The First Noble Truth: Insight 1 There is Suffering

Dancing With Life (pp. 1-24)

The First Noble Truth of Suffering

The three insights of the First Noble Truth are:  (1) There is suffering (dukkha), (2) Dukkha should be comprehended (understood), (3) Dukkha has been comprehended.

The First Insight:  There is Suffering (Dukkha)

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress:  Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.” (trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu”

There is a mistaken belief that the Buddha said that everything is suffering.  If this were so, there would be no need for the fourth Noble Truth which states that there is a way of non-suffering.

“What I teach now as before, O monks, is suffering and the cessation of suffering. MN 22

As before, so now I proclaim just suffering and the ceasing of suffering.” SN 22.86

Also note that the Buddha states that “There is suffering” not “I suffer”.  To use a medical metaphor, we say that a person has a disease, not that she or he is the disease. There is just the presence of disease.  Diseases and suffering are all conditions that are impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self.

What is Suffering?

Compare the structure of the Four Noble Truths as being similar to how a physician would approach a disease:  What is the disease?  What is the cause of the disease?  What can cure the disease?  How can the cure be applied?

The First Noble Truth addresses, “What is the disease?”  The disease (dis ease) is suffering.

Suffering is term for a range of unhappiness that can go from mild irritation (dis ease) to anguish and despair.  Often we do not know what suffering is because we are immediately seeking happy alternatives rather than acknowledging and investigating our unhappiness.

Dukkha, the pali word, means “incapable of satisfying or “not able to bear or withstand anything.”  There are many forms of dukkha, the most common include birth, aging, disease and death.  Physical pain is a form of suffering but the major form is mental suffering; our experiences of discomfort, pain, anxiety, stress, instability, inadequacy, failure and disappointment.  Life hands us unavoidable opportunities to suffer every minute, hour, and day. As Phillip Moffitt put it, “Life is a never-ending dance between moments of feeling good and moments of feeling bad.”  (p. 28)

Do we know that we suffer?  Our culture is based on denial of suffering.  Instead, the constant seeking of pleasure is the norm.  A suffering person is perceived as being ill or incompetent.  Everyone suffers but no one wants to admit it!

Look at your own life.  Bhante Gunaratana in Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness describes four areas that often cause suffering:  the life cycle, change, no control, and unrealistic perception.

“The first insight of the Truth of Dukkha is realized when you are able to distinguish between carrying the weight of your life with all its loss and pain, and collapsing underneath these difficulties.  You nobly accept your suffering and acknowledge that your life is being characterized by it, despite your preference for it to be otherwise.” DWL p. 37


  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.  Read the last paragraph.  Can you accept this statement?  To discover how you suffer, put a rubber band on one of your wrists.  When you feel “dis ease” in any way, put the rubber band on the other wrist.  Don’t judge.  Look at the frequency at which you change the band.


  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice being mindful of what arises and falls away.  Note particularly any phenomena that are negative, unpleasant, and which could be suffering.

Next: The First Noble Truth: Insight 2 Suffering is to be Comprehended
Previous: The Four Noble Truths - Introduction