Have you ever heard someone – usually not a Buddhist practitioner – summarize the central Buddhist teaching as “life is suffering?” Sometimes people end up with the impression that the Buddha’s teaching was something like this: “Generally speaking, life is a terrible experience. The best thing to do is withdraw from life as much as possible, literally and emotionally.” Put another way, when people hear that the Buddha counseled “detachment,” it can sound to them like he advised his followers to make a practice of disassociation so they could live out their lives with a minimum of pain. This view of Buddhism can make Buddhist practitioners appear at best like cowards, and at worst, cold and heartless (if, perhaps, admirable in their self-discipline).
Sadly, this is a complete misunderstanding of a teaching that is absolutely central to Buddhism. It is important that it be properly understood so people don’t reject or misuse a teaching that could, potentially, be a profound source of liberation.
Part of the misunderstanding of the Buddhist teaching about the nature of human existence arises from difficulties in the translation of Buddhism from one language to another. The word that is typically translated as “suffering” is dukkha. Dukkha, at least as used by Buddhists, is a word that has no simple English equivalent, and most Buddhist scholars agree the word suffering is too limited in its meanings to serve as a direct translation. Thus, dukkha has been alternatively translated as anxiety, uneasiness, stress, unsatisfactoriness and discontent. According to Monier-Williams in his Sanskrit-English Dictionary, duhkha means “uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult.”
If we give up trying to translate dukkha into one word, it could be said that it is an existential sense that things are not as they should be, which manifests in human experience in varying degrees between despair (things are vastly different from the way things should be) and a vague uneasiness (things are not quite as they should be). By “existential sense” I mean a perception based on our experience of the world as self-conscious beings. Whether we are philosophers or not, the nature of our existence and our relationship to the world is of supreme importance to us. We are sentient beings who are acutely aware of our existence, and therefore our potential non-existence. When humans contemplate this great matter, we typically experience dukkha.
The subtle nature of the experience of dukkha can be understood further from its etymology. Sargeant (2009, p. 303) explains the historical roots of duḥkha and its antonym sukha:
It is perhaps amusing to note the etymology of the words sukha (pleasure, comfort, bliss) and duḥkha (misery, unhappiness, pain). The ancient Aryans who brought the Sanskrit language to India were a nomadic, horse- and cattle-breeding people who travelled in horse- or ox-drawn vehicles. Su and dus are prefixes indicating good or bad. The word kha, in later Sanskrit meaning "sky," "ether," or "space," was originally the word for "hole," particularly an axle hole of one of the Aryan's vehicles. Thus sukha … meant, originally, "having a good axle hole," while duhkha meant "having a poor axle hole," leading to discomfort.
For me, it helps to demystify dukkha to imagine someone getting nauseous from riding in a cart that keeps swaying from side to side who is thinking to himself, “Oy, this is very uncomfortable.”
Dukkha – discomfort, stress, discontent – obviously arises when we encounter experiences that cause us suffering, like physical pain, illness, loss, trauma, not getting what one wants, old age and dying. But it also arises when we experience happiness, joy, boredom, enthusiasm and whole host of other things. Even the most positive, rewarding and enjoyable experience is at least slightly colored by the fact that it will end, or by the fact that at the same moment innocent people are in the midst of terrible suffering. Most of us experience at least a low-grade dukkha all the time. It is like a mild depression we don’t notice until we come out of it, or an ache we have gotten used to. The vague sense that things are not quite as they should be pervades everything.
Why do we feel the subtlest kind of dukkha, even when everything is going great for us? Underneath all of our more blatant resistance to difficulty and pain, the problem is basically this: we want things to rely on, but all things are impermanent and empty of any inherent, independent, enduring self. Including us. We may not even understand what is bothering us, but the intuition that absolutely everything is impermanent is unnerving.
Every mobile creature on the planet, from an amoeba on up, moves away from things that cause it harm or pain, and toward things that protect and nourish it. This is how separate units of life survive, reproduce and evolve. The desire to look after ourselves is extremely powerful, especially in a creature like us that has a strong memory of its past and the ability to imagine its future. But the amoeba doesn’t care that all things are impermanent and empty; it just goes on about its business of self-preservation and promotion without a conscious sense of self. Human beings, on the other hand, identify our bodies, sensations, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness as “self.” As one moment flows into the next we have a sense of continuity that we assume is the enduring part of who we are.
The assumption that there is an enduring part of who we are is wrong. In reality we are only flow. Our self is a composite of materials, processes and emergent phenomena that produces a sensation of an inherent, independent, enduring self. This sensation is extremely adaptive, but in a very intelligent animal it can produce a side-effect of existential angst. What does such an animal do when it suspects it actually has no definable boundaries and is only flow? What does it protect and promote? What can it rely on safety and refuge?
To the sages of the Buddha’s time there appeared to be only two responses to dukkha:
- Keep trying to change conditions so we won't feel resistance to them, and ultimately find something permanent to rely on
- Live with dukkha
The Buddha realized everything was impermanent and empty of an inherent self, so he knew #1 was not an option. He refused to accept #2. Fortunately, he saw a third option:
- Let go of the resistance to things as they are, and of the search for something permanent to rely on
The Buddha discovered a simple way for human beings to free themselves from the anxiety-provoking experience of dukkha: let go of the thought that things are not as they should be, particularly the thought that all things, especially us, are permanent and have an inherent, independent, enduring self. Put another way: don’t fight the nature of the universe, change your mind.
If this sounds to you like a defeatist approach that would lead to more suffering, you haven’t actually tried it.
Monier-Williams (1899, 1964), A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, London: Oxford University Press
Sargeant, Winthrop (2009), The Bhagavad Gita, SUNY Press