Idaṃ kho pana bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ: jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ — saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā.
“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.”
Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)
In defining the First Noble Truth, the Buddha said that birth, sickness, old age, and death are tinged with suffering. Association with what is unpleasant and dissociation with what is pleasant are tinged with suffering. Clinging to the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, consciousness) is tinged with suffering.
Due to the emphasis on suffering in the First Noble Truth, the Buddha’s teachings are sometimes misinterpreted as pessimistically anti-life. This is due to a misguided reading of the Four Noble Truths and their relation to suffering. Some have misunderstood the First Noble Truth as “life is suffering,” which, in actuality, was never stated by the Buddha.
In the First Noble Truth, the Buddha did not assert that all life is suffering. His teachings were not anti-life. “In life, there is suffering” is a far better rendering of the first Noble Truth than “life is suffering,” which one will sometimes see in the various mistranslations available.
In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha’s first set of teachings in which he discusses the Four Noble Truths, he teaches:
jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ — saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā.
Breaking this down into its component parts yields the following eight simplified statements:
- jātipi dukkhā – birth is stressful
- jarāpi dukkhā – aging is stressful
- byādhipi dukkho – sickness is stressful
- maraṇampi dukkhaṃ – death is stressful
- appiyehi sampayogo dukkho – dissociation from the pleasant produces dissatisfaction
- piyehi vippayogo dukkho – association with the unpleasant produces dissatisfaction
- yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ – not getting what one wants produces dissatisfaction
- saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā – in summary, clinging to the five aggregates produces dissatisfaction
This does not mean that all aspects of life are suffering, that there is nothing positive and only the negative. These elements of dukkha are not all encompassing and do not imply that life is filled with nothing but suffering. The First Noble Truth simply details different categories of suffering within life.
Further along in the Four Noble Truths, one sees that the Buddha stated that an end to suffering is possible, making his teachings life-affirming rather than anti-life. Freedom from suffering is possible in this very lifetime.