Change: 8. The first noble truth

But this is not all. Recursiveness is a feature not merely of the four noble truths taken as a whole: it is a feature of each of them taken individually. (True recursiveness would not have it otherwise.) Thus, the first noble truth, that of dukkha, is described in an expanded form as:

Birth is dukkha; ageing is dukkha; death is dukkha. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are dukkha. Not to get what one wants is dukkha. In short, the five aggregates associated with holding are dukkha. — M. 28: i,185, etc.

These five aggregates — matter, feeling, perception, conditions, and consciousness — associated with holding (pañc’upādānakkhandhā) can be regarded as the constituents or general categories of experience. Without them there would be no experience; in themselves they are sufficient to specify any experience.

In the Suttas each of these five aggregates is described in greater detail. In particular, feeling is frequently described as being threefold: “Monks, these are three feelings: pleasant feeling, dukkha feeling, neutral feeling.” — S. XXXVI,1: iv,204. Each of these three feelings could be described in yet greater detail if we cared to do so. How might we describe the feeling called dukkha?

We have just seen that the Suttas frequently describe it in terms of the five aggregates involved with holding. And among these aggregates is “feeling,” which includes dukkha. And so we arrive at the proposition that dukkha is describable in terms of the five aggregates, which include dukkha, which is describable in terms of the five aggregates, which include dukkha, which…. In other words, no description of dukkha is possible that does not include dukkha in the description itself. (“Pain hurts.”)[23]

This may be regarded by some as ad absurdum, but it could never be called reductio. But in truth is it so absurd? Consider if it were otherwise — if, that is, it were possible to analyze suffering in terms of components that were more fundamental than, and which did not include, dukkha. Then we would be unable to say sabbe sankhārā dukkhā, “All conditions are suffering,” for we would have found a level of experience which was not involved with dukkha. Such a level would be wonderful indeed, if it could be found. But where is it? Certainly the Buddha’s Teaching, which asserts sabbe sankhārā dukkhā as a fundamental principle, does not offer hope that any such experience is possible.

Furthermore, the analysis is necessarily endless; for each time we analyze dukkha into its components we come face to face with dukkha yet again. There is no limit, no essence, no ground we can arrive at wherein we can say “This entity is an ultimate, not further analyzable.” Were it otherwise — i.e. if there was an Ultimate Level in the experiential hierarchy, an absolute, an essence, from which all reality emanated and within which it was concentrated, like a bouillon cube — then we would be unable to say sabbe dhammā anattā, “All things are not-self;” for the notion of selfhood is bound up with the search for an ultimate. Such an ultimate would be wonderful indeed, if it could be found. But where is it? Certainly the Buddha’s Teaching, which asserts sabbe dhammā anattā: “All things (temporal and extra-temporal) are not-self,” as a fundamental principle, does not offer hope that any such ultimate is to be found.

Earlier (in section 3) we discovered that “the extra-temporal exists only with temporality as its condition.” We can now note that an alternative way to say this is sabbe sankhārā aniccā, “All conditions are impermanent.” To see what is manifestly impermanent as being manifestly impermanent can be done without the guidance of a Buddha: it is a truth which has been discovered by sinners as well as by saints. But conditions (or background: i.e. “for”-ground), as we have seen, already present themselves as being extra-temporal. From there it is no trick at all for conceit to invest these conditions with an absolute extra-temporality, and to conceal the deed with endless swathings of self-deception.

However, its task is endless, for the deception is inevitably undermined by the temporality of all conditions. And as craving flits before the revelatory power of impermanence there is ever the gap between recognition and concealment. Herein craving is exposed and, with right-view guidance, with proper attention, and with eyes sufficiently cleansed, it can be seen. Attachment regards impermanence as an enemy, contests with it, and fails to understand its ongoing defeat. Renunciation regards impermanence as an ally and makes use of its power of discovery. Only thus can it come to understand the true nature of that hopeless contest and to abandon it. But no, we do not abandon it: even, as it might seem, against our will, we find ourselves self-deceived, and come again and again to grief.

Thirst-led folk run here and there,
frantic as the hard-pressed hare.
Attached and held by fetters’ chain,
repeatedly they come to pain. — Dh. 342

What, then, keeps it going? For although these hierarchies of ignorance, of craving, and of dukkha are recursive, they are not independent. Indeed, as we shall see, interdependence is the essence of the second noble truth. Only if we believed in perpetual motion could we accept that these structures might be self-contained, requiring no input of energy to keep them going — sheer indulgence. And belief in perpetual motion approximates to belief in the Eternal — a belief which, due to hunger, is craving’s wrong view. Since craving is necessarily dynamic, it necessarily requires fuel.

The Pali word for fuel is upādāna, which also means “taking up,” “attachment,” or “holding.” Holding is the more versatile word, and we shall use it here. (However, the meaning “fuel” is not merely incidental, and should not be forgotten. “Fuel” is akin to “food.” Compare the recurring phrase, “All beings are sustained by food” — A. X,27: v,50, etc. — and also “All beings are sustained by conditions” — D. 33: iii,211.) And what is this holding/fuel? “That, friend Visākha, in the five aggregates involved with holding which is desire-and-lust (chandarāga), that therein is the holding.” — M. 44: i,299.

The fundamental holding is holding to a belief in self (attavād’upādāna: M. 11: i,67). This is the outcome of conceit (māna). Conceit is grounded upon the five aggregates. “By holding matter there is ‘(I) am’ (asmī ti), not by not holding; by holding feeling…; by holding perception…; by holding conditions…; by holding consciousness there is ‘(I) am,’ not by not holding.” — S. XXII,83: iii,105. Herein holding (which is the direct consequence of craving) and conceit (which is self-deception in its most fundamental and virulent form) become intertwined in one complex recursive structure. This structure derives its impetus for regeneration from desire-and-lust for the five aggregates (or some part of them) and results in dukkha of every sort. How this result comes about, and the nature of the result, is our next topic.


23. Descriptions couched in physiological terms sound very learned and meaningful until one examines them more closely. Then it will be seen that although such descriptions certainly discuss the propagation and progress of electrical impulses along certain neural pathways, and theorize about controlling mechanisms and the like, yet in the end they have said nothing whatsoever about pain (and a fortiori about pain’s arising, its ceasing, and the non-neural path leading to its cessation). [Back to text]

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