"Thus I have heard: On one occasion the Blessed One was living in the Deer Park near Benares, where he addressed the group of five monks as thus:
"Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. What are the two? There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.
"Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Way; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nirvana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Tathagata? It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. This is the Middle Path realized by the Tathagata which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, and to Nirvana.
"The Noble Truth of Suffering, monks, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering - in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.
"This is the Noble Truth of Suffering - such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before.
This suffering, as a noble truth, should be fully realized - such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before.
This suffering as a noble truth has been fully realized - such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before."
These are the opening verses to the Dharmachakrapravartana Sutra, the First Turning of the Dharma Wheel. The five ascetics, the Buddha's old buddies from his starvation-and-mortification phase, were now monks, his first disciples, and memorized these words as he spoke them.
Which is part of the reason they now read so strange. The Sutra was passed down verbally for at least 100 years before being recorded in writing for the first time, each succeeding monk memorizing the words by chanting them along with their teacher. So the repetition, the painfully linear logic, the self-questions, were a built-in mnemonic device to assist this verbal tradition - it is highly unlikely that the Buddha actually spoke like that.
We still chant these words occasionally at the Zen Center, the roshi (head teacher) reciting from memory and the rest of us chanting along about a word behind. When a phrase like "such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light" comes up, everyone catches up, anticipating the closing "that arose in me concerning things not heard before."
The Sutra has an interesting rhythm that slowly develops after a while (only the first part is copied above). It becomes almost hypnotic after a while as the same, or rather similar, words are repeated for each of the other four Noble Truths.
And the First of the Noble Truths, as described above, is the existencee of suffering. It has been misinterpreted as "Life is suffering," but that's overstating it - I think it's fair to say that we've all had moments, at least, of non-suffering. But the First Noble Truth acknowledges that things aren't always perfect, that we don't always get what we want, and that sickness, old age and death are out there.
What a relief, as Pema Chodron notes. Somebody finally acknowledged this! It is not pessimistic or gloomy, but rather just an admission that things aren't right and that something ought to be done about this. And what ought to be done is laid out in the next three Noble Truths.
Other sutras detail more of the specifics of the First Noble Truth. The Dharmachakrapravartana Sutra spells out that "birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering - in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering." In A Buddhist Bible, Dwight Goddard offers a compendium of several sutras which define each of the terms as the Buddha meant them, such as, "What now is Birth? The birth of beings belonging to this or that order of beings, their being born, their conception and springing into existence, the manifestation of the aggregates of existence: this is called birth. "
And so on through decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. "And what, in brief, are the Five Aggregates connected with cleaving?" the Buddha asks. "They are bodily form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. "
In short, the components, or aggregates, that make up what we call our "self," if we were to break them down, are as he describes: bodily form, feeling, perception, mental formation (or thought) and consciousness. We are nothing more or nothing less than the sum of these parts. When these five components come together, you have a "self." Take away any one of these five components, and that "self" is no longer whole, or at least not self-aware.
As you might imagine, the sutras go on to define and describe in more detail each of the five aggregates of form ("What is form?"), feeling, perception, formation and consciousness. This is how the teaching works. It starts with a simple statement, The First Noble Truth of Suffering, and then drills down from there, as if each word were in a kind of verbal hypertext to be mentally clicked upon, and drilled down into. So before moving on to the Second Noble Truth, each of the five aggregates can be explored a little bit deeper.