The First Noble Truth
The Buddha began his explanation of the first noble truth—the truth of suffering—not with a definition but with a list of common examples: the suffering of birth, aging, and death; of sorrow, lamentation, physical pain, distress, and despair; of association with the unbeloved, of separation from the loved, and of not getting what you want.
Except for the last, none of these examples needs any explanation. The Canon explains “not getting what you want” as referring to cases where you’re subject to any of the other examples of suffering—such as aging, illness, and death—and want to be freed from them simply through the power of wishing or prayer (MN 141). The frustration of not being able to wish these forms of suffering away does nothing but add more suffering on top of the suffering already there. Instead, as we’ve noted, you have to focus your desires on following a course of actions that will actually bring all these forms of suffering to an end.
Up to this point, the Buddha’s explanation of suffering deals in things that are perfectly familiar. We’ve all suffered in these ways ourselves, or seen other people suffer from them.
Then, however, he summarizes the suffering common to all these examples, and this is where he enters unfamiliar territory. In short, he says, the five clinging-aggregates are suffering. This, too, he says, is something we’ve all experienced, simply that we don’t understand it in these terms. Only when we understand what he’s referring to by this summary can we begin to comprehend the first noble truth.
First, the words aggregate and clinging:
“Aggregate” is a translation of the Pali word khandha, which means, “heap,” “group,” or “mass.” It also means the trunk of a tree—a meaning that, we’ll see, is actually relevant to this context. The use of the English term “aggregate” to translate khandha comes from a distinction, popular in 18th and 19th century European philosophy, between conglomerates of things that work together in an organic unity—called “systems”—and other conglomerates that are mere random collections of things, called “aggregates.” Translating khandha as “aggregate” conveys the useful point that even though the physical and mental processes that are classed as khandhas can seem to have an organic unity, they’re actually shaped by discrete choices. Still, it’s important to bear in mind that the mind does shape the aggregates toward purposes, and that although those purposes can often be random or conflicting, they can also be more or less consistent—a fact that makes a path of practice possible.
The five aggregates are:
• form: any physical phenomenon—although the Buddha’s focus here is less on the physical object in itself, and more on the experience of the object; in terms of your own body, the primary focus is on how the body is experienced from within;
• feeling: feeling-tones of pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain;
• perception: the act of recognizing, mentally labeling, and identifying experiences;
• fabrication: the intentional shaping of experience; and
• consciousness: awareness at the six senses (the five physical senses plus the mind as the sixth).
There’s something of an anomaly in that the term “fabrication” in some contexts covers all five aggregates and yet in others is listed as one of the five. That’s because the mental act of fabrication shapes your actual experience of all physical and mental phenomena in the dimensions of space and time. It chooses among the potentials for any of the aggregates made available by past actions, and turns those potentials into the actual experience of those aggregates in the present. “Fabrication” as a name for one of the aggregates refers specifically to this mental process. As a term for all five aggregates, “fabrication” covers both the processes of fabrication and the fabricated phenomena—physical and mental—that result.
It’s important to note that the Canon defines the aggregates in terms of verbs—feelings feel, perceptions perceive, even form “deforms”—making the point that these aggregates are processes and activities, rather than solid things.
As for “clinging-aggregates,” this expression doesn’t mean that the aggregates cling. Instead, it refers to the act of clinging to the aggregates. In fact, the suffering lies in the clinging. The experience of the aggregates on their own, without clinging, may involve some stress, in that the aggregates continually change in dependence on conditions, but if there’s no clinging, that stress doesn’t weigh down the mind. This means that the suffering referred to in the first noble truth is the suffering of clinging. The aggregates aren’t the problem. The clinging is.
Still, to understand clinging, you need to get a sense of what it clings to. The question often arises: Why did the Buddha choose to divide physical and mental experience into the categories of these five aggregates? Couldn’t he have divided it up in other ways?
