When the Buddha became enlightened and realized the way to attain eternal peace & happiness, he was, at first, reluctant to teach what he had discovered.
He felt that people simply wouldn’t be able to understand it. The truths he discovered are subtle, and the way to realize them is difficult. “It goes against the stream,” as the Buddha said; it is so contrary to the way people usually think and live, that when it comes to seeing these truths, it’s like “they are covered in a mass of darkness.”
Having perceived this thought in the Buddha’s mind, the god Brahmā Sahampati manifested in front of him. He asked the Buddha to reconsider, because even though many people are not ready to hear the truth, there are others who are capable of enlightenment.
In a passionate plea, he said, “Open the door to the deathless state! Let them hear the truth! Wander in the world. Teach them, and they will learn.”
The Buddha looked once more on the world “with the eye of a Buddha,” and he realized that what Brahmā said was true. He saw the world like a pond of lotus flowers—some stay submerged in the muddy waters, but others are able to rise to the top and bloom in the sunlight. Likewise, some people truly are “covered in a mass of darkness,” but there are others who are ready to see the truth, unobscured by the muddy waters of our defiled states of mind.
Having been inspired by this, he immediately set out to find the first recipients of his message. What follows is my own attempt to explain the ideas which the Buddha taught in this first teaching.
If you find yourself searching for happiness… try reading this. It‘s possible it won’t resonate with you. It’s also possible that it will be your first step towards the only happiness which is deathless.
Birth, aging, sickness, & death are dukkha;
sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha;
association with the unpleasant is dukkha,
dissociation from the pleasant is dukkha;
not to receive what one desires is dukkha -
in brief, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.
What is dukkha? Dukkha is usually translated as “suffering,” but this only scratches the surface. Honestly, there’s no good equivalent for the word in English, so let’s just learn what it means.
The word dukkha has its roots in a description of a bad wheel axle on a carriage... Something that’s out-of-whack. Dukkha is a bumpy ride, an uncomfortable experience.
Sometimes dukkha means outright suffering, such as physical pain or mental anguish. It also has more subtle meanings… a vague sense of dissatisfaction, or a sadness at the loss of something we once loved, or growing tired with something we once enjoyed... We’ll get into the different kinds of dukkha later, but for now, we only need to understand this: dukkha sucks.
All that stuff the Buddha listed up above is “dukkha.” This may seem pessimistic, but let’s call a spade a spade: birth is a messy, painful experience. During pregnancy the mother’s body undergoes all kinds of painful, unpleasant changes, and when it’s all said and done, babies don’t pop out with a smile. They’re screaming and crying.
Birth is the very first point in a bumpy ride, and it just keeps going from there. We get old, our bodies fall apart and ache, our mental faculties decline, and throughout the whole trip we deal with sickness.
Furthermore, we’ll have to face all sorts of things we don’t like. People, ideas, places, things... throughout the course of our life we must necessarily deal with things that just flat out make us unhappy.
Of course, there is happiness—no one is trying to tell you that there’s no such thing as joy, pleasure, or fun. Throughout the course of your life, you’re going to experience lots of things that make you feel these ways! HOWEVER… it won’t last. We eventually lose the happiness we find in these things—either because they change, or we change, or we are forced apart from them by circumstance. Friends move away or drift apart, lovers grow distant and go their separate ways, hobbies and careers become tiresome, or the states of being and ideas we pursue fail to safeguard us from the dukkha that is there through every stage of our life. Even if we manage to find something (whether it be a friend, a lover, or a career) that lasts for a lifetime, it will not leave us feeling satisfied. We will find dukkha in those things, and they cannot keep us from experiencing dukkha in everything else.
Then, in the end, we die. A heart attack, a stroke, a car crash, murder, or simply being too old to carry on as we choke out painful goodbyes. Most of us don’t want to die. Those who do will find no relief in suicide, because death isn’t even an end to dukkha, as we’ll discuss later. It’s just one more step along the way.
If we’re honest with ourselves, these basic examples of dukkha are easy to understand... but what’s this about the five clinging-aggregates?
5. Volitional formations
The Five Clinging-Aggregates are various types of phenomena which come together moment after moment. The word aggregate refers to something which is made up of various other things. They’re “piles” of phenomena which come together and function in a particular way.
They interact with one another, as well as the outside world, and make up our living experience. Through these processes, you “cling” to existence, to the outside world, or to the aggregates themselves (by identifying with them, or seeing any part of the process as being your “self” or “soul"). There’s a problem here—everything that you cling to in this way is dukkha. The act of clinging, itself, is also dukkha... and the very aggregates through which you do this are, themselves, dukkha.
Those ideas are a little heady, so let’s break them down. What, exactly, are the five clinging-aggregates?
The scriptures use four elements to explain the aggregate of form: earth, water, fire, and air.
Earth represents the solidity of the body; this accounts for all of our body parts, as well as things such as hair, nails, teeth, and even poop.
Water represents the liquidity of the body; this accounts for our bodily fluids such as bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, tears, oils, spit, snot, urine, etc. It also includes body fat.
