The Four Noble Truths I: The Truth of Suffering

by Venerable Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche

June 3, 1999

Ratnashri Meditation Center, Sweden HOME  Dharma talks


The Four Noble Truths was Buddha’s first teaching given at the Deer Park near Benares to his five disciples. The Four Noble Truths is the most fundamental teaching among all the Buddha’s teachings. The Four Noble Truths are the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering and the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering.

First, the truth of suffering, Buddha said, "This is suffering, we should know. Once we know about suffering, then there is no more to know." Next, he said, "Since suffering does not arise without a cause, by knowing the causes of suffering, we would abandon and purify the causes and the origin of suffering. Once we have purified the causes of suffering, there is no more to purify and then comes the cessation of suffering. By knowing that there is cessation of suffering, we would follow the path, attain the path that leads us to such cessation. Once we have perfected the path, there is no more to attain and no more path to follow." This was how Buddha taught.

This evening we will discuss about the truth of suffering. When we study and practice Buddha’s teaching, there are lots of discussions about suffering, different types of suffering. Some people may think that Buddhism is very pessimistic. They do not like to hear about suffering. However, it is very important because in order to be free from suffering, we have to know the suffering. Just like when we are sick, we have different types of diseases and sicknesses. We want to get rid of the disease and sickness. In order to be free from the sickness, we have to know about the sickness – what type of sickness we have, what are the causes of the sickness and then find a way to treat the sickness. Without knowing the sickness, we cannot free from the sickness. Similarly, to free from suffering, we have to first know the suffering – what is suffering, what are the different types of suffering. When encountering some undesirable conditions, we think, "I don’t like this. Why is this happening to me?" So, basically, we know that there is suffering. What is the purpose of suffering? We will see in our later discussion that there is in fact a deeper meaning to suffering. First of all, every sentient being, including human being, even a small insect, desire to free from suffering whether one can express it or not, whether one can explain it or not. The innate nature of the mind of everybody is to desire happiness and to be free from suffering. That is universal. Because of that, we make effort and we work hard. We try to train ourselves on different skills, techniques to bring more happiness and to be free from the suffering. It is very obvious, whether we are in the spiritual world, business world, political world, animal world or any world. We all do something, go somewhere to experience some harmony, peace, joy, happiness, to be free from undesirable conditions, to be free from suffering. Maybe we do not know what suffering is. Because of that when we try to free from suffering, we create more suffering. Some may know somehow that suffering is there. The reason why we need to dig out different types of suffering, different states of suffering, is because there is a way to be free from the suffering. If there is no way to be free from suffering, then there is no use to talk about suffering. It is better to forget it and just leave it behind. But since there is the truth to its causes and the truth to its cessation and most importantly, there is a way, an alternative to be free from suffering, therefore we need to know, understand, study and analyze about the suffering.

Suffering is not always negative, there are lots of positive things. Suffering gives us great opportunities to be a realistic person, to be a sincere person, to develop wisdom and to develop compassion. Just like in a country, there are many laws. If we violate a certain law, we will have to face certain consequences. So we better behave well. So that gives us opportunities to behave sincerely. Similar to this, suffering brings down oneself to the ground. When there is no suffering temporarily, we are so proud of ourselves – "Oh! I am so special!" Then when the conditions we face are undesirable, we suffer and at that time we think – "I am nothing special. I am just like the rest of the people. Maybe I am the worst person." So when we feel that, pride disappears and we think – "What should I do to free from this type of suffering and undesirable conditions?" We try to find out some methods. Secondly, our own experience of suffering gives us opportunity to see all others who are going through similar suffering. In this way, sincere genuine compassion can be cultivated through knowing, understanding our own suffering, not just limited to our relatives, friends but to all sentient beings who go through similar suffering. Thirdly, suffering gives us wisdom. When we suffer, we try to find out where the suffering is coming from. We investigate, analyze and scrutinize to find out the causes of the suffering, to find out whether suffering is independent or dependent on these factors. When we have the wisdom on the causes of suffering, we have the wisdom to avoid the causes of suffering as well. Therefore, it is not enough just to fight against the suffering. It is not enough just to reject or run away from the suffering. It is not enough just to say – "I don’t want the suffering. Why is suffering coming to me?" Those are not the solution to be free from suffering. We need wisdom to understand the suffering and to avoid the causes of suffering. So suffering is not always bad. It gives us great wisdom and opportunities. It is a way to wake us up from our deep sleep of ignorance.

