Four Noble Truths: Dukkha

Learning the four noble truths is one of the first and most common encounters non-Buddhists have with Buddhism. I remember learning about them in my 10th-grade world history class. Yet these descriptions are necessarily simplified, perhaps oversimplified. The first noble truth, dukkha, has proved tremendously hard to translate and define in English. Via About.com's page on Buddhism, here is a good basic discussion of the First Noble Truth:

The first noble truth is dukkha, the starting point for Buddhism's penetrating analysis of man's condition. Of course, you don't need to be a Buddhist to know that suffering is a part of human life. We all suffer in various ways. Sometimes this suffering is physical; at other times emotional. Sometimes it is mental suffering, feeling frustrated or unfulfilled. It is very rare for any of us to go through the day without experiencing some form of suffering. Birth is suffering, old age is suffering, sickness and death are suffering. Indeed, the general unsatisfactoriness that we often feel is also suffering.

Beyond Palace Walls

It was this basic awareness of suffering that impelled Gotama to leave his palace, his life of luxury and even his wife and child. As the traditional story has it, before the Buddha was born, it was predicted that he would either be a great monarch or a holy man. His father, Suddhodhana, fearing that his son would forsake his inheritance, endeavored to provide him with as much pleasure as possible, hoping to shield him from suffering. Of course, this proved impossible. On his excursions beyond the palace walls, Gotama encountered a sick man, an aged man, and a corpse, three of what are known as the 'four sights'. The fourth person he encountered was a holy man.

The Buddha, therefore, gave up all he had to find out if life could offer anything more than temporary pleasure, old age, sickness and death. The sight of the holy man offered some hope. Perhaps this was a way of getting to the cause of this suffering and find an escape from it. Perhaps there was an answer...

The beginning and the end

Of course, the Buddha did find an answer, that our destiny doesn't have to be suffering. First he saw that suffering was caused by craving or tanha, the second noble truth. Our desire for sensuous things, our clinging to things that are by their nature impermanent, were what led us again and again into suffering. He also saw that there was state beyond suffering, Nibbana - the third noble truth - and that this could be attained by following the noble eightfold path, the fourth noble truth.

If Buddhism was a pessimistic religion, it would have got no further than suffering. In fact, Buddhism is anything but a pessimistic religion. It faces suffering head on and says 'let us have no illusions about life'. Yet it also teaches that there is a place beyond suffering, Nibbana. The Buddhist path starts with suffering and ends with suffering in the sense that suffering is brought to an end!