Why we do what we do: According to the Buddhist tradition, the first formal sermon the Buddha gave after reaching the state of perfect enlightenment is the teaching on the Four Noble Truths, which he gave on the 4th day of 6th month to his five ascetic disciples in Deer Park. This is metaphorically known as the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. The Buddha declared that life and existence are marred by suffering, that suffering comes from a wide range of causes and conditions, that suffering has an end or cessation, and that there is a path to the cessation of suffering. These four points make up the Four Noble Truths: the Truth of Suffering (སྡུག་བསྔལ་གྱི་བདེན་པ་) the Truth of Cause of Suffering (ཀུན་བྱུང་གྱི་བདེན་པ་), the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (འགོག་པའི་བདེན་པ་) and the Truth of the Path to the Cessation (ལམ་གྱི་བདེན་པ་).
The Four Noble Truths form the cornerstone of the Buddha’s teachings and the Buddhist path to enlightenment. They represent the Buddha’s strategy for problem solving. The Buddha pointed out that there are problems in life and existence, that the problems come out of causes and conditions, that there is an end or solution to the problem and that there is a way to reach the solution of the problem. In implementing this problem solving scheme, it is important first to identify the problem, then eradicate its causes, and thereby actualise the solution by following the path to the solution. Using the medical analogy, the Buddhist masters teach that the problem, like an illness, must be first recognised or diagnosed. Then, the causes of the problem, like the cause of an illness, must be eschewed and eliminated and the solution, like cure, must be sought. The path to the solution, like medical treatment from a physician, must be followed under the guidance of a teacher.
Thus, the first truth of suffering is to be understood and recognised because the ordinary world is ignorant about the nature of the life and existence. The Buddha explained suffering by elaborating that birth, ageing, illness and death are suffering, that having what is displeasing is suffering and not having what is pleasing is suffering, that meeting those one dislikes is suffering and separation from those one likes is suffering. In brief, the five aggregates, the psychosomatic constituents which make up a person, are suffering. The Buddhist masters also classified suffering into three types of suffering of change (འགྱུར་བའི་སྡུག་བསྔལ་) or inevitable change of happiness to suffering, the suffering of suffering (སྡུག་བསྔལ་གྱི་སྡུག་བསྔལ་) or experience of multiple suffering and pain, and the pervasive suffering of conditioning (ཁྱབ་པ་འདུ་བྱེད་ཀྱི་སྡུག་བསྔལ་) or suffering entailed by one’s existential status with the ordinary body-mind complex.
While most scholars translate duḥkha (སྡུག་བསྔལ་) as suffering, others translate it as dissatisfaction but all English translations do not render the full connotation of the original Sanskrit and Choekey terms. The terms duḥkha and སྡུག་བསྔལ་ mean unhappiness, suffering, pain, grief and turmoil. In the particular context of the first noble truths, they refer to anything associated with suffering and pain, anything which causes suffering, ends in suffering and is linked to suffering as a cause, result or in their nature. It is in this respect that the Buddha characterised the whole existence as suffering. He further characterised suffering with impermanence, selflessness and emptiness. Thus, the First Noble Truth must help us understand and view this life and world with a sense of dissatisfaction, detachment, impermanence and illusion, and to seek higher goals of lasting happiness and peace. Seeing life and existence as a transient world leading from one moment of suffering and dissatisfaction to another is the most basic outlook that he asked his disciples to develop in order to overcome attachment to this world and seek enlightenment seriously.