Generally, there is suffering in all the six realms of sentient beings in the Buddhist cosmology. Within that, we are familiar with the human realm and the animal realm. In the animal realm, there are many types of animals. It includes all insects, includes all those who live in the oceans, on land, in the forest, in the air and so on. It is obvious that there are different types of suffering in the animal realm. Even in our human realm, we have the suffering of birth, aging, sickness and death. They are the suffering that every unenlightened human being is going through. It does not matter whether one is educated or uneducated, rich or poor. Even for rich people, they do not get what they want. They get what they do not want. Even highly educated people get aged, get sick and finally die too. So those are the types of suffering that is unavoidable. This is how we go through the wheel of being. We will study all these further in our next talk. Through studying the Dharma, we know how to relate to these things which we cannot avoid. There must be a way to deal with these in a positive way rather than in a negative way. This is the basic reason why the first Buddha, Prince Siddhatha renounced his rich kingdom and happy family life in order to seek the truth. When Prince Siddhatha was in his 20s, he came into contact with a person who was old and he wondered who that person was. The next day, he saw a person who was sick and full of pain. The other day, he saw a person who had died and all the family surrounded him crying. The last day, he saw a person who had renounced samsara looking for liberation and peace. Seeing that life is full of suffering, he began to look for something more. These conditions gave him great opportunities to ask many questions. Since he was very young in a rich kingdom with good environment, he never thought of those conditions before. So he gathered the ministers and asked who those people were and wondered if they went through those conditions individually or if everybody had to go through them. The minister explained – "We all have to go through them. Even though right now, you are so young, healthy, intelligent, talented in such a rich kingdom, you also have to go through old age, sickness and death too." So this kind of consideration led him to develop a strong sense of detachment from pleasure. He renounced his kingdom. He renounced his family life. He renounced the family life, not out of despair, he had a very happy life. And yet when he saw the sufferings of life, recognizing that no matter how great one’s indulgence in pleasures of the senses might be, eventually one would have to face these sufferings. He renounced the kingdom not because he did not care for the people around him, but out of great wisdom and great compassion. His renunciation was based on the recognition that all existence was suffering and would like to look for the ultimate answer to free all sentient beings from suffering. For six years, he went through such a great hardship without food, without clothes. He was not happy either. When he was so rich, so powerful and had time, there was no solution to be free from suffering. Now when he went through great hardship with perfect meditative concentration, there was no complete solution to be free from suffering. So after all these experiences, he asked himself what the real solution would be, to face all different types of suffering in a positive way and not to experience suffering. Finally, he realized that mind is the one. When we know the mind totally, then it is the time to be free from suffering. When the mind is deluded, through ignorance, through confusion, we create the causes of suffering. As a result, we suffer. When our mind is enlightened, free from the boundaries, free from delusion and negative thoughts. In this way, we do not create the cause of suffering. When there is no cause of suffering, then suffering does not exist. Because of that, Prince Siddhatha meditated one-pointedly and achieved complete enlightenment, Buddhahood. At that moment, he said, "I actualized such a great nectar, the nectar that can transform all suffering and the causes of suffering, which is very profound, that is the mind. Mind is very profound, free from elaboration, like a sky, like space. It is uncompounded, uncreated. There is luminosity, there is total peace. That is the one that I actualized." It was not easy to understand and there were many people who requested Buddha to talk about these things. He blessed a few for some weeks, but there were lots of other people who requested him to perform the teachings so he taught the teachings – The Four Noble Truths. It was not that he realized what he did not have. He realized what he had from the beginningless time and that we all have. All sentient beings desire to be free from suffering. There is no question, no doubt about that. We all desire to have happiness. Even small insects, small bugs running here and there, they all want to have happiness, pleasure and peace. We human beings are the same. Why? It has nothing to do with the belief system, Buddhist, Christians or anyone who does not believe in anything. We all desire to have happiness. We all want to be free from suffering. The reason is because we have the Buddha nature, the seed of enlightenment. The Buddha nature that we have is very profound, free from elaboration, boundless, limitless. It is uncompounded in nature and possesses total peace. But since we have not actualized it, even though it is within us, we do not see it. We have not experienced it. We have not revealed it. Our mind is deluded and confused. Through confusion and ignorance, we go to the wrong place and we suffer. Therefore, to reveal that, we need to know the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, in order to free from the confusion and delusion. When we know the causes of suffering, we can purify the causes of suffering and then we would come to the right place. Through that, we would understand who we are originally. So there are ways to go back to our own home clearly without confusion or delusion. Therefore, it is important to know about the suffering. After all, we do not want suffering anyway and would like to make all efforts to be free from suffering and to bring happiness, joy and peace to our mind.

