commentary by Gendo
First noble truth… "...birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering." (Pali Canon)
The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is the truth of suffering, not getting what you want. Suffering is not ordinarily something we want to pay attention to. You either try to forget about it or blame someone else for the situation. Like climate change. Like a pandemic. Like so many issues that are the source of suffering, but become hidden under a cover of blame, greed and denial, hidden under what Buddhism calls three poisons.
Suffering is the neglected one, the minority position. It is not the popular one. It’s the kid who cries in the corner. Suffering is something we get very good at pushing aside, often until it is “in your face.” Even then, desperately sick and in the hospital, people find ways to look the other way.
But Buddhism teaches that it is the forgotten one, the minority position, that has something important to teach us. We fixate on the things we like, the circumstances that make us feel good about ourselves. But there are two sides to the situation; like understanding that art is not just the object depicted, but also the negative space that defines it.
We identify objects with certainty – a pillow, a tree, a joy, a depression. But the truth is, that implicit in every object is something held in contrast: a white thing against a dark background, a sweet thing against a bitter background, a happy thing against a sad background. The same is true of ourselves. We understand self, who “I am,” in relation to people different from me. I know myself in relation to what I like and what I dislike. Consciousness divides the world in two, discriminating one thing from another.
The conclusion is that consciousness is deceiving. What we fixate on as an object of mind and preference turns out to be incomplete and impermanent – including words and text! What is true is not just an object of attention, not an independent appearance, but a dynamic relationship: positive and negative, night and day, happening together.
The first inkling of this truth is disappointment. What we conceived as an existent thing, turns out to be impermanent. What comes must also go. Suffering is the embodied experience of our desires, our preferences, meeting this truth, the truth that what comes into being must also go away.
So, the first of the so-called “four noble truths” is suffering. Not suffering as some doctrine, “Believe this!,” but as reflection on ordinary experience; “noble” and true because self-evident, undeniable. To notice and explore the experience of suffering is to know for ourselves the impermanent nature of all things, including this thing we call “self.“
To pay attention to the experience of suffering, is to explore the roots of suffering, the second of the “four noble truths, ” To explore is to discover that hidden in suffering is some joy, something that we are grateful for. Hidden in the suffering we call grief is something, someone we have loved.
With the realization that love and loss go tegether, comes a “letting go,” the third of the four truths. That letting go is, first of all, the letting go of the expectation that this person or thing we have lost would somehow always be physically present. But letting go is also the realization that a love I had understood to be gone forever, is, instead, present in suffering itself. To love is to suffer, but also to suffer is to have loved. Implicit in suffering is love, without which there is no suffering.
Hence suffering’s resolution: the letting go of the self that attaches either to gain or to loss, to one preference or another; a letting go that finds truth in paradox, in the inter-relatedness of gain and loss, a letting-go experienced as love, love that is ‘selfless,’ which is to say, ‘true.’
From this follows a fourth truth, that everything, all actions and distinctions, become true or “right” the light of that letting go; a project Buddhism calls “ the eightfold path.” “Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”