The Truth of Suffering

Old age, sickness and death are unavoidable. Separation from dear people through death is bound to happen. We read in the Group of Discourses (Sutta-Nipāta, III, 8, The Arrow, verses 574-582):^[ I am using the translation of J. Ireland, Wheel Publication 82.]

Unindicated and unknown is the length of life of those subject to death. Life is difficult and brief and bound up with suffering. There is no means by which those who are born will not die. Having reached old age, there is death. This is the natural course for a living being. With ripe fruits there is the constant danger that they will fall. In the same way, for those born and subject to death, there is always the fear of dying. Just as the pots made by a potter all end by being broken, so death is the breaking up of life.

The young and old, the foolish and the wise, all are stopped short by the power of death, all finally end in death. Of those overcome by death and passing to another world, a father cannot hold back his son, nor relatives a relation. See! While the relatives are looking on and weeping, one by one each mortal is led away like an ox to the slaughter.

In this manner the world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realized the nature of the world

The Buddha consoled those who had suffered the loss of dear people by explaining to them the impermanence of all phenomena of life. We read in the commentary to the Psalms of the Sisters (Therīgāthā, Canto X, LXIII) that a woman, named Kisā-gotamī, was completely overwhelmed by grief because of the loss of her son. She went from door to door with his corpse asking for medicine which could revive him. The Buddha said to her: "Go, enter the town, and bring from any house where yet no man has died a little mustard seed." She did not find any family without bereavement caused by death and she realized that everything is impermanent. She went to the Buddha and he said:

To him whose heart on children and on goods Is centred, clinging to them in his thoughts, Death comes like a great flood in the night, Bearing away the village in its sleep.

Did the Buddha teach anything new? We all know that there has to be separation and death, that everything in life is impermanent. Thinking about impermanence is not of much help when one has suffered a loss. The Buddha taught that there is change of mental states from moment to moment and that also the physical units which consti­tute the body are breaking up from moment to moment. He taught the development of the wisdom which is the direct experience of the arising and falling away of mental phenomena and physical phenomena. Kisā-gotamī did not merely think about the impermanence of life, she realized through direct experience the momentary break­ing up of the mental phenomena and the physical phenomena. This changed her outlook on life and she could recover from her deep sorrow.

Each mental state which arises falls away within split-seconds. At one moment we may speak kindly to someone else but the next moment the kind disposition has disappeared and we may be irritated and angry, we may even shout. It is as if we are a completely different personality at that moment. Actually this is true. Kindness has disappeared and the angry disposition is a different mental state which has arisen. Seeing, hearing or thinking are all different moments of consciousness which arise and then fall away immediately. They each arise because of their own conditioning factors. Seeing, for example is dependant on eye-sense and on its object, which is colour, and since these conditioning factors do not last, also the seeing which is conditioned by them cannot last either. Every reality which is dependant on conditions has to fall away. Since the moment of consciousness which has fallen away is followed by a new one it seems that there is a mind which lasts. In reality our life is an unbroken series of moments of consciousness which arise and fall away. Also bodily phenomena which arise, fall away. We know that the body is subject to decay, that there is old age and death, but this is not the wisdom which can directly realize the momentary breaking up of the units which constitute the body. We do not notice their vanishing after they have arisen because there are new bodily phenomena replacing the ones that have fallen away. We can notice that there is sometimes heat in the body, sometimes cold, sometimes suppleness, sometimes stiffness. This shows that there is change of bodily phenomena. Also what we call dead matter are physical phenomena which are arising and vanishing all the time. Physical phenomena arise because of conditioning factors. When we smile or cry, when we move our hand with anger or stretch out our hand in order to give, there are different bodily phenomena caused by different mental states. Bodily phenomena and also the physical phenomena outside arise because of their own conditioning factors and they have to fall away. Science also teaches the momentary change of physical phenomena, but the aim of the Buddha’s teachings is completely different, the aim is detachment from all phe­nomena. The " eye of wisdom" which sees impermanence is different from a microscope through which one watches the change of the smallest physical units. The wisdom which directly realizes the momentary impermanence of phenomena eventually leads to detachment.

