A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering

A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering

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In western culture, suffering is generally defined as the experience of either somatic or psychological pain. Therefore, in the absence of such pain and whilst experiencing favourable socio-environmental conditions, individuals are generally not categorised as ‘suffering’ or ‘ill’ according to western medical conventions (e.g., as defined by the World Health Organization). However, within Buddhism, the term ‘suffering’ takes on a much more encompassing meaning. Irrespective of whether a sentient being is currently experiencing psychological or somatic pain, and irrespective of whether a sentient being considers itself to be suffering, Buddhism asserts that the very fact an unenlightened being exists means it suffers.

As we discussed in our recent post on Having Fun with the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha declared that ‘suffering exists’. In addition to representing the Buddha’s experiential understanding of the truth, these words were intended to represent a statement of fact. They were never meant to be ambiguous. ‘Suffering exists’ does not just mean that there is the potential for suffering to exist, it means that with the exception of those beings that have realised the third noble truth (i.e., the cessation of suffering), all beings suffer. Likewise, the noble truth of suffering does not mean that sentient beings suffer at certain times but not at other times, it means that sentient beings that have not transcended to liberation are continuously immersed in suffering.

This type of enduring latent suffering referred to above is known in Buddhism as ‘all-pervasive suffering’. In essence, it is the suffering that arises due to an individual’s ignorance as to the ultimate nature of self and reality. Since – as discussed in our post on Deconstructing the Self – unenlightened beings have a distorted perception of reality, Buddhism asserts that they are deluded. Accordingly, within Buddhism and to a certain extent, the words suffering, deluded and ignorant can all be used interchangeably.

One means of conceptualising the Buddhist interpretation of suffering as a form of delusion (or ignorance) is by drawing parallels between the two conditions of  ‘mindlessness’ and ‘hallucination’. Mindlessness refers to a lack of present moment awareness whereby the mind is preoccupied with future (i.e., fantasized) conjectures or past (i.e., bygone) occurrences. Therefore, an individual afflicted by mindlessness might be said to be engaging in the ‘non-perceiving of that which is’. Hallucination, on the other hand, can be described as being ‘the perceiving of that which is not’. Thus, given that both states involve an erroneous perception of the ‘here and now’, it could be argued that mindlessness is actually a form of ‘inverted hallucination’.

According to Buddhist thought, the population en masse is effectively deemed to be delusional (i.e., suffering) and in a permanent inverted-hallucinatory state. However, as the 12th century Tibetan Buddhist saint Gampopa aptly points out, although all unenlightened beings (human or otherwise) experience all-pervasive suffering, they are generally ignorant of this fact:

Ordinary people will not feel the all-pervasive suffering as, for example, when one is stricken with a serious plague and a small pain in the ears and so forth is not noticeable. But the saintly beings – the noble ones beyond samsara such as the stream enterers and so forth – will see the all-pervasive suffering as suffering …

In addition to all-pervasive suffering which might be described as a more subtle form of suffering, Buddhism recognises two other primary forms of suffering that are much more tangible. The first is known as the ‘suffering of change’ and refers to the fact that whatever temporary happiness there might be, it simply cannot endure. The Buddha stated that birth leads to the suffering of sickness and old age, and sickness and old age lead to suffering of death. Likewise, being in love leads to the suffering of separation, and having possessions (e.g., wealth, health, reputation, family, friends, etc.) leads to suffering when one is ultimately separated from such favourable circumstances. In short, suffering is ubiquitous to the human condition and the principle of impermanence means that just as with all phenomena, favourable circumstances are transient and are subject to dissolution.

The third primary form of suffering recognised in the Buddhist teachings is the ‘suffering of suffering’. This is the most palpable form of suffering and is typified by experiences such as somatic pain, psychological distress, hunger or starvation, thirst or dehydration, being too hot, and being too cold. Buddhism asserts that the human being comprises five aggregates (1. form, 2. feelings, 3. perceptions, 4. mental formations, and 5. consciousness; Sanskrit: skandhas; Pali: khandhas) and that each individual aggregate is likewise composite. For example, the first aggregate of form or the body in-turn comprises the five elements of water, wind (i.e., air), earth (i.e., food), sun (i.e., heat/energy), and space (i.e., in the bodily cavities and between molecules, etc.). Due to the fact the human body exists in reliance upon a delicate balance of innumerable causes, components and conditions, Buddhism asserts that even a slight imbalance in these elements and components results in both the suffering of suffering (e.g., pain and discomfort) and ultimately, the suffering of change (e.g., illness and death).

There is quite a lot more we could write about the Buddhist take on suffering, but the above provides a brief introduction to how Buddhism distinguishes between different types of suffering and why the Buddha stated that suffering exits. It is only by first recognising and coming to terms with the suffering within ourselves – including in all of its different guises – that we can fully appreciate the potency of the Buddha’s teachings and the need to earnestly apply ourselves towards spiritual development.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Bodhi, B. (1994). The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

 

Dalai Lama. (1995). The Path to Enlightenment. New York: Snow Lion.

 

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of meditation: training the mind for wisdom. London: Rider.

 

Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

 

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-127.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

Having Fun with the Four Noble Truths

Having Fun with the Four Noble Truths

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Arguably the most well-known of the Buddha’s teachings is that of The Four Noble Truths. The teaching of the four noble truths is recorded as being the first teaching given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. Due to this teaching’s significance and central role within Buddhism, it is not surprising that a great deal has been written about the four noble truths by both contemporary and historical Buddhist teachers and scholars. However, irrespective of how many commentaries or books have been written about a particular aspect of the Buddha’s teachings, more often than not, there is always some additional wisdom that can be gleaned by revisiting a particular teaching – especially if one is willing to do so with a fresh and open perspective. In today’s post, we take a fresh look at the four noble truths and offer what we believe is a slightly different perspective compared to what has already been written on this subject. In particular, we briefly look at the use of logic in the four noble truths and highlight how a greater understanding of some of the logical and experiential assertions made by the Buddha in this teaching can help us to enter and advance along the path of spiritual awareness.

