Getting Down in the Trenches with the First Noble Truth
In his book, Venerable Father: A Life with Ajahn Chah, Paul Breiter tells the story of an encounter with Ajahn Chah after the latter had just completed two successive nights of long Dharma talks. As Ajahn Chah was walking away from the meditation hall, he said to Breiter, “Anicca, dukkha, anattā—I can’t listen to any more!” As most Buddhist practitioners know, anicca, dukkha, anattā—impermanence, suffering, no-self—refer to the three characteristics of existence. In my early years of practice, my teachers rarely passed up the chance to include this drill in their Dharma talks: anicca, dukkha, anattā… anicca, dukkha, anattā… anicca, dukkha, anattā.
Back then, however, if I’d been found wandering around outside a meditation hall, speaking my thoughts aloud, the listener would have heard: “Dukkha dukkha dukkha—I can’t listen to any more!” I wasn’t tired of hearing about anicca because I’d already accepted it as ever present in my life, whether I was sitting through a boring lecture or blissfully swimming in the ocean. I wasn’t tired of hearing about anattā because I barely understood it, so when I would have an insight into “no self,” I was inspired to learn more about it.
But dukkha? I got tired of hearing about it. The first noble truth: There is dukkha in this life (which, like most people, I translated as “suffering”). Got it. The second noble truth: The cause of that suffering is desire. Got it. The third and fourth noble truths: you can get rid of dukkha and here’s the path. Got it: get on that path and stay on it. So, can we move on to some of those other Buddhist lists, like the four sublime emotions or the ten perfections of an enlightened being?
Then in 2001, I fell sick and became chronically ill. There was dukkha, staring me in the face all day long. No escape—not from physical suffering and not from mental suffering. My body constantly ached with flu-like symptoms. My mind was consumed with desire to get my old life back: my profession, my social life, my ability to travel, my retreat practice.
After several years of denial and misery about the unexpected turn my life had taken, I decided to settle in with dukkha and see if I could get a better handle on this round-the-clock companion.
Translating the Word Dukkha
I already knew that when the Buddha said we could alleviate dukkha, he wasn’t referring to bodily suffering. Physical pain and discomfort is inevitable because we were born into bodies and they get sick and injured and old. The Buddha himself suffered great bodily pain at times. So does dukkha just mean “mental suffering”?
During years of Buddhist study and practice, I’d learned that, although “suffering” is the word most commonly used to translate dukkha, one word is not adequate to convey its meaning. Here’s a list of synonyms for dukkha: suffering, pain, discontent, unease, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, frustration.
None of these words on their own is adequate because dukkha isn’t just describing free-floating discontent, anguish, or dissatisfaction; all these words imply an object. When I looked for that object, in one way or another it was always some circumstance of my life. With that in mind, I settled on this definition for dukkha: “Dissatisfaction with the circumstances of my life.” Now I had a literal description of a good portion of my day-to-day experience! I’m always dissatisfied in one way or another with how my life is going. It was true before I got sick; it was true after I got sick.
This dissatisfaction can involve the “big questions” (Does my life have meaning? Can humankind survive global warming?). It can be about the stress and anxiety of everyday life (tension in a relationship, difficulty on the job). It can about mundane discomforts and irritations (the dog barking next door, the lost sock in the dryer). Think about your life. Notice how there is an ongoing effort (subtle or intense) to adjust its circumstances to be more to your liking.
With an “if only” mentality, we tend to deny the presence of dukkha. “If only I had an iPad, I’d never want another electronic device.” “If only the Giants would win the World Series, I won’t care if they ever win another baseball game.” “If only I weren’t sick, I’d be happy.”
Who am I kidding? If all my “if only’s” came to pass, I’d soon find they didn’t bring lasting satisfaction. An iPad is no fun without all those cool apps that everyone else has. Can’t the Giants win it all two years in a row? I’m glad not to be sick, but my life is still full of frustration and irritation.
So there I’d be, with my iPad, the Giants as world champions, my physical health restored…and dukkha all around.
