Written by Hein Adamson
Most of us have heard Buddha’s story or some variation thereof, but for those who have not, I will recount it here as I know it: Siddhārtha Gautama was a prince endowed with every desirable quality; he was handsome, physically gifted, naturally skilled, effortlessly excelled at everything he put his hand to. He married Yaśodharā, a princess from a nearby kingdom who was said to have been an incomparable beauty. The two were very much in love, and she bore him a son they both adored. The two spent their days in matrimonial and conjugal bliss, happily ensconced in palaces and royal gardens, in the lap of opulence and luxury. Surrounded by beautiful courtesans skilled in music, dance and all manner of entertaining arts, waited on hand and foot. A life of wealth, ease and decadence. All the very best of what there is to be had from the world and none the pain of poverty, work, or want.
Until one day, the prince decided to take a tour of his father’s grand city. His father had ordered that any hint of the grim, grimy realities of life be hidden from his son’s sight: The streets were cleaned and decorated, the poor and diseased were moved elsewhere. No effort was spared in the attempt to make the life of the city resemble the life of the palaces, but for that effort, something was missed. As Siddhārtha rode through the streets on his chariot, he saw, for the first time in his life, the first of “The 3 Omens”, sometimes called “The Messengers of Death” he saw the decrepitude of old age as he passed by an old man and lamented to his charioteer:
“…what thing is this who seems a man,
Yet surely only seems, being so bowed,
So miserable, so horrible, so sad?
Are men born sometimes thus? What meaneth he
Moaning ‘to-morrow or next day I die?’
Finds he no food that so his bones jut forth?
What woe hath happened to this piteous one?”
Then answer made the charioteer, “Sweet Prince!
This is no other than an aged man.” – Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia
Soon after, knowing now that there was more to see, that the truths of life in the world were being hidden from him, he went again with his loyal charioteer and friend, both disguised as commoners, and this time saw the second of “Omens”; a sick man and turning to his friend said:
“And are there others, are there many thus?
Or might it be to me as now with him?”
“Great Lord!” answered the charioteer, “this comes
In many forms to all men; griefs and wounds,
Sickness and tetters, palsies, leprosies,
Hot fevers, watery wastings, issues, blains
Befall all flesh and enter everywhere.”….”
“Like the sly snake they come
That stings unseen; like the striped murderer,
Who waits to spring from the Karunda bush,
Hinding beside the jungle path; or like
The lightning, striking and sparing those,
As chance may send.”” – Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia
Struck by the ailing man’s plight, punch-drunk perhaps, right then, in that most vulnerable moment, Siddhārtha observed a funeral procession, a body being taken to the pyre for burning and again questioned his loyal companion who answered:
““This is the end that comes
To all,” … “he upon the pyre —
Whose remnants are so petty that the crows
Caw hungrily, then quit the fruitless feast —
Ate, drank, laughed, loved, and lived, and liked life well
Then came — who knows? — some gusts of jungle wind,
A stumble on the path, a taint in the tank,
A snake’s nip, half a span of angry steel,
A chill, a fishbone, or a falling tile,
And life was over and the man is dead….”
“Here is the common destiny of flesh:
The high and low, the good and bad, must die,
And then, ’tis taught, begin anew and live
Somewhere, somehow — who knows? — and so again
The pangs, the parting, and the lighted pile—
Such is man’s round.”” – Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia
That night, as his wife and son slept, the prince, restless and haunted, tossed and turned in his bed until finally, he resolved to find an answer: to strike out into the world and search for something which does not suffer or a way to put an end to suffering; an end to the seemingly endless cycle of repeated births and deaths and rebirths, knowing that if he didn’t leave at that very moment, knowing that if he woke his sleeping wife and son to say goodbye, he would lose the courage to pursue his goal, he left them sleeping, snuck out of the palace taking nothing with him, and began his search.
Can you imagine how fearless he must have been, how much trust he needed to have in himself, to renounce so completely and walk so boldly into the unknown, with no one to initiate him into a safe and well-trodden path, no teacher, no guide, only following his own heart? Anyway, after years of intense practice and penance, he eventually won through and found what he sought: through himself and within himself, he found that which is beyond suffering, eternally unbound, free from the cycle of incarnations. Siddhārtha became Buddha.
Now he was free but also full of compassion for those still in torment, and in his compassion, determined to transmit what he found to others. He travelled and taught for more than 40 years after his attainment, teaching and talking on many aspects of life, but his singular concern throughout was always the question of suffering and the way to its end. That is what the 4 Noble Truths are, they represent the heart, the core, the essence of his hard-won wisdom, his hard-won freedom. They are, to my mind, his greatest gifts to mankind. All that we see today of so-called Buddhism that has any value at all comes back to that essential teaching.
The First Noble Truth: The Truth of Suffering
Buddha, with perfect clarity, penetrating through all the obscurity of doubt, was absolutely meticulous and comprehensive in his treatment of the question of suffering and begins his teaching at the most fundamental level; the frank and fearless confrontation of the reality of suffering and a thorough description of is nature:
“Birth is suffering; Decay is suffering; Death is suffering; Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair are suffering; not to get what one desires is suffering; in short: the Five Aggregates of Existence (also known as “the Five Aggregates connected with cleaving”) are suffering.” – Digha-Nikaya.
Having given a comprehensive list (he loved his lists; the Buddhist scriptures are full of lists) of all the aspects of suffering as they touch on human life, he goes on to define each of them:
“What now is Birth? The birth of beings belonging to this or that order of beings, their being born, their conception and springing into existence, the manifestation of the aggregates of existence, the arising of sense activity: this is called birth.
And what is Decay? The decay of beings belonging to this or that order of beings; their getting aged, frail, grey and wrinkled; the failing of their vital force, the wearing out of the senses: — this is called decay.
And what is Death? The parting and vanishing of beings out of this or that order of beings, their destruction, disappearance, death, the completion of their life-period, dissolution of the aggregates of existence, the discarding of the body: — this is called death.
In other scriptures, Buddha provides us with a causal sequence (another list – unsurprisingly – of 12 dependencies known as “Dependent Origination”), which ultimately results in birth, or more accurately, the repeated and seemingly unending cycle of births, but for the purposes of this discussion, we will take birth as the 1st step, the seed which contains within in the possibility, or perhaps the inevitability, of all the other modes and flavours of suffering. It’s also worth mentioning that birth in itself, the forceful eviction from the serenity and comfort of the womb into the jarring reality of harsh light, noise, hunger and cold, must be a traumatic experience. These are the reasons why I think he mentions birth first: As we enter this world, so too suffering enters with us.
Here decay describes the relentless, pitiless diminishment of ageing, but I feel that it also describes the effects of disease in all its varying manifestations, along with the effects of bodily injury, since both can result in “the failing of their vital force, the wearing out (if not outright destruction) of the senses”.
As for death, there are, in my limited understanding, really very few ways in which people can die: Suicide, murder, illness, old age and finally, by so-called “accident”. Forceful extinction of life, either by one’s own hand or by another’s, cannot be considered as anything other than violence, and when does violence ever not walk hand in hand with suffering? As for the creeping death of disease and old age, if they are not accompanied by crippling pain and paralysing fear in the face of the unknown, then at the very least by the sure knowledge that one will be removed from the things, people and places to which one is attached. There may also be a confrontation with the bitter regret of a life spent in pursuit of uncertain relationships, temporary pleasures, wealth, power, acquisition and status. How can that not be suffering?
I think of “the inevitability of suffering”, which is an assumption on my part, but I think it is a reasonable assumption since although there may have been people who, having been born, did not experience sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, or despair, I have never heard of anyone who has not decayed with age or died, with the sole exceptions perhaps of the legendary “8 Immortals” of the Taoist tradition, the “9 Ciranjīvis (Immortals)” of the Hindu tradition and, of course, the great Master, Mahāvatār Bābājī, who are said to have committed to remaining on Earth, in physical bodies, until the end of the current yuga (age or epoch).
And what is Sorrow? The sorrow arising through this or that loss or misfortune which one encounters, the worrying oneself, the state of being alarmed, inward sorrow, inward woe: — this is called sorrow.
And what is Lamentation? Whatsoever, through this or that loss or misfortune, which befalls one, is wail and lament, wailing and lamenting, a state of woe and lamentation: — this is called lamentation.
And what is Pain? The bodily pain and unpleasantness, the painful and unpleasant feeling produced by bodily contact: — this is called pain.
And what is Grief? The mental pain and unpleasantness, the painful and unpleasant feeling produced by mental contact: — this is called grief.
And what is Despair? Distress and despair arising through this or that loss or misfortune which one encounters, distressedness and desperateness: — this is called despair.” – Digha-Nikaya.
Physical and emotional pain and discomfort in all their insidious, cruel shades. Especially as they touch on misfortune and loss. Pretty self-explanatory if you ask me. In this case, as in most, our own experience teaches us more than this rather clinical description of what these experiences really are and how they affect us. May we all have less of these in our lives and endeavour always to help reduce it in others.