Our life can be compared with the flux of a river. A river seems to keep its identity but in reality not one drop of water stays the same while the river is flowing on and on. In the same way what we call a " person" seems to keep its identity, but in reality there are mere passing mental phenomena and physical phenomena. These phenomena arise because of their appropriate conditions and then fall away. It can be noticed that people have different charac­ters, but what is called " character" are phenomena which have been conditioned by phenomena in the past. Since our life is an unbroken series of moments of conscious­ness arising in succession, the past moments can condition the present moment and the present moment can condition the future moments. There were wholesome and unwholesome moments in the past and these condi­tion the arising of wholesome and unwhole­some moments today. What is learnt today is never lost, moments of understanding today can be accumulated and in that way understanding can develop.

We conceive life as a long duration of time, lasting from the moment of birth until death. If the momentary arising and vanishing of each reality is taken into consideration, it can be said that there is birth and death at each moment. Seeing arises but it does not last, it falls away imme­diately. At another moment there is hearing, but it does not last either. Thinking changes each moment, there is thinking of different things all the time. It can be noticed that there can only be thinking of one thing, not more than one thing, at a time. It may seem that thinking can last, but in reality there are different moments of con­sciousness succeeding one another extremely rapidly. Feelings change, there is pleasant feeling at one moment, at another moment there is unpleasant feeling and at another moment again indifferent feeling. The Buddha taught that what is impermanent is suffering, in Pāli dukkha^[The Pāli term dukkha is to be preferred, since the word "suffering" does not cover completely the meaning of the first noble Truth.]. Bodily pain and mental suffering due to the changeability of things are forms of dukkha which are more obvious. The truth of dukkha, however, comprises more than that. The truth of dukkha pertains to all physical phenomena and mental states which are imper­manent. They are unsatisfactory because, after they have arisen, they are there merely for an extremely short moment and then they disappear completely. The truth of dukkha is deep and difficult to understand.

We read in the Kindred Sayings (V, Mahā-vagga, Book XII, Kindred Sayings about the Truths, Chapter 2, §1) that the Buddha, after his enlightenment, when he was staying in the Deerpark at Isipatana, near Vārānasi, preached to a group of five monks. He explained to them the four noble Truths: the Truth of dukkha, the Truth of the origin of dukkha, the Truth of the ceasing of dukkha, which is nibbāna, and the Truth of the Path leading to the ceasing of dukkha. We read with regard to dukkha:

Birth is dukkha, decay is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha; likewise sorrow and grief, woe, lamentation and despair. To be conjoined with what we dislike; to be separated from what we like, that also is dukkha. Not to get what one wants, that also is dukkha. In short, these five groups of grasping are dukkha.

The five groups (in Pāli khandhas) of grasping are all physical phenomena and mental phenomena of our life which have been classified as five groups. They are: the group of physical phenomena, and four groups of mental phenomena comprising: the group of feelings, of percep­tions, of mental activities (including all wholesome and unwholesome qualities) and of consciousness. These five groups comprise all phenomena of life which arise because of their own conditions and then fall away. Seeing is dukkha, because it arises and falls away. Colour is dukkha, pleasant feeling is dukkha, even wholesome mental states are dukkha, they all are impermanent.

There may be theoretical understanding of the fact that all that can be experienced is impermanent and therefore unsatisfactory or dukkha. The Truth of dukkha, however, cannot be real­ized through theoretical understanding alone. There can be thinking of the impermanence of everything in life, but it is extremely difficult to realize through one’s own experience the arising and falling away, thus, the breaking up from moment to moment of phe­nomena. Through the development of the eightfold Path there can eventually be direct understanding of the imper­manence of the phenomena of life and of their nature of dukkha.