Here is a story. At the time of Buddha, there was a young woman who got a child. One day, the baby got sick and she tried everything to help the baby. She went to the doctor and asked for all kinds of medicine. The doctor told her that the baby would die. She could not accept it at all. She asked the doctor why he could not heal the child. The doctor said that he had tried his best. She met a spiritual master on the way and asked him to pray for the child. His prayers did not answer her wishes. She went around to many different places, meeting many masters and asked them, "Why did my child die? I cannot accept my child’s death. I want to bring my child’s life back." No one could help her. She finally came to Buddha and there she cried, "I cannot accept my child’s death. I want to bring my child’s life back. Please do it." Buddha with great wisdom and compassion said to her, "I understand your feeling. I know what you are going through. Perhaps there is a way to help you to get help. You just leave your baby’s body here. I will watch it. You just go to different places, different houses and try to find a handful of mustard seeds in a house where nobody has died. Then maybe we can do something about your child. At that time, there was no public hospital. Everybody was born and died in their home. She went around to many houses and asked for a handful of mustard seed where nobody had died. The whole day passed and she could not find any such house. There was somebody who had died in every house that she went to. A child, whose parents had died early, told her bitterly, "I am alone. I am suffering so much. I miss them so much but I could not help." In another house, there was a couple whose child also died. They said to her, "We could not accept it but there was no choice. We went through so much agony and suffering." She found out that in every house she visited, there was somebody who had died. She finally gave up and she thought to herself, "It is not just my child. Everybody die. Some died when they were old. Some died when they were young. Some died when they were just born." She got a relief from the thought that she could not accept the death of her child. She came back to Buddha and said, "I could not find a mustard seed from a house where nobody had died." Buddha said, "You see, everyone goes through this. No matter if you are young or old, just saying that I cannot accept it, is not the answer for you to free from the suffering. It happens not just your child. One day you also have to go through this path. We all go through this. But we should learn how to accept this condition, this situation in a positive way. Develop compassion to all those whom you have met in different houses and had that kind of experience. You saw in their mind how much agony, anguish and suffering there was. In order to develop compassion, you should have the wisdom knowing how this can happen." She completely changed her mind. She studied about the samsara and how to be free from samsara. Buddha taught her method how to meditate and how to understand her own mind, how to free from the suffering. This is an example showing how suffering can give us wisdom to see things clearly and to awaken our minds. When we know how to accept suffering, then we know how to be free from suffering. When we do not know how to accept suffering, then small suffering becomes big suffering.

There are three types of suffering, namely, suffering of suffering, suffering of change and suffering of conditions (pervasive suffering). First, suffering of suffering includes physical sufferings and mental sufferings. All sentient beings in the six realms experience suffering of suffering. Some are actually experiencing suffering and some are on the way to suffering. Every sentient being makes great effort to be free from suffering. In human realm, we have the suffering of birth, pain, sickness, aging, death and so on. Birth is suffering not only because of the physical pain suffered by the infant but also because birth is a gateway to other sufferings such as sickness, old age and death. There is mental suffering of separation from our loved ones, suffering of contacting those whom we dislike and those who dislike us, suffering of frustrated desire such as not getting what we want and getting what we do not want. Even those who are most successful in their lives, whether in the business, political or scientific world are not free from this type of suffering. Some, in order to free themselves from suffering, create the cause of more suffering. We struggle to gather things that we want and then struggle to protect the things that we have. In fact, in our human realm, we may also experience conditions as if we were born in the other realms. Picture yourself in a desert with no water and heat waves so powerful that you feel like you are burning or being cooked in an oven. Such a sensation feels interminable, even if it lasts for a short time. This is like a hot hell realm. Sometimes, when you are on a snow mountain in a blizzard, there is no place to hide from the wind. Your clothes are inadequate and your feet and hands freeze. Again, even if this actually lasts for a short time, you feel it is forever. That is like a cold hell realm. Sometimes, you take a long journey and become completely exhausted with no food to eat and no water to drink. There are no restaurants around. You feel you are starving to death and dying of thirst. The complexion of your body changes. You feel so skinny and lean. This is like the experience of the hungry ghosts. Sometimes, you are overpowered by other people or enslaved with no freedom to express your wishes or feelings and you feel stupid, incapable of doing anything. You do not know what to do or how to behave. This is like the suffering of animals. Sometimes, your mind is completely overcome with jealousy for another’s dignity, wealth or prosperity. You become overwhelmed by these thoughts and take action to harm others, but the result brings you more suffering. This is like the life of the demi-gods. Sometimes, you feel so peaceful and happy. Everything goes well and you are proud of this situation. You become dominated by the thought that, "There is not anyone like me." Even if you experience this for a long time, still you feel it was a short moment. Later, particularly at the time of death, so much suffering is caused by having to part from pleasant conditions. This is like the suffering in the god realm.

