The First Noble Truth: Suffering

Regardless of size, shape, color or background, there is one thing that all people in the world have in common: suffering. This truth was discovered by Buddha while he experienced the world as royalty and as a simple wandering monk. His most significant teaches focus on suffering and how to end it. Suffering, or dukkha, appears as the first of the Four Noble Truths.

Divisions of Suffering in Buddhism

Suffering comes in many forms. In Buddhism, it is broken into three categories. The first is ordinary suffering. This describes the general physical and mental suffering that the average human being experiences such as giving birth, aging, sickness and death.

The second type is suffering brought on by change. This category includes dukkha caused by stress and anxiety which often comes about when a person tries to hold on to something that is always changing.

The third type of suffering is described as “conditioned states”. This refers to a basic lack of satisfaction and a feeling that our expectations and standards are never met. It’s often caused by the fact that life in all its forms changes and is impermanent with no substance or inner core.

Mental Suffering, Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seeds

Buddha described suffering as both a physical and mental condition. One of the most famous stories about Buddha involves Kisa Gotami, the wife of a wealthy Savatthi man. After her only child succumbs to illness, Gotami is devastated and begs everyone to help her find a way to bring him back to life. She is told to go see Buddha and ask him to help her.

When she explains what has happened to Buddha, he remains patient and sympathetic. He tells her that before he can bring her son back to life, she must bring him a handful of mustard seeds from a family that has never suffered a death. Kisa begins searching but soon finds that no such family exists. Every home she visited had experienced loss from death.

She returned to Buddha after realizing that she will never find a family that is free of death. He comforts her and shares with her the truth: that suffering and death is a part of life that everyone must endure. Kisa accepts the truth and becomes awakened. She follows Buddha’s teachings and eventually becomes an Arhat, or a perfected person who has attained nirvana.