First of all, Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. If
anything at all, it is realistic, for it takes a realistic view of life
and of the world. It looks at things objectively
It does not falsely lull you into living in a fool's paradise, nor
does it frighten and agonize you with all kinds of imaginary fears
and sins. It tells you exactly and objectively what you are and what
the world around you is, and shows you the way to perfect
freedom, peace, tranquillity and happiness.
One physician may gravely exaggerate an illness and give up
hope altogether. Another may ignorantly declare that there is no
illness and that no treatment is necessary, thus deceiving the patient
with a false consolation. You may call the first one pessimistic
and the second optimistic. Both are equally dangerous. But a
third physician diagnoses the symptoms correctly, understands the
cause and the nature of the illness, sees clearly that it can be cured,
and courageously administers a course of treatment, thus saving
his patient. The Buddha is like the last physician. He is the wise
and scientific doctor for the ills of the world
It is true that the Pali word
ordinary usage means 'suffering', 'pain', 'sorrow' or 'misery', as
opposed to the word
meaning 'happiness', 'comfort' or
'ease'. But the term
as the First Noble Truth, which re-
presents the Buddha's view of life and the world, has a deeper
philosophical meaning and connotes enormously wider senses.
It is admitted that the term
in the First Noble Truth con-
tains, quite obviously, the ordinary meaning of 'suffering', but in
addition it also includes deeper ideas such as 'imperfection',
'impermanence', 'emptiness', 'insubstantiality'. It is difficult there-
fore to find one word to embrace the whole conception of the
as the First N oble Truth, and so it is better to leave
it untranslated, than to give an inadequate and wrong idea of it
by conveniently translating it as 'suffering' or 'pain'.
The Buddha does not deny happiness in life when he says there
is suffering. On the contrary he admits different forms of happiness,
both material and spiritual, for laymen as well as for monks. In
one of the five original Collections in Pali
containing the Buddha's discourses, there is a list of happinesses
such as the happiness of family life and the happiness of
the life of a recluse, the happiness of sense pleasures and the
happiness of renunciation, the happiness of attachment and the
happiness of detachment, physical happiness and mental happiness
But all these are included in
Eve n the very pure
spiritual states of
or trance) attained by the
practice of higher meditation, free from even a shadow of suffer-
ing in the accepted sense of the word, states which may be
described as unmixed happiness, as well as the state of
which is free from sensations both pleasant
and is only pure equanimity and awareness—even these
very high spiritual states are included in
In one of the
(again one of the five original
Collections), after praising the spiritual happiness of these
the Buddha says that they are 'impermanent,
and subject to
2 Notice that the word
is explicitly used. It is
not because there is 'suffering'
in the ordinary sense of the word, but because 'whatever is imper-
dukkha' (yad aniccam tam dukkham).
Th e Buddha was realistic and objective. He says, with regard to
life and the enjoyment of sense-pleasures, that one should
clearly understand three things: (I) attraction or enjoyment
(2) evil consequence or danger or unsatisfactoriness
and (3) freedom or liberation
3 When you
see a pleasant, charming and beautiful person, you like him (or
her), you are attracted, you enjoy seeing that person again and
again, you derive pleasure and satisfaction from that person. This
It is a fact of experience. But this enjoyment
is not permanent, just as that person and all his (or her) attractions
are not permanent either. When the situation changes, when you
cannot see that person, when you are deprived of this enjoyment,
you become sad, you may become unreasonable and un-
balanced, you may even behave foolishly. This is the evil, unsatis-
factory and dangerous side of the picture
This, too, is a
fact of experience. N ow if you have no attachment to the person,
if you are completely detached, that is freedom, liberation
A (Colombo, 1929), p. 49.
Mahadukkhakkhandha-sutta, M I (PTS), p. 90.
M I (PTS), p. 85 ff; S HI (PTS), p. 27 S.
These three things are true with regard to all enjoy-
ment in life.
From this it is evident that it is no question of pessimism or
optimism, but that we must take account of the pleasures of life
as well as of its pains and sorrows, and also of freedom from them,
in order to understand life completely and objectively. Only then
is true liberation possible. Regarding this question the Buddha
'O bhikkhus, if any recluses or brahmanas do not understand
objectively in this way that the enjoyment of sense-pleasures is
enjoyment, that their unsatisfactoriness is unsatisfactoriness, that
liberation from them is liberation, then it is not possible that they
themselves will certainly understand the desire for sense-pleasures
completely, or that they will be able to instruct another person to
that end, or that the person following their instruction will comp-
letely understand the desire for sense-pleasures. But, O bhikkhus, if
any recluses or brahmanas understand objectively in this way that
the enjoyment of sense-pleasures is enjoyment, that their unsatis-
factoriness is unsatisfactoriness, that liberation from them is libera-
tion, then it is possible that they themselves will certainly under-
stand the desire for sense-pleasures completely, and that they will
be able to instruct another person to that end, and that that person
following their instruction will completely understand the desire
The conception of
may be viewed from three aspects:
as ordinary suffering
(dukkha-dukkha), (2) dukkha
produced by change
All kinds of suffering in life like birth, old age, sickness, death,
association with unpleasant persons and conditions, separation
from beloved ones and pleasant conditions, not getting what one
desires, grief, lamentation, distress—all such forms of physical
and mental suffering, which are universally accepted as suffering
or pain, are included in
as ordinary suffering
M I (PTS), p. 87.
