Buddhism as a belief system evokes a few common images in our head, not the most obvious of which is the 14th Dalai Lama, along with various depictions of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama and monastics in Southeast Asia. When you study Buddha’s teachings, you’ll find that the first of the Four Noble Truths, a central starting point, is that life is dukkha. The word is most often translated as suffering, though better translations are stress or dissatisfaction, though I prefer unsatisfactory as a slight nuance. The basic Western translation creates an automatic revulsion in the minds of many people, since we naturally think of the world as a good thing, many times because of theistic upbringing, establishing that God made the world good, but we humans screwed it up in one way or another. But Buddha didn’t say life was strictly suffering, since it’s also documented that he said life was full of great pleasures of our senses and the mind (sometimes referred to in Buddhist thought as the sixth sense). No Buddhist you could ever conceivably speak to would ever believe that their philosophy taught that life was purely suffering and death. This not only doesn’t synch up with the other marks of existence, particular anicca (impermanence), but paints Buddhism as teaching something antithetical to virtually any human mindset. The world is full of both bad and good and, to paraphrase, we have to roll with it to a certain extent. We can make efforts to change things for the better, but ultimately all good, and bad, things come to an end in one sense or another. Life succumbs to death, pleasure is replaced by pain or vice versa, and both physically and mentally conditioned things decay over time either through nature’s progress or our mind’s taking in of new information. But none of this is cause for despair, but a sort of resignation which I’ll explain about after a bit of enumeration of types of dukkha and their origins.
The first type of suffering is that which we feel physically and mentally in terms of such things as pain, mental illness or emotional suffering in excess or deficit. This is the type most people would agree exists in that we experience terrible anguish and other such unpleasant things in life. Illness, the sometimes unexpected loss of friends or family, the dangers that threaten our lives every day, all of these are part of dukkha. In a sense, our very ability to think on these things is a suffering itself, since we are able to realize that these things, like old age, death, and associated suffering this causes ourselves and others, are inevitable and can only be delayed so much before we either succumb or get to a point where we might be said to lose our humanity entirely
The second is that of changing states, going further than merely our imperfections. Happiness and sadness are both dukkha in that they are temporary. As long as they may appear to last, they will inevitably pass away. I can share a weekend with friends, but eventually we must all go our separate ways, to work, to home, etc. A relationship can seem good, but its passing can be beneficial for both partners. And we mourn the loss of people and pets, but eventually we become happy with something else. In a sense, this reflects a problem of the human condition in that we flit and fly to one good thing or another as if it will ultimately satisfy us. It’s this habit we develop as a coping mechanism in our psyche to adjust to the loss of one thing or another that makes us suffer so. We would not suffer in the change of things from one state to another if we understood that while they are bad or good in their own sense, they are not ultimately so. This connects back to anatta in that the goodness or badness of any situation is not persistent in and of itself, but is dependent ultimately on our perception and regard towards it. If I want things to stay forever happy, I will be disappointed in seeing that it is clearly not the case by experience and observation.
An obvious related suffering is the third, dependence on other things. In a sense, this is again something non Buddhists might agree upon in part, but they would possibly not see how it is suffering. It is actually both good and bad in that our interrelatedness with other things is both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. We require food and water to survive, but the fact that we experience hunger and thirst are not bad things, since they let us know we require food and water. We enjoy the company of friends, but those friends can also cause us problems if we don’t behave in a civil manner when we disagree. Being dependent on those things is part of nature, not some curse from a deity for our arrogance. With anatta as well there is a strong reflection on the suffering by conditioned existence. Our minds, our beliefs, our bodies, all of them are insubstantial in that they will not remain beyond their dissipation and thus, we suffer because we can realize our mortality, unlike many other animals. Perhaps they can feel pain, but they cannot contemplate their own existence as humans can and realize the transient quality it possesses, changing from one state to the next, a product of other things that are further products themselves in a seemingly infinite web of birth and death. This might drive a person to nihilism, but this is due to their focus on trying to find an enduring answer outside themselves for how to solve this problem. But ultimately, there is no such answer to be found. It is only through a sort of resigned acceptance that I spoke of before that you can persevere in spite of the world being so unpredictable and unsatisfactory to one who desires permanence. I am not advocating nihilism at all, but an existential, or maybe better termed as absurdist, approach. The world is bad and good, ambivalent in virtually every way as a continuum of events. But this doesn’t mean we should solve the mysteries of the world with another mystery, but should seek to find knowledge and wisdom through our own efforts. This is the essence of what I think Buddhism advocates for human goals.
Buddhism in no way wants people to think life is all bad, but it doesn’t want people to forget that since thing are temporary and without a persistent substance of their own, that we should let go of our delusions and seek wisdom about the world in such a way that we become more liberated physically and mentally from what is, at its root, a problem of both our corporeal and incorporeal aspects, the body and mind as an intertwined and conditioned whole. To be truly free, we also have to recognize our dependence, but not let it overwhelm us. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.