On the nature of suffering in the Four Noble Truths

This is an excerpt dealing with the Four Noble Truths (as presented in the Dhamma Chakkana Pavattana Sutta) from the chapter on Buddhism in my unpublished book Vehicles of Hope, completed in 1993.


From his rejection of extreme practices, Gautama passed via his own “middle way”, to an exposition of the “noble truths of suffering”. They embody the core of his causal conception of the nature of bondage and its end. Since they constitute the very foundation stones of the entire edifice of Buddhist teachings, embodying their central promise, principle and path, it is necessary to dwell upon these truths at some length.

The first noble truth, the truth of suffering, opens by listing birth, decay, disease and death as attended by pain and examplifying suffering. It goes on to state that to be joined with the unpleasant or to be separated from the pleasant as well as any unsatisfied craving is suffering. Then it sums up with the statement that the five aggregates of grasping are suffering. This characterization of the suffering entailed by existence plainly is intended to be comprehensive and to include every species of suffering to which humans are subject in the course of life. In view of this broad and inclusive definition of suffering, the ending of which is the aim of the path defined by the noble truths, the formulation of the origin of suffering in the second truth is noteworthy:

“It is this “thirst” (Pali ‘tanha’, Sanskrit ‘trsna’) productive of renewed existence and bound up with sensuality and seeking satisfaction now here now there, namely: thirst for sense-pleasures, thirst for life, and thirst for the ending of existence.”

Here Gautama presents a causal factor as the origin of suffering for which we shall adopt the designation “thirst” as a technical term in keeping with the scriptural original. This thirst is his candidate for the necessary cause which forms the general condition on which the arising of suffering is dependent and in the absence of which suffering does not occur. Accordingly, the third noble truth simply asserts the utter cessation of the thirst defined by the second truth to be the general condition for the end of suffering defined by the first truth. It is essential to understand that the logical structure of the first three noble truths is not equivalent to the following schematism:

1. Existence is attended by suffering when we are joined to what we do not want or are separated from what we want.
2. The general condition for the arising of this suffering is that wanting which in the absence of its desired object or the presence of its unwanted object entails suffering.
3. The general condition for the cessation of suffering is the cessation of the condition for its arising, namely that wanting by which it is entailed. With the cessation of that wanting, suffering ceases.

The three noble truths are not equivalent to this schematism because the second noble truth plainly does not refer to all wanting in general, but to a specific and particular form of wanting. This particular form of wanting is presented as a form of thirst, craving or appetite, a form which is said to be responsible for renewed existence (see below), and to be associated, bound up or charged with rather than to consist of sensuality. It is said to be hunting about impatiently for satisfaction, and to consist of the thirst for and not of the pleasures of the senses, life, and even the ending of existence. It appears to be conceived of as a virtually unitary factor analogous to a specific species of appetite rather than an abstract catch-all category containing the many and varied forms of wanting involved in our many forms of suffering.

The “thirst” defined in the second noble truth has its context in a scriptural tradition which portrays Gautama’s pre-enlightenment quest as informed by a preoccupation with the ills of “old age, disease, and death”, and the suffering entailed by resisting inevitabile impermanence, change, decay and dissolution. That which resists these is a “clinging to life”, a “thirst” for life and living which is bound to be frustrated in the ordinary course of events, a clinging and a thirst from which Gautama presumably was freed in making his discovery under a ficus tree on the banks of the Nairanja River.

Entering for a moment on the premises of this scriptural tradition, it is important to note that at the time of his enlightenment Gautama could not have experienced relief from the actual pains of old-age, disease and death, since he was not yet at that stage of life. Rather, he must have been relieved of whatever fear and apprehension he might have harbored at the prospect of old-age, disease and death, and that is a very different matter, indeed. The immediate occasion for dispelling this kind of fear might then have been his insight that such apprehension is futile on account of the inevitability of change and dissolution. Why? Legend has it that he was tracing the causal chains of life backwards, to conception. At that point something new arises in consequence of the compounding of prior causes. And anything compounded is subject to dissolution. The arising of life and its end are indissolubly linked,  so why fight that which cannot be otherwise? As Mahakappina pur it in Theragata 552: “it is not amazing or even strange; when one is born, one dies. What indeed is strange in that?”

Nothing hinges on this particular construal of the circumstances of Gautama’s discovery, but it does illustrate the sense in which the “thirst” which figures in the second noble truth is to be understood, the “thirst” whose cessation is said to end suffering. Yet being freed of apprehension at the prospect of old age is not the same as being freed of the pains that are likely to accompany old age when it arrives, so how can cessation of the “thirst” featured in the second noble truth end all suffering? The question makes it necessary to take a closer look at the nature of suffering.

