The Pali word for suffering is Dukkha and is translated as dissatisfactoriness or dissatisfaction. In our most recent post entitled “How to become enlightened in 30 days”, we made reference to the Buddha’s teaching that ‘suffering exists’. We have since received a number of emails asking us to elucidate on this point further. Today’s post is therefore a brief introduction to the Buddhist teachings on suffering.
‘Suffering exists’ represents the first of what are commonly known as the ‘Four Noble Truths’ (Pali: cattāri ariyasaccāni). The Four Noble Truths was the subject of the first discourse given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. The teaching was given to the five ascetics (the Buddha’s former companions) whilst the Buddha was residing in the Deer Park in Isipatana (now called Sarnath). The teaching of the Four Noble Truths is that: (i) suffering exists, (ii) there is a cause to suffering, (iii) there is cessation of suffering, and (iv) there is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering.
Although there are (obviously) four components to the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths, each of the noble truths contains the ‘truth’ of each of the other three components. For example, if we assert that suffering exists, then because of the law of causality, it is automatically implied that suffering has a cause (i.e., the second truth). The same applies to the third noble truth – if we assert that there is cessation of suffering (or Nirvana if you prefer), then it is likewise implied that Nirvana also has a cause (which is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering – the fourth noble truth).
Similarly, because suffering (and every other mentally designated concept) exists only as a relative notion, when we assert that suffering exists, the notion of non-suffering (i.e., Nirvana) is produced by default. The same applies to examples such as ‘here and there’, ‘this and that’, ‘high and low’, and ‘hot and cold’. ‘Over here’ exists in dependence on ‘over there’. If we take away ‘over here’, then we also take away ‘over there’. If there is suffering, there is also Nirvana. If there is no suffering, there is no Nirvana.
Thus, although we are not suggesting that this should be done, because all noble truths are implicit within each individual noble truth, we could actually condense the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths down to just ‘suffering exists’.
This first noble truth of suffering exists contains three principal categories of suffering: (a) the suffering of suffering, (b) the suffering of change, and (c) all-pervasive suffering.
a) The suffering of suffering
The suffering of suffering is the most obvious category of suffering and refers to discomforts such as poverty, hunger, disease, injury, and so forth. This human body is extremely fragile and even a small bump or cut can give rise to unbearable pain. This is suffering in its grossest aspect and even animals recognise this form of suffering. The majority of people have a tangible fear of this type of suffering and experience discomfort even at the thought of it! We are acutely aware of and sensitive to this first category of suffering – suffering definitely exists!
b) The suffering of change
Unlike the suffering of suffering, people tend to be less aware of the suffering of change. Despite this, the general tendency seems to be that people make a conscious effort to underpin their whole life with this form of suffering. Few people are truly satisfied with their lot – people always desire more, something bigger, something better, or something different. For example, imagine that we start saving our pennies to buy our first little car. We’re young, money is tight, and car insurance is super expensive. However, we really need something to get us from A to B. We frequently comment to ourselves: “if only I had a little car, it would make all the difference”. Eventually we do a good job of convincing ourselves that life cannot function without the car and voila, we do it – our first and very own motor vehicle:
However, as we get a little older, we are influenced by our peers and before we know it, our beautiful little car isn’t so beautiful any more. We ‘need’ something better and we make excuses to justify this ‘need’. Then, before we know what’s happening, we’ve done it again – out with the old and in with the new:
“Gosh, this is better, wait till my friends see this” we think to ourselves. However, once again, it doesn’t take too long before our mind starts telling us that we ‘need’ something even more comfortable. After all, we now have an ‘important’ job and must make the ‘right’ impression! Once again, we manage to convince ourselves to visit the car dealership and hey presto, we’ve done it again:
“Wow, I’ve really done it this time – now people will understand who and what I am – this is really going to change my life – people can’t ignore me now”! However before long, the mind gets to work and begins to nag again: “Hey, this isn’t you after all – it’s not the image that suits you best. Perhaps it was at one time, but now people will think that you’re unimaginative and boring”. You resist for as long as you can but eventually the mind gets its own way: “People really are looking at me as though I am dull, stuffy, and boring – I really ‘need’ to change this car”:
“Aaah – this is definitely me! At least for now”!
We play out this scenario with almost every aspect of our lives. Dominated by the conditioned mind, our desires, thoughts, and feelings get the better of us each and every time.
a) All-pervasive suffering
All-pervasive suffering acts as the basis for the previous two types of suffering and is the root of all suffering. In general, people are totally unaware of this form of suffering. All-pervasive suffering comprises two basic elements: attachment and aversion. Attachment and aversion govern all of our choices and decisions and arise because of a deeply-rooted belief that the ‘self’ or ‘I’ exist autonomously. With obstinate determination, people believe that the ‘self’ is fixed, unchanging, real, and unending. It is the ‘I’ that becomes attached to phenomena and it is the ‘I’ that has aversion toward phenomena. We, as human beings, cling to this ‘I’ and the reality that the ‘I’ creates. The ever present ‘I’ is inevitably followed by ‘me’ and ‘mine’! So we could say that the root of all suffering is the deluded mind – a mind that insists that the ‘self’ is real and independent. We discussed this in our recent post entitled “The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners” (see the section entitled ‘Ontological Addiction’), and we will visit it again in forthcoming posts.
The wisdom of suffering
In order to progress on the spiritual path, we need to become deeply aware of both the existence and nature of suffering. This, in part, is the wisdom that we referred to in our post entitled “Meditation: A Three-fold Approach”. We should aim to see suffering in every aspect of human existence including birth (because birth gives rise to sickness, old age, and death). This is not an extreme attitude whereby a person becomes infatuated with suffering. Rather, it’s the case that if we want to let go of something, we first need to become aware of it. Becoming aware of our suffering means that we can begin to objectify it. We can begin to loosen up and even start to foster an appreciation and sense of humour towards the suffering that we experience. Without suffering (attachment and aversion), we could never attain liberation. Thus, although the spiritual practitioner certainly doesn’t go out of their way to experience suffering, they do their best to take it onto the path and use it to propel them forward.
Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon