First noble truth: what is suffering or what suffering is?

I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days; it seems to me that there are two ways to read the first noble truth. The first way is as an enumeration of things that are suffering, the second way is as defining dukkha (i.e. “this is what suffering actually is”).

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering. (SN 56.11)

In the first case, I tend to supply my own limited understanding of suffering and then try to see how birth, old age, death etc. are like that kind of suffering.

In the second case, it’s more like I’m being asked to reexamine my current understanding of what suffering really is.

Consider 'union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering’
‘suffering is joining with what is displeasing, suffering is separating from what is pleasing, suffering is to not get what one wants’

In the latter case, it’s more clear to me why ‘in brief’ the five aggregates are suffering; getting what I don’t want, separating from what I like, not getting what I want – this is part and parcel of conscious experience. If suffering is defined by that, then it seems more evident (to me) that the five aggregates are suffering.

In addition, since the khandas are impermanent, we must always eventually experience what is displeasing, lose what is pleasing and therefore get what we don’t want. Since health and youth are impermanent, we must experience sickness old age and death. But even death is impermanent, so we get the birth again later. Taking the first noble truth as a definition of dukkha, the link between impermanence and dukkha seems more clear to me.

Someone might object to ‘life is suffering’, but would they object to ‘life invariably involves birth, old age, sickness and death; experiencing what is displeasing, losing what is pleasing and not getting what you want’?

In any case, I guess the topic of this discussion is how the first noble truth should be understood. What do you think? :slight_smile:


If life is plain suffering we wouldn’t get attached to it, would we? I think suffering here means that life cannot satisfy one’s desire. So instead of suffering, dukkha here can be translated as worthless.

There is suffering as in what is unpleasant (dukkhe dukkha) and suffering that arises from attachment to transient objects (viparinama dukkha). There is however a third kind of suffering: the suffering of impermanence.

That which is impermanent is suffering (purely as an aspect of impermanence).

This is what is discussed in SN22.59. Forms arise and pass away. Feelings arise and pass away. Identification arise and pass away. Mental fabrications arise and pass away. Consciousness arise and pass away. These five are involved in creating a single perception; and in ever perception. This momentary ‘atomic’ impermanence underlies a pervasive suffering of all experiences that anyone can have. This includes pleasant experiences. So to say pleasant experiences are not suffering (or more accurately doesn’t have the truth of unsatisfactoriness applying to it), is incorrect.

He has no uncertainty or doubt that just stress, when arising, is arising; stress, when passing away, is passing away. SN12.15

With metta


Impermanence only becomes suffering because we want it to be otherwise. Does this characteristic of suffering of existence can be viewed independently from our desires over it? Like written in the sutta above, suffering is the five aggregates subject to clinging. I feel it to be incomplete just calling life to be suffering without connecting it to our desires.

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I think I have read somewhere that the pali dukkha has larger meaning than the English suffering, so maybe it is better translated as not desirable. It is not desirable since it will change, not just any change but change that is against our desires. Since it is not desirable we do not want it as part of ourselves.

It seems to me that the characteristics of anicca, dukkha, anatta are tools taught by the Buddha to let us relinquish our desires instead of internal characteristics of things like color, temperature, etc. So they are not to be understood independently from our desires to things.

We, of course, do not want suffering; therefore, we will search for pleasant experiences in life. However, because of the impermanence nature in conditional phenomena, those pleasant experiences will eventually go away and suffering will come. We will again need to look for another pleasant experiences, and we will continue looking for pleasant experiences again and again because of their impermanence nature. This is craving/clinging to pleasant experiences. This is how we attached to life. This is ignorance.

Because of impermanence nature in conditional phenomena, pleasant experience is the cause for unpleasant experience and vice versa. Daytime will eventually become nighttime. We have black because there is non-black. this pencil is short because there is other that is not shorter than it (or because there is other that is longer).

Rich and powerful can help us to become even richer and more powerful, but this cannot continue forever because of impermanence. However, rich and powerful can also cause bigger damages in life. A good decision of a King can help millions people, but a bad decision can also destroy millions.

The more we get, the more “birth, old age, sickness, death,lamentation, pain…” we possess because they all are subjected to those conditions. In other word, the more we get, the more we suffer.

Therefore, pleasant experiences in life are actually unpleasant experiences in disguise. The more pleasant experiences we get, the more unpleasant experiences will eventually come to us. Seeing this, one will develop dispassion with pleasant experiences in life and cut off that craving/clinging.

[removed my post, as not helpful]

Here’s a relevant quote from the Sutta you’ve quoted:

“‘This noble truth of suffering is to be fully understood’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light. SN 56.11


…I think it’s a very nice topic and I love that you’ve directly related it to an EBT. :slight_smile:

Also, this is such a nice topic that I want to put my Mod hat on briefly and preemptively remind everyone that you demonstrate a good understanding of suffering and it’s causes when you place the focus here on sharing your understanding as opposed to disagreeing with someone else’s. This is just a suggestion, of course. :slight_smile: It’s the same Path/Framework but to most of us, it also looks different in some of it’s views and aspects (pun on view/aspects totally intended). So I guess I’m suggesting we continue to keep this lovely thread…well…lovely… and if we disagree to do so respectful of the person behind the text, who is sharing something important to them. :slight_smile:

So far…loving the sharing that’s happening here. :anjal: It’s a pleasure to read and observe. Thank you all.


Understanding requires wisdom (panna), wisdom requires concentration (samadhi), concentration requires good conduct (sila). By saying that the first noble truth should be understood, maybe what the Buddha means is that we should practice sila/samadhi/panna. It is not something that can be understood by thinking alone.


Of course not. But to quote Ajahn Brahm, for some of us, “the intellect can point the way.”

It’s not a bad thing to discuss what suffering might mean, to reflect upon it and ensure we’re approaching it correctly. It’s about the very initial sorting out of Right View so that when we do perfect/purify or fully develop Samma Samadhi, we’ve got (again to paraphrase Ajahn Brahm) the Map (Right View - the direction the mind will automatically go because of previous conditioning which might well include discussions like the one here) as well as the Flash Light (Jhanas and the powerful awareness they bring).

It should be worth noting that powerful meditative states are themselves rich in the potential for insight. Because of what is absent or present within them; because of the impact they have on the mind and because of the wisdom and letting go required to experience them. Because they are so immersed in and productive of and produced by wisdom; and because the Noble Truth of Suffering and the cultivation of its understanding (as the Buddha said) is so very important to us as practising Buddhists and is thus so central to any wisdom we seek to cultivate; it stands to reason that cultivating - at least - a reflective understanding of Suffering is an integral part of our Path.

Further it is unavoidable as we suffer daily and see suffering around us daily. Suffering is grist for our mill. The stuff our practise is made of. It is the thing that is present when we’re anxious, afraid, angry, even happy. It is the “atoms” that make up our very being. We can’t help but reflect on it.

While I don’t want to derail this thread - it should be briefly said that this can’t be done in isolation. The other 3 Noble Truths need just as much attention.

With Metta


I like a practical rather than theoretical approach to the four truths.
So instead of finding the definitive definition of Dukkhā I use the second truth to recognise when Dukkhā is present in me.
When all my cravings (DADs) will be eradicated then there will be no more dukkha for me which proves that dukkha is not inherent to things/situations/dhammas/etc.

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This is an important question- 1) painful/unpleasant feelings (dukkha dukkha) are suffering and there wont be any desire generated from them. Desire, in other words. is not necessary for bodily pain- including aging, illness and death.
Furthermore, while the suffering that comes from clinging to transient objects such as cars, houses, pets and people ARE directly due to craving, the third category of dukkha isn’t.

“What do you think, monks — Is form constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, lord.”
“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”
“Stressful, lord.”
“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”
"No, lord."

In the anattalakkahana sutta above, the clear cause for suffering is impermanence. In another place the Buddha said craving is not apart from the five aggregates -otherwise what would it be made out of, as it is yet another of the five aggregates we identify to be ourselves. So at this ‘atomic’ level, craving IS one of the aggregates and there is no space to stand out side it, if that makes sense. In the sutta above the Buddha talks of aggregates (khanda) and not ‘clinging aggregates’ (upadana khanada). Sankhara dukkha is experienced only within deep vipassana- the arising and passing away of the aggregates will be seen to be suffering; so much so it will lead to repulsion (nibbida), then dispassion (viraga) and eventually -cessation (nirodha) when the arising and passing away ceases.

with metta

Painful feelings are certainly suffering. But to call pleasant feeling suffering seems contradictory. Yes we can explain why it is suffering but if someone read it, it will only confuse them. Just because the pleasant feeling will pass does not make it suffering, more like non-satisfying. Is there a better translation for dukkha?

This is interesting; clearly the “deep stuff” is not realized by thinking, but it seems thinking still has a place. E.g. MN 70:

And how is final knowledge achieved by gradual training, gradual practice, gradual progress? Here one who has faith in a teacher visits him; when he visits him, he pays respect to him; when he pays respect to him, he gives ear; one who gives ear hears the Dhamma; having heard the Dhamma, he memorises it; he examines the meaning of the teachings he has memorised; when he examines their meaning, he gains a reflective acceptance of those teachings; when he has gained a reflective acceptance of those teachings, zeal springs up in him; when zeal has sprung up, he applies his will; having applied his will, he scrutinises; having scrutinised, he strives; resolutely striving, he realises with the body the supreme truth and sees it by penetrating it with wisdom.

How far does “examining the meaning” and a “reflective acceptance” of the teachings go? It seems to be important for the motivation to practice (zeal). For example, I found it almost impossible to practice breath meditation until I got a better understanding of what ‘the point’ of breath meditation is. On the other hand, it can be very motivating for practice when one gets a sense of ‘how it all hangs together’.


‘Sorrow’ might be better, sometimes.

The inability to hold on to things and make them last, the inability to change aspects of existence like the decay of the body, the nostalgic distress that is experienced when recollecting good times from the past and knowing that one’s age prevents experiencing them again etc. The yearning in the mind regarding pleasant feelings is just what makes them a cause for anxiety and distress.

With the arising of delight, Puṇṇa, there is the arising of suffering, I say. (From SN 35.88)

dukkam is a very common word in Tamil and it is usually understood as sadness, sorrow, woe, distress etc.


The question on my mind right now is if the suffering that arises from delight as described here, is the “union with the displeasing, separation from the pleasing, not getting what one wants” or if it is “sadness, sorrow, woe, distress etc.”, i.e. our ordinary understanding of a word like suffering.

As @anon29387788 mentioned, from SN 56.11 “This noble truth of suffering is to be fully understood”. Does this mean that we should understand that many things are actually “sadness, sorrow, woe, distress” or does it mean that we should understand what suffering truly is (as per the first noble truth)?

Said more nerdily, is it that we are wrong about the set of experiences that actually map to our ordinary understanding of suffering:

{birth, old age, illness, …} ↦ {sadness, sorrow, woe, distress, suffering, pain, etc.}

or is it that our definition of suffering is wrong?

I don’t think these two are mutually exclusive, they just seems to direct the mind in slightly different ways :slight_smile:

There are two level of faith (saddha): pakati saddha and bhavana saddha (I read this on one of the dipani written by Ven. Ledi Sayadaw). First we believe what the teacher taught (pakati saddha), having faith in it we practice it, and then having realized it we have faith from seeing it by ourselves (bhavana saddha). So maybe the level of thinking required is just as much that we can or willing to practice it.

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I think part of the problem disappears with an adapted understanding of the term ‘dukkha’. I think that one of the etymologies of Buddhaghosa is underrated, namely ‘kha’ as space, hole. ‘du-’ can be simply understood as ‘bad’.

I think it is underrated, because the notion of ‘kha’ as space in Vedic/Sanskrit is actually much more normal than I thought.

‘Dukkha’ then is not ‘suffering’ but rather ‘a source of suffering’.
Birth is dukkha = Birth is a source of suffering


IMHO, both of the perspectives need to be straightened a bit to clear the dust in our eyes. And as you say, they are not mutually exclusive. In any case, a solid understanding of dukka needs to arise. This could happen early in the Path to some extent and thus wean the mind away from worldly attachments, but complete revelation happens at the time of Awakening, when the veil is lifted and the ocean of misery in which we are drowning is finally seen.

Even birth, which is celebrated as a joyous event by the world is seen as a calamitous occurence when delusion is eradicated in the mind. Sensual lust, which is also considered as a natural ingredient in human experience is seen as a burning fire that has to be put out.

This vision of dukka can’t happen overnight and I think even the Buddha had to struggle with a wavering mind when he was a lonely mendicant, wandering around. There is one sutta in which he describes how sensual thoughts arose and he had to control them by dividing his thoughts into categories. The contents of the sensual urges are not specified, though. Maybe he was thinking of his past, luxurious life and recollected holding his wife in his arms and was filled with longing. But, after his Awakening, he described such past sensual indulgence as the clawing and scratching of a wretched leper…

I think at least a fairly clear understanding of the first noble truth is required, especially for monastics. Otherwise, longing and ache would arise in the mind when lay life presents itself as a rich tapestry of experiences. Not seeing it all as dukka may result in disrobing…


At one point I was thinking about the exact same thing.

You could compare the first noble truth to the way the other four noble truths are worded, especially the fourth. That one says: this is the truth of the way out of suffering: the noble eightfold path, which is right view, etc.

This is clear a definition, it’s not just an example of what the path may be, or just a few examples of factors of the path. The 2nd ad 3rd are also quite obviously definitions. So then the first must be too.

Based on grammar I’d also say all truths are definitions. This is obscured a bit in the English because of the oddity with “the truth of”.

More literally, it says: “This dukkha, is truth, is: birth is suffering, and death etc.”

Or something like that. :slight_smile: I think Ñānamoli or one of the other Ñāna-monks translated: “Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: birth is suffering etc.”

Actually I remember now! I started from questioning the 2nd noble truth. Because that one is especially weird in English.

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence”

What do you mean? The noble truth is craving that leads to rebirth? No. The same thing of the odd grammar applies. Instead it says something like: This is the origin of suffering, a noble truth: the craving etc.

I’m now translating: “according to the truth known by the noble ones, this is what suffering’s origin is: It is the craving that leads to a next life …”

Similarly, the first one: “according to the the truth known by the noble ones, this is what suffering is: Birth is suffering.”

But I realize this is just another attempt. No translation will be perfect, ever. I just happen to resonate with this one personally.

Hope that helps.