Fire represents various energetic functions of the body such as temperature, vitality, and digestion.
Air represents the movements of "the winds" throughout the body, including the breath and gases.
The scriptures state that this aggregate also includes forms derived from the four elements, but these secondary forms are never defined or explained in the Buddha's sermons. Later Buddhist tradition came to file various things under this classification, including the five physical senses and their corresponding sense-objects. Despite the fact that the early texts never explicitly placed the senses within the aggregates, this is a great place to talk about them.
In Buddhism, the senses are understood as operating by way of the internal and external "sense-bases." The internal sense-bases are simply our senses--vision, hearing, smell, taste, and tactile body sensations. The scriptures usually use the terms for the corresponding sense-organ when discussing these senses; vision gets called "the eye," hearing gets called "the ear," etc. However, it is important to understand that when the senses are being discussed, what is being referred to are the abstract senses and not the material organs; for this reason, I will be using the term "sense-gate."
The external sense-bases are the various types of sense-objects which correspond to the sense-gates. Visible objects correspond to the eye sense-gate. Sounds correspond to the ear sense-gate. Odors correspond to the nose sense-gate. Flavors correspond to the tongue sense-gate. Tactile sensations correspond to the body sense-gate.
The mind is understood as functioning, in part, as a sense-gate as well; just as the eye sense-gate meets visual objects, giving rise to eye-consciousness, the mind sense-gate meets mental objects, giving rise to mind-consciousness.
Many things are considered mental objects, such as mental images, ideas, and memories. In addition, impressions from the other five sense-gates are met as mental-objects by the mind, and it is mind-consciousness of these objects which allows us to reflect on these sense-impressions. Furthermore, other mental phenomena, such as a feeling or a perception, may be met by the mind as mental objects, thus giving rise to mind-consciousness.
When we’re talking about the aggregates, “consciousness” refers to the rudimentary awareness of a sense-object. The Buddha described it as being like a fire; it arises as a reaction when certain things meet in a way which produces it. Just as the meeting of a spark and oil will produce a grease-fire, the meeting of a sense-gate and a sense-object will produce a certain type of sense-consciousness.
When a form meets your eye sense-gate, eye-consciousness arises. When a sound meets your ear sense-gate, ear-consciousness arises... You can work out the smell, taste, and bodily-sense parts for yourself. Likewise, when a mental object meets the mind, mind-consciousness arises.
When the sense-bases meet and give rise to sense-consciousness, this is called contact, and what follows marks the beginning of the subjective sensory experience.
From contact, feeling arises. It is important to know that, in Buddhism, the term "feeling" does not refer to any emotion. Instead, it refers to the way we initially experience sensory contact.
In different sermons, the Buddha used different classifcation systems for explaining the different types of feeling--one list puts forward as many as 108. For general purposes, it's sufficient to know two classifications: the twofold distinction between bodily and mental feelings, and the threefold distinction of pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant feelings.
Bodily feelings refer to the feelings which result from five kinds of contact: contact from the visual sense-bases, the hearing sense-bases, the smell sense-bases, the taste sense-bases, and the tactile body sense-bases. Mental feelings refer to feelings which result from contact at the mind sense-bases.
The threefold distinction applies to contact from all 6 sense-bases, and explains the next step in the sensory process. After sense-contact, we subjectively "feel" the experience as being either pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. For example, if someone gently caresses our skin, we experience a pleasant feeling. If a kitten scratches us, we experience an unpleasant feeling.
Contact at the visual, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory sense-bases always produces neutral feelings initially. For example, a visual object enters your field of vision, and you see it, giving rise to visual consciousness. From this contact, a feeling arises--but at this point, you haven't even cognized what it is you're seeing yet. The feeling is neutral, a mere reception of the sense-experience. Your mind has "felt" the sense-object.
After perception of the sense-object has arisen (the next aggregate to be discussed below), a subsequent mental process may begin where an idea of the initial sense-experience is met by the mind, giving rise to mental consciousness, and producing a secondary mental feeling. This feeling may be pleasant or unpleasant. This helps to explain why multiple people may experience the same sense-object at the same time, and experience different feelings; the sense-object is initially experienced in the same way, but the way this experience is met by the mind varies from person to person.
Contact at the tactile and mental sense-bases may produce any of the three feelings after the initial sensory contact.
Feelings are an important part of the sensory experience because they may entice us to take action in certain ways. This will be explored through the aggregate of volitional formations. First, let us examine the aggregate of perception.
Perception is the mental phenomenon which interprets the qualities of any sense-objects which have been "felt." The arising of perception is how we recognize sense-objects or assess their features.
Perception functions by detecting particular "signs" of the sense-object. For example, when visual contact arises, and the experience has been "felt" by the mind, perception may arise to grasp the color, shape, size, or some other visible feature of the sense-object. Through these signs, we are able to recognize previously-experienced sense-objects, as well as comprehend newly-experienced sense-objects (by perceiving their features relative to other experiences we've had).
The mental aggregate of perception is also capable of producing memories and conceiving ideas. With these functions, instead of responding to a sensory experience, it recalls previous experiences (in the case of memories) or conjures up ideas in the mind. Its capability to conceive ideas is particularly important in meditation, which we will discuss later.
