No one likes, or would eagerly seek out, the experience of difficulty – especially such that might fall into the broad category termed ‘suffering’. It is often for this reason that people unfamiliar with the Buddhist teaching(s) of dukkha (most often translated as suffering), metaphorically or actually turn their attention away from this great teaching in disgust, disdain, or in disbelief that such a seemingly pessimistic focus might actually lead one to peace, ease, and happiness. But this is exactly what Buddhism offers via its first Noble Truth (or perhaps ‘Truth Noble’). Where is it then that most of us misperceive the joy that a clear understanding of dukkha might offer?
Let us begin with the word dukkha itself. Most often translated into English using the word ‘suffering’, it might more appropriately be thought of as ‘unsatisfactoriness’, or perhaps even ‘imbalance’. The original use of the word dukkha referred to a cart in which it’s wheel and axle were poorly matched – more literally it meant ‘bad axle hole’; a situation where, rather than rolling smoothly, the wheel clattered and jostled the cart’s voyage. So, the term dukkha was chosen to convey a state of affairs in which something isn’t quite functioning optimally. But what is it in human experience that might not be functioning in a way that creates peace and ease? The Buddhist answer to this is that perception itself is not functioning optimally; and because of unclear ‘seeing’, we all suffer the ignorance caused by resultant distortions. To use an exaggerated example – Romeo and Juliet’s rash decisions, decisions made based on incomplete information, are how each of us rush about in the world; and rush we do without ever actually taking the time to inquire and to notice how we might relate to things more skillfully and directly.
Dukkha at its core is the result of ignorance, and this in turn results in the clouded perception that gives birth to craving and aversive tendencies towards all experience. It is for this reason that dukkha is not confined by the simple definitions of ‘pain’ and ‘misery’, as it instead refers to one’s relationship to the conditions of each experience regardless of what those conditions may be. For instance, physical pain is surely a fact of existence – to be in a body is to know both pleasure and pain; but the suffering of dukkha is an unnecessarily added difficulty – added unconsciously by the individual. When we experience physical pain, we usually hope that it lessens or ends; when we experience physical pleasure, we hope that it increases or endures – and both of these scenarios are dukkha, as in an ever-flowing reality these sentiments only act to cause departure from the reality of the present moment. The moment is as it is, and any desire to have it be different in any way, only acts to limit our ability to experience the reality of its actuality. The Buddhist doctrine of impermanence (annica) ensures that each experience will pass – regardless of whether we love or loathe it, it will pass as all things do. Dukkha occurs as a result of not fully resting into the truth of this fact; when we ‘push away’ undesirables, in a subtle way we deny their temporariness, and may even increase their duration and ill effects; and when we cling to desirables, we will inevitably feel betrayed by their assured loss. Dukkha is caused by these confusions.
The Buddhist remedy for the experience of dukkha is cessation. Dukkha’s cause is ignorance, or unclear perception; if we can eliminate this cause, we will then surely also eliminate the resultant effect (dukkha itself). Buddhism’s prescription to this end is the Eight-Fold Path, a systemized practice beginning with ‘right view’, and including the broad categories of wisdom, ethical discipline, and concentrative/meditative elements. In my own experience, which includes fifteen years of practicing elements of the Buddhist path, the Eight-Fold Path surely does offer a means to lessening one’s unconscious entrapment by experience’s conventional/apparent substantiality. When we can more completely occupy the reality of any given experience, then surely our choices will be informed more skillfully by what is truly effective; for how effective can one be when walking in the pitch dark of the woods? The Eight-Fold Path is the lamp that Buddhism encourages humanity to carry on this often-dark journey called life. Of course this does not mean that we won’t occasionally trip over something unseen; however, by merely carrying the lamp of personal practice, we surely will trip all the less frequently or severely.
How have suffering, liberation, and their relationship been experienced within your own life and path of practice? Does your personal experience feel as if it verifies Buddhist teachings, or have you had life experiences that seem to directly contradict them?
Jonathan Reynolds is a meditation teacher and therapist living in Berkeley, California. Drawing on many wisdom traditions, his teaching and clinical orientation are centrally rooted in a mindfulness-based perspective. Jonathan is also the executive director of the Learning To Listen Yoga & Meditation Collective, a nonprofit teaching community committed to offering tools that promote conscious living. For more information on his work, please visit: www.ayogisway.com