The second type of suffering is the suffering of change. Our temporary happiness, pleasure and achievement in the unenlightened state are called suffering of change because they do not last long. They change into the suffering sooner or later. For example, when we have a set of very nice clothes to wear, we feel good. We get some kind of happiness and pleasure from the nice clothes. However, if you wear it every day, you will feel uncomfortable. So it does not give you complete happiness, complete pleasure. Therefore, your closet has many clothes, hundred of clothes to choose from. When you are interested in something in life and you think that it is very important to achieve, you attach to it and make all effort and sacrifice everything. We go through all suffering to achieve all that. Once we have achieved that, the happiness does not last long. So it is not the real source of happiness. There is fear to loose it and there is hope and attachment to keep it, which bring us the suffering. The characteristic of existence is impermanence. Our bodies are impermanent and they are subject to constant change. Our mental states are impermanent, at one moment we are happy and at another moment we are sad. Our relations with others are impermanent – friends become enemies and enemies become friends. Our possessions are also impermanent. Those things that we dearly love such as our homes, our cars, our clothes are all impermanent, all of them will decay and eventually be destroyed. Our human life is like a flash of lightning or a waterfall. There has never been a single living being who has escaped death. Buildings, rivers, mountains and oceans are all impermanent. This process of constant change of all things goes on constantly even without us noticing it. Therefore, craving to keep such temporary happiness and pleasure lead us to suffering.

There is one more profound nature of suffering, namely, the suffering of conditions or the pervasive suffering. As long as we have ignorance and delusion, suffering is bound to come. Ignorance and delusion arise because of the failure to see things as they really are. So long as we have not developed our ability to concentrate our mind and penetrate into the true nature of phenomena, we are ignorant of the true nature of things. Even a very successful politician or the head of the country under the democratic system has to work so hard, go through many rounds of elections to achieve the position. Is he or she completely happy and free from suffering? When we achieve what we want, still we suffer. Suffering is bound to come. We are definitely not free from suffering. No matter which state of samsara we are in, our existence is propelled and perpetuated by ignorance and its mechanism described by the twelve links of interdependent origination and there is suffering so long as we do not know how to dispel our ignorance. Therefore, we have to purify our ignorance, delusion and obscuration. The way we perceive things and the way things actually are, can sometimes be different. That is why two different persons can perceive the same thing in completely different ways. The way we perceive things sometimes involves delusion. Ego, for example, is just a habit. We are so habitualized with our ego. But when we ask where our ego is, we cannot show it. We cannot find it. Ego exists because of our attachment to the ego. Ego makes you work and do things to identify yourself. Ego asks you to be special. Therefore, in order to free from the suffering of conditions, we need to first know the suffering and from that develop the wisdom to understand the causes and conditions of the suffering. Based on the wisdom, we practice compassion both for ourselves and for others. Suffering is a mental state. We create the causes of suffering. Because of the causes of suffering, we suffer. Therefore, instead of projecting outside, we bring back our mind. We make effort to purify the causes of suffering. When suffering comes, instead of fighting outside or inside, we look into our mind. This temporary suffering actually gives us an opportunity to wake up from that state. We make effort to examine carefully what we can do to free from the causes of suffering. In this way, suffering is not bad. Rather, suffering is very useful. It gives us the genuine motivation to develop renunciation to the causes of suffering, to develop an enlightened motive of Bodhicitta. Seeing that all beings experience the suffering of samsara, wish to be free from suffering and to attain ultimate happiness, we are encouraged and dedicated to purify the causes of suffering, to strive to attain Buddhahood in order to liberate both ourselves and others. This motive gives us the realization of emptiness, the added force that will bring us to Enlightenment.

What should we do when anger comes? It is important to know how to live with anger. First of all, all phenomena are impermanent, temporary and subject to change. Everything changes every moment. That is why we start getting old the moment we are born. Just because of impermanence, any type of suffering that we are experiencing, going through, is also impermanent, subject to change. Without grasping, without seeing it as substantial, we should see anger as impermanent. No one can be angry all the time, twenty-four hours. Anger comes suddenly due to some causes and conditions, maybe some people have made some mistakes or maybe we met some people that we do not like. Anger arises because of causes and conditions. It does not arise independently. Look at the nature of impermanence like waves in the ocean. When there is wind, the waves arise and then dissolve back into the ocean. So when the anger arises in the mind due to causes and conditions, it dissolves into the mind. When it is dissolved, even if we are attached to the feeling and holding onto it, actually the piece of anger is already gone and disappeared. There is no trace left just like when we draw in the ocean, the drawing would not stay. In the same way, anger comes and disappears any time. It only creates a cause of suffering both to ourselves and to others. Look at how that temporarily arises and dissolves. When it dissolves, it disappears into emptiness just like when we have a headache, it is so painful and we do not like it. The next day, when the headache disappears, it does not exist. It is empty in nature and it is selfless. It does not have any background. It is just a type of suffering and it does not have its own identification. It cannot stay all the time in a concrete way. When we see that the nature of anger is selfless, there is no need to express the anger to others and there is no need to express anger. Just look at it as an illusion. This is a very good way to handle our anger and everybody can use it. So this is how suffering gives us insight, suffering is impermanent, suffering is suffering and the nature of any suffering is emptiness.

By detailed explaining the suffering is not meant to depress people. Rather, it makes the very important point of carefully identifying suffering. If we fail to recognize the very nature of suffering, that which we are making all efforts to free ourselves from, then we would not know how to free ourselves from suffering. So instead of feeling depressed, overwhelmed or negative, or ignore it or run away from it, we should try to contemplate on the subject well. Awaken! Your mind has been sleeping in samsara for a long time. Recognize what kind of place you are in and make all efforts to flee from samsara. Renounce the causes of suffering and purify the causes of suffering. Renunciation does not mean negative, not eating food, not wearing clothes, not taking responsibility. Renunciation means to renounce, to give up the causes of suffering – to give up temporary comfort, temporary happiness, temporary fame or temporary success. Prince Siddhatha’s renunciation of his kingdom did not mean that he gave up his responsibility of the kingdom, rather he took the responsibility of all sentient beings’ welfare. Instead of benefiting just a few in the kingdom and making them temporarily happy, he had the courage to give up his kingdom and totally dedicated himself to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. It is very difficult for us to give up these things. It is not easy because we are so attached to our lives and our temporary happiness and possessions. It takes courage and dedication. It is not just a matter of a few years. It may take a few life times. For beginners who do not have any meditation teachings and practices before, you may feel hopeless. You feel that you are completely overwhelmed and enslaved by suffering. In this case, meditation practices are very useful. Meditation practices are important because they give us motivation and strength to overcome the difficulties and uproot our habits. Meditation practices help us to purify the causes of suffering by concentrating, organizing, stabilizing and strengthening our mind in order to penetrate into the true nature of phenomena. The Four Foundations (the four ways to turn the mind) are the most important basis and foundation for our meditation practices. Without them, our meditation would go to the wrong place. The Four Foundations in short are the precious human life, impermanence, interdependence of causes and effects, and the suffering in all six realms. They help to turn our mind from samsara to Enlightenment. We need to know them well, investigate and contemplate on them well. With this foundation, we practice meditation on the emptiness nature of all phenomena. A well-qualified master is necessary to guide your practices. For those individuals who have accomplished well in their practices, suffering is very useful to enhance their practices. This is how suffering can cultivate our mind and perfect our motivation to attain Enlightenment. We work hard anyway to free from suffering to achieve temporary happiness so why not work hard towards the total freedom from suffering, for the total realization, for Enlightenment. This concludes our discussion on the truth of suffering. Thank you.



May all the buddhalands be filled with great enlightening beings
who are truly genuine with comprehensive knowledge, 
who are able to distinguish all worlds and sentient beings,
who enter deeply into the realm of reality as well as the realm of space,
who cast off folly and perfect the recollection of the Buddhas, recollection of the truth of teachings,
whose light of knowledge illumining everywhere, producing all aspects of Buddhahood,
engendering the determination of unexcelled Enlightenment, abiding in the powers of Buddhas,
destroying the works of demons, purifying the realm of sentient beings,
entering deeply into the essential nature of things, forever getting rid of delusion,
bringing all roots of goodness and great vows to fruition.

Last updated on 2000-12-23.