On Dukkha & Buddha's First Noble Truth

No matter how hard you pursue pleasure and success, there are times when you fail. No matter how fast you flee, there are times when pain catches up to you. And in between those times, life is so boring you could scream. Our minds are full of opinions and criticisms. We have built walls around ourselves and are trapped in the prison of our own likes and dislikes. We suffer.

Suffering is at the root of Buddhist doctrine. The first of the Four Noble Truths is this: everything is suffering. Actually, that's a little misleading. What is actually written is that everything is dukkha. Buddhism's sacred texts are written in a language called Pali, which is a close cousin to Sanskrit. Dukkha is a Pali word whose most exact English equivalent might be "unsatisfactoriness." One of my teachers said that the root of the word suggested a bent wheel. Have you ever tried to ride a bicycle whose wheel was bent, out of true? You know that it never quite rides right. That is the mildest sense of dukkha.

Anyone can see that when something bad happens or many things bad happen, one  might be tempted to say that everything is suffering. Now the point of the First Noble Truth, that everything is dukkha, is that it is true whether one is winning or losing.  

But it might not occur to you that even when things are going well, when you're winning at the game of life, there is still this subtle undercurrent of unsatisfactoriness, of suffering. Life is never all it's cracked up to be, we are never quite as happy when we've achieved a great victory as we thought we would be. I may have scored the wining goal, I might be carried out of the stadium on the shoulders of my teammates, yet in all the roar of the crowd, amid the tumult and the glee, under the earthquake, wind and fire, there is this still, small voice saying, "Not good enough yet, got to have more, got to make it better, got to be better." Here's how Venerable Gunaratana describes it see if this rings true for you:

Go to a party. Listen to the laughter, that brittle-tongued voice that says fun on the surface and fear underneath. Feel the tension, feel the pressure. Nobody really relaxes. They are faking it. Go to a ball game. Watch the fans in the stands. Watch the irrational fit of anger. Watch the uncontrolled frustration bubbling forth from people that masquerades under the guise of enthusiasm, or team spirit. Booing, cat-calls and unbridled egotism in the name of team loyalty. Drunkenness, fights in the stands. These are people desperately trying to release tension from within. These are not people at peace with themselves....

Life seems to be a perpetual struggle, some enormous effort against staggering odds. And what is our solution to all this dissatisfaction? We get stuck in the 'if only' syndrome. If only I had more money, then I would be happy. If only I could find somebody who would really love me, if only I could lose 20 pounds, if only I had a color TV, a Jacuzzi and curly hair and so on and on - forever. Where does this junk come from, and more important, what can we do about it? It comes from the condition of our own minds. It comes from a deep, subtle and pervasive set of mental habits, a Gordian knot which we have tightened steadily instead of unravelling it or cutting it. We can tune up our awareness, dredge up each separate piece, and bring it out into the light. We can make the unconscious conscious, slowly, one piece at a time.

Here you have the key to escaping this round of delusion and seeing things as they really are - mindfulness, awareness. It is a discipline that Buddhists  the world over practice. It starts with learning to pay attention. When you meditate, you see immediately how hard it is to pay attention. You see that the mind, which seems like a well-oiled thought-machine, progressing logically from this thought to the next, from major premise to minor premise to conclusion, is actually a boiling cauldron of 'thought-lets', miscellaneous words and images, feelings, fears and illusions with no rhyme or reason. We spend most of our conscious lives either replaying and fretting about the past or worrying about the future. We are almost never completely in the present. We are almost never paying full attention to the here and now.

Buddha would not tell you not to play soccer or softball. If Buddha were beside you on the ball-field, he'd probably be telling you something akin to what your coach is telling you: pay attention. Be here and now. Keep your eye on the ball. 

Skill is an important concept in Buddhism, for it takes skill and discipline to be able to see things as they really are, to discard the illusions that we foster on ourselves. In Buddhist practice, the skill is exercised and developed in meditation, and in debating and discussing points of doctrine.

