A woman, greatly distressed over the death of her child, sought consolation from Lord Buddha. His reply was that he could not help her, until she brought him a mustard seed, one which had come from a household that had never known sorrow. The woman visited every house in the village, and on returning to the Buddha, reluctantly admitted that she had not been able to obtain even one seed. In every place she visited there could be told some story of unhappiness or suffering; a sickness in one family, death in another, unhappy marriages, hunger, financial struggles and so on.
Cleverly, the woman had been guided by Buddha, in a very practical way, into realization of the first of the Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Buddhist philosophy. This first truth states quite simply that all human existence involves suffering. This is not intended to be a morbid outlook as it does not deny that life has its joys as well. However, the Buddha laid emphasis on the fact that it is dukha (pain and suffering) and not sukha (joy and pleasure) which has the necessary quality to propel man towards spiritual enlightenment.
The obvious corollary is that the more suffering we can create the more rapidly we will evolve, a rather horrifying concept which the Buddha modified by emphasizing the 'middle path', a balance between the extremes of indulgence and asceticism, both of which he had personal experience of, and both of which he had rejected as being of more hindrance than help in his quest for enlightenment. However, as he showed to this woman who had sought his help, realization of, and acceptance of the universal nature of suffering in human existence, is the first step towards the goal of enlightenment.
Why suffering? Nobody likes it, most people don't want to know about it, the majority of human endeavour is aimed towards avoiding it, yet the teacher of one of the world's major religions has made it the basis of his philosophy. In his own words, the Buddha said 'Know this, O bhikshus, now, as formerly, I teach only of suffering, and the elimination of suffering.' There is nothing in this statement about God, in fact the existence or non-existence of God seemed irrelevant to Buddha. Although he was teaching a path to enlightenment, he never discussed God, but focused his teaching on suffering, its causes, and its cessation. With cessation of suffering comes the realization of higher consciousness or nirvana.
Notably the Buddha did not teach avoidance of dukha, but the way to overcome it. If it were merely a question of avoiding suffering, the state of nirvana would be a rather common affair in the everyday life of man. However, the conquering of suffering first involves an acceptance of its existence, the First Noble Truth. We are all aware of the existence of suffering, but what Buddha was teaching, and what really makes a difference to our state of realization is its acceptance. Only from this basis can we begin to develop a true knowledge of existence.
The other three of Buddha's Four Noble Truths deal with the causes of suffering, how suffering can be overcome, then the path towards complete enlightenment, nirvana. These three truths are the logical sequence from the first, and correspond greatly with the teachings of Patanjali, Christ, and other spiritual masters. However, it is realization of the first truth which commits us to the inner struggle for freedom, and if this truth is fully realized, we can never look upon the world in the same way as we knew it before.