The Origin of Dukkha
In the second noble truth, the Buddha said that the origin of dukkha—this dissatisfaction with the circumstances of our lives—is taṅhā. The literal translation of taṅhā is “thirst,” a concept not far from the popular understanding of the second noble truth that the origin of suffering is desire (or its flip side, aversion). As a translation for taṅhā, I prefer the words craving or longing over the word desire. The latter is too broad and includes wholesome intentions, such as the desire to pursue spiritual practice or to clean up the environment. On the other hand, “craving” or “longing” usually refer to a self-focused desire to get something for ourselves, whether it be a material thing (that iPad), a sensory experience (the taste of ice cream, the feel of ocean waves on the body) or an identity (law professor, award-winning author).
I think of taṅhā as the constantly recurring experience of “want” and “don’t want” in my life. I want (crave) pleasant experiences (mental and physical); I don’t want (am averse to) unpleasant ones. The Buddha wasn’t mincing words when he said: “Dukkha is (1) not getting what you want and (2) getting what you don’t want.” (Saṃyutta Nikāya 56.11 And so, dukkha and taṅhā go hand in hand. No dukkha, no taṅhā. No taṅhā, no dukkha.
Sometimes commentators claim that the Buddha was saying that life itself is dukkha because having been born, we are subject to sickness, injury, and loss. But the bare fact of these three phenomena cannot be dukkha because that wouldn’t be in accord with the second noble truth which ties dukkha to taṅhā. It’s the aversion to sickness, injury, and loss (that is, the craving for them not to be a part of our life) that gives rise to dukkha.
The Three Kinds of Dukkha
As I looked more deeply into the first noble truth, I learned that even the singular term dukkha is not adequate. In the Dukkhata Sutta, the Buddha said: “Monks, there are three kinds of dukkha: dukkha dukkha, saṅkhāra dukkha, and vipariṇāma dukkha.” (Saṃyutta Nikāya 45.165)
Dukkha dukkha: This kind of dukkha arises in response to unpleasant physical or mental experiences (often referred to as unpleasant feelings or sensations). When I broke my ankle in 2008, the circumstances of my life (to reference my definition of dukkha) included unpleasant physical sensations. When I lost my best friend to cancer fifteen years ago, the circumstances of my life included unpleasant mental feelings; there was nothing I could do to prevent the painful experience of sorrow and grief from arising.
The circumstances of everyone’s life will include unpleasant experiences. But they are not in themselves what the Buddha meant by dukkha dukkha. It’s the aversion to the unpleasantness that is dukkha dukkha. And so, the origin of dukkha dukkha is tahṅā– that craving or longing for the circumstances of our lives to be different. That craving is like hitting our heads against a wall because this is how things are: we were born and so are subject to injury, illness, old age, and loss. Our loved ones are subject to the same conditions and so we will experience unpleasant feelings of separation and loss.
The only way to keep dukkha dukkha from arising is to change our response to unpleasant experience. If we can acknowledge unpleasant feelings and sensations, be with them and let them run their course, dukkha dukkha will not arise. This is easier said than done. It requires mindfulness. When I could be consciously aware, “This broken ankle is physical pain,” or “This grief from my friend’s death is hard to bear”—and not add taṅhā (the craving for my life to be different) dukkha dukkha would not arise. The physical pain from my broken ankle ran its course. Eventually, so has the grief from the loss of my friend. Dukkha dukkha only arose when I responded with aversion to the physical and mental pain, that is, when I longed for them to go away and be replaced with pleasant sensations and feelings.
Saṅkhāra dukkha: Saṅkhāra refers the intentional formation of thoughts (often translated as mental formations). Saṅkhāra dukkha arises when we take that step beyond dukkha dukkha (which is simple aversion to an unpleasant physical or mental experience) and engage in stressful mental activity, such as concocting “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” judgments, and anxiety-filled thoughts and questions. Saṅkhāra dukkha has its origin in taṅhā because that mental activity reflects a craving for things to be how we want them to be. We’re back at that basic definition of dukkha: dissatisfaction with the circumstances of our lives.