Vism (PTS), p. 499; Abhisamuc, p. 38.
A happy feeling, a happy condition in life, is not permanent, not
everlasting. It changes sooner or later. When it changes, it pro-
duces pain, suffering, unhappiness. This vicissitude is included in
as suffering produced by change
It is easy to understand the two forms of suffering
mentioned above. No one will dispute them. This aspect of the
First Noble Truth is more popularly known because it is easy to
understand. It is common experience in our daily life.
But the third form of
as conditioned states
is the most important philosophical aspect of the First
Noble Truth, and it requires some analytical explanation of what
we consider as a 'being', as an 'individual', or as 'I'.
What we call a 'being', or an 'individual', or T, according to
Buddhist philosophy, is only a combination of ever-changing
physical and mental forces or energies, which may be divided into
five groups or aggregates
The Buddha says: 'In
short these five aggregates of attachment are
he distinctly defines
as the five aggregates: 'O bhikkhus,
? It should be said that it is the five aggregates of
Here it should be clearly understood that
the five aggregates are not two different things; the five aggre-
gates themselves are
We will understand this point better
when we have some notion of the five aggregates which constitute
the so-called 'being'. No w, what are these five ?
The Five Aggregates
The first is the Aggregate of Matter
In this term
'Aggregate of Matter' are included the traditional Four Great
namely, solidity, fluidity, heat and
motion, and also the Derivatives
of the Four Great
In the term 'Derivatives of F our Great Elements' are
included our five material sense-organs, i.e., the faculties of
eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body, and their corresponding
objects in the external world, i.e., visible form, sound, odour, taste,
Samkhittena pancupadanakkhandha dukkha. S V (PTS), p. 421.
S III (PTS), p. 59.
and tangible things, and also some thoughts or ideas or concep-
tions which are in the sphere of mind-objects
the whole realm of matter, both internal and external, is included
in the Aggregate of Matter.
The second is the Aggregate of Sensations
In this group are included all our sensations, pleasant or unplea-
sant or neutral, experienced through the contact of physical and
mental organs with the external world. They are of six kinds:
the sensations experienced through the contact of the eye with
visible forms, ear with sounds, nose with odour, tongue with
taste, body with tangible objects, and mind (which is the sixth
faculty in Buddhist Philosophy) with mind-objects or thoughts or
All our physical and mental sensations are included in this
A word about what is meant by the term 'Mind'
Buddhist philosophy may be useful here. It should clearly be
understood that mind is not spirit as opposed to matter. It should
always be remembered that Buddhism does not recognize a spirit
opposed to matter, as is accepted by most other systems of
philosophies and religions. Mind is only a faculty or organ
like the eye or the ear. It can be controlled and developed
like any other faculty, and the Buddha speaks quite often of the
value of controlling and disciplining these six faculties. The
difference between the eye and the mind as faculties is that the
former senses the world of colours and visible forms, while the
latter senses the world of ideas and thoughts and mental objects.
We experience different fields of the world with different senses.
We cannot hear colours, but we can see them. N or can we see
sounds, but we can hear them. Thus with our five physical sense-
organs—eye, ear, nose, tongue, body—we experience only the
world of visible forms, sounds, odours, tastes and tangible
objects. But these represent only a part of the world, not the whole
world. What of ideas and thoughts ? They are also a part of the
world. But they cannot be sensed, they cannot be conceived by
the faculty of the eye, ear, nose, tongue or body. Yet they can be
conceived by another faculty, which is mind. N ow ideas and
Abhisamuc, p. 4. Vibh. p. 72. Dhs. p. 133 § 594.
S III (PTS), p. 59.
thoughts are not independent of the world experienced by these
five physical sense faculties. In fact they depend on, and are
conditioned by, physical experiences. Hence a person born blind
cannot have ideas of colour, except through the analogy of sounds
or some other things experienced through his other faculties.
Ideas and thoughts which form a part of the world are thus
produced and conditioned by physical experiences and are con-
ceived by the mind. Hence mind
is considered a sense
faculty or organ
like the eye or the ear.
The third is the Aggregate of Perceptions
Like sensations, perceptions also are of six kinds, in relation to six
internal faculties and the corresponding six external objects. Like
sensations, they are produced through the contact of our six
faculties with the external world. It is the perceptions that recog-
nize objects whether physical or mental.
Th e fourth is the Aggregate of Mental Formations
In this group are included all volitional activities both
good and bad. What is generally known as
comes under this group. The Buddha's own definition of
should be remembered here: 'O bhikkhus, it is volition
that I call
Having willed, one acts through body, speech
Volition is 'mental construction, mental activity.
Its function is to direct the mind in the sphere of good, bad or
Just like sensations and perceptions, volition
is of six kinds, connected with the six internal faculties and the
corresponding six objects (both physical and mental) in the external
Sensations and perceptions are not volitional actions.
They do not produce karmic effects. It is only volitional actions—
such as attention
repugnance or hate
III (PTS), p. 60.
'MentaI Formations' is a term now generally used to represent the wide meaning
of the word samkhara in the list of Five Aggregates. Samkhara in other contexts may
mean anything conditioned, anything in the world, in which sense all the Five
Aggregates are samkhara.
A (Colombo, 1929), p- 590—Cetana ham hhikkhave kammam vadami. Cetayitva
kammam karoti kayena vaca manasa.
Abhisamuc, p. 6.
S III (PTS), p. 60.
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