Buddhism, suffering, and the SDGs: The First Noble Truth

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There is suffering all around us. What a pessimistic way to start an article, you might think. But at the heart of all solutions lies a recognition that something is wrong

Doctors cannot heal their patients without diagnosing an ailment. Society cannot improve without identifying problems facing its people. And we as individuals can’t hope to live happy and fulfilled lives if we don’t acknowledge the barriers to our happiness, including (if not especially) the suffering in our minds.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism says that life is filled with dukkha: suffering, dissatisfaction, disappointment. With this First Truth, the Buddha made an important distinction: pain is not the same as suffering. He describes this as the “first and second arrows.” If we are walking in the woods and suddenly are struck by an arrow, this is a form of pain that is outside of our control. The pain we feel is inevitable. But that’s not usually the whole experience. We also add in a second arrow, a layer of suffering from our resistance and anger about being struck. We vow revenge, telling stories to everyone who will listen about this unjust pain that was thrust upon us. This second arrow is a form of dukkha. This arrow is not inevitable; we don’t have to suffer in this way (but we typically do).

If this is true that suffering pervades human experience, we will no doubt see evidence of this in our lives. And if we see evidence, then it makes sense to find a remedy. This is ultimately what the path of Buddhism seeks to achieve.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, take a similar approach. Recognizing that poverty, injustice, inequities, environmental degradation, and other ailments exist, the SDGs aim to find remedies for each of these ailments.

Buddhists have put this process into practice for over 2,500 years. No doubt there are some valuable lessons for those seeking to achieve the SDGs. If anything, Buddhism offers a clear path for systematically exploring our minds, looking at how we interact with the world, and the effects our behavior has on producing more – or less – suffering in our lives.

None of this is to say that suffering is the explanation for all problems and that Buddhism is the primary solution. However, the Buddhist system does provide some practical insight into the human mind, which can be useful both as individuals and as practitioners seeking to understand the context in which we’re working.

This is the first part in a series of articles that will explore the fundamental teachings of Buddhism and “curing what ails us” – in turn creating a sustainable future.

Is it true that my life is filled with suffering? 

“…just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting, and rubbing it, so you must examine my words and accept them, but not merely out of reverence for me.”

~ Buddha, in the Dhammapada

The Buddha encouraged his followers to test the truth of his teachings in their own experience, rather than simply accept out of faith in him. In this light, I don’t have to look far to see the truth of the First Noble Truth in my own life.

However you translate dukkha, as “suffering,” “dissatisfaction,” or “disappointment,” all of these feelings have pervaded my life. I can recall feeling deep anxiety as a youth, which manifested as insecurity and fear. These feelings then translated into behaviors that further fueled my suffering, primarily in the form of abusing alcohol and drugs. My teens and twenties could be summarized as “trying to fill a bottomless pit with consumption.”

Even as I moved on from the futility of this behavior, my suffering-fueled consumption took the shape of seeking ever more adventure and new experiences. Perhaps not as directly harmful as drugs, but driven by a sense that satisfaction lay just around the next corner. But around each “next corner” is yet another next corner. 

Is there suffering in my community and society?

Looking beyond my experience as an individual, I can see the truth of suffering in my upbringing as an American. Life in this country is characterized by the pursuit of pleasure and material gain. Our worth as people is largely judged by our success in this pursuit. If we’re honest, we can see suffering at both ends of this spectrum. We feel insecure when we don’t have enough or have less than those around us. We feel dissatisfied even when we have far more than those around us. We get stuck on the hedonic treadmill––always chasing but never attaining happiness.

This insatiable thirst for material “success” bears a heavy price. Not only are we never satisfied, but we also trash the planet in our efforts. Deforestation, pollution, and climate change are driven by consumption. Likewise, human exploitation and inequities inevitably arise. It’s impossible to produce endless cheap goods at the relentless pace our markets demand without some form of exploitation.

Is there suffering on a global scale?

This takes us to the truth of suffering at the highest scale, which ties into the SDGs. Consumption and its consequences are but one manifestation of suffering. We can see some form of suffering at the root of many of the SDGs. 

Within poverty or inequity or environmental degradation, suffering is both a result and a cause to perpetuate suffering. We treat both people and nature as objects to be used to build economies and establish power. Exploitation arises from a mind of suffering; no one who is at peace would knowingly inflict oppression on others. 

It is no doubt uncomfortable to look at this. But if we hope to build a better world, we must be able to look at our ailments like a doctor, who must get used to seeing injury and disease without being squeamish.  No one would call a doctor pessimistic or dark for diagnosing an illness. We recognize that this is essential to healing.

In the next post, we’ll look at the Second Noble Truth, which takes this approach, looking at the roots of suffering, another essential step on the way to finding a cure.

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