The Journey Starts Here
The Buddhist path begins with the recognition of suffering—not just the pointed suffering of sickness, aging, or death, but the vague feeling of anxiety and dissatisfaction that underlies every moment of our lives. Buddhism calls this dukkha, and the bad news is that it’s all-pervasive and universal. The good news is that this is where the genuine spiritual journey begins.
Knowing this Truth is Noble
Buddhism takes dhukka—the Sanskrit word most often translated as suffering—very seriously. But the concept at the root of this word is complex. It does not simply mean suffering as we would normally understand the word. Human beings experience dhukka in many forms—certain types of dhukka have to do with plain and simple suffering, while other forms of dhukka would not really be experienced as suffering at all. They appear more to us in the form of the pleasure of apparent happiness. Some dhukka is avoidable and some is unavoidable, and we need to understand the difference.
Many people have heard of Buddhism’s four noble truths—about suffering and the end of suffering—but one of the great misconceptions about these truths comes in the title itself. There is nothing that we could really call “noble” about the first two: the truth of suffering and the cause of suffering. The last two truths, the truth of the cessation of suffering and the path that leads to cessation, could be said to be noble. What is in fact noble, though, is the person who fully realizes the four truths altogether. The person who comes to a full understanding of dhukka, and how to work with it, can be called noble.
Such nobility arises not from escaping suffering but rather from having fully understood the truth of suffering. We first accept the reality of suffering in all its forms—we stop denying it. Then we can come to appreciate what might be called the “redemptive” quality of suffering, for want of a better word. We do not aspire to attain enlightenment in spite of suffering. We work to attain enlightenment because of suffering.
There is so much we can learn from the experience of dhukka, which describes the full gamut of cyclic conditioned existence, the wheel of samsara caused by our habitual clinging. It might seem like bad news to hear that life is permeated with suffering, but just because we experience dissatisfaction or pain, or that our pleasures do not last, or that our precious dreams turn into nightmares, does not mean that our life is rendered meaningless.
As long as we are caught up or enmeshed in samsaric states, holding on to a fixed version of reality, we experience many forms of suffering. But we do not need to. They are avoidable. Buddhism teaches us that if we cultivate the right attitude and are able to look simply into ourselves and our perspectives, predilections, and habit patterns, we can reduce and ultimately eliminate the avoidable forms of suffering.
Of course, there are other forms of suffering that we cannot avoid until we attain complete enlightenment, or buddhahood. The sufferings we inflict on ourselves due to our undisciplined mind are avoidable, but other forms of suffering, such as old age, sickness, and death, are unavoidable.
Once we have accepted that we are subject to forms of dhukka that can be avoided, there are two parts to the solution: looking at the causes of dhukka and finding the means of reducing or stopping it. When we look into the causes of dhukka, we do not simply search for the source of palpable, tangible suffering. We also must look closely at the mental states, habits, and attitudes that produce what we consider to be our moments of joy, happiness, or satisfaction. One of the profound insights offered by Buddhism is that we cannot rely on our own immediate experiences to tell us whether we are experiencing well-being or misery. Just because on the surface we feel we are happy or satisfied, or just because everything seems to lead to doom and gloom, these impressions may not necessarily reflect the true state of affairs. We need to look deeper.
We may discover, as the Buddha tells us, that the lack of substantiality or permanence in all that surrounds us gives rise to unhappiness and pain. This does not mean, however, that the experience of impermanence or non-substantiality is itself suffering or the direct cause of suffering. We misconstrue the Buddha’s message if we think it is the fact that all things are impermanent or non-substantial or without a solid self that generates suffering. These basic facts are not the truth of the origin of suffering.
Dhukka is produced not by things themselves or by their insubstantial nature. Rather, our mind has been conditioned by ignorance into thinking that eternal happiness can be obtained through things that are ephemeral and transient. That is why we are instructed to seek enlightenment or attain nirvana. We are asked to settle our mind on that which is unchanging. Settling the mind on the unchanging has a calming effect on the mind generally, but it also leads to a state that allows us to relate to what is transient and ephemeral with a mental attitude born of a more enlightened view, one that does not seek permanent joy and happiness from things that are impermanent and non-substantial in nature. In so doing, you can transform yourself into a noble being.