This aggregate includes various types of volitional activities or impulses which propel us to react to sense-objects. Many important phenomena are classified within this aggregate.
For example, the "underlying tendencies" are considered volitional formations. These are deep-seated dispositions that influence us in harmful ways, often in ways we may not even be aware of. Though there are seven underlying tendencies, for now, let's just discuss three: the ones which are triggered by the three types of feeling.
Pleasant feelings may stir up the underlying tendency to desire. When a sense-contact produces a pleasant feeling, this tendency motivates us to pursue more of that pleasant feeling. Unpleasant feelings may stir up the underlying tendency to aversion. When a sense-contact produces an unpleasant feeling, this tendency makes us upset or anxious, and motivates us to try to and flee from what is causing us displeasure. It may also cause us to seek out sense-pleasure, if we mistakenly believe that doing so will fix the displeasure. Finally, neutral feelings may stir up the underlying tendency to ignorance. If there is a neutral feeling, instead of understanding this with wisdom, we abide completely unaware, leaving us at the mercy of the misunderstood sense-process as it continues in its various stages.
The underlying tendencies are subtle, and in most people, they operate subliminally. Without ever realizing it, many of us are propelled by the defilements of our mind. Even if we intend to act wholesomely and plan to do good, the underlying tendencies may influence our actions before we've even realized it. Furthermore, they may influence the way our aggregate of perception works. For example, the tendency to desire may cause our perception to grasp signs of a sense-object which we consider pleasing, or the aggregate of aversion may cause us to focus on things we find displeasing, leading to a skewed sense-experience.
Other volitions are more deliberate. For example, in response to what is experienced by the aggregate of perception, we may begin directing our minds in "discursive thought," which is an action of internal speech where we think about and examine what has been experienced. This may begin as simple reasoning, an internal dialogue, but often it spirals out into what is called "mental proliferation," which is what happens when the mind, previously engaged in simple thought, runs wild. Thoughts begin to multiply, and suddenly our mind is clouded with mental chatter. Within these mental clouds, "proliferated concepts" form. These concepts form a network of ideas, beliefs, and assumptions which affect the way we navigate and perceive the world. The scriptures state this is the source of enmity, hatred, and conflict. Furthermore, these concepts can be grasped as mental objects, beginning the sensory-process all over, contributing to more thoughts, more mental proliferations, and more concepts--a vicious cycle.
This is not a comprehensive explanation of volitional formations, but it should suffice; in short, they are forces which move us to take action.
There they are. The five aggregates, which make up the basis for our living experience.
To help these ideas sink in, let's see them in action with an example. In this example, imagine you're sitting in bed, and you see a bug in the corner of your room.
Your body, of course, is form. The bug's form functions as a visual object, and when it meets your eye sense-gate, eye-consciousness arises.
From this point of contact, feeling initially "feels" this sense experience, but as the mind has not yet cognized what was seen, it is received as a neutral feeling.
Now, perception arises, and it grasps the "signs" of the sense-object. It is brown, it is small, it's moving... you've seen this sort of thing before. It's a spider!
Now, a secondary sensory process may begin, where the idea of the visual object--now identified as a spider--is able to be met as a mental-object by the mind, giving rise to mental-consciousness, and from this contact, an unpleasant feeling arises. After all, you don't like spiders; you perceive them in the light of various concepts derived from mental proliferation. Perhaps you believe this spider is dangerous, or that it doesn't belong in your room, or perhaps you simply have a deeply-held belief that you are someone who hates spiders.
This unpleasant feeling has stirred in you the tendency to aversion. You sit up, alert, scared... or perhaps angry. You are being moved by volitional formations. You believe the best way to avoid this unpleasant feeling is to kill the spider. You grab something, slowly walk across the room, and strike! What was, mere moments ago, a living creature is now a mangled pile of damp bug-parts.
This is a process which takes place moment after moment, and it is dukkha.
Why, exactly, are the five clinging-aggregates dukkha? After all, sometimes you see forms that aren’t spiders. Sometimes you see attractive bodies. Sometimes you hear cool music, or have dreams and ambitions that inspire you, or you fall in love. Are those things dukkha too?
That’s because the five aggregates are conditioned things. That means they come about through a process called dependent origination. This sounds complicated, but it’s simple—the origin of a conditioned thing depends on other things.
Two people meet, feel desire, act on the will to have sex, and from all of the various events that follow, comes a birth. The resulting baby has a form which depends on all of the various biological processes which take place in the mother’s body. The baby is raised, is influenced by the parents and the outside world, and it goes on to interact with those things as well. It ages, it gets sick, and eventually dies.
All throughout that person’s life, moment after moment, the five clinging-aggregates are interacting to form the living experience. Every single part of this process is a link in a chain of causal events; any given link comes about as a result of the things which happened before it, and any given link goes on to affect the things that happen afterwards.
In short, all conditioned things are affected by something, and those things, in turn, affect something else. Nothing which is conditioned exists outside of this chain.