The Canon doesn’t give an answer to this question, but it’s worth noting that each of the aggregates is associated with the act of feeding. In the Buddha’s analysis, the act of feeding is something that all beings have in common. In fact, that’s how we define ourselves as beings: by latching on to these five activities as we feed. When you feed—either physically or emotionally—all five of these aggregates are involved:
• A sense of form: When you eat physical food, “form” refers both to the form of the body that needs to be nourished—and that will be used to look for food—as well as to the physical objects that will be used as food. When you feed on your imagination, “form” applies to whatever form you assume for yourself in the imagination, and to the imaginary forms from which you take pleasure.
• Feeling: You start with the painful feeling of physical or mental hunger that drives you to look for food; then there comes the pleasant feeling of satisfaction when you’ve found something to eat; followed by the added pleasure that comes when you actually eat it and assuage your hunger.
• Perception: You use perceptions to identify the type of hunger you feel, and to identify which of the things in your world of experience will satisfy that hunger. Perception also plays a role in identifying what is and isn’t food. This, in fact, is one of our most basic perceptions: When children crawling across the floor encounter something new, they put it in their mouths to determine whether to perceive it as food or not.
• Fabrication: In the context of feeding, this covers the ways you contemplate and evaluate strategies for finding food, for taking possession of it when you find it, and for fixing it if it’s not edible in its raw state.
• Consciousness is the act of being aware of all these activities.
This shows that even though the term “aggregate” may not be familiar, it refers to activities that are not only very familiar to all beings, but also intimately connected to your sense of who you are. We are how we eat.
When we use these activities to feed, they acquire positive associations in our minds. But in the first noble truth, the Buddha tells us that the act of clinging to them is suffering. This is the first point where his analysis of suffering goes against the grain.
As for the Pali word for clinging, upādāna, that means (a) sustenance and (b) the act of taking sustenance—as when a tree takes sustenance from soil, or a fire from its fuel. The same meaning applies to the mind. This is where the interpretation of khandha as the trunk of a tree is relevant: We feed off the aggregates in the same way that a fire feeds off the trunk of a tree as it burns.
The implication here is that suffering comes from a double level of feeding: feeding emotionally off the activities that go into the act of feeding to ease our physical and emotional hunger. This is a second point that goes against the grain. Ordinarily, we enjoy clinging not only to our food, but also to the act of clinging itself.
To accept the Buddha’s analysis of suffering in the first noble truth, we have to develop some dispassion for the things to which we cling and for the act of clinging itself. This makes the first noble truth difficult to accept, but it’s also what makes it noble. It teaches us to step back and raise ourselves above our hungers.
We work toward this dispassion by following the duty that corresponds to this truth. Instead of running away from suffering or trying to push it away, we patiently observe it with the purpose of comprehending it. We need to see for ourselves how the suffering is not the mere fact of physical pain or stress. It’s actually identical with the act of clinging. Full comprehension comes when we understand clinging to the point where we have no more passion, aversion, or delusion around it.
A first step in comprehending clinging is to identify its various types. The Buddha lists four (MN 11):
• Sensuality-clinging: passion and desire to find pleasure in fantasizing about and planning sensual pleasures.
• View-clinging: passion and desire for views about how the world is structured and how it works.
• Habit-and-practice-clinging: passion and desire for ideas that tell you how you should act in the world.
• Doctrine-of-self-clinging: passion and desire for ways of defining who or what you are.
This list may sound arbitrary and abstract until you realize that the Buddha, again, is talking about some very basic functions of the mind. Sensuality-clinging deals with what you want in terms of sensuality. View-clinging is concerned with your ideas about what the world is and how it works. Habit-and-practice clinging covers your ideas of how you have to act in the world to get what you want. It’s focused on your ideas of what you should do. And doctrine-of-self-clinging relates to your sense of yourself as (1) an agent, capable of controlling events in an attempt to negotiate between what should be done, based on the way the world works, and the wants of (2) the consumer who will find happiness when those wants are satisfied. Both of these senses of self are overseen by the self as (3) a commentator, who judges the actions of the agent to see if they satisfy the consumer, and to decide if the consumer should raise or lower its standards for satisfaction. These three functions of the self are your basic set of strategies for finding happiness.