Without the truth of suffering and the truth of the cause of suffering, there would be no truth of cessation, nor would there be the truth of the path. Far from highlighting the negative features of human existence, Buddhism presents a very complete picture of the human condition. It sheds light on both the perils and promises of human nature. We focus on human life, not because Buddhism does not concern itself with other forms of life, but rather because Buddhism in all its forms, in all its traditions, has singled out human life as the most precious. Human embodiment is seen as the optimal vehicle that we could employ and deploy on the journey toward enlightenment. According to the sublime teachings of the Buddha, our destiny lies in our own hands. That is what we come to see when we truly appreciate the truth of suffering and the truth of the cause of suffering. We can continue to wallow in our own suffering and misery or take some initiative, such as making the practice of dharma, which enables us to see the true nature of our experience, part of our everyday life.
Buddhist teachings make it amply clear that we should not expect samsara to be nirvana. That is denying the first noble truth, and it is the most profound mistake. It is totally irrational. As students of Buddhism, we are instructed to see honestly what is possible and what is not possible. The first lesson we have to learn is that samsara does not deliver all that it promises. We have to recognize that transient pleasures are simply that and nothing more. So long as we do not recognize that, we do not accept the first noble truth fully, and this non-acceptance of the truth only produces more discontentment and frustration. In fact, we feel that we have failed in our effort to dispel suffering and pain.
Samsara is a bad deal. Suffering pervades and permeates the whole of the samsaric domain. Yet most of our suffering is avoidable. If we can only learn to discipline our mind, we can deal with our physical ailments and mental distress with a greater resolve and fortitude. It is possible not to get upset when people speak ill of us. It is possible to be free of paranoia about what others are thinking of us. When we feel loss and we grieve, we can do so without the emotions overwhelming us, opening the door to despair and depression. We can also learn how not to generate further suffering by accepting the unavoidable suffering of old age, sickness, and death. By trying to look younger, one does not become younger. Pretending one’s illness is not serious does not make the illness go away. Pretending you are not dying when you are in fact already halfway there will not lead to an endless life. Apart from these existential forms of suffering, there are unavoidable forms of suffering in the environment, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods. There is also suffering from adverse circumstances, such as a plane crash or an auto accident. There are conditions that are beyond our control. Trying to control them leads to suffering.
Pleasures are also frequent causes of suffering. If we enjoy being in the sun, it becomes unpleasurable after a while. It can lead to a painful bout of sunburn and even to skin cancer. We gain pleasure from culinary delights, but eating the same food again and again may stop being pleasurable. And our eating habits may lead to all sorts of physical ailments. We may think that we are addicted to pleasure because we find the object of our addiction pleasurable. But being addicted to something is not in the least bit pleasurable.
Even though we suffer as human beings, we do not have to suffer without purpose or meaning. The first noble truth reveals to us the meaning of suffering. Painful experiences can teach us a lot. Buddhism treats life as a school where we learn from our painful experiences. This is not about the childish approach of going deeper and deeper into our painful experiences and dwelling on them and complaining about them to the point that they become deeply personal emotional concerns. It is about utilizing our painful experiences, the truth of suffering, with fortitude and dignity, and thereby making ourselves stronger and more mature.
The teachings speak of dharma as the medicine that will cure us of all our maladies. Although dharma is a medicine, it is not a quick fix. It is not like taking Prozac. It works with our chronic illness. It will not prevent old symptoms from recurring from time to time, but with judicious ingestion of the antidotes to our illness provided by the dharma, we are gradually able to overcome our long-term afflictions. Dharma is the antidote to dhukka, but dhukka will not disappear overnight. The fourth noble truth, the truth of the path, makes that very clear.
