A member of my sangha said she was talking to a friend of hers and he said that he was a bad Buddhist since he “couldn’t believe life was all suffering”, that he’d “get punched in the gut every time he left the house”. This is a common misunderstanding of the First Noble Reality - that life is filled with dukkha. This is where many people outside Buddhism look at the Dharma and think, “boy, that’s a depressing religion.” So if it doesn’t mean that we’re going to get punched in the gut every day, what does it mean?
The first thing we need to do is to look at the First Noble Reality by itself. The Buddha says that life is filled with dukkha, which is a Pali word that doesn’t translate into a single English word, even though most translators use “suffering”. Even in Pragmatic Buddhism we try to translate it as “unsatisfactoriness”; yet even this doesn’t cover the full meaning of dukkha. Dukkha as the Buddha used it covers three different concepts: suffering (physical, mental, emotional, existential, etc.), impermanence and conditioned states (dependent origination). Let’s look at each of these.
Suffering (dukkha-dukkha) we all pretty well understand. It is the physical sensations of pain as well as emotional and existential unsatisfactoriness that accompany our lives. Impermanence (viparinama-dukkha) is the simple understanding that all things pass away - whether good or bad. This type of dukkha arises from our failure to accept the basic impermanence of things. When we’re happy we want to stay that way and when happiness ends we experience dukkha. Conditioned States (samkhara-dukkha) is the concept that all things arise in dependent relationship to other things. Dependent origination tells us that this is true of all compounded things, and thinking that we exist without this dependent relationship is another cause of dukkha. Understanding this shows us that dukkha is not just getting punched in the gut. Even happiness is dukkha - not in itself but in its inevitable passing away.
Now we can see that part of the misunderstanding comes from our attempt to translate a single Pali word into a single English one without acknowledging that this is a futile task. I think a larger misunderstanding comes from looking at the First Noble Reality by itself without understanding its necessary relationship with the other Realities. “Life is filled with dukkha” is not a statement of the way the world inherently IS but an explanation of the symptom that the Buddha observed for which the remaining Noble Realities provide a cure. Thinking that he was stating that the world was and always would be filled with dukkha removes any need for the remaining Realities. If dukkha could never be brought to an end there is no need to continue past the First Noble Reality, but the Buddha did!
First he gives us the cause of this symptom that afflicts humanity - clinging craving. And to what craving do we cling - to the belief that our fantasies for reality must BE reality. We want to deny impermanence especially. We want things to remain the way they are - not only happiness, but everything. How many people do you know who cling to their suffering with all their might, insisting that it is all there will ever be? We want to believe that if we just had money, or love, or a new car or house we would be happy forever. We want to believe we will live forever - if not in this body then in a heaven (or hell). We want to believe that there is a father figure guiding our existence because we don’t want to be responsible for it ourselves. When we let go of this craving we are taking the first step toward the cessation of dukkha. This doesn’t mean that we don’t work toward making a better life, but only that we don’t insist that our wants are actually needs.
As a third stage the Buddha tells us without equivocation that dukkha CAN be brought to an end. It always amazes me when people tell me that Buddhism is depressing, or nihilistic, or acquiescent. It is not! The Buddha does not tell us that dukkha is a state that must be accepted, but a state that we CAN bring to an end. He then goes on and explains the path to its cessation in the Eightfold path; but the path can be explained very simply. It is the path to letting go of our craving to make our fantasies reality and instead to accepting what already is - even while we work toward making things better for ourselves and all beings.
Remember dukkha is not the last word in Buddhism but the first. Everything else is about bringing it to an end. There’s not just on Noble Reality, there are four and we live all four of them.