The First Noble Truth
The first noble truth is suffering. In the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra the Buddha defines suffering as the following: “Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain grief, and despair are suffering,; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering–in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.” As I mentioned in the last blog, I like to categorize suffering into three areas namely: physical, emotional, and spiritual. The first two areas are obvious, the third is existential angst or a deep painful loneliness that can only be alleviated by spiritual awakening. I think when the Buddha says that the five aggregates of attachment are suffering he is including this spiritual suffering.
The Buddha described a human being as being composed of five aggregates or parts namely: form, sensation, perception, mental formation, and consciousness. Form is the physical body composed of the four elements of earth, air, fire, water, and ether or prana (a subtle energy or life force). Sensations are the physical sensations felt in the body caused by physical stimulus or emotions. They can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Perception in this context is not the act of perceiving with your senses but the cognitive act of recognizing something once it is experienced though your senses. You experience something with your senses and your mind compares it with its memory and then assigns a label to it such as “chair” or “dad” or “anger” or “something new I haven’t seen before but it looks like this”. Perception happens very quickly and is non-verbal. Mental formation is the common translation for the Pali word “samkara” (samskara in Sanskrit). It is also translated as “impression” and “volition”. Desire, anger, sadness, fear, happiness, compassion, and peacefulness are all mental formations. You hear something or see something or think of something and it causes a mental formation to manifest in your body and mind. Consciousness is the experience that arises from the contact between a sense organ and a sense object.
In Theravada Buddhism there are six different consciousnesses namely: eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, and mind consciousness. The mind is seen as another sense organ and its objects are thoughts and emotions. As the Buddhist tradition developed over time two more consciousnesses were classified namely: the afflicted consciousness and store or ground consciousness. Afflicted consciousness can be thought of as the ego, the experience of being a separate entity in time and space. The store or ground consciousness is where all of the mental formations are stored, developed, and come out from.
So what did the Buddha mean when he said that the five aggregates of clinging are suffering? This sounds on the face of it like a very extreme and negative statement. It sounds like he is saying that just to be a human being is suffering itself. Yes of course there is suffering in the world and for some people it is constant but for others there are times of contentment, pleasure, and happiness where no suffering is present. So what does he mean? In my opinion, I think what the Buddha is saying is that compared to enlightenment or spiritual realization, the experience of being a human being as we normally think of it is suffering. In other words, the greatest worldly happiness a person can experience in this life pales in comparison to the happiness of enlightenment. The greatest worldly safety and comfort we can secure in this life pales in comparison to the safety and comfort of enlightenment. As I mentioned in the last blog, an enlightened person is someone who has awakened from their identification with conditioned reality and realized the unconditioned reality. I think the experience of being these five aggregates is another way of saying identification with conditioned reality and therefore it is suffering when compared with realizing the unconditioned reality. This is not to say however that we should look upon conditioned reality with contempt. It is considered very fortunate in the buddhist tradition to be born a human being because it is in a human body that we can become enlightened and, as we shall see in the second noble truth, it is in overcoming our craving and aversion towards conditioned reality that we can awaken from our identification with it. So it is not to inspire contempt that the Buddha is pointing out the first noble truth but to broaden our horizon of what is possible.
The Buddha goes on to say in the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra that this suffering as a noble truth should be understood. Practically speaking that means recognizing the different forms of suffering when they manifest in our daily lives and being with them, not turning away from it or reacting to it but looking directly at it. I will talk more about this in terms of daily practice when I get to the fourth noble truth which is the eight fold path. When suffering has been understood at the deepest level that is enlightenment. This is why the Buddha said that when you understand one noble truth completely you understand them all. They inter-are.
The Second Noble Truth
The second noble truth is the cause of suffering which is craving. In the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra the Buddha says: “it is this thirst (craving) which produces re-existence and re-becoming, bound up with passionate greed. It finds fresh delight now here and now there, namely thirst for sense-pleasures; thirst for existence and becoming; and thirst for non-existence (self-annihilation).” In other teachings the Buddha groups craving with ignorance and aversion as one of three poisons which keep us bound to the wheel of birth and death. Aversion is in a sense another form of craving, it is wanting to get rid of something instead of wanting to attain something. Ignorance of our true nature is what provides the ground for the craving and aversion to arise. In his teaching on the 12 links of interdependent origination the Buddha describes in depth the second noble truth so I will go into that now.