Returning to the examples I used, I broke my ankle and it hurt. When I could mindfully acknowledge the unpleasantness of the pain, dukkha dukkha did not arise. It arose only when I reacted with aversion to this circumstance of my life (craving for the pain to stop). And then, saṅkhāra dukkha was not far behind. “It’s not fair that I broke my ankle.” “What if it doesn’t heal correctly?” “I can’t bear being sick and injured at the same time.” Saṅkhāra dukkha was in the anxiety-filled stories I would spin about my ankle.
When my best friend died, dukkha dukkha arose in those moments when I felt aversion to the grief. When I then added mental formations such as, “I shouldn’t feel this much grief,” and even “I should never get over this grief,” I was in the throes of saṅkhāra dukkha. (Note how I’d managed to conjure two contradictory scenarios regarding the circumstances of my life and found both to be unsatisfactory. Saṅkhāra dukkha in abundance!)
We can alleviate saṅkhāra dukkha by bringing these mental formations into conscious awareness. In mindfulness practice (inside or outside of meditation), we become aware of whatever sensations or feelings have arisen. They could be from outside stimuli (someone honking a car horn), body stimuli (that painful broken ankle), or from our mental reaction to these stimuli. If that stimulus is unpleasant, our mental reaction can range from a simple craving for it to stop (dukkha dukkha) to the mental formations of saṅkhāra dukkha, such as “If he doesn’t stop honking that horn right now, I’m going to start screaming.”
As we get more skilled at maintaining mindfulness, we’re better able to shift our focus from the pleasantness or unpleasantness of our experience to its impermanent nature. This insight into anicca enables us see that trying to control our experience to make it only pleasant just increases the presence of dukkha in our lives. This can be the first step in letting go of craving or longing for our life to be other than it is in the present moment.
Cultivating mindfulness can also help us question the validity of our thoughts. Was it true that breaking an ankle when I was already sick wasn’t fair? (It seems “fairer” than living in many parts of Haiti right now.) Was it true that I shouldn’t feel so much grief over my friend’s death…or that I should never stop grieving it? (Neither assertion is constructive.) Learning to question the credibility of these mental formations can free us from saṅkhāra dukkha.
We can also alleviate saṅkhāra dukkha by cultivating more skillful and selfless mental states, such as the four brahma vihāras (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity). Directing these sublime states at ourselves is a powerful antidote to saṅkhāra dukkha. “Take care, my dear broken ankle, hurting, hurting, hurting.” “Grieving is painful but this is what my life is about right now.”
Vipariṇāma dukkha: Whereas dukkha dukkha arises in response to unpleasant experiences, vipariṇāma dukkha arises in response to pleasant ones. This kind of dukkha could be called anicca dukkha, because it is tied to impermanence or change. (Vipariṇāma means changing.) As with the other two kinds of dukkha, the origin of vipariṇāma dukkha is taṅhā. When we’re enjoying a pleasant experience, we crave for it to continue. In fact, we’ll go to extremes to keep it going (driving too fast, eating too much). Vipariṇāma dukkha arises when, inevitably, the universal law of impermanence leaves that craving unsatisfied.
More profoundly, vipariṇāma dukkha can be present during a pleasant experience. There’s often an underlying unease or dissatisfaction even when we’re happy or joyful because, at a gut level, we know it won’t last. I used to sit outside in the evening on the Island of Moloka’i, watching spectacular orange and red sunsets with palm trees silhouetted in black in the foreground. I remember wondering why that joyful experience always contained an underlying discontent. Now I know: vipariṇāma dukkha.
As Richard Gombrich points out in What the Buddha Thought, nothing that is impermanent can be fully satisfactory.