We need to travel on the path of healing and wholeness. That will take time. We may start out expecting quick relief from samsaric suffering. When that is not forthcoming, we may become disappointed, resentful, or indignant. We may even rail against the dharma or abuse it. We cannot digest the powerful medicine of the dharma in one dose, but as we treat ourselves in a stepwise fashion, our capacity to absorb dharma increases. Then we can take—and ought to take—more and more powerful doses. When we can do that, we soon come to see the dharma’s true potency and its healing power. It is the most powerful medicine for counteracting dhukka.
Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche received both the traditional education of an incarnate Tibetan lama (tulku) and a comprehensive Western education, with a particular interest in psychology and comparative religion. He is the president and spiritual director of Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute in Melbourne, Australia and E-Vam Institute in upstate New York.
What’s Dhukkha? (What Isn’t)
The sutra known as “Turning the Wheel of the Teaching” (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) seems to give an account of the very first instance that the Buddha communicated his realization to others. It contains the Buddha’s descriptions of the realities of dukkha and his prescription for it, usually translated as the four noble truths. What the Buddha refers to as dukkha in this teaching covers life pretty much from beginning to end: birth, aging, illness, and death; having what we don’t want, not having what we do.
The most common rendering of the Pali term dukkha is “suffering.” So if you have read books on Buddhism before, you have almost certainly encountered the term “suffering.” However, probably very few people would describe their lives as characterized by suffering. The notion of pain and anguish connoted by that term does indeed resonate in dukkha, but it is too drastic for a general and universal application. So the stock statement “Life is suffering,” as a translation of the first statement of the Buddha about reality, while not outright incorrect, is somewhat too drama-queenish.
In getting a better feel for the meaning of dukkha, let’s place “suffering” at one extreme of the spectrum. At the other extreme, let’s place qualities such as annoyance, tension, nondependability. Dukkha, then, can be understood on one of the spectrum as a subtle, perhaps barely discernible quality of being, and, on the other, as severe mental or physical anguish.
A further nuance is added to the term dukkha when we bear in mind that, in the Buddha’s view, even a “happy” moment is tinged by dukkha. That is because neither the moment nor the experience is stable. Since the quality of happiness arises in dependence on external factors, it fades away as those factors disassemble. And in that gap is felt the trace, however subtle, of underlying dukkha. Since, furthermore, our lives are successions of such moments, dukkha is said to be “pervasive.” But Buddhists would go even further, to the point of what appears to be paradoxical, even contradictory: it is not only in the gap (due to impermanence and insubstantiality) that dukkha is present but even in the very experience of happiness.
Given this view, what should we call dukkha in our language? Our English term would have to have the following colorings (on an increasing scale of intensity):
Of course, you may add to this list; there is virtually no end to it. And that is precisely the Buddha’s point! It flows through life like water—each instant of life is colored to some degree by these qualities.
It is obvious that each of these qualities involves some degree of unease, so “unease” is how I translate the term for general usage. The lexical “opposite” of dukkha is sukha, and sukha straightforwardly means “ease, pleasure, happiness.” Perhaps, then, dukkha can straightforwardly mean “unease, displeasure, unhappiness.” We all know about dukkha, then, as it is glossed by the Buddha.
Glenn Wallis is associate professor of religion at the University of Georgia. He teaches applied meditation at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies and is the translator and editor of the Modern Library edition of the Dhammapada. This essay is adapted from his book Basic Teachings of the Buddha: A New Translation and Compilation with a Guide to Reading the Texts. © 2007 by Glenn Wallis. Published by The Modern Library.
The Mind that Suffers
The Buddha’s teaching of the four noble truths begins with the injunction that if you are to attain liberation, you must understand and fully experience how your life in entwined and defined by dukkha, meaning your mental experiences of discomfort, pain, stress, instability, inadequacy, failure, and disappointment, each of which is felt as suffering in your mind. This teaching is often referred to as the “Truth of Suffering.”
