The First Noble Truth is “there is suffering.” Not “all life is suffering,” but life contains suffering. It’s really quite a radical first thing to say as a teacher. Many spiritual philosophies begin with the promise of suffering’s circumvention, but not only is the existence of suffering true, but beginning (and continuing) our journey with the complete acceptance of this truth can help prevent us from thinking, “if only X, then I wouldn’t suffer.” If only I had more money, or were more spiritually enlightened or . . . ad nauseum. If you stub your toe, though, it’s still gonna suck no matter who you are.
The word that Shakyamuni Buddha used for “suffering” is instructive — or at least the closest equivalent we have to whatever it was that he actually said, because his teachings weren’t written down until beginning a couple hundred years after his death, in a literary language called “Pali.” The Pali word “dukkha” is almost always translated into English as “suffering,” but more literally means “hard to face.” So “dissatisfaction” is a possible alternative.
The Second Noble Truth is often lazily translated as “suffering is caused by desire,” so that people immediately reach the conclusion that the whole project of Buddhism is to get rid of all desire. But I’ll save you some time: you can’t. And you shouldn’t try. If you had absolutely no desires, you wouldn’t eat or drink, and you would die. What fun is that? And who in their right mind would ever try to eradicate the desire that their child not get run over by a school bus? Yes, there is suffering in this for me as a father, worrying about my daughter. But so what? The First Noble Truth always abides alongside the others. We continue to accept a certain amount of suffering; indeed, to speak of compassion is to speak of “suffering with.” We are not bad if we experience suffering; we are human. And at any rate, the Buddha is not setting up here good vs bad, but dissecting what is true.
The closest we can come to whatever word he used that usually gets translated as “desire” is “tanha,” which literally means “thirst.” Obviously, some thirst is so useful that for us, the word itself is synonymous with our relationship to one of our most basic needs: water. But we develop thirst relationships to so many unnecessary things as well: gambling, drugs, winning arguments, and my personal favorite, new bicycle parts. It’s not difficult to see that as I lust after a new set of wheels, I cultivate dissatisfaction, and in that moment, eradicate any sort of gratitude and appreciation for the wheels that I already own. To the extent that our tanha is endless, so too is the sort of suffering that Buddhism speaks of.
The Third Noble Truth is simply that because “dukkha” has its root in “tanha,” it can be uprooted by the cultivation of its opposite, a radical appreciation of the fact that we’re always already home in the present moment; always already connected to everything else.
And the Fourth Noble Truth is the practice of this appreciation, often called the Noble Eightfold Path: “wholesome” or “upright” view, intention, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. No mere list of disparate things to memorize, we can simply see that the whole of our existence is included in Buddhist practice. The Eightfold Path is traditionally depicted as a wheel with eight spokes, and any cyclist who has ever broken a single spoke can tell you how important every single spoke is for the wheel to run true. Nothing gets left out. It has never from the beginning been the case that practice happens only on the meditation cushion, for example. And perhaps especially salient for today, as mindfulness is increasingly taught in isolation, we can see that mindfulness was traditionally never presented devoid of ethical practices as well.
–Koho Vince Anila