Any conditioned thing can be described with three characteristics: impermanence, dukkha, and not-self.
Conditioned things are impermanent because they don’t last forever. Truthfully, most conditioned things last only a very brief period of time—mere moments, in fact, as demonstrated by the five aggregates. Most phenomena that arise in the chain of dependent origination which make up our living-experience come about through a momentary meeting of other things, last for a brief instant before affecting the next process in the chain, and cease to exist. They arise, they change, and they cease.
Even your body, on a cellular level, is not the same body you were born with. Obviously, you’ve grown and changed, but even deeper than that, your cells and tissues have died and grown anew on a microscopic level in such a way that we can say your body is entirely different than it used to be.
Not-self can be a little tricky, mostly because the word it is translated from, “anatman,” is simply a negated version of a word that was common in the Buddha’s time. “An” is a negative prefix which literally means “no” or “not,” and “atman” means “Self,” as understood by other various thinkers of his time.
The scriptures demonstrate that there were many different ways of understanding "the Self" during the Buddha's time. Some people believed it was impermanent, others believed it was eternal; some believed it was merely the material body, while others believed it was the divine part of you which became liberated from the cycle of suffering. In any case, "the self" was believed to be some ontologically real aspect of a person which, ultimately, is that person. "The self" was understood as that which you are. It is "the self" which was understood to think, to feel, to make decisions, and to experience the effects of those decisions.
Perhaps the most popular understanding of "the self" stems from the Upanishads, groups of mystical texts (some pre-Buddhist) now associated with Hinduism. In the Upanishads, "the self" was understood as the most essential part of a living being - similar to the idea of a soul. It was described as being divine, irreducible, and directly linked to Brahman - that which these people believed to be both God and the ultimate fabric of reality. In this framework, the self is understood to be a divine, sacred part of reality which is ultimately what you are.
“Anatman,” or not-self, is a rejection of any such thing — or at the very least, a word used to demonstrate that anything we could possibily conceive of is not "the self." You are not your body, you are not your mind, you are not your awareness, you are not your feelings, your perceptions, or any of the activities of the mind. You are not the sum of these parts, and you are not something separate which exists through the combination of these parts. Though we cling to the notion of a self or an enduring personality through the five aggregates, in truth, none of those things are what you really are. So what are you?
A popular metaphor in Buddhism is the chariot. Chariots aren’t in vogue these days, so I like to use a pen instead. What is a pen? Well, it’s that little instrument you hold in your hand that lets you write things. When we examine more closely, though, it’s not that simple, is it?
There’s the ball-point, which rolls around to mark on the page, and the little conical piece that conceals the tip of the ball-point when you click the little button on top. There’s the little clippy-thing so you can put it in your shirt pocket. If you unscrew some of those pieces, there’s an ink-cartridge inside, and the ink itself, of course. If you really want to get analytical, you could break all of those things down, too. You could reduce the ink into the various dyes and liquids that give its color and consistency. You could reduce the ink cartridge into the oils used to create the plastic, and on, and on, and on.
None of these things are the pen. If you take all those parts and put them in a pile together, that’s not a pen either. It’s only when you take all of these different building blocks, and arrange them just so, in a way that functions according to our idea of a pen, that we can look at that thing and say “Aha! That’s a pen!”
A person is just the same way. You are not any of the things which make up your form, and you are not any of the processes which make up your mind. It is only due to certain ideas that we are able to imagine some enduring personality existing within all of these processes. Nowhere in the entire field of the living experience can you find anything which is your “atman,” or your “self.” It is all not-self.
And finally, dukkha. There are three classifications of dukkha. We glossed over this earlier, but let’s actually touch on the particulars.
Dukkha-dukkha, or suffering-dukkha. THIS is the kind of dukkha which is covered by the word “suffering.” This refers to pain - physical and mental anguish.
Viparinama-dukkha, or change-dukkha. This is the sort of dissatisfaction we feel when something inevitably changes. Every pleasure becomes a displeasure, and nothing gold can stay.
Sankhara-dukkha, or conditioning-dukkha. This is probably the most subtle one. It’s just the byproduct of living in a world consisting entirely of conditioned things, which are all marked by the three characteristics (impermanence, not-self, and dukkha). Again—dukkha sucks. When you’re possessed by a general malaise, a vague feeling that something is missing in your life, that you’re not quite there yet—that’s sankhara-dukkha.
Because all conditioned things are impermanent, doomed to cease, and not-self, we have to acknowledge that they are dukkha. They will never provide us with lasting satisfaction.
That’s the First Noble Truth, and what I believe is all the necessary background information to get a decent grasp on the idea. Before we continue, let’s take a second to catch our breath and summarize what we’ve learned.
Birth, aging, sickness, death, association with the unpleasant, and dissociation from the pleasant are dukkha. These are things we will necessarily experience in life. On a deeper level, all of the phenomena which come together, moment after moment, to create our experience of existence are also dukkha. All of these things are dukkha because they are conditioned. They come about through the process of dependent origination.
The bottom line: the entire field of our living experience is dukkha… and dukkha sucks.
And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of dukkha:
the craving that makes for further existence — accompanied by passion & delight…
craving for sensual pleasure, craving for existence, craving for non-existence.
Remember when we discussed dependent origination earlier? Everything comes from something. Every phenomenon can be understood as a link in the causal chain, and each one depends on the link which came before it.
Well, our living experience, and the five clinging-aggregates which create that experience, are a result of that chain. This means they also have a cause.
The Buddha teaches us that the most immediate cause of dukkha is “craving,” or tanha. This word literally means “thirst,” and refers to three different kinds of craving:
The first is craving for sense-pleasures. This just refers to craving for pleasurable feelings through sense-contacts. Pleasant sights, pleasant sounds, pleasant smells, pleasant tastes, pleasant touches, and pleasant thoughts.
The second is craving for existence. This means craving to remain alive, to continue experiencing life in one form another.
The third is craving for non-existence. This means craving to cease being alive, usually due to the misguided belief that death brings an end to suffering.
The Buddha said craving is the cause of dukkha, and there are two dimensions to this:
On the one hand, craving leads to dukkha in this life. The things we long for are incapable of providing us with lasting satisfaction. It keeps us chasing after that mirage on the horizon, reaching for that carrot dangling from a string in front of our faces, just out of reach. In trying to satisfy our cravings, we cling to the living-experience, which is dukkha.
On the other hand, craving also produces that living-experience; craving and clinging lead to the continuity of "existence," the arising of the clinging-aggregates in a future birth.
The concept of “existence” will be explored below, but first we must understand the idea of karma and karmic fruits.
Karma literally means “action” but more specifically refers to an action which is charged by volition. These acts can be acts of the body (actions taken in the ways we would normally think), as well as acts of speech and of mind.
Karmic fruits, then, refer to the results of that intentional action. One such effect is the planting of habitual “seeds,” tendencies or inclinations that become imprinted in the mind. These things “bloom” and affect the way we behave and experience the world around us in the future.
This is all understood as being part of dependent origination. Intentional actions are conditioned by the defiled states of mind (most notably desire, aversion, and craving). They go on to condition things, themselves, through the results they produce.
This process of sewing karma and reaping its fruits is complicated, and is not merely a linear “cause and effect” dynamic. A more detailed look at karma is beyond the scope of this page, however, so let’s continue.
From the top: our living experience is dukkha. That living experience is produced by craving. Well, then… what causes craving, and how does craving go on to produce dukkha? This is explained with the 12 Links of Dependent Origination.
The first two links can be seen as representing the forces in our past life which functioned as the cause of our present life. The first of these, which is the root of the whole process, is ignorance. Ignorance, specifically, of the Four Noble Truths and the 3 Marks of Conditioned Things (impermanence, dukkha, not-self).
Because of our ignorance of the truth, we give rise to karmic formations—the second link in the chain. This is translated from the same term which gave us “volitional formations” in the Five-Clinging Aggregates, and there is a lot of overlap between the way the term is used in these two contexts. In the 12 Links, however, the term is more narrowly focused on the karmic effect of volitions and the actions we have taken. Actions of body, speech, and mind, when rooted in ignorance, have kept us bound in the experience of dukkha, and these karmic formations must bear fruit—they were conditioned by ignorance, and they go on to condition the next step in the process.
Links 3 to 10 may be applied to our present life. Conditioned by the karmic formations of past lifetimes, especially craving, consciousness arises at the moment of conception. Again, this term is the same one used in the aggregates, but it also takes on a new meaning in this context. Here, it no longer refers to a base awareness of sensory activity, but instead seems to refer to a "life force" which acts as the basis for continuity between multiple lifetimes. Just as sense-consciousness arises like a fire fed by sense-contact, consciousness in this context is fed by craving after death. It is described as "descending into the womb," where the body being conceived acts as a "foothold." One may be tempted to view this consciousness as a "spirit" or an "atman," but again, no such thing can be found. This consciousness is impermanent, and it exists only insofar as it is conditioned by karmic formations.
This consciousness, then, goes on to condition “mentality/materiality,” which is the Buddhist term for the mental and physical elements of an individual. One’s mental and bodily faculties begin to form, having been imbued with the vital aspect of consciousness as a result of the karmic process.
A few Buddhist scriptures indicate that the inverse may also be said: that “mentality/materiality” conditions consciousness. This is not to be understood as a contradiction, but as an acknowledgment that these two links in the chain are so interdependent that they may be said to simultaneously condition one another. It is only when both of these links condition one another, at conception, that an individual may form.
Next come the six sense-bases. One develops the sense-gates with which they will engage the world—internal and external—thus beginning the living experience produced by the interplay of the Five Clinging Aggregates.
This development enables contact, which is the interaction of the sense-gates with the sense-objects, as well as the accompanying sense-consciousness.
Because of contact, one is able to experience feeling—those sensations of positive, neutral, or negative feelings which arise moment after moment in the mind, as one’s sense-gates meet the sense-objects and experience sense-consciousness.