The first three types of clinging define the arena in which your self acts and searches for happiness. The balance of power among the three types will vary from person to person, and—even within a particular person—from moment to moment. On the occasions when you want to reject all constraints on trying to fulfill your sensual fantasies, you might be inclined to accept a materialist deterministic worldview where sensual pursuits are not subject to moral judgments, and where the shoulds of the world counsel the pursuit of pleasure wherever you find it. This would be a case of sensuality-clinging dictating your view of the world. At moments when you want to believe that your dignity as a human being lies in your ability to choose your actions, you’ll be inclined to adopt a non-deterministic worldview where choice is real. This would be a case where habit-and-practice-clinging dictates your view of the world and what your attitude toward sensuality should be.
There are not a few cases where people change their worldview to fit in with their desires of the moment. There are also cases where their wants run up against the shoulds and what is of a worldview to which they’re committed for other reasons. Modern psychology has detailed the suffering that comes from precisely this sort of internal conflict, one that’s not limited only to those suffering from severe mental illness. Freud, for instance, described it as the ego’s constant need to negotiate among the shoulds of the super-ego, the wants of the id, and the “what is” of the reality principle. Jung saw the issue as a clash between the shoulds and wants of the individual ego and the shoulds and wants of the unconscious. However you analyze it, this conflict is a common feature of the human condition.
However, even though the first three types of clinging define the arena in which the self functions, the Buddha identified doctrine-of-self-clinging as the most basic type of clinging of all. In fact, only in a teaching where this type of clinging is comprehended, he said, can people reach awakening. That’s because your sense of who you are explains why you’re invested in seeing the world a certain way and in believing that certain things should be done in order to attain what you want. Without your desire to gain pleasure for yourself, views of the world or of how you should act wouldn’t have much hold on the mind.
This may be why, of all the different forms of clinging, doctrine-of-self-clinging is the one on which the Buddha focused the most attention when explaining how clinging gets fixated on the five aggregates. According to him, you can identify the self either as identical with any of the aggregates, as possessing any of the aggregates, as containing any of the aggregates, or as existing within any of the aggregates (SN 22:1). For example, you might identify yourself as your body, or as the owner of your thoughts, or as an infinite consciousness containing all five aggregates, or a little person inside the body, making use of its senses.
These four possibilities multiplied by five aggregates give twenty possible self-identity views to which you might cling.
So it follows that doctrine-of-self-clinging is the most important type of clinging to comprehend. And if we look carefully at the three roles of the self, we can see most clearly why clinging is suffering. The self-as-consumer, even though it enjoys feeding, is constantly hungry. As the Buddha said, even if it rained gold coins, that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy one person’s sensual desires. This means that the self-as-agent has to be constantly at work—negotiating among wants and shoulds, trying to gain a measure of control over the way things are—all in order to assuage the hunger of the consumer, with the self-as-commentator never giving it a moment’s rest.
However, you can’t uproot your sense of self without also uprooting the other types of clinging as well. Given that the self is what negotiates the world and tries to figure out how to act to gain pleasure, its identity is strongly linked to its range of strategies and skills for finding what it wants. These, in turn, rely on how it sees what is and what should be done.
You see this connection most clearly when you move into a different culture or when your own society undergoes radical change. The world is no longer what it used to be, the skills that used to get results come up empty-handed, and your very identity gets called into question. To survive, you need to construct a new self around new skills for negotiating the new arena in which you act.
So—given that the roots of the self are entangled in its desires, its worldviews, and its ideas of what should be done—if you want to put an end to suffering, you not only have to uproot your sense (or senses) of self. You also have to uproot the other three types of clinging: your attachment to sensuality and to your sense of how you should act, given your views on how the world works.
These facts about suffering define the strategy of the remaining three noble truths. Suffering can’t be ended until you abandon the desires that lead to clinging: This is the message of the second truth on the origination of suffering. But those desires won’t go away simply by wishing for them to go. A first step in abandoning them requires developing an alternative set of desires, with a new sense of who you are, of how the world works, and of how you should act in response to these new views. In other words, you need to use desire and clinging in the quest to end desire and clinging. That’s the strategy of the fourth noble truth, the path to the end of suffering. Once the path has done its work, you can abandon it, too. When the mind is totally free of desire and clinging, it can realize the third noble truth: suffering’s end.