pessimistic nor optimistic, focuses largely on the character of the Buddha and the joy derived from living a life based upon the Eightfold Path. “The Buddha never expected His followers to be constantly brooding over the suffering of life and leading a miserable and unhappy existence. He taught the fact of suffering only so that He could show people how to overcome this suffering and move in the direction of happiness. To become an Enlightened person, one must have joy, one of the factors that the Buddha recommended us to cultivate. Joy is hardly pessimistic.” [Dhammananda, p. 126].

A caveat in this assessment rests in the doctrine of not-self, that “no permanent, substantial, independent, metaphysical self could be found” [Harvey, p.51]. Implicit in this is a certain enigmatic denial that the ‘self’ transports from life to life in the cycle of samsara. This, combined with the extreme unlikelihood that a given individual will achieve nibbana in this lifetime seems to deny that individual a realistic, practical, over-arching project for their life. One cannot, for example, use this life to store up ‘enlightenment credits‘ to pass on to the next life, eventually leading to nibbana in a future “life and the cessation of the cycle. This does not appear to be how it works. Furthermore, the cycle of samsara is the Buddhist norm of existence; actually achieving enlightenment is an exceptional event. This is an outlook short on hopeful optimism.

Dukkha may be described as absolutely central to the Four Noble Truths and the primary structural element. I suggest that their foundation could be viewed to be ‘the reality of existence‘, rather than dukkha. An alternate paradigm might be that the Four Noble Truths explain the reality of existence, and dukkha is the foundation of that explanation, however this is not a paradigm I have chosen to adopt here. I noted that Buddhist writers depict the Four Noble Truths as a ‘realistic‘ assessment of existence. This could be viewed as a vestigial position, on the basis that it is ‘not-pessimistic‘ and ‘not-optimistic‘.

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