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  • Thong Tri Temple

The First Noble Truth: Birth, Aging, Sickness, Death (Dukkha)

Updated: Sep 15, 2022

April 11, 2020 | Love {Sneha} | Dharma Lesson



Right after the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, he preached Avatamsaka Sutra (how reality appears to an enlightened being) for 21 days. The Buddha explained about a Buddha-nature that seemed too sublime and incomprehensible to common mortals. Buddha began to deliver his first teachings on the Four Noble Truths in the city of Varanasi at the Deer Park called Sarnath to the five ascetics who had been his former companions: Kondanna, Assaji, Bhaddiya, Vappa, and Mahanama. All five attained nirvana, a stage along the path to enlightenment, but not yet fully enlightened. They were known as Arhat, meaning “one who is worthy." Together with the Buddha, they formed the first Buddhist monks, also known as the Sangha. This is the beginning of the Buddha’s "Turning the Wheel of the Dharma" and the "Dharma" truth. The group of Arhats, starting from the first five, grew to 60 within the first few months, and eventually, the sangha reached more than one thousand.


The Four Noble Truths are 1) The Truth of Suffering; 2) The Truth of the Cause of Suffering; 3) The Truth of the End of Suffering; 4) The Truth of the Way that leads to the End of Suffering follows the Noble Eight-fold Path.


The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths explore human suffering that leads to the End of Suffering. The First Noble Truth is Suffering Exists. The Truth of Suffering (Dukkha) comes in many forms such as birth, aging, sickness, and death. Life is suffering and filled with the many miseries of old age, sickness, death, unhappiness, and impermanence.


There are eight types of suffering: suffering because of birth, old age, sickness, and death; suffering because of separation from loved ones; suffering because of confrontation with an undesirable person or thing; suffering because of the denial of one’s desires; and suffering because of the burning intensity of the Five Aggregates (Skandhas).


The five aggregates are based on what we think. They are us and we are them. They bring about our ideas, thoughts, feelings, evaluations, and attitudes that filter and create our experience. The Buddha said that the five clinging-aggregates are suffering. They cause suffering, because they are not permanent, and they change from moment to moment.


The Five Aggregates are:


1. Material Form - This is derived from the Four Great Elements. All matters are formed and are composed of the four condition causes:

  • Earth Element is characterized by solidity and durability; and the parts of the Body Elements are organs, tissues, and bones.

  • Water Element is characterized by liquidity/fluid and moisture; and the parts of the Body Elements are blood, urine, and semen.

  • Wind Element is characterized by gas/air movement; and the parts of the Body Elements are the air in the lungs, stomach, and bowel gases.

  • Fire Element is characterized by heat and energy, and the part of the Body Element is the body’s temperature.


Material things come in six senses and the Physical Body has corresponding objects to these sense organs.


Material Things (Six Internal Senses):

1. Eyes

2. Ears

3. Nose

4. Tongue

5. Body

6. Mind

Physical Body (Six Senses Organs):

1. Sights

2. Sounds

3. Smells

4. Tastes

5. Touch-feelings

6. Some thoughts and ideas


2. Feeling - Feelings occur when a sense organ makes contact with its object. The sensations you experience in your body including our basic sense of liking, disliking, or being indifferent to whatever we perceive.


Feelings (Six Senses Organs):

1. Sight

2. Sounds

3. Smells

4. Tastes

5. Body-Sensations

6. Mind (These mental feelings or sensations are divided into six Senses.)


3. Perception – Perception in Buddhism is the recognizing of things. You have the five internal senses, and each of them has the five external senses. Put them together - eye and visible form, ear, and sound, nose and smell, tongue and taste, body and touch -- and you have perception.


Perception (Six External Senses):

1. Visible

2. Sound

3. Smell

4. Taste

5. Touch

6. Mind (This Mental Perception is divided into six forms.)


4. Mental Formations - This is the developed process of ego with the fourth Mental Formation. Volitional Mental Formations are the mental actions that direct the mind with activities towards the good, the bad, or the neutral. Mental Formation arises from the contact of all your concepts and thoughts, from the most ordinary to the most spectacular.


Contrasting with Feeling and Perception which are not volitional actions, and therefore do not produce karma, Mental Formations do produce good and bad karma.

Feeling and Perception, there are Six Senses, corresponding to the Six Senses Organs.


Mental Formations include:

1. Volition

2. Attention

3. Determination

4. Effort

5. Desire

6. Confidence

7. Mindfulness

8. Conceit

9. Hatred

10. Jealously

11. Delusion

12. Wisdom


There are 52 important types of Mental Formations, which are listed in literature and above are the 12 most important. Please refer to the 52 Mental Formations Chart below.


5. Consciousness – Consciousness arises from other aggregates. Consciousness is the awareness of something without or before recognition (Perception). Consciousness is the awareness that something is there; however, Perception is determining what it is. For example, I hear a sound (Consciousness) and I recognize it is a bird chirping (Perception). Please refer to the chart below for the Relationship of the Internal Senses to the Sensory Consciousness.


