Shakyamuni's Teachings


The first noble truth is the truth of suffering: there is suffering. Suffering is the central problem of human experience. Buddha did not ignore suffering or try to explain it away as an unfortunate side effect of a divine plan or cosmic order. Suffering was, for him, the central issue.

And it is still the central issue for us today. So, what is suffering? The Sanskrit term is dukkha, a term that refers to the unsatisfying quality of experience. It is a general term that covers everything from vague feelings of unease to extreme physical and emotional anguish. Suffering, as it is used in the first noble truth, refers to any sense of discomfort. We all experience discomfort, whether it is the slight uneasiness of embarrassment or the intense pain of bone cancer. When discomfort arises, our first impulse is to put an end to it, to stop it any way that we can. We are, in effect, trying to separate ourselves from what we are experiencing and, by doing so, separating ourselves from life and from the mystery of being. The first noble truth is basically an injunction not to ignore or dismiss what we experience.

The first noble truth says that suffering is pervasive. It invites us not to ignore or avoid it, but to look at it, know what it is, and understand how it arises.

Creating Suffering

Buddha Shakyamuni’s second insight involves the origin of suffering. Suffering comes from emotional reactivity.

All experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The three fundamental emotional reactions to experience are attraction, aversion, and dullness or indifference. Attraction is the emotional reaction to what is pleasant. Aversion is the reaction to what is unpleasant. Indifference is the reaction to what is neutral. The three reactions are called the three poisons because they poison our experience of life. They are often symbolized in Buddhist iconography as a rooster, a snake and a pig.

The second noble truth tells us that the origin of suffering is emotional reactivity. What do we do to end this suffering? We dismantle the patterns of emotional reactivity.

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