The Four Noble Truths structure the entire teaching of the Buddha, containing its many other principles just as the elephant’s footprint contains the footprints of all other animals.

The pivotal notion around which the truths revolve is that of dukkha, translated here as “suffering.” The Pali word originally meant simply pain and suffering, a meaning it retains in the texts when it is used as a quality of feeling: in these cases it has been rendered as “pain” or “painful.”

As the first noble truth, however, dukkha has a far wider significance, reflective of a comprehensive philosophical vision. While it draws its affective coloring from its connection with pain and suffering, and certainly includes these, it points beyond such restrictive meanings to the inherent unsatisfactoriness of everything conditioned. This unsatisfactoriness of the conditioned is due to its impermanence, its vulnerability to pain, and its inability to provide complete and lasting satisfaction.

The notion of impermanence (anicca) forms the bedrock for the Buddha’s teaching, having been the initial insight that impelled the Bodhisattva to leave the palace in search of a path to enlightenment. Impermanence, in the Buddhist view, comprises the totality of conditioned existence, ranging in scale from the cosmic to the microscopic. At the far end of the spectrum the Buddha’s vision reveals a universe of immense dimensions evolving and disintegrating in repetitive cycles throughout beginning-less time.

In the middle range the mark of impermanence comes to manifestation in our inescapable mortality, our condition of being bound to aging, sickness, and death, of possessing a body that is subject “to being worn and rubbed away, to dissolution and disintegration.” And at the close end of the spectrum, the Buddha’s teaching discloses the radical impermanence uncovered only by sustained attention to experience in its living immediacy: the fact that all the constituents of our being, bodily and mental, are in constant process, arising and passing away in rapid succession from moment to moment without any persistent underlying substance. In the very act of observation they are undergoing “destruction, vanishing, fading away, and ceasing.”

This characteristic of impermanence that marks everything conditioned leads directly to the recognition of the universality of dukkha or suffering. The Buddha underscores this all-pervasive aspect of dukkha when, in his explanation of the first noble truth, he says, “In short, the five aggregates affected by clinging are suffering.” The five aggregates affected by clinging are a classificatory scheme that the Buddha had devised for demonstrating the composite nature of personality.

The scheme comprises every possible type of conditioned state, which it distributes into five categories – material form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. The aggregate of material form (rupa) includes the physical body with its sense faculties as well as external material objects. The aggregate of feeling (vedanda) is the affective element in experience, either pleasant, painful, or neutral. Perception (sanna), the third aggregate, is the factor responsible for noting the qualities of things and also accounts for recognition and memory.

Life in any world is unstable, it is swept away, it has no shelter and protector, nothing of its own.

The formations aggregate (sankhara) is an umbrella term that includes all volitional, emotive, and intellective aspects of mental life. And consciousness (vinnana), the fifth aggregate, is the basic awareness of an object indispensable to all cognition. As the venerable Sariputta shows in his masterly analysis of the first noble truth, representatives of all five aggregates are present on every occasion of experience, arising in connection with each of the six sense faculties and their objects.

The Buddha’s statement that the five aggregates are dukkha thus reveals that the very things we identify with and hold to as the basis for happiness, rightly seen, are the basis for the suffering that we dread. Even when we feel ourselves comfortable and secure, the instability of the aggregates is itself a source of oppression and keeps us perpetually exposed to suffering in its more blatant forms.

The whole situation becomes multiplied further to dimensions beyond calculation when we take into account the Buddha’s disclosure of the fact of rebirth. All beings in whom ignorance and craving remain present wander on in the cycle of repeated existence, samsara, in which each turn brings them the suffering of new birth, ageing, illness, and death. All states of existence within samsara, being necessarily transitory and subject to change, are incapable of providing lasting security.

Life in any world is unstable, it is swept away, it has no shelter and protector, nothing of its own. Inextricably tied up with impermanence and suffering is a third principle intrinsic to all phenomena of existence. This is the characteristic of non-self (anatta), and the three together are called the three marks or characteristics (tilakkhana).

To learn more, check out the four noble truths in Tricycle’s Buddhism for Beginners, a free online resource, or sign up for our online course on The Four Noble Truths with Stephen Batchelor, Christina Feldman, John Peacock, and Akincano Weber.