Because of those feelings, craving arises; craving for the positive feelings, craving for the cessation of negative feelings. Again, even thoughts and ideas—which are mind-objects—are part of this. We crave positive feelings from contact between all of our sense-gates, their sense-objects, and the resultant sense-consciousness.
We seek satisfaction of this craving by clinging to the Five-Aggregates. Not knowing any better, we try to satisfy craving through the means of our living experience with which we are familiar.
It doesn’t do us any good. Our attempts to experience satisfaction give rise to continued existence. It is important to note that this term is not limited to the passive sense of existing, the way we would say an object does or does not exist. This term implies a mode of existence which will have consequences in future lifetimes, due to the karmic nature of the actions which will be taken during its course.
Since the root of this whole process is ignorance, and these actions are made while we cling to the experience of dukkha, the karmic fruit they bear must necessarily be dukkha, likewise. At the moment of death, still being defiled by ignorance and driven by karmic formations, these things do not vanish… they continue in the process of conditioning, the wheel of dependent origination.
This leads us to the last two links in the chain, which can be applied to the next life. The eleventh chain is birth, the beginning anew of this cycle of dukkha. Conditioned by the ignorance and karmic formations of the previous life, and all of the things which followed it, consciousness once again arises with mentality/materiality. Another being is born into the cycle of dukkha.
The inevitable outcome of a being born is to become old and die.
To reiterate: the entire field of our living experience is dukkha. The most immediate cause of dukkha is craving, with the underlying cause being ignorance. That ignorance is the root of a cyclical process of Dependent Origination which spans across lifetimes, giving rise to further dukkha.
Many people reach this point and have a knee-jerk reaction: they dismiss Buddhism as being pessimistic, excessively negative, or even nihilistic. This accusation is foolish. The Buddha spoke at length about the follies of nihilism, but let it suffice to say this:
Acknowledging a basic truth—that our living experience is dukkha—is not pessimistic! It is a simple diagnosis of a problem which affects every living being. You don’t tell the doctor they’re being a buzz-kill when they tell you you’re sick. You don’t tell your mechanic they’re a stick-in-the-mud when they let you know your car is damaged.
You ask: “How do I fix this?”
"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving."
The basic idea of the third noble truth is very simple and straight-forward: it is possible to end the experience of dukkha by stopping its cause: craving (which, again, is rooted in ignorance).
That’s right! Gospel! Good news, a reason for hope! Despite the cyclical nature of Dependent Origination, the Third Noble Truth reminds us that it is a process in which we take part; not a fate to which we are doomed.
Instead of ignorance, we must begin with knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings. The defiled karmic formations must be countered with wholesome states. Instead of craving for things which are dukkha, we must earnestly strive for the cessation of dukkha. Instead of clinging to the Five Aggregates and the experiences they produce, we must practice skillfully according to the Buddha’s instructions. Instead of “continued existence,” we must work for the abandonment of craving, of the Five Aggregates, and of dukkha.
No need to worry about the particulars just yet. The main point of the Third Noble Truth is simply that we have the power to bring dukkha to an end. The end of dukkha is nirvana.
This is a word you’ve likely heard before, but what does it mean? Well, that’s hard to say. The Buddha tried a few different ways to relate the idea to us, but since it is completely unlike the living experience we already know, he never explained what it is exactly. How could he? It’s like explaining dry land to a tadpole, or explaining what outer space is like to an earthworm.
For starters, nirvana is the destruction of mental defilements and craving. It is the disappearance of the Five Aggregates and the end of rebirth. When someone attains nirvana and is still alive, they are said to have achieved “nirvana with the remainder of conditioning.” The rest of their lifetime will play out, they will grow old, and they will die—but they no longer act in ways which bear karmic fruits. They no longer experience dukkha the way you or I do, and upon their death, they are said to have achieved “nirvana without remainder of conditioning.” As they have abandoned ignorance, defiled karmic formations, craving, and clinging, there is no “becoming”—when they die, there is nothing left which can go on and continue the cycle of Dependent Origination.
Nirvana is the end of dukkha, and as such, it cannot be understood with the unenlightened mind which knows only dukkha. It is not a place, it is nowhere to be found; it is outside space and time, but it is not a location. It is not an afterlife, a paradise, or a heaven. It is not infinity, it is not nothingness.
It is supreme happiness, but not a happiness to which we can relate. The only forms of happiness we know are conditioned; they arise from a cause, and they perish because they are impermanent. Nirvana is unconditioned, unarisen. It does not have a cause, it does not change, and it does disappear.
We may not understand what, exactly, nirvana is—but we know it’s better than dukkha. This much the Buddha can tell us for certain.
So… how do we achieve it?
"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration."
The Noble Eightfold Path is the framework put forth by the Buddha to guide practitioners towards Nirvana. There are eight different kinds of practices laid out.
The Buddha stated that Right Concentration is the last part of the Eightfold Path, with the previous seven being the support which leads to it. Right View is “the forerunner,” because all of Buddhist practice begins with understanding the most basic teachings, as well as understanding the difference between the “right” and “wrong” interpretations of each branch of the Eightfold Path.