Buddhism, like Taoism, is based on a healthy respect for the fact that most things are beyond our control; most outcomes are not going to be determined by what efforts we make. You know that no matter how well you play, your team-mate might make that crucial error in the bottom of the sixth that lets the other side go ahead with two runs. 

The mainstream American ethic is that we go all-out and we try as hard as we can every time, and we don't let ourselves get away with slacking off. For Buddhism, this philosophy is not wrong, just unenlightened. For when we understand how things really are, we can appreciate the Buddha's second and third Noble Truths. Remember that the first Noble Truth is that everything is suffering. The second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is our own grasping, our own craving. 

Think about that for a moment. The reason there is suffering in the world is not that the devil is abroad sowing evil everywhere. It is not that the fates are especially cruel. The cause of our suffering, of our unhappiness is entirely within ourselves. It is caused by our desire. 

The American Declaration of Independence says that it is a "self-evident" truth that individuals are endowed with certain basic natural rights, and one of those rights is the "pursuit of happiness." But Mr. Jefferson, for all his learning, was not much of a Buddhist, for if he were he might have known that the pursuit of happiness is itself the cause of unhappiness.

And this Second Noble Truth leads to the Third: that the key to stopping suffering is to stop the craving, to stop the pursuit. To stop caring about winning. To stop chasing the bright elusive rainbow of happiness.

Now, I don't pretend that I understand this completely in my mind. Still less do I think I have grasped it in my heart. But I can see how it does make sense. If you have eliminated desire and craving in your life, your attitude is one of complete equanimity and acceptance of whatever comes. In today's jargon, you're cool with what's going down. 

But it definitely goes against the American grain. Isn't happiness what it's all about? Listen to Venerable Gunaratana:

So what is this happiness? For most of us, the perfect happiness would mean getting everything we wanted, being in control of everything, playing Caesar, making the whole world dance a jig according to our every whim. Once again, it does not work that way. Take a look at the people in history who have actually held this type of power. They were not happy people. Most assuredly they were not at peace with themselves. Why? Because they were driven to control the world totally and absolutely and they could not. They wanted to control all men, and yet there remained men who refused to be controlled. They could not control the stars, They still got sick. They still had to die.

In other words, to paraphrase Mick Jagger, "you can't get everything you want. It is impossible". Gunaratana continues,

Luckily there is another option. You can learn to control your mind, to step outside of this endless cycle of desire/aversion. You can learn not to want what you want, to recognize desires but not be controlled by them.

Let me repeat that last sentence: to recognize desires but not be controlled by them. That is an enlightened definition of freedom. Freedom is not winning, it is not gathering all the money and all the power and the right house and the right mate and going to the right schools. In fact the desire for those things, the rearranging of our lives so that we maximize the chances of getting those things, that is slavery. We are enslaved to our desires. We become free, from an enlightened perspective, when we realize that it is our desires which have enslaved us; we should then attempt to overcome them.

Let's go back to the still small voice. In the Elijah story, the still small voice talking after the earthquake, wind and fire was God telling the prophet what to do. Let's contrast that with two other small voices. The small voice of the reading we did earlier is the voice telling us that we've got to have more, got to do better, got to pursue winning above all else. That voice gets so much reinforcement in our culture, that it might not be a small voice after all. It might really be the roar of the crowd. 

What I want to urge is that if you put these voices aside, if you can be focused on the present and really pay attention to what's going on in your mind and in your life, you can hear another small voice that says that winning isn't everything, and that your desire for winning is the root of unhappiness. Let us try to listen to this small, persistent voice, to keep ourselves mindful and focused on the real things on the playing fields of life.

Source: The Still Small Voice by Edmund Robinson http://www.uua.org/uubf/sangv5n1.htm#still  
Edmund Robinson (edmuund@aol.com)  is minister of the First Universalist Society of Wakefield, Massachusetts.

The Bible (I Kings 19:11-12):
"Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. ."
It was out of that silence that God spoke to Elijah in what the hymn-writer, following tradition but not the text of the Bible, called "a still small voice," and told him what he had to do.

See also: The Concept of Dukkha