The Buddha identified three kinds of suffering: the dukkha of physical and emotional pain; the dukkha of constant change; and the dukkha of life’s compositional nature, which creates a kind of pressure and unease that is constantly present, even in the best of times.
The first kind of dukkha is the obvious suffering caused by physical discomfort, from the minor pain of stubbing a toe, hunger, and lack of sleep, to the agony of chronic disease. It is also the emotional suffering that arises when you become frustrated that things don’t go your way, or upset about life’s injustices, or worried about money or meeting others’ expectations. Each day you have many experiences that cause you to be disappointed, anxious, and tense, from getting stuck in traffic to forgetting to complete an important task to snapping at a loved one during an argument. Isn’t this true? In matters of love, family, work and self-acceptance, do you not experience these sorts of negative emotions over and over again?
In addition to the dukkha you experience as a result of painful, traumatic, and uncomfortable events that happen to you, there is a second type of dukkha that you confront on a regular basis. That is the suffering caused by the fact that life is constantly changing. Doesn’t it often seem as though the moment you have found happiness in life, it disappears almost at once? Something really good happens at work, or you and your partner spend an intimate morning in bed, or you share a precious laugh with your child, and then bang! It’s over. Now you’re worried about a deadline, or fighting with your significant other, or coping with your child’s needs, and all those pleasant feelings are replaced by worry, fatigue, and the weight of responsibility. In truth, no moment is reliable because the next moment is always coming along fast on its heels. It is like a constant bombardment of change undermining every state of happiness. The mind never finds a place to sit back and enjoy life without fear. Isn’t it paradoxical that the one constant in your life is change?
Like everyone else, you do what you can to try to prolong, enhance, and increase the number of pleasurable moments in your life, but nothing consistently works. There is always the next moment of the dance. No matter how much you attempt to distract yourself (and you may be one of those people who are great at creating distractions), your nervous system still perceives the changing dance, even when you are not aware of it, and it suffers, oftentimes even more so because you are trying to ignore it.
No doubt you have felt the pain, confusion, and stress that this constant flux brings to your own life, with one moment being desirable and the next displeasing. The implications are vast: You make every single choice every day within this context. You cannot escape from the continuous dance. It is an impersonal, universal truth of life. None of us—not even the wealthiest, the wisest, the most powerful—gets to be an exception. We all feel pain, we all lose loved ones, we all get ill, and we all die.
Furthermore, every day, even during the pleasant moments, do you not experience an underlying unease about the future? This worry and anxiety is a manifestation of the third type of suffering the Buddha identified—life’s inherent unsatisfactoriness due to its intrinsic instability. Even if you are fortunate in terms of your physical and emotional health, and even if you live in a secure environment with material comforts, your life is still filled with uncertainty. Disease, accidents, emotional disruption, economic setback, and death constantly lurk around the next corner. Do these threats not make you feel anxious and insecure?
How often in your adult life have you experienced the queasiness and unease that come from a sense of meaninglessness in your life? Think of all those occasions when you felt as though you were wasting you life, or sleepwalking through it, or not living from your deepest, most heartfelt sense of your self. Remember the times when you felt as though there is little you do each day that has any real, lasting significance. We’ve all fallen prey at some point in our lives to such constricted, dreaded, almost unbearable dark times of self-doubt and existential angst.
What Buddha is pointing to is that suffering is an experience of the mind. He’s not offering you relief from pain; he’s offering you relief from the extra mental reactivity that causes your misery. At first this can be foreign, but in fact it’s consistent with the roots of Western understanding of suffering. We’ve just lost our connection to it. Our ancient wisdom-bearers knew life was hard, and they too discovered that there was a difference between the pain of life and your reaction to it.
Phillip Moffitt is a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers’ Council and is founder and president of the Life Balance Institute. He teaches Vipassana meditation and mindful movement at retreat centers throughout the U.S. This essay is excerpted from his new book, Dancing With Life: Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering. © 2008 by Phillip Moffitt. Published by Modern Times/Rodale