Buddha's central teachings are the Four Noble Truths. The Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna is by far the most detailed version, in the original Pali scriptures, of the Four Noble Truths. This essay is based on the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutra (DN.22).

The first three Truths are about Dukkha (Pali), its beginnings and endings. These days Dukkha is commonly understood as 'suffering'. The Fourth Truth is a list of instructions and directions, the first of these instructions is to correctly understand Dukkha! The First Truth explains what Dukkha is.


ancient wooden spoked wheel
In Buddha's time the word Dukkha was used to describe when a wheel was not turning smoothly on its axle. The spoked wheel dates from around 2,000 B.C.. By 500 B.C., when Buddha was alive, the wheel had led to a cultural revolution.

There was one big central problem : Dukkha. In those days the wheels squeaked and wobbled, and the hub needed constant maintenance in order to run smoothly.

Dukkha describes how our existence is not running smoothly. The hub of the ancient wooden spoked wheel symbolises almost perfectly, how life wobbles, and sometimes starts grinding or gets twisted and blocked.

Modern suggestions for the interpretation of Dukkha are : suffering, anxiety, distress, unsatisfactory, frustration, unease, stress, but none of these have the sense of repetition and self perpetuating motion as witnessed in the wheel: - not running smoothly, not turning well.

The 17th century invention of the ship's wheel has a totally different function to the spoked wheel of Buddha's times.

modern 17th century ships wheel
The use of the ship's wheel on many Buddhist websites, including the english wikipedia page on Dukkha(1), exemplifies how far modern Buddhism has diverged from the original teaching.

In many texts it is written that the Five Aggregates are Dukkha. The Aggregates are five umbrella terms which explain all that happens to us and how we experience the world. They describe the process between knowing and being. They are: manifest form, sensation, perception, concepts and consciousness. The Aggregates apply to each and all of our senses.

In Buddhism, where thoughts are considered as manifest forms or 'mind-objects', the Aggregates also apply to how the mind senses its own thoughts. And because any follow-up idea or association is also a 'mind-object' it is also sensed, and this develops into a never-ending process.

The First Truth tells us very simply: Our sensory apparatus, is not running smoothly; or -
Our sensory apparatus, the Five Aggregates which are manifest in the six senses of touch, taste, smell, sound, sight and thought, are not running smoothly.

The Second Truth discusses the cause of Dukkha. Our sensory apparatus is influenced by pleasure and wanting. This is the prime cause of Dukkha. But my understanding of Buddhism then differs from the normal view.

The normal view is that Buddha adopted the Hindu idea that pleasure and wanting lead to attachment, and then he added the new idea that due to impermanence and change, attatchment leads to suffering.

I believe Buddha's new central idea (or one of them), was that pleasure and wanting lead primarily to repetitions. Simply: if something is pleasurable, we want to repeat it. Repetitions involve us in a timeline, they are not conducive to being now. And, once the repetitions start, once the wheels start turning; then they turn with their own karmic momentum.

The traditional view that attachment is the central problem, is supported by the fact that the Five Aggregates are almost always and only defined in terms of "the Five Aggregates of Clinging". 'Clinging' limits their interpretation and their potential as a universal theory.

I believe the Aggregates primary attribute is once set in motion, once the wheels start turning, they keep repeating. Attachments, especially extreme attachments like clinging, are just one of the consequences of the repetitions.

This idea occurred to me while considering how suffering, and all the other exaggerated terms like 'clinging' and 'craving'; made Buddha's message more concrete and dramatic, but they diminished its universal application.

I believe Buddha's message was a universal one, and applied to all the little wants and problems we have, likethe times we end up in the kitchen and forget what we came for ... not only and exclusively the most extreme and manifest forms of addiction (craving and clinging) and suffering.

I had been considering the phrase: the origin of Dukkha is "that craving which gives rise to fresh rebirth"(2). I realised the simple everyday sense of this is : the origin of Dukkha is 'that wanting which leads to another repetition'.

It may well be that an extreme form of wanting like craving leads to extreme forms of repetition like rebirth; but it is blatantly obvious that wanting leads to repetition, and this is a basic universal truth.

Repetitious wanting causes endless 'next things to do' and a mental feedback system, which one translation gives as "The rolling in thoughts of mind objects"(3). The origin of Dukkha is the increasing complexity, and often the conflicting directions between all the different types of repetition and wanting.

If pleasure and wanting lead primarily to repetition, and not always and inevitably to attachment, this modifies much in the modern understanding of Buddhism.

Ref. 1, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dukkha 2019, Ref. 2, Nyanaponika Thera, p.128, "The Heart of Buddhist Meditation" (page 142) Rider & Co. London. (1962). Ref. 3, Pali Tipitaka, Vipassana Research Institute, Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutra https://www.tipitaka.org/stp-pali-eng-series#42 (last paragraph before #43 ). Ref. 4, Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutra Collected Translations (English, French, German).

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