The 12 Links of Interdependent Origination
The twelve links are:
1. Avija 2. Samkara 3. Vinnana 4. Namarupa 5. Salayatana 6. Phassa
7. Vedana 8. Tanha 9. Upadana 10.Bhava 11. Jati 12. Dukha
Avija is ignorance, samkara is mental formation and in this case volition, vinnana is consciousness and in this case re-linking consciousness, namarupa is the body-mind, salayatana are the sense bases, phassa is contact, vedana is senation, tanha is craving, upadana is grasping, bhava is becoming, jati is birth, and dukha is suffering. In your past life at the time of death, because you were ignorant (1st link) of your true nature the volition (2nd link) to survive and become something propelled you into your present lifetime through the relinking consciousness (3rd link). This gave rise to the body-mind (4th link) which gave rise to the sense bases (5th link) which gave rise to contact (6th link) with the outside world. This contact causes sensations (7th link) to arise which gives rise to craving (8th link) which you act on by grasping (9th link) which sews new seeds of karma in this lifetime and builds your karmic momentum until when you die there will again be the craving to exist which you will grasp causing you to become (10 link) your new form in your next birth (11 link) and then you will have to endure the suffering (12 link) that is inherent in conditioned reality.
So the 12 links can be seen as a description of the process of birth and death over three lifetimes and the engine that runs it. Different names are given for the different links depending on the past, present, or future lifetime being talked about but actually some of the links are different names for the same thing and some of the links are not re-named but are implied in other places of the chain. The 2nd link is volition and the 8th link is craving. Both are volition and both are craving. The 3rd link is re-linking consciousness and the 10th link is becoming. Both are the bridge consciousness between one life and the next. The 4th link is body-mind and the 11th link is birth, both are describing the manifestation of a new body mind. The 1st link, ignorance, is implied between the 7th link of sensations and the 8th link of craving. There are further implications that can be made but I will not go on for the sake of brevity.
So the link of craving is just one link in this chain and yet the Buddha states in the second noble truth that craving is the cause of suffering. Why did he single out this link? He said that craving, a volition, and the subsequent action of grasping is where the seed of karma gets sewn and it is here that a person can make a difference in the course of his our her life. Ignorance of our true nature is just as much a cause of this cycle of birth and death as craving but we can not willingly dispel our ignorance while we can exercise a certain amount of control over our craving and the subsequent action. When we identify with and act on craving and aversion we further entrench our identification with conditioned reality and therefore increase our ignorance of our true nature. On the other hand, when we experience pleasant or unpleasant sensations and do not identify with or act on the subsequent craving or aversion we weaken our identification with conditioned reality and therefore decrease our ignorance of our true nature. That is why the Buddha said it is the space between sensations and craving where we can drive the axe and break the chain. The other links of the chain are pretty much foregone conclusions that happen without our control. So craving, and aversion which again is another form of craving, is the active cause of suffering. The suffering of identifying with conditioned reality and the inherent pain that comes with that on the physical, emotional, and spiritual level.
Now what if you don’t believe in rebirth? I personally have never had a memory of my past lives but I am favorably disposed to the theory of rebirth being true because so many other things the Buddha and other realized masters have taught have rung true in my life. However, even if you are skeptical of the idea of rebirth you can look at these teachings on the 12 links in the context of your present life. Say for example you are at work and somebody speaks harshly to you (6th link contact). This causes unpleasant sensations to arise in you (7th link sensations). This causes anger in you and the desire to yell at the person (8th link craving). You act on the craving and yell at the person (9th link grasping). Once you decided to act and started yelling you sewed a karmic seed and set the wheel in motion of becoming (10th link becoming) an angry person and so you then were “re-born” (11th link birth) as an angry person and then you had to and will have to suffer (12th link suffering) the consequences of your actions. Now take the same story and play it a different way. You experience the unpleasant sensations and notice the anger and desire to yell come up but instead identifying with that and acting on it you keep your cool and just stay with the sensations letting yourself cool off. Then you act in a way that resolves the situation in a good way for all involved. You have still been reborn but this time it is as a happy person with less ignorance of your true nature. It is these mechanics of sensation, volition, and action that are the essence of karma and the process of increasing or decreasing our identification with conditioned reality. That is why the Buddha said that when you really start to see the 12 links in your life you start to see the Dharma or the Truth.
The Buddha goes on to say in the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra that this craving which is the cause of suffering should be abandoned. Practically speaking this means that we have to cultivate the capacity to be with pleasant and unpleasant sensations and not react to them out of craving and aversion but be present with them and act out of wisdom and compassion. The complete abandonment of craving at its deepest level is enlightenment or nirvana. Nirvana means the extinguishing of the flame of craving. I will talk about how we practice the abandonment of our every day craving and aversion which leads to the great abandonment when I discuss the 8 fold path.