You almost certainly know Toni Bernhard by now — she’s been interviewed and featured here on Shambhala SunSpace, profiled in the Shambhala Sun magazine, and her book, How To Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, has quickly garnered heaps of attention.
Recently Toni put down some of her well-informed thoughts on suffering as it is understood in Buddhism, and we’re very pleased to be presenting them here. Here, she introduces the material, to be followed in coming days by a look at “The Three Kinds of Dukkha,” or suffering, and then a concise and helpful practice for working with these.
In his Second Noble Truth, the Buddha said that the origin of dukkha – the dissatisfaction with the circumstances of our lives – is tanha, or thirst. I like to translate tanhha as craving or longing, as this refers to a self-focused desire to get something for ourselves, whether it be a material thing (an iPad), a sensory experience (the taste of ice cream, the feel of ocean waves on the body) or an identity (law professor, award-winning author).
I think of tanha as the constantly recurring experience of “want” and “don’t want” in my life. I want (crave) pleasant experiences (mental and physical); I don’t want (am averse to) unpleasant ones. The Buddha wasn’t mincing words when he said: “Dukkha is (1) not getting what you want and (2) getting what you don’t want.” And so, dissatisfaction and craving go hand in hand. No dukkha, no tanha. No tanha, no dukkha.
Sometimes commentators claim that the Buddha was saying that life itself is dukkha because having been born, we are subject to sickness, injury, and loss. But the bare fact of these three phenomena cannot be dukkha because that wouldn’t be in accord with the Second Noble Truth which ties dukkha to tanha. It’s the aversion to sickness, injury, and loss (that is, the craving for them not to be a part of our life) that gives rise to dukkha.
Next installment: The Three Kinds of Dukkha
More from Toni Bernhard:
Until she had to retire due to illness, Toni Bernhard was a law professor for 22 years at the University of California – Davis, serving six years as the law school’s dean of students. She had a longstanding Buddhist practice and co-led a weekly meditation group with her husband. Forced to learn to live a new life, Toni has written How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (Wisdom Publications, September 2010). She lives in Davis, CA with her husband, also named Tony, and their hound dog, Rusty. She can be found online at www.howtobesick.com