“And what is the Suffering of not getting what one desires? To beings, subject to birth, there comes the desire: O, that we were not subject to birth! O, that no new birth was before us! Subject to decay, disease, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, the desire comes to them: O, that we were not subject to these things! O, that these things were not before us! But this cannot be got by mere desiring; and not to get what one desires is suffering.” – Digha-Nikaya.
The fact that Buddha says that the desire not to suffer is in itself a form of suffering is a teaching which especially resonates with me, because its implications are farther reaching: our choosing to suffer through expectations, resistance, and lack of acceptance. The flip side of this would be perfect acceptance of everything, just as it is, which must be why Buddha was usually described as a serene and soothing presence. We also see in this teaching how cyclic, self-fueling, self-sustaining the whole process is: in the micro sense of the suffering of this very moment and the desire for it not to be, and in the macro sense of the suffering of uncounted numbers of births and deaths, and the desire for those not to be. There is a famous quote, I don’t know who said it: “Surrender, surrender, or suffer you must.”
“And what, in brief, are the Five Aggregates connected with cleaving? They are bodily form, feeling, perception, (mental) formations and consciousness.” – Digha-Nikaya.
Here “cleaving” means attachment, the tendency, or unwillingness or inability to let go, the sticky, adhesive, gravitational nature of the human makeup. A somewhat oversimplified but serviceable way to understand the “Five Aggregates”, is to see them as the mechanisms through which we experience this world, each being as necessary for the process of experience as any of the others, and so none should be regarded as more important than any of the others, for example, thought (mental formations), or perception, or feeling, should not be regarded as any higher or more valuable than the body, and vice-versa; with none preferred, appreciated, or denied any more than another; in the context of suffering, they all have equal value.
Finally, to really drive the point home, to remove all doubt as to how all beings in the world are bound to this terrible experience, how none can expect to go through life and dodge this fundamental reality, he says:
“Did you ever see in the world a man or a woman, eighty, ninety, or a hundred years old, frail, crooked as a gable roof, bent down, supported on a staff, with tottering steps, infirm, youth long since fled, with broken teeth, grey and scanty hair, or bald-headed, wrinkled, with blotched limbs? And did the thought never come to you, that you also are subject to decay, that you cannot escape it?
Did you never see in the world a man or a woman, who, being sick, afflicted and grievously ill, and wallowing in one’s own filth, was lifted up by some people and put to bed by others? And did the thought never come to you, that you also are subject to disease, that you cannot escape it?
Did you never see in the world the corpse of a man or a woman, one or two or three days after death, swollen up, blue-black in colour, and full of corruption? And did the thought never come to you, that you also are subject to death, that you cannot escape it?” – Anguttara-Nikaya
Hinting at how long we’ve been at it, how many lives we’ve lived, how many rounds in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (saṃsāra) we’ve been through, and as a compassionate exhortation to us to liberate ourselves at last from the relentless cycle, he says:
“Which do you think is more: the flood of tears, which weeping and wailing you have shed upon this long way — hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths, united to the undesired, separated from the desired — this or the waters of the four oceans?
Long time have you suffered the death of father and mother, of sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. And whilst you were thus suffering, you have verily shed more tears upon this long way, than there is water in the four oceans.
Which do you think is more: the streams of blood that, through your being beheaded, have flowed upon this long way, or the waters in the four oceans?
Long time have you been caught as dacoits or highway men or adulterers; and, through your being beheaded verily more blood has flowed upon this long way, than there is water in the four oceans….
And thus have you long time undergone suffering, undergone torment, undergone misfortune and filled the graveyards full, verily long enough to be dissatisfied with every form of existence, long enough to turn away and free yourselves from them all.” – Samyutta-Nikaya
I once heard it said that the fool sees both happiness and pain while the wise man sees only pain. While I would rather have left the reader on a happier note, I think it’s important to understand and face the reality of our situation here on Earth, as Buddha presents it. There is however, cause for hope: as I said earlier, this is but the first of the 4 Noble Truths, and as we explore each, things will start to look a little less bleak. After all, Buddha did eventually win through to freedom and laid his path to freedom out quite neatly. In order to get there though, each step must be understood thoroughly, building upon the previous, starting at the very beginning. So, I invite you, with love and ultimately with optimism, to contemplate the 1st Noble Truth and digest it well.
The scriptural references in this article have been excerpted from Dwight Goddard’s excellent compendium, “A Buddhist Bible”. Extracts from Edwin Arnold’s epic poem, “The Light of Asia”, have also been used.