All phenomena are impermanent. There should be pre­cise understanding of what that "all" is. Otherwise there cannot be the realization of impermanence and dukkha. We read in the Kindred Sayings (IV, Kindred Sayings on Sense, First Fifty, Chapter 3, §23, The all) that the Buddha said to the monks while he was at Sāvatthī:

Monks, I will teach you the all. Do you listen to it. And what, monks, is the all? It is eye and visible object, ear and sound, nose and scent, tongue and savour, body and tangible object, mind and mind-states. That, monks, is called the "all".

Whoso, monks, should say: "Rejecting this all, I will proclaim another all, it would be mere talk on his part, and when questioned he could not make good his boast, and further would come to an ill pass. Why so? Because, monks, it would be beyond his scope to do so.

From this sutta we see that the Buddha’s teaching is very concrete, that it pertains to all realities of daily life:

  • the seeing of visible object through the eyes;

  • the hearing of sound through the ears;

  • the smelling of odours through the nose;

  • the tasting of flavours through the tongue;

  • the experience of tangible object through the bodysense;

  • the experience of mental objects through the mind.

When one first comes into contact with the Buddhist teachings one may be surprised that the Buddha speaks time and again about realities such as seeing and hearing. However, the "all" has to be known and investigated. There is such a great deal of ignorance of mental phenomena and physical phenomena. Generally one is inclined to be absorbed in thinking about people one saw or words one heard; one never paid attention to seeing itself or hearing itself. One may even doubt whether it is useful to do so. Seeing and hearing themselves are neither wholesome nor unwholesome, but immediately after seeing and hearing all kinds of defilements are bound to arise. All the different moments of life should be investigated thoroughly, so that there can be elimination of delusion about them.

There are different degrees of understanding realities. Thinking about realities and about their imper­manence is theor­etical understanding and this is not the realization of the true nature of realities. Theoretical understanding, however, can be the foundation for direct understanding of the realities which appear in daily life.

As we study the Buddhist scriptures we will learn about the realities which are to be understood. There are three parts or "baskets" of the Buddha’s teachings: the Vinaya, the Suttanta or Discourses and the Abhidhamma or "higher teachings". The Vinaya is the "Book of Discipline" for the monks. The Suttanta are discourses of the Buddha held at different places to different people. The Abhi­dhamma is a detailed exposition of all mental phenomena and physical phenomena and also of their conditioning factors and their different ways of conditional relations. Although these three parts of the teachings are different in form, they point to the same goal: the eradication of defilements through the direct realization of the truth. When one studies the different realities which are explained in detail in the Abhidhamma, the goal should not be forgotten: the development of direct understanding of realities when they appear. There is also Abhidhamma in the suttas. The sutta about the "All" I quoted above is an example of this. The deep meaning of the suttas cannot be understood without a basic study of the Abhidhamma. The field of the Abhidhamma is immense and we cannot grasp the whole contents. However, when one begins to study it, at least in part, one will see that it can be of great assistance for the understanding of our life. Some people have doubt as to the authenticity of the Abhidhamma, they doubt whether it is the teaching of the Buddha himself. As one studies the Abhidhamma one will see for oneself that the Abhidhamma teaches about phenomena which can be experienced at this moment. The Abhi­dhamma deals with seeing, visible object, with all experi­ences through the senses and the mind, with all whole­some qualities, with all defilements. The different parts of the scriptures are one, they are the Buddha’s teachings.

We read in the Kindred Sayings (IV, Kindred Sayings on Sense, Second Fifty, Chapter I, §53, Ignorance) about the elimination of ignorance. We read about a conversation of a monk with the Buddha about this subject:

"By how knowing, lord, by how seeing does ignorance vanish and knowledge arise?"

"In him that knows and sees the eye as impermanent, monk, ignorance vanishes and knowledge arises. In him that knows and sees visible objects... seeing-consciousness... eye-contact... the pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling arising dependant on eye-contact as impermanent, monk, ignorance vanishes and knowledge arises..."

The same is said about the realities pertaining to the ear, the nose, the tongue, the bodysense and the mind. All these phenomena have to be investigated in order to know them as they are.

