The First Noble Truth: Truth of Suffering
The First Noble Truth provides the full understanding of suffering. Of course, in an obvious way, people are aware of suffering and know when they have unpleasant sensations such as hunger, cold, or sickness and recognize these as things that one doesn't like. But the first noble truth includes awareness of all the ramifications of suffering because it encompasses the very nature and essence of suffering. This includes knowledge of the obvious and the subtle aspects of suffering.
The obvious aspect of suffering is immediate pain or difficulty in the moment. Subtle suffering is more difficult to understand because it begins with happiness. But by its very nature this happiness must change because it cannot go on forever. Because it must change into suffering, then subtle suffering is the impermanence of pleasure.
For example, when His Holiness Karmapa went to Buthan, he was invited to the palace of the king. Upon arrival there, the palace was magnificent, the kings chambers were beautiful, there were many servants who showed complete respect and obedience. But the Karmapa found that even though there was so much external beauty, the king himself was suffering a great deal mentally and had many difficulties. The king himself said that he was quite relieved that His Holiness had come and emphasized how much the visit meant to him because of the various difficulties with which he had been troubled.
This is the subtle aspect of suffering. One thinks that a particular situation will give one the most happiness one can ever imagine, but actually, within the situation, there is a tremendous amount of anguish. If one thinks of those who are really fortunate - those gods or human beings with a very rich and healthy life - it seems as though they have nothing but happiness. It is hard to understand that the very root, the very fibre of what is taking place is suffering because the situation is subject to change.
What is happiness? By its very nature it can often mean that there will be suffering later on. There is no worldly happiness that lasts for a very long time. Worldly happiness includes an element of change, of built-in suffering. For that reason the first noble truth of the awareness of suffering refers not just to immediate suffering, but also to the subtle elements of suffering. The Buddha taught the truth of suffering because everything that takes place on a worldly level is a form of suffering.
If one is suffering but is not aware of it, one will never have the motivation to eliminate this suffering and will continue to suffer. When one is aware of suffering, one is able to overcome it. With the more subtle forms of suffering, if one is happy and becomes aware that the happiness automatically includes the seed of suffering, then one will be much less inclined to become involved in the attachment to this happiness. One will then think, "Oh, this seems to be happiness, but it has built-in suffering." Then one will want to dissociate from it. The first truth is that one should be aware of suffering. Once one has a very clear picture of the nature of suffering, one can really begin to avoid such suffering. Of course, everyone wants to avoid suffering and to emerge from suffering, but to accomplish this one needs to be absolutely clear about its nature.
When one becomes aware that the nature of day-to-day existence is suffering, one doesn't have to be miserable with the thought suffering will always be present. Suffering doesn't go on forever because the Buddha entered the world, gave teachings, and demonstrated clearly what suffering is. He also taught the means by which suffering can be ended and described the state beyond suffering which is liberation. One does not have to endure suffering and can, in fact, be happy.
Even though one cannot immediately emerge from suffering by practicing the Buddha's teachings, one can gradually eliminate suffering in this way, and move towards eventual liberation. This fact in itself can make one happy, even before one has actually completely emerged from suffering. Applying of the Buddha's teachings, one can both be happy in the relative phase of one’s progress and then at the end one will gain wisdom and liberation and be happy in the ultimate sense, as well.
Of the Four Noble Truths, the first makes it clear that there is suffering. Once one knows what suffering is, one must eliminate that suffering. It is not a question of eliminating the suffering itself, but of eliminating the causes of suffering. Once one removes the causes of suffering, then automatically the effect, which is suffering, is no longer present. This is why, in order to eliminate this suffering, one becomes aware of the second noble truth, the truth of universal origination.