The Buddha saw that normal experience is vitiated by the transience of all worldly phenomena, a transience which must sooner or later render them unsatisfying. Our experience of their transience can only successfully be handled, he argued, by coming to terms with it: we should not want permanence, for ourselves or our loved ones, because we are not going to get it. [p. 74]
This excerpt illustrates that taṅhā underlies vipariṇāma dukkha too—in this instance, our craving for the impermanent to be permanent. But, as the Buddha told us, it’s not going to happen. Thus, as with dukkha dukkha and saṅkhāra dukkha, we would do well to cool the fire of vipariṇāma dukkha.
The Cessation of Dukkha
I’ve developed a practice to help me get at the root of dukkha in my everyday life. I call it the tracing exercise. First, I try to become aware of when dukkha is present. This requires mindfulness because all three kinds of dukkha can be subtle and hard to recognize. I’m helped by a Chinese Buddhist image of dukkha: a cart with a slightly broken wheel that jolts us each time the wheel rolls over the broken spot. So, as soon as I feel a little “off kilter” or dissatisfied, I stop and say: “Ah, this is dukkha.” Then, I trace my experience backwards until I find the place where I’m not getting what I want, or I’m getting what I don’t want: the craving or longing that is taṅhā. Lastly, I consciously try to let go of taṅhā– to just accept the circumstances of my life as they are.
Here’s an example of how I could have used this tracing exercise to alleviate vipariṇāma dukkha when I was watching that Moloka’i sunset. First, I’d become aware that in the midst of this joyful experience, I’m feeling “off kilter”—a bit of unease and dissatisfaction. Then I’d trace that dissatisfaction backwards until I found its origin. And there it would be—in my craving for that sunset to last for hours. That’s not going to happen, but, with the insight into anicca as my guide, I could have then made a conscious choice to let go of my craving for the sunset to be other than the fleeting phenomenon that it is. Having done that, I would have had a chance to really enjoy the pleasant experience while it did last.
Here’s how I’ve used the tracing exercise to alleviate saṅkhāra dukkha. This last holiday season, I was home by myself (as I often am) and began to feel uncharacteristically blue and cranky. It took me by surprise because I’ve grown to enjoy solitude. But there I was, “off kilter.” Instead of letting it brew until it turned into full blown anguish and misery, I began the tracing exercise.
I soon found the source of my discontent. It was in my mental chatter or “formations” – saṅkhāra dukkha. Without being mindful of it, I’d been spinning stories about how I thought the holidays should be. “I should be able to go to my daughter’s house.” “It’s not fair that I can’t travel.” But the circumstances of my life (chronic illness) prevent me from getting what I want. I knew immediately that I’d found the source of my crankiness and that I had a choice. I could continue stay in the throes of saṅkhāra dukkha or I could let go of my longing for what I could not have…I let it go and immediately felt a great sense of relief.
Getting to the root of dukkha—this constant dissatisfaction with our lives – is the key to being able to let go of taṅhā. If we heed the words of the Saṃyutta Nikāya 56.11 and become mindful of when we’re not getting what we want or when we’re getting what we don’t want, we can then make a conscious choice to let that craving go.
When I use this tracing exercise—even if I only succeed in letting go for a few moments—it’s a welcome respite from being mindlessly driven to try and fashion every circumstance of my life to be to my liking. It’s also a taste of freedom—a taste that lingers.
This freedom has a spacious, open quality to it. It’s a moment of “cessation” which is the promise the Buddha gave us in the third noble truth: through the abandonment of taṅhā, cessation of dukkha is possible. The eightfold path of the fourth noble truth contains the Buddha’s complete lesson plan for understanding dukkha and abandoning taṅhā; it’s the path that offers us the possibility of fulfilling our human potential through the cultivation of wisdom, ethical intentions, and mind training.
The Buddha gave us a lot to do in this short lifetime, starting with getting down in the trenches with dukkha and culminating with its cessation through the cultivation of the eightfold path. I, for one, need to get to work.
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Until she had to retire due to illness, Toni Bernhard spent 22 years as a university law professor in California, including six years as a dean of students. She had a longstanding Buddhist practice and loved traveling. Forced to learn to live a new life, Toni has written How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. She can be found online at www.HowtoBeSick.com.