The issue is most easily broached by making a distinction between two kinds of suffering. These two species of suffering differ in their relationship to the nature of bondage, but they are not clearly distinguished in the noble truths, though, as we shall see, they are represented there. We might call these two species of suffering attitudinal and non-attitudinal, respectively. Examples of the first, or attitudinal, kind of suffering are provided by the dejection which follows on a failure to reach a desired goal, or on the lapsing of a situation with which our sense of personal worth or long-term satisfaction in life is identified. Central to this form of suffering is its dependence on the acquired and idiosyncratic attitudes and investments which underlie the explicit and implicit expectations reality fails to fulfill in such instances of suffering. Being contingent on those attitudes, this suffering ceases on the abandonment of those attitudes.

Non-attitudinal suffering, on the other hand, is exemplified by the pain of an infected wound, the pangs of hunger, or bladder distention. Its arising is not dependent upon attitudinal factors as such. That is not to say that attitudes do not play a role in the phenomenology of our reactions in such matters, but only that this species of suffering does not have its origin in attitudes in the way attitudinal suffering does. Associated with the two species of suffering are, in other words, two different origins of suffering, in the one case an origin in the realm of attitudes generating expectations of existence it cannot fulfill, such attitudes being acquired and idiosyncratic, in the other an origin founded on fundamental realities and mechanisms ultimately grounded in our biology as a species of living beings on earth, that is, in “nature.”

In keeping with the different origins of suffering there is a difference in the means by which such suffering may be brought to an end: in the case of the attitudinal variety through the cessation or abandonment of attitudes engendering impossible demands on or expectations of reality, and in the other generally and usually by heeding and obeying the feeling-signal supplied by the suffering, i.e. by taking those concrete measures which by providing relief or satisfaction make it cease.

The causal implication for the removal of suffering that follows from the categorical distinction is simply this: the cessation of attitudinal desire eliminates attitudinal suffering but not non-attitudinal suffering. So that there remain no ambiguity or doubt about the import of this distinction, let us suggest, with apologies for the crudness of the example, that if, while he was sitting by the Nairanja river “enjoying the bliss of emancipation” (as the scriptures have it), Gautama’s bladder began to fill, he would experience the selfsame gradually increasing pressure building to distress as any other human being would. We assume further that he would not eliminate the suffering which the continuation of this mounting sense of pressure would entail by somehow eliminating the feeling of bladder distension through some hitherto unknown means, but rather, that he would spare himself this piece of suffering by doing what every human being does in that situation, namely heed and follow rather than conquer the prompting of that feeling by answering the call of nature in some convenient location. In fact, Gautama’s very abandonment of the extreme practices of self-mortification can be seen to bear on this issue in conformity with the distinction just made.

By way of rounding out the distinction between the two realms of suffering based on passions, feelings, desires or cravings of distinct origin, let us note that the above examples of non-attitudinal mechanisms are but a few of a much larger group from which they were chosen for their unequivocal nature and stubborn reliability in insisting on the performance of functions essential for life itself. Yet the same group of non-attitudinal feeling-mechanisms ultimately based on nature contains other far more yielding and pliable mechanisms, chief examples of which are the sexual passions and social sentiments associated with reproduction, love and sociality. We may therefore distinguish between “hard” and “soft” members of the non-attitudinal kind, the “soft” ones being those feelings and passions which can be deliberately over-ridden, even for a life-time, without impairing the bodily survival of the individual concerned. The interaction between attitudinal and non-attitudinal mechanisms is generally massive in the case of the “soft” variety, offering much scope for a confusion of categories (both in life and in our attempt to understand mechanisms), but such interaction is not confined to the “soft” variety. Gluttony, for example, to the extent that it occurs as a personality trait not traceable to organic factors, is the result of attitudes acquired with regard to food and eating. These distinctions made, we return to the noble truths of suffering in order to scrutinize them in this light.