Otherwise, there is no real sequential nature to the Eightfold Path. Right View, Right Effort, and Right Mindfulness act as a sort of trinity which allow the practitioner to correctly engage with the Eightfold Path as a whole.
The most basic description is that Right View is understanding and believing in the Four Noble Truths, including the branches of the Eightfold Path.
Being resolved on renunciation of defiled states of mind, the actions which stem from them, craving, and the clinging which results from that. Having the intent to act for the benefit of oneself and all sentient beings.
Not lying, not speaking divisively, abusively, or engaging in “idle chatter” (essentially anything that’s just a waste of breath, like gossip).
More specifically, we are asked to speak only if what we say meets five criteria:
Right Action boils down to “do no harm.” Specifically, we are told:
The idea of sexual misconduct was expanded in later Buddhist tradition, but in the early texts, the Buddha seems to have been referring primarily to adultery and becoming involved with inappropriate partners (such as someone who is too young; the Buddha discouraged old men from marrying young women, for example). This only applies to laypeople; for monastics, sexual activity is wholly forbidden.
Basically, making your way in the world by not harming others—including animals.
Specific occupations which are forbidden include arms-dealing, human trafficking (and anything that could be construed as such, like pimping or owning a brothel), being a butcher or selling meat, producing or selling intoxicants, etc. Any job which necessarily brings harm to other living creatures should be avoided. Furthermore, Right Livelihood also means avoiding the two extremes of extravagence and miserliness. A layperson should not blow all of their money on frivoulous displays of wealth, nor should they hoard all of their money.For monastics, a long list of practices are forbidden. Most of these deal with magical things, such as fortune-telling. Monks and nuns are meant to be living embodiments of the Buddha's teachings, not mystics-for-hire.
Earnestly putting in the work to achieve:
In short: really putting in the work to abandon mental states and habits that do not help us achieve enlightenment, and developing those that do.
Right Mindfulness refers to the cultivation of "mindfulness," a mental quality which allows the mind to focus on the experience of the present moment, free from distractions which would otherwise cloud the mind and produce unwholesome states of mind. Mindfulness is cultivated using various meditation techniques described in the Satipatthana Sutta (and the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, in greater detail). A detailed description of these practices is beyond the scope of what we’re doing here, but in short, here’s the idea:
The meditator directs the faculty of perception (which we discussed in The Five Clinging-Aggregates) towards one of the themes which will serve as the point of focus instead of the usual "signs" of sense-objects. In doing so, the meditator prevents the usual operation of the sensory process from leading to its problematic outcomes. By remaining mindful of the frame of reference, the faculty of perception does not give way to mental proliferation and the formation of concepts. Likewise, feelings do not stir up the underlying tendencies and produce defiled volitions or craving.
The first frame is the body. There are 14 different bodily subjects one may focus on, the most popular being mindfulness of the breath - noting when one is breathing in, or breathing out, as well as noting the quality of the breath - whether it is heavy, light, long, or short. Other themes include focusing on the body’s posture, contemplating the repulsive parts of the body, or visualizing corpses in various states of decay. The two latter themes are especially powerful because they foster dispassion towards dissatisfactory existence and curb lust, but beginners are generally discouraged from choosing these themes because they can also lead to feelings of hopelessness or despair if the practitioner is not prepared to contemplate these things.
The second frame involves six types of feeling: the worldly and spiritual varieties of pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant feelings. The worldly feelings arise as a result from basic contact between senses and sense objects, and lead to unskillful reactions such as desire or aversion. The spiritual feelings arise during the course of meditation, outside of the worldly sensory process, and are considered to be simultaneously more gratifying and less harmful than their worldly counterparts, as they do not elicit unskillful reactions. With the second frame, the meditator watches for these feelings, and makes note when they are being experienced.
The third frame is the mind itself, approached through the conceptualization of 8 pairs of opposing states of mind. For example, a practitioner would take notice when a state of greed is present in the mind, or when the mind is free from greed.
The fourth frame is the conceptualization of various Buddhist teachings, including the Four Noble Truths, the Five Aggregates, and the Six Sense-Bases.
The meditator must contemplate a particular theme within one of these frameworks while exercising three qualities of mind:
Each of these frames may be approached in a few different ways.
First, the meditator contemplates the theme: internally (as it happens within their own body or mind), externally (conceiving how it happens in the bodies and minds of others), or both. Secondly, the meditator may contemplate the subject of the theme as arising, or fading away, or both. Doing this strengthens the understanding of the Three Marks of Conditioned Existence. Lastly, the meditator may simply maintain a bare awareness of the object being focused on, developing an uninterrupted mindfulness which leads to an experiential understanding of that subject.
Practicing mindfulness in this way allows one to gain power over the usual sensory process, which would otherwise lead to all of the problems we have discussed previously.
Similarly to Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration refers to the cultivation of a mental quality through meditation. This time, the quality to be developed is “samādhi,” which essentially means “concentration,” but this is no ordinary state of focus—when one is “immersed in samādhi,” one is able to achieve incredible feats, the most important of which is the attainment of enlightenment.
Truthfully speaking, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration overlap quite a lot, despite the fact that later Buddhist tradition came to see the two practices as distinct. Furthermore, Right Concentration came to be considered far less important than Right Mindfulness, sometimes to the extent that it was said to be unnecessary for enlightenment—something which is not supported by the scriptures. The Sīlakkhandavagga makes clear that the establishment of Right Concentration relies upon the foundations of ethical practice and mindfulness, so it is possible to view Right Concentration as the culmination of the Buddhist path as a whole.
While mindfulness is cultivated through the techniques involving the four frames, concentration is cultivated by progressing through four states of deep meditation called “jhānas,” usually translated as “absorptions.” Again, a deep dive into these states is beyond the scope of this page, but let's look at them briefly:
In order to enter the jhānas, one is instructed to become grounded in ethical practice and “guarding the sense gates” — practicing discipline and restraint to prevent unskillful reactions to appealing/repulsive sense-experiences. With these preliminary achievements, one is ready to establish the mental quality of mindfulness in order to temporarily overcome “the five hindrances.” These five hindrances—desire, ill-will, sloth, restlessness, and doubt—are mental qualities which prevent the mind from settling into the state of concentration which is required to achieve enlightenment.
After using mindfulness to abandon the five hindrances, one is ready to approach the jhānas. After realizing their mind is free from those negative states of mind, “joy” (pāmojjam) rises up. This joy leads to a mental state called “rapture” (pīti), which is a sort of energizing pleasure that enlivens and empowers the mind. This, in turn, causes the body to experience tranquillity, leading to a pleasurable physical sensation of “bliss” (sukha). This bliss allows the mind to become immersed in the beginning stage of samādhi, transitioning into the first jhāna.
It is important to understand that these feelings which begin to arise during entry into the jhānas are not like the worldly feelings we discussed earlier. They are described as pleasurable, but they do not stir the underlying tendencies or give rise to unwholesome states of mind. The Buddha called these sensations "spiritual feelings" (niramisa vedana, as opposed to "worldly feelings," samisa vedana). Instead of arising as a result of contact between the internal and external sense spheres, they arise as fruits of religious practice. Various scriptures explain that these spiritual feelings serve a practical function of enabling the mind to abandon unskillful states and the desire for lesser forms of pleasure.
In the 1st jhāna, one now experiences rapture and bliss which arise through the absence of sense-desires as well as the absence of any unskillful mental states. In this stage, one is still using their discursive, thinking mental faculties to gently guide the mind and contemplate the experience of the first jhāna. Although this should be understood as a type of thinking, it is important to understand that this is much more refined than the mind’s usual process of thought—there is no mental chatter, no train of internal dialogue. Having been freed from the unskillful mental states that cloud our usual thoughts, the mind is now functioning in a much more subtle, productive way.
Eventually, one is able to bring even this subtle process of thinking to a stop. This leads to entry into the 2nd jhāna, also called “the noble silence.” Rapture and bliss now arise from a more refined state of samādhi. The mind becomes "one-pointed," completely focused, and a powerful state of confidence and mental clarity arises. One is even more ready to progress towards enlightenment.
In the 3rd jhana, the feeling of "rapture" fades away from the mind, and is replaced with a tranquil equanimity. The meditator becomes even more mindful and alert, but the energetic feeling which previously filled the mind is replaced with a more stable neutrality. The feeling of bliss remains in the body.
Finally, in the 4th jhana, the meditator abandons even that blissful feeling. The mental qualities of mindfulness and equanimity have become fully purified, and “pure, bright mind” spreads through the entire body. From this state, one is completely “immersed in concentration,” and they may direct their mind towards the achievement of incredible feats, including psychic or metaphysical acts.
More importantly, one may now directly experience impermanence, dukkha, and not-self without relying on any sort of cognitive process or mental activity which might obstruct the full understanding of these ideas. Using samādhi in this way, one is able to destroy the mental states known as “āsavās,” or “corruptions.”
The corruptions are usually three in number: 1. the weakness for sensual pleasure. 2. the weakness for continued existence. 3. the weakness of ignorance. When the mind is under the influence of the corruptions, it is vulnerable to the allure of sensual pleasures, ignorantly driven deeper into samsāra through attachment to the modes of existence which we use to try and attain these pleasures.
Destroying the corruptions is equivalent to the attainment of nirvana. One has now become enlightened, and will no longer produce karmic formations which lead to continued existence in samsara.
With that, the Eightfold Path is concluded. These eight practices, seen to their end, will lead a practitioner to enlightenment. Craving is stopped, and dukkha comes to cessation. Only the remainders of past karma are left, and will be experienced in this final lifetime. No further karma will be sown. After death, nirvana without remainder is attained.
This brings my attempt to summarize the Buddha's teachings to a close. If you are interested in learning more, I encourage you to seek out a teacher. There are many different traditions of Buddhism, but the groundwork laid out on this page is more or less accepted by most of them.
I am only a layman, so I encourage you to take everything I've said here with a grain of salt. Investigate things for yourself, crossreference the information here with other sources, and come to your own conclusions.
May all sentient beings attain enlightenment.