The Buddha’s first sermon stated the first truth to consider is “Life is dukkha.” This usually is translated “life is suffering.”
That’s how I started my first discussion group as a minister. According to Buddhism, I said, “Life is suffering.” Immediately, a young woman retorted, “I don’t think so!” After class, she never returned.
Later I realized most people probably don’t think “life is suffering.” In our society, people feel “Life is good,” or “Life is comfortable” or maybe “Life is sometimes easy, sometimes hard,” but not “Life is suffering.”
Actually, the Buddha used the word “dukkha,” which more accurately means “off-kilter,” as an ill-fitted wheel on a cart makes it wobbly. Therefore dukkha refers to life that somehow is bumpy, not quite right, somewhat off balance. In other words, life is not always smooth, difficulties appear and problems arise. When things don’t go our way, we get frustrated, angry, sad or depressed. We “suffer.”
Why do you suppose the Buddha began teaching with this simple, common sense observation? Even during his time, people must have thought, “I know that!” or “What are you talking about? My life is okay.”
Imagine if the first Noble Truth were “Life is good.” If this were true, there’s no need for anything else—no questions, no doubts, no spiritual path. A life happy and carefree is free from dukkha.
Alas, this is not the case. We encounter difficulties, there are bumps in the road and some problems seem insurmountable. Family problems, a relationship breakup, a job loss, a debilitating illness, old age and impending death often lead to sadness, depression, anger, frustration and hopelessness. Even worldly success sometimes feels empty with the realization that money, possessions, status and power don’t necessarily lead to happiness.
Besides even if we’re happy, there’s surely dukkha in the world. How close must it come before it affects us: the next town, the next house, the next room? How long can we keep it at bay? A loved one’s dukkha quickly becomes our dukkha.
Facing this truth may seem like the end of the road, a cliff above a deep abyss. Some people certainly feel that way, giving up hope, succumbing to depression, acting in anger or even ending their lives.
The Buddha understood this point in life as a time when the world we think we know crumbles and disappears in darkness. Something went wrong and now we are lost.
Rather than the end of the line, the Buddha calls this the starting point. He encourages us to begin to question life, our assumptions, how we live and what we think we understand. We begin to seek answers. Thus begins our spiritual journey.
This is why I think the Buddha began teaching the First Noble Truth of dukkha. This is the starting point. When we encounter pain and suffering in life, we are forced to ask questions and to seek answers. We begin to see life differently, embarking on a less worldly and a more spiritual path. It is truly the beginning.