The First Noble Truth: A Lot Of Hurt

In “Four Noble Truths,” published by The Oxford Research of Encyclopedias, Buddhist scholar Carol S. Anderson discusses, well, the Four Noble Truths. For many years, I’ve been fascinated by the first one, the one that gets the whole inquiry underway.

Sometimes it’s said–“There is suffering”–but that feels too vague, especially if we add a qualifier like this: “In human life, there is suffering.” Of course, suffering exists; no one would deny this! Now, someone might say, just get on with the business of living your life and be done with all this.

At other times, it might be written: “Life is suffering.” And now that sounds overly dramatic, harsh, and untrue! Is, on the this interpretation, the Buddha saying that all of life–that every single moment–is suffering? Of course not!

Here’s what he actually says in the Sutta on the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma,

This, monks, is the noble truth that is pain. Birth is pain, old age is pain, illness is pain, death is pain, sorrow and grief, physical and mental suffering, and disturbance are pain. Association with things not liked is pain, separation from desired things is pain, not getting what one wants is pain; in short, the five aggregates of grasping are pain.

And now here is just a bit of Anderson’s interpretation:

The Pāli term dukkha is most often translated as “suffering.” However, it is more accurately construed as pain: dukkha refers to those things that hurt, that are painful. The four truths should be understood descriptively: the buddha was simply describing the truths—the ultimate and real truths—that he realized while sitting under the bodhi tree during his experience of enlightenment. The first truth, then, is not an argument or a debate about the fact that human life is painful. The first truth is an observation that human life is full of pain. What is painful? All of these things: birth, death, old age, illness, not getting what we want, having to deal with things that we don’t want to deal with, and so on—all of these things are painful. 

In this post, I want to set aside the objective list of dukkha that the Buddha supplies. Notice, again and instead, that “human life is painful” is, nonetheless, not strong enough to get the inquiry into our Original Nature underway. For, someone might be inclined to ask, “How often is it painful? Sometimes? More often than not?”

My intuition says that the First Noble Truth is meant to be punchy without being hyperbolic. It’s trying to get us not just to realize something of the first importance but also to get us to embark upon the dang path already.

For these reasons, I think that Anderson provides us with a helpful clue when she stranslates dukkha not as pain but as hurt. Following this clue about hurt, I submit a potent gloss of the First Noble Truth:

  • A LOT of human life, including yours, is filled with hurt.

The above formulation provides just enough oomph we need to ask about the cause of this hurt (the Second Noble Truth), the complete cessation of all hurt (the Third Noble Truth), and the path from hurt to liberation (the Fourth Noble Truth).

Thus, you can reasonably ask, “Do I experience A LOT of hurt in my life?” The closer you look, the more obvious the affirmative answer will be.