“Friends, there is suffering.” These words represent the beginning of the Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment. Why is the Buddha stating the obvious? Did he really think his listeners were unaware of the fact of suffering? Did he find something particularly insightful or profound in this observation?
It is an odd beginning for one of the world’s great spiritualities, to say the least, particularly one that holds joy and liberation as its goal. Why is the Buddha starting his 35-year teaching career and setting in motion a 2500-year tradition with the solemn declaration, “There is suffering”?
Suffering certainly seems to be an unavoidable and undeniable fact. We live most of the time with some level of distress, whether physical, economic, psychological or social. Many of us have to endure unresolvable situations—painful relationships that will not be healed, physical illness or disability that resist treatment, emotional problems that won’t go away, the constant pain and sorrow of those around us, and the fear and seemingly perpetual agonies of our world. Within this context, what is the possible value of affirming the existence of suffering?
In fact, in the Buddha’s declaration, “Friends, there is suffering,” we find encapsulated all of the doctrines, methods of transformation and fruitions of Buddhism, no matter the tradition and no matter the time or place.
According to the Buddha, there are four great things that we need to understand about suffering: first, the full extent of its existence; second, why we suffer as we do; third, that in reality suffering is not what we think; and, finally, that it is suffering alone that holds the key to genuine liberation. It is only through our relation to suffering that we can fulfill our life’s ultimate purpose. These are, of course, the well-known “four noble truths” that make up the substance of the Buddha’s first teaching. In this column, we will explore the first two, and in the next issue, truths three and four.
Taking a Closer Look
It is critical to realize that none of the four noble truths departs from the truth of suffering and that all are, in a sense, contained in the first. Truths two, three and four are merely commentaries that show us the full depth of the statement, “Friends, there is suffering.” In fact, one of the early Buddhist schools insisted that if we fully understand the first noble truth, the others become unnecessary.
In drawing our attention to suffering, the Buddha is suggesting that while we may intellectually acknowledge that “there is suffering,” we do not actually admit it, at least not emotionally, as an enduring part of our experience. In fact, we are terrified by suffering, and owing to our fearful, highly charged relationship to it, there is something terribly wrong with our awareness of it. There is always something “off” about how we relate to it. In fact, the Buddha says, all of our human dilemmas—even samsara itself—derive from the twisted and perverted relationship that we have to suffering.
How can we rectify this relationship, and what may we expect in return? First, we have to see that the Buddha is pointing to something that runs through our entire existence. “Suffering” is an imperfect translation of the much broader Sanskrit term duhkha, which includes the meanings of discomfort, dis-ease, frustration and dissatisfaction, as well as the more blatant pain, misery, torment and grief. Taken in this broader sense, the Buddha suggests, duhkha is coextensive with human life. It points to the fact that life never quite measures up to what we want or expect. There is always something unsatisfactory about each moment of our lives.
In illustration, Buddhism identifies three increasingly subtle levels of duhkha.
First, most of our experiences are colored by some level of pain. This could be the out-and-out distress of old age, disease and death; of troubled relationships, the loss of those we love, and the presence in our lives of people we don’t like; and the constant friction and frustration we feel that things are never quite right.
Second, and more subtlely, even moments of true accomplishment, genuine happiness and real communication with others are never free from the shadow of impermanence. We cannot escape the bitter-sweet quality of their transience. On some level, we sense that we can never hold on to them and that they are always slipping away.
Finally, and most subtle of all, there is the suffering implicit in the very way we “take” the world. We are always cramming our experience into the pettiness of our thinking, reservations and self-serving judgments. In the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ evocative phrasing, “All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” The more sensitive we are, the more excruciating this third level of suffering can be.
Strategies of Denial
In the face of all this suffering, the Buddha further suggests, we are in a state of continual and relentless denial. Dukkha does not fit into our idea of who we should be or could be, and we set ourselves against it.
Sometimes, we try to distract ourselves from suffering through work, relationships, entertainment or compulsive shopping. At other times, we may seek to deaden our sensibilities through sex, overeating, drugs or alcohol. Again, we may attempt to feel better by rationalizing our duhkha with sophisticated philosophical, religious or psychological dogmas. Often we try to relieve ourselves by blaming other people or external situations.
Some of us cope with our suffering by imagining that we can do something about it—thinking up ways we can alleviate it and applying ourselves to getting rid of it. In the background is our idea that once we do so, things will be better and we will feel okay. We never seem to notice that once one form of suffering is eliminated another appears to take its place.
Ironically, often in the very act of trying to eliminate one kind of discomfort, we create much more discomfort for ourselves and others in the process. In fact, the Buddha suggests, all ordinary activity is based on the mistaken premise that duhkha can be definitively removed and lasting happiness attained.
As a last resort, we blame ourselves for our suffering. Can’t we get it together to manage our lives properly? What mistake or sin have we committed that we are physically sick, that we are emotionally troubled, that we can’t get along with other people? Why is even our happiness overshadowed by pain? Can’t we ever stop thinking and judging everything? What is wrong with us?
In all these strategies, we have only one agenda: to deny the fact that suffering is an inherent part of our lives and that we will never be able to remove it once and for all. But what are we so afraid of? What is so threatening about admitting that suffering is and will always be with us?
We are driven by thirst, trsna, the second noble truth. This is, in Walpola Ralula’s words, “the will to live, to exist, to re-exist, to continue, to become more and more.” We want to maintain this “I” that we conceive ourselves to be, and to make it grander, stronger, less vulnerable and more successful. In contrast, the truth of suffering says, “As long as I am around, you will never attain the comfort, satisfaction and happiness that you desire.”
Suffering insults us by calling into question our self-sufficiency and integrity as individuals. It humiliates us by suggesting that we are weak, powerless and incompetent. Acknowledging that suffering is part of being human—as much a part of our lives as our breath and heartbeat—is not something we want to do. From this viewpoint, suffering is our ultimate enemy. It is terrifying because it shows the fallacy of our entire approach to life. Of course we don’t want to face it. How could we do anything other than try to avoid and deny it?
Ironically—and this is what