The First Noble Truth: True Suffering

A basic fact of life is that everyone wants to be happy, and no one wants to be unhappy. It’s easy to see, from our own experience, how no one wants problems and suffering. Despite this, all sorts of problems keep popping up throughout our lives. In fact, they keep on coming no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Whenever we face a problem in daily life, we usually try our best to deal with it. But dealing with problems like this as they arise, one by one, is an endless task. When the Buddha became enlightened, he understood that there were several facts about life that were true for everyone, everywhere. We call these the four noble truths. The first noble truth that the Buddha realized and taught is that the true problem, the true suffering we all face, is that we actually perpetuate the arising of problems ourselves. If we don’t stop creating more problems for ourselves, they will never stop coming. The first step, then, is to correctly identify what true suffering actually is.

The Ups and Downs of Happiness and Unhappiness

There are many types of problems and suffering that we face. Life can be frustrating and stressful. We try hard to create happy lives for ourselves, but often things don’t turn out the way that we had hoped. Things happen to us that we never wanted, like having our relationships go bad, people treating us poorly, getting sick, losing our jobs, and so on. As much as we try to avoid these happening, they come anyway. Often, we get depressed about them or just try to ignore it all, but that usually just makes things worse. We become even more unhappy.

Even when we succeed in experiencing some happiness, there’s a problem with that happiness – it doesn’t last. It never satisfies us and we want even more. In fact, we spend a lot of time and energy chasing for this “more.” Just think about our attitude when we post a selfie on social media. Each time we get a “like” with its slight dopamine rush of happiness, how long does it last? How soon do we check to see if we’ve gotten any more “likes?” And how terrible do we feel when there aren’t very many? That’s suffering, isn’t it?

We Perpetuate the Bodies and Minds with Which We Experience Ups and Downs

So, life goes up and down all the time – sometimes we’re happy and feel great, sometimes we’re sad and unhappy. Often, we just say, “That’s life,” and don’t look any deeper into the situation. But is that really how we want our lives to be – never knowing how we are going to feel in the next moment? Fortunately, the Buddha did look deeper and discovered the true problem underlying all of this. The true problem, the true suffering, is the types of bodies and minds that we have. The bodies and minds we have are the basis with which we experience these ups and downs, which they attract like a magnet. If we look even deeper, the true problem is that, by having such bodies and minds, we create and perpetuate more of these ups and downs not just right now and for next week, but right up until we pass away. Not only this, but the Buddha said that we perpetuate our own problems not only in this lifetime, but also, in terms of rebirth, in future lifetimes as well. Even if we do not yet understand and accept the existence of rebirth, we can see how we perpetuate these problems for future generations as well. It is clear to see with the current climate crisis of how our actions perpetuate problems that last long beyond our existence on the planet.

So, what is the actual problem with our bodies and minds? The problem is that they are limited. Our bodies are limited in that they get sick and degenerate as they grow old. Like a bottle of milk, they expire; but, even worse than with milk, they have no clear date of expiry. We have no idea of our body’s expiry date. While the body lasts, think of how much time we need to spend on taking care of it. We have to clean it, dress it, feed it, take it to the toilet, give it exercise, rest and sleep, and care for it when it gets injured or falls sick. How much fun is all of that? As one great Indian Buddhist master nicely put it, we are all slaves to our bodies.

Our minds, along with our emotions and feelings, are also limited. We need to educate and train our minds and, even then, there are so many things we don’t understand. We can’t see the full picture of anything – for example, the consequences of global warming, artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality environments, and so on, let alone what’s going on in our day-to-day lives. And even worse, our minds, like our bodies, degenerate with old age – our short-term memory goes, our minds work more slowly, and we get easily confused.

On top of all of this, our feelings get easily hurt and our emotions run wild, preventing us from even thinking clearly. But the true problem with all of this is that our limited bodies, minds, emotions, and feelings perpetuate themselves; they just bring about more of themselves.

The Four Aspects of True Suffering as Exemplified by Our Limited Bodies

Buddha exemplified true suffering with four aspects of our limited bodies. 

  • Firstly, they’re impermanent. Sometimes we’re in good health and we feel good, but the slightest thing can throw our bodies out of balance, and we get sick and feel awful. Just look how fragile our bodies are – the slightest thing can cause them injury and pain. Underlying it all is that each moment draws us closer to our deaths. We imagine that we can keep our bodies healthy and strong forever, and that, even when we’re old, we can still eat the same and do the same things we did when young. But we’re fooling ourselves; our never-ending struggle to stay young just causes us worry and stress.
  • Secondly, our bodies themselves are problematic. We might think that if we make our bodies look attractive by wearing perfume and makeup or by developing more muscles, we will be happier. But no matter how beautiful we try to make ourselves look, we’re still worried that we don’t look good enough or that we’re starting to lose our good looks. No matter how much makeup or muscles we put on, or how healthy a diet we follow, the problem with our bodies is that we still get sick, we still grow old, and we can still have an accident and get hurt.
  • Thirdly, our bodies smell bad if we don’t wash them, our breath reeks if we don’t brush our teeth, and the urine and feces we expel stink. If we were to spit out food that we’d chewed a few times and offer it to someone, who would consider it clean and fit to eat? The problem, here, is that we are not independently existing entities called “me” that can dissociate themselves from our bodies and live in the imaginary world of “the body beautiful.” We are stuck with these bodies, despite their shortcomings, and we need to take care of them and make proper use of them in our efforts to overcome suffering and help others.
  • Fourthly, we cannot be seen in real life by others except by them seeing our bodies. We might create an online avatar for others to see us in a video game, but still when someone meets us in the “real world,” they see our bodies as they are. Even if in our minds we imagine, when we’re 60, that we look like we did when we were 20, still others will see a 60-year-old body when they look at us. If we don’t understand and accept that, we are just fooling ourselves and can cause problems by acting in age-inappropriate ways.


Our limited bodies are examples of true suffering in that they are impermanent, problematic, we cannot dissociate from them, and they are what others see when they look at us, whether we like it or not. Having that type of body is enough of a problem, but the true suffering that the Buddha said we need to recognize is that we perpetuate having such a body from lifetime to lifetime as the basis with which we experience a seemingly endlessly recurring cycle of unhappiness and unsatisfying pleasure and happiness. Is that really what you want?