From the vantage point of the distinction of the types of suffering we have just defined it is plain that the first noble truth in its broad construal of suffering includes both attitudinal and non-attitudinal varieties. The “thirst” of the second truth, however, is a phenomenon which belongs squarely in the attitudinal domain. It is in fact a remarkably concise and evocative characterization of significant aspects of the investment-driven modus operandi of the attitudinal domain, ever wanting or trying or striving to be rather than being. Immediately the question arises as to how the cessation of the attitudinal thirst of the second truth can bring about the cessation of both the attitudinal and the nonattitudinal suffering encompassed by the first truth, since we saw above that the cessation of attitudinal craving can end only attitudinal suffering, but not non-attitudinal suffering. Was Gautama (or whoever composed the given scripture in his name) such a bad logician that he did not notice this discrepancy in the noble truths? Or worse: was Gautama a crafty con-man walking up and down the Ganges valley knowingly promising the impossible to the gullible? We have not yet considered all the circumstances bearing on the meaning of the noble truths.

There is nothing that forces us to assume that Gautama himself claimed to have been freed from non-attitudinal suffering during what remained of his life after his enlightenment. At least the scriptures portray him as giving voice to experiencing physical pain, such as a back-ache while listening to an inordinately long discourse by Nandaka, and severe sharp pains during the illness of his last days. The source of the conceptual coherence of the causal schematism of the first three noble truths must accordingly be sought elsewhere. It involves that major closure truth assumption which Gautama shared with the religious thinkers of his day, but which so far we have left out of account in our reconstruction of his thinking, namely the doctrine of transmigration.

We noted in the first section of this chapter the virtual equation in the religious thought of the day between liberation from worldly bondage and release from the cycle or chain of transmigration, the latter being conceived as simply the larger context within which this life is embedded. There is nothing to indicate that Gautama did not share this belief of his times, however erroneous, and quite a bit that tells us that he must have, at least as tradition portrays him. On arriving at his discovery regarding the nature of bondage through a process which may have involved the cessation of his attitudinal “thirst” for and clinging to life, Gautama need only have assumed that rebirth is contingent on, indeed directly driven by, that very same thirst in order to identify his release from that attitudinal sentiment, that clinging to life, with release from the process of rebirth.

This thirst which desperately clings to living, thirsts for life, in mortal fear of death, yes even thirsts for life to the extent of being capable of ending it in the hope of obtaining a better one on being born again (for which, see the story of Channa in the 144th sutta of the Majjhima-nikaya), would it not supply a most natural motive power driving reincarnation? If that is so, then release from that thirst in enlightenment would at the same time be a release from every future birth – and legend has Gautama utter words to that effect on making his discovery. Such a snapping of the chain of rebirths would imply release from all the suffering awaiting an individual throughout those future births, and that would include not only the attitudinal suffering but the non-attitudinal suffering as well. Compared with the entire mass of such suffering in store for an individual in innumerable presumptive future births, the interlude remaining between enlightenment and the dissolution of the body would seem a trifle not worth serious concern.

On the assumption that the liberation in enlightenment is synonymous with release from transmigration, and hence from all its attendant ills, the logical inconsistency in the noble truths connected with the distinction between the two forms of suffering largely disappears: from the perspective conceptually extended into the  domain of transmigration, the cessation of attitudinal “thirst” in enlightenment is capable of ending non-attitudinal suffering since it is the crucial event which puts an end to innumerable presumptive future births and the suffering of both kinds they would contain. Not only does the logical inconsistency disappear: this construal allows us to picture the conceptual structure of the noble truths in such a way that all the remaining obscurities of wording in the second truth vanish. Thus the “renewed existence” of the opening phrase of the second truth refers to just this assumed promotion of rebirth by the thirst for life, and the puzzling “ending of existence” with which it closes, which seems to clash so jarringly with the “lust for life” finds a straightforward interpretation along the lines of the Majjhima passage referred to above (the story of Channa).

The radically world-denying (indeed life-denying) ambience of this perspective should be clearly recognized. It pervades some of the early buddhist poetry such as the Rhinoceros Verses of the Suttanipata, and is quite in keeping not only with the tenor of the sramana ideals of those times, but with the embodiment they would find in buddhist monasticism. It was also understood as such by his sramana followers. In the words of one of them, Mahakacchayana: “when the goal has been attained one should lie on the bed of death” (Theragatha, 501). That Gautama rejected self-mortification as a practice does not mean that he affirmed life in this world. The ending of transmigration is the ending, the cutting off, of a return to life. As already noted, in a cultural ambience informed by a belief in reincarnation, those who affirm this life will tend also to affirm transmigration as an extension of the possibilities of this life, and to seek rebirth in favorable circumstances. Early buddhism presents itself as a path to ending that possibility.


Bjorn Merker
E-mail: gyr694c@tninet.se

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply