Family Group: The First Noble Truth

Meditation: We started with a meditation. First we calmed ourselves, slowing down from the activity before. Listening to the house we were in, and getting quiet enough to hear it creak and gurgle. Things are always changing! Then we suggested a few scenarios that were a little silly but would be dukkha for someone in the group – maybe a bottlecap collection got recycled, or there was a worldwide shortage of flour for baking bread, or the last unicorn just passed away and now they are extinct. These meant something to one person, but then we asked: how does it feel for you if that wasn’t important to you? The things that would be dukkha for us … how are they related to the things we care about and hold to?

We got out the whiteboard and scribbled a few ideas about what Dukkha might be. We were specific that we were trying to think of experiences of dukkha that everyone might have, or we would run out of space on the board! But it’s still important to talk through what everyone thinks of what you come up with, because everyone has a personal experience of dukkha. During our group, someone wanted to put aversion on the list. It is dukkha, but we were asking – is it something everyone experiences? Could someone NOT experience aversion?

In the traditional list, these are things all people are susceptible to: old age, death, getting things we don’t want, not getting things we want, losing the things we like. Sickness made some lists but not others, because actually some people get through life without major illness, but it made our own list as well as getting hurt.

We also talked about how since these things are natural, it doesn’t mean if something bad happens that we did anything wrong. Some parents talked about how when they were growing up there was the idea that if bad things happened, god was upset with them. But for us dukkha will just be a normal part of life, which means we don’t have to try to run from the kinds of pain that are to be expected. We can learn to accept and live with them, which turns the frown of dukkha into a source of connection. We all said something that might be dukkha for us (a business meeting, buying expensive gas at the pump, getting stung by a bee…), and showed how because we had all felt dukkha, we could understand what someone else was going through even if we didn’t have that same experience.

CRAFT:  On the comics page, Laura drew up a simple quick activity, all it takes is a ball of yarn.  You can make yourself a little ball of dukkha.  All tangled in a knot and miserable.  Now, how do you feel towards your little dukkha ball?  Don’t you want to be kind and compassionate to it?

STORY: The Bodhisatta and the four signs

CHARACTERS: Gotama, Channa the Chariot Driver, Old Person, Sick Person, Dead Person, Monk/Narrator

NARRATOR (Monk): This is a story that may or may not have happened – it was told many years after the Buddha passed away. But it has become a popular story nonetheless, and something similar happened in the Bodhisatta Gotama’s life before he left the palace to seek enlightenment.

When Gotama was born, everyone knew he was special. His father had holy men brought to the palace to examine him. Most said either Gotama would rule the world, or would leave it and become fully enlightened. One of the holy men, the oldest and wisest, said there was only one path – Gotama was certain to become a buddha.

His father, though, wanted the prince to rule the world, not shave his head and wander around without any money. So he built three palaces for the hot season, cold season, and rainy season. The prince would spend each season in one of the palaces and the king made sure the prince never saw anything that would upset him – only young, healthy, happy people singing and dancing.

If you’ve ever played games and listened to music all day, you know that eventually you get bored. One day, when Gotama was bored, he decided he would go outside the palace and look around for something new.

GOTAMA: Channa! Let’s go to town! Get the chariot ready!

CHANNA: Yes, Prince. But where are we going in town? The park?

GOTAMA: I’ve already been to the park. Let’s go to the market.

CHANNA: Ummm… you’re father won’t be happy!


NARRATOR: But Channa didn’t say anything. All the palace staff knew they weren’t supposed to let the prince see things that would make him want to leave the world. If they got sick they were supposed to stay home, and when they got old they had to work somewhere else. And if someone died, the prince was told they had been ‘promoted’ and sent away.

But Channa did as he was asked and the two of them rode the chariot into town. As they approached the market, they saw an old person with a cane on the side of the road.

GOTAMA: Channa – stop! What is that?! That person is all twisted out of shape. They are bent over so far they need a stick to keep them standing. And their hair is falling out!

OLD PERSON: What’s that son? I can hear you, you know! My sight might be gone, but my ears still work. It’s not nice to make fun of old people.

CHANNA: Prince, that person is old. They have lived a long life.

GOTAMA: Wait wait wait – old?! People get old? You mean they stop getting stronger and healthier the longer they live?

CHANNA: Yes, prince. Children grow up and get stronger, but once they are adults they will eventually go gray and waste away like this person here.


NARRATOR: Gotama was deeply upset by this. How could he enjoy being young and strong if he knew someday he was going to be weak and old? He told Channa to keep driving, but it wasn’t long before he saw something else – a person who usually worked at the palace. They were sitting in a corner coughing and sick.

SICK PERSON: <cough cough> All hail Prince <cough> Gotama!

GOTAMA: You there – what is going on?

SICK PERSON: Oh Prince, don’t get too close. I have a disease in my lungs. <cough> I’m very sick and can’t work.

GOTAMA: But you were at the palace – you were healthy just the other day!

SICK PERSON: Yes, prince. But bodies can get sick at any time, and when they do we become weak and can’t take care of ourselves, much less others. We need to be looked after until we recover – if we do.

GOTAMA: What do you mean, IF?

CHANNA: Okay! Time to go! Get well soon! Bye~~~~!

NARRATOR: Now Gotama was really upset. He was usually so healthy, but at any time he could get sick? This was terrible. Once when he was young he had a headache and a runny nose, but everyone had told him it was a lucky sign that his brain was growing very big and smart. Now he knew the truth, he had been sick.

They started driving but just around the corner there was a parade of people walking and crying.

CHANNA: Oh no…

GOTAMA: What is going on? Why are they crying?

The parade was a funeral procession – the family was carrying someone who had died on a wooden stretcher. They were taking the body to where it would be cremated.


GOTAMA: Stop! Everyone stop! Hey, you there on the stretcher! I know you! Is this the job you got promoted to? Why are you sleeping during this parade?

CHANNA: Uh Prince ….

GOTAMA: Answer me! Wake up!


NARRATOR: Everyone looked at the prince very sadly.

CHANNA: Prince, they weren’t promoted. This person was bit by a poisonous snake. They are dead. They will never get up again.

GOTAMA: Dead? What does that mean?

CHANNA: All people die, prince. Our bodies wear out, or they get sick, or hurt, and eventually they stop. Nobody lives forever. And when we die we can no longer talk, or act, or eat, or dance. Our body stops working and we lose everything we have.

GOTAMA: All people die?

CHANNA: Yes Prince, everyone. All animals and plants too. Everything dies.

GOTAMA: Ahh! You mean I’m going to die some day?! Why didn’t someone tell me – I’ve just been partying all the time! This is terrible!

NARRATOR: With this GOTAMA ran off away from the chariot and the crowd. He ran down one street and then the next. Eventually he stopped and sat down to think. When he did, he noticed someone sitting nearby meditating. The person was wearing a simple robe and had a bowl next to them.

GOTAMA: Excuse me – are you sick too? Do your eyes hurt? Or are you dead?

MONK: Hmm? Oh, hello Prince Gotama. No, I am well, thank you.

GOTAMA: What were you doing just now?

MONK: I was meditating. I have given up the pursuit of worldly pleasure to find peace within.

GOTAMA: What do you mean peace?

MONK: Prince, you have many things that please you. Fine food, fine music, fine palaces. But if you are old or sick or dead you cannot enjoy them. These things can grow old and die, and the pleasure from them grows old and dies. All things in this world grow old and die someday. We lose everything we love. So I am seeking that which never dies- the Deathless. I have left the flow of the world. If I can be at peace with the changing nature of the world, I will always be happy. That happiness will never die.

NARRATOR: Gotama thought about this long and hard. Living in the palace he was very busy and always surrounded by people. But he had not found permanent happiness. It had all been temporary, and no matter how good it was he would lose it someday. It made him want to leave the world too, and find the deathless. He had many questions for the monk about how to find happiness, so he vowed to come back and ask.

GOTAMA: You know, I think being a monk is a good thing!

NARRATOR: And so just like the wisest holy man had said, Gotama ended up leaving the palace to become a Buddha. But that’s another story entirely!

Family Group, Teachings