There is seeing, and shortly after that there is attach­ment to what is seen but most of the time there is ignorance of these phenomena. Even when there is no pleasant feeling on account of what is seen there can still be clinging. There is clinging time and again to seeing, to visible object, to hearing, to sound, to all that can be experienced. We would not like to be without eye-sense or ear-sense and this shows that there is clinging. We want to continue seeing, hearing and experiencing all the objects which present themselves through the senses. What is seen and what is experienced through the other senses falls away immediately, but we erroneously believe that things last, at least for a while. Because of our delusion we keep on clinging. When we do not get what we want, when we lose people who are dear to us, or things we possess, we are sad or even in despair. It is attachment which conditions aversion or sadness. When we do not get what we like there is dislike. All such mental states are realities of daily life and, instead of suppressing them, they can be investigated when they appear. Then their different characteristics can be distinguished.

Each phenomenon has a different characteristic and it arises because of different conditions. For example, when we are in the company of relatives or friends, we can notice that there are different moments of consciousness. There are moments of attachment, moments that there is clinging to our own pleasant feeling on account of the company of dear people. It may seem that we think of other people’s happiness, but we are merely attached to our own happiness. There are other moments, however, that we sincerely think of the other people’s wellbeing and happiness, that we do not think of ourselves. Attachment and unselfish kindness have different characteristics and gradually their difference can be learnt when they appear. It may seem complicated to analyse one’s mental states. One can, however, lead one ’s life naturally, one can enjoy all the pleasant things of life, and at the same time develop more understanding of different moments of conscious­ness which arise, be it clinging, unselfish kindness or generosity. In that way there can be a more precise under­standing of the different characteristics of phenomena.

When one begins to investigate the different phenomena of one’s life, one realizes that there is such an amount of ignorance. It is beneficial to realize this, because that is the beginning of understanding. There is ignorance of realities such as seeing, hearing or thinking. It is not known precisely when there is seeing and when there is attachment to what is seen. Realities arise and fall away very rapidly. There is clinging to the objects which are experienced and their arising and falling away is not realized. There is ignorance of the suffering and the unsatisfactoriness inherent in all conditioned realities. Ignorance and clinging are the conditions for rebirth into a new existence, for continuation in the cycle of birth and death. When there is rebirth, there is suffering again, there will again be old age, sickness and death.

It is difficult to grasp the truth of dukkha, but one can begin to develop more understanding of the phenomena which appear in one’s life. The Buddha taught Dhamma in order that people could investigate all realities. The word "dhamma" has different meanings, but in its widest sense dhamma is everything which is real and which has its own characteristic. Seeing is dhamma, attachment is dhamma, anger is dhamma. They are realities which can be expe­rienced by everybody. We can read about seeing, attach­ment or anger, but when these realities occur we can learn to distinguish their different characteristics. Knowledge of realities can be acquired through the study of the Abhidhamma, but this knowledge should be applied so that there can eventually be direct understanding of realities. We are full of attachment, anger, avarice, conceit, jealousy, full of defilements, but understanding of all these realities can be developed. If dislike, for example, would be suppressed, instead of knowing its characteristic when it appears, there would be ignorance of the way it is conditioned. It would not be known that it is attachment which conditions dislike. If there is ignorance of what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, wholesome qualities could not be developed. Understanding can be developed of the countless moments of attachment which arise after seeing, hearing and the other experiences through the senses. All realities arise because of their own conditions.

The development of direct understanding of realities is the Path leading to the end of dukkha. The development of this Path is very gradual and takes a long time. The characteristics of the different realities which appear have to be thoroughly investigated and understood. In that way it can be gradually seen that they arise each because of their own conditions. What arises because of conditions has to fall away, it is impermanent. The impermanence of realities, their momentary breaking up, can only be realized at a later stage of the development of under­standing. Eventually there can be the realization of the fact that all conditioned realities which arise and fall away are dukkha. There are different degrees of understanding the Truth of dukkha. When one attains enlightenment one has understood the Truth of dukkha, of the origin of dukkha, of the ceasing of dukkha and of the way leading to the ceasing of dukkha.