Monday, January 24, 2011

Suffering And The End Of Suffering

The title of today's post is a quote attributed to the Buddha, said to have often repeated, "I teach only one thing: suffering and the end of suffering." Some smarty-pants once said, "Isn't that two things?" But obviously, if you understand -- truly understand -- suffering, you understand its causes and thus its ending.

Susan wrote asking: "Help me here with this idea of the end of suffering being the goal. I have turned that around over and over and can't seem to grasp what that would mean. The human condition is so completely tied up with suffering and the idea of suffering. Bearing suffering well is a virtue in our culture. Heroic...."  I can't imagine a being free from suffering. Can you? So it struck me this morning on the cushion reciting "May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be safe. May I be free from suffering." What am I saying? I look around and I think that really I don't suffer from much. Relatively, my sufferings are really nothing. But the conditions still exist for great suffering. I am not grieving the loss of loved one. I have my health. I have a home. I have a job. But any of these things could change instantly and I would suffer. But I suppose that sort of suffering is temporary. It is certainly to be expected and to bear it well is the most that I can hope for. So is the freedom from suffering on some other level? Is it an attainable goal? Is it the "holy grail"? 
So again - back to 'What would freedom of suffering be like'?"


Now, part of my response hinges on what exactly do you/we/the tradition mean by "suffering?" The word generally translated as "suffering," duhkha, literally means "wrong" or "bad hole." It would be used to describe a wheel misaligned on its axle. Others have tried to avoid the histrionic and dramatic sounding "suffering" by translating duhkha as "discontent," "dis-ease," "dis-satisfaction," "painful" and "stress." The Yoga Tradition -- including Buddhism -- asserts that life, the human condition is duhkha. And when we turn away from the 'over-the-top' sounding "suffering," and think of it as stressful, painful or unsatisfying, who can argue?

Now, in the earliest Buddhist understanding, a yogi can transcend and end duhkha by completely eradicating the causes of duhkha: craving, aversion and ignorance. An arhat is a being who has 'gone all the way' and 'done what must be done' to purify his or her mind of these 'taints' and thus is free from duhkha. Traditionally, as birth itself is understood as duhkha, this was also taken to mean that the arhat would never be reborn into samsara again.

Others, who reject the teaching of rebirth, offer that duhkha is only present when there is grasping in the mind. For instance, the traditional understanding seems to say that birth, aging and death are inherently duhkha. Thus, the practitioner wants to end having to be reborn again and again. A more modernist understanding is that birth, aging and death are only duhkha when the mind is grasping and resisting. If the mind is not grasping, then these phenomena are not duhkha.

Finally, there is a radical, naturalist understanding that says duhkha is inherent in life. All life is afflicted. Thus duhkha can never end or be escaped from. However, how we relate to it will determine whether we live a free, unbound life or if we 'suffer' through life's unavoidable challenges.

This is a short, perhaps simplistic response. If you are interested in a more developed review of the concept of duhkha and some various interpretations, please check out my essay on duhkha and the Four Noble Truths at my other blog: Zen Naturalism.

Thank you!
frank jude


  1. It's interesting that these questions have emerged regarding the teachings on suffering as I have been reflecting on the first noble truth myself.

    'There is suffering.'

    Yes, there is! And yet knowing this intellectually is not adequate to meet the experience of it. For me it's the relentlessness of minor physical discomforts, change in mood/emotion and the mental storms that periodically arise that keeps on calling me, 'Look here, what are you going to do with me (suffering)?' or more pertinantly 'How are you going to be with me?' So recently it dawned on me, "I struggle with reality' but as the saying goes 'it always wins.' :0) I can smile at the absurdity of that, thankfully.

    'There is suffering.' There is and it teaches me how to be with it. The more I resist it, the more it hurts. It's like having ones hands bound with a rope and struggling to get free, the rope burns! However if I can slow down and begin to unpick the different threads of the rope, thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, then there is the possibility of learning from my suffering and ultimately liberating myself from making it worse.
    The 'suffering' offers within it the possibility of freedom.

    I think I must be a radical, naturalist 'cos what you outlined above resonates with my experience. Suffering is unavoidable it's what we do with it that matters, old age, sickness and death, the Heavenly messengers, Yes! messengers teaching us how to live wisely.

  2. ahh to be an arhat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    "when the mind is not grasping then these phenomena are not grasping!!" it seems so simple and so logical AND IT IS!! it really is... i always get in the way of myself... "All life is afflicted. Thus duhkha can never end or be escaped from. However, how we relate to it will determine whether we live a free, unbound life or if we 'suffer' through life's unavoidable challenges." how profound!!! i have been catching myself in the future, my doggie nelson has a lump and has to have a biopsy and as i notice myself going off on a tangent about a three legged nelson i also notice myself thinking... "don't know mind sara...come back to your breath" it really is unlearning the samskaras...being awake and aware of them all as they happen, as the mind wonders and drifts and coming back to the in and the out breath

    and may i add when life gives you lemons...make lemonade... although what comes to mind? a woody allen moment of him drinking the lemonade and choking on the pits!!!

  3. Thank you, Frank, for the link to the essay.
    :-) Especially resonating - "So understood, the Middle Way is not the means to eliminate dukkha. It is the noble result of facing dukkha and working through what dukkha provokes in a wholehearted, courageous way. This path includes both “no” and “yes.” We say no to being taken over by our conditioned reactivity, and yes to facing our lives just as they are."
    and also -
    "When looking at a river, we’ll see that the current in the middle flows swiftly. The water is powerful because it all flows in one direction. It is unified. If you watch the water at the edges of the river, you’ll see it move in vortices, and crosscurrents. One possible interpretation of the term “Middle Way” is this sense of unification of energy, all flowing together, not wasting energy or being divided against oneself. The Middle Way is not some meek compromise. It is living an authentic, congruent life of integrity."

    Really the whole naturalist approach to liberation was illuminating.

    Thanks for taking the time to address my question.