For readers of our blog that are not aware of the four noble truths, they can be summarised as follows (to see a more detailed version of the Buddha’s teaching on the four noble truths, see the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – The Discourse That Sets the Wheel of Truth in Motion):

  1. Suffering exists
  2. There is a cause to suffering
  3. There is cessation of suffering
  4. There is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering

Basically, what the Buddha is saying with the teaching on the four noble truths is that until we attain spiritual liberation (the third truth), we are going to suffer (the first truth), and the only way to end this suffering is to walk the path (the fourth truth) that acts upon the causes of suffering (the second truth). With this teaching, the Buddha was just presenting some simple facts and making some basic logical assertions about suffering. For example, because Buddhism accepts the principle of causality (i.e., all effects are the result of a cause), the second and fourth truths follow on logically from the truths that immediately precede them. In other words, since in the first truth the Buddha has already stated that suffering exists, then it is logical to assert that this suffering has a cause (i.e., the second truth). Likewise, because in the third truth the Buddha states that there is an end to suffering, then it is logical to assert that this end to suffering also has a cause (the cause of the end of suffering is walking the path that eradicates suffering – the fourth truth).

Thus, if we really wanted to, we could actually condense the Buddha’s teaching on the four noble truths to a single phrase such as: ‘There is suffering which has a cause and there is liberation which has a cause’. However, because Buddhism accepts the principle of causality, even the above phrase could actually be further condensed. For example, if we state that there is suffering, then as discussed above, we actually don’t need to state that there is a cause to suffering because that is already implied. Likewise, since we know that suffering exists because of certain causes (principally ignorance, attachment, and aversion), then we know that by removing these causes, suffering will also be eradicated. Thus, when we state that suffering exists, not only is it implied that suffering has a cause, but it is also implied that removal of the causes of suffering will lead to the cessation of suffering.

Therefore, if you are somebody that likes to reduce things down to their simplest level, perhaps you could capture the entire meaning of the teaching on the four noble truths just by simply saying ‘suffering exists’. Alternatively, if you wanted to be less pessimistic, you could simply say that ‘liberation exists’. In fact, perhaps these phrases could be made use of in your meditation practice: with the in-breath you could quietly say to yourself that ‘suffering exists’, and with the out-breath you could quietly say ‘but so does liberation’.

A person might accept that the statement ‘suffering exists’ implies that suffering has a cause and that removing the cause will lead to cessation of suffering, but they might not accept that it can be logically inferred from the statement ‘suffering exists’ that a path exists (i.e., the forth noble truth) that can eradicate this suffering. However, such an objection can be easily overcome because just by stating that ‘suffering exists’, this automatically establishes the existence of ‘non-suffering’ (i.e., liberation). In other words, at the same time we accept the existence of something, we also have to accept the existence of its opposite. For example, if we accept that the ‘left’ exists, then we have to accept that the ‘right’ also exists. Left only exists because there is right – if we take away right, then we no longer have left.

Therefore, when we state or accept that suffering exists, we must also accept that liberation exists. Based on the principle of causality, having accepted that liberation exists, we can now make a logical deduction and accept that liberation has a cause. The cause of this liberation is none other than the path (i.e., the fourth truth) and we must now accept that the meaning and essence of all four of the Buddha’s noble truths is implicit within each truth individually. Of course, although the Buddha’s teaching on the noble truths is perfectly grounded in logic, when the Buddha gave this teaching, he wasn’t just making logical assertions, but was talking from his experience. Nevertheless, a good way to determine whether a discourse given by a spiritual teacher is authentic is to test whether it is logically grounded. This is because as a person moves closer to enlightenment, their ability to use logic and reasoning tends to dramatically increase. Therefore, in their expression of the truth, authentic spiritual teachers naturally and frequently resort to using logic – it happens naturally and without them having to think too hard.

There are examples of Buddhist teachers – such as the 2nd century Indian saint Nagarjuna – whose logical reasoning skills had developed to such an extent that a lot of modern-day scholars and philosophers have difficulty in keeping up with him. Because they can’t follow the logic utilised by Nagarjuna, they assert that his logic is flawed or that he leaps around too much in his argumentation. Of course, it is definitely possible for a person to get muddled-up when they are following a course of logic, but this wasn’t the case with Nagarjuna. Both Nagarjuna and the Buddha fully understood the limits of their logic and for this reason, they were able to use it effectively and were not in any way bound by it.

It is quite enjoyable examining the use of logic in the Buddha’s teaching on subjects such as the four noble truths, and it is also enjoyable to investigate whether such teachings can be condensed to a simpler form. However, unless we learn something that helps us in our spiritual practice, then there is really no point in doing this. One of the most important things we can learn by familiarising ourselves with the four noble truths in the manner described above is that this teaching has a very simple but profound message: ‘we will suffer – for an indefinite period – until such time that we choose to dedicate ourselves to spiritual development in order to stop creating the causes of suffering. It really is that simple. Life is fleeting and before we know it old age is upon us – so choose to embrace the path now, my dears. The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent, and this includes suffering. But in the case of suffering, bringing about its impermanence is something that rests entirely in our own hands. This is the quintessential message of the four noble truths.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

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