Awareness is formed when you combine an internal sense with the external sense and the sensory consciousness. For example, the eyes when combined with the visible object and eye consciousness will produce awareness of that object. The eyes alone cannot produce awareness.


The Three Universal Truths which the Buddha taught his disciples are: (1) Nothing is lost in the Universe, (2) Everything changes (Impermanence), and (3) The Law of Cause and Effect.


I. Nothing is Lost in the Universe. Like a rose, that blooms beautifully, and then suddenly, it withers. The components of the rose remain in the universe as it wilts. Nothing is really lost. The essence of the rose is invisible to the naked eye, but it does not go anywhere. The elements of the flower will be recycled to form a new life or contribute to the existence of another.


II. Everything is Impermanent. All things are transient in this world, including change. Impermanence is the state of not being permanent, ever-lasting and existing only for a short period of time and of changing continually. Everything in this life changes and impermanence is one of their characteristics. Change is the only thing that remains. Impermanence teaches us to let go. We need to let go even of things that make us so proud and happy. The reason is that we can never completely hold on to things. “All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.”


III. There is continuous change due to the Law of Cause and Effect. Karma is the universal Law of Cause and Effect. It means that nothing is as it is. It explicates and operates life simultaneously in space and time, ranging over the past, the present, and future existences. Karma is the karmic law of cause and effect which governs human actions. In everything that we do, there will always be a return of such action. This causality principle defines the doctrine of karma. The CAUSE is the primary force that produces an EFFECT. The CONDITION is a secondary force and something that is indispensable to the production of effect. In the cause, there is the effect and in the effect there is the cause. Cause and effect never conflict with each other. We shall reap what we have sown. From the present cause we can see the future effect; from the present effect we have discerned the past cause. It is necessary, however, to have some specific conditions to produce an effect. Cause combined with condition gives effect. For example, if we grow apples, we will harvest apples. With fertilizer, sunlight, rain, watering, and care, the apple seed will grow and become a plant and finally produce apples. The apple seed is the cause. The soil, water, sunlight, and care are the conditions. The apples are the effect.


Buddhism emphasizes the causes that one created and accumulates in the present because these will be the causes to determine one’s future. Good deeds yield good results while bad deeds yield bad results. The phenomenon occurs by one’s own cause, and one’s own effect, like planting a seed. You won’t get a watermelon if you did not plant a watermelon seed.


Suffering Because of Birth


Throughout a woman’s journey in pregnancy, the pregnant woman may lose her desire to eat, to sleep, and may experience a whirlwind of sickness and exhaustion. For the woman, she suffers as she carries the pregnancy from beginning to end, to be able to give birth to a new life.


At the moment of birth, both the mother and baby experience their moments of suffering. The woman may suffer from the excruciating pain of labor, may experience a hemorrhage, and her life could be in danger while giving birth to her baby. The infant begins to suffer, even from the beginning of life formation. As an embryo, it is in the dark, narrow, and wet womb for roughly nine intense months. In the womb, the infant feels weakened when the mother is hungry and feels squeezed or pressured when the mother is full. They feel every sensation and experience the mother’s emotions, during this time.


Upon birth, after being protected in the womb, the infant must let out a cry, signaling a long string of languishing days. The baby experiences having to require oxygen in its lungs, inhaling and exhaling its first breath into the world. The suffering of feeling pain, confusion, and a surprise welcome the newborn.


With today’s pandemic, mothers are experiencing a different form of suffering, as these new mothers are unable to hold their babies after they’re born. The newborns are taken away from the mothers to make sure they are not exposed to COVID-19. Mothers are having to see their babies through a monitor, as opposed to experiencing the skin to skin touch that babies and mothers need.


In this situation, however difficult, a mother still recognizes that giving life to a new being can be a fulfilling moment. The baby is connected to the mother, even though he/she is separate. The mother can still live in the present moment, knowing that the baby is safe and actually living in the present moment as well.


Suffering Because of Aging


We live in a modern, fast-paced, and chaotic world working for hours and hours every week. We take care of our children, bogged down by responsibilities, and live up to a lot of expectations. As we juggle so many responsibilities, aging is one of the last things we think about, especially in today’s society where we are constantly conditioned by social media, ads, Hollywood, and aesthetic beauty. It seems as if the world doesn’t want us to think about such a serious subject.


We see our parents with graying hair, wrinkly skin, and bones becoming frail. Our elders move much slower and perhaps experience a decline in their memory. We see all these things changing around us and within us, but don’t accept it. We develop the fear of aging because we don’t want to be rejected or left alone, hence, we suffer. If we just take a moment to slow down, take a deep breath, and reflect on ourselves, we realize that each one of us is aging by the moment.


Knowing that these changes are happening, we should be more mindful and live in the present moment. This means you are fully engaged with your current activity and/or action. For example, if you are having a conversation with a friend, truly listen to what they are saying, rather than thinking about your response. Look around you, every little thing is changing. But if you look at aging in a positive light, you will see there is more beauty about it.


Another technique is mindful breathing. Breathe in and acknowledge the breath that is coming into your body, slowly filling your lungs. Breathe out and know that you are releasing this breath back out into the world.


When we practice these simple techniques, it will help you slow down and be mindful of your current state, including the reality that you are aging. This is the universal law of change and impermanence which the Buddha taught his disciples. In other words, nothing is permanent, and everything is impermanent. No one can change this, however, we, ourselves, can change the way we look at this and find different ways to accept these things that we cannot control, such as aging.


During these confusing times, how about we practice looking at it as an opportunity to slow down, to look at our loved ones and really look at them in the eye and appreciate the present moment that we spend with each other, in isolation. At the same time, we are protecting our elderly and our children from the disease, we are also appreciating the changes that await us, moment by moment. Relieving the suffering of growing old, because we know we can.


Suffering Because of Sickness


How many of you have experienced a minor illness or possibly living with a chronic disease? Every one of us has at least been sick once because that’s the universal law of change.


As we age, we may sometimes fall ill. This is another reminder of our fragile and impermanent existence. A contemporary example of sickness is Coronavirus. This new illness has brought a lot of fear and suffering all around the world. Again, if we practice staying in the present moment, we can arrest our fears. Perhaps, the fear will still be there, but we don't have to allow it to take over and cause panic or give way to further stress and anxiety.


If we come to accept that this is the universal law of change, then that will help us accept it better knowing that nothing is permanent. For example, if you are ill and you do not accept your condition, what happens? Does it help you in any way to be bitter, angry, and/or scared?


In the universal law of change, life has an ebb and flow. It flows up and down. We will have happy times and sad times. It is the same with sickness. When we are ill, we can accept our condition and observe it until it passes because all things are impermanent.

When you practice these simple techniques, it will help you slow down and be mindful of your current state, including the reality that you are sick. When an animal is wounded, what does it do? Does it blame external factors for its condition? Does it go around wailing and feeding its suffering with more pain? No, the animal rests. It settles itself to a quiet place and patiently heals.


Suffering Because of Death


When you see your loved ones die, we are not only grieving their death, but we are also grieving our own death and those that are dear to us. We may also grieve because of the fear that we will never see our loved ones again. We are never to talk to them again, hear their voices, or touch them again.


This can be very scary and troubling, but there’s a way for us to mentally and emotionally prepare for the death of a loved one or our own. When you see someone else die, then you can be mindful that this will also happen to you so that you are more appreciative of your life and your current situation. When we know death, we appreciate life more. Aside from this, we also live in the present moment, knowing that life is given and that it can be suddenly taken away. Like a thief would take any of our possessions, by surprise.


What happens after one dies? In the Buddhist tradition, the cycle of rebirth after death is determined by Karma (action) and driven by intention --a deed done deliberately through body, speech, or mind which leads to future consequences. Our past actions affect us, either positively or negatively, and our present actions will affect us in the future. A magnificent forest tree, after a great storm, stood still with her leaves, though some had fallen on the ground, and some were still attached to its branches. Those that fell, young or old, are the ones that died, and the ones left attached, young or old are the ones who are still alive. This means that whether young or old, it is our nature to die. Knowing that death is a natural phenomenon, we can contemplate on living with our positive actions and intentions to appreciate the breath that lingers day by day. When the time comes, we can go to peace.


What can we do during these turbulent times when a lot of people are dying of the coronavirus? It can be really difficult to hear news about deaths, every single day. But what should we do? Meditating, chanting, slowing down, and living in the present moment will best help especially during these times that we cannot act to save the world. All we need is tranquility and being in the moment, accepting the things that are happening around the world. When we breathe in and breathe out, mindfully, we live in the moment. We pray we contemplate, we become proactive and aware of the world’s situation. We send merit to those who are suffering, and we relieve our own suffering at the same time.


To be continued... (The Second Noble Truth)


May you all be free from suffering and all the causes of suffering!


Namo Shakyamuni Buddha.


References:

“Chơn Lý,” Tác Giả Đức Tổ Sư Minh Đăng Quang (Language in Vietnamese)

“Phật Học Phổ Thông,” Tác Giả Hòa Thượng Thích Thiện Hoa (Language in Vietnamese)

“The Seeker’s Glossary of BUDDHISM,” Edited by the Van Hien-Study Group, Sutra Translation Committee of the United States & Canada

“A Simple Path – Basic Buddhist Teachings,” by His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama

"The Agendas of Mindfulness," by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/agendas.html.

“The Buddha and His Teachings,” by Venerable Narada Mahathera (Sri Lanka 1970), Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.

“Vipassana Research Institute,” by Mahasatipattha Sutta. India Apollo Printing Press (2006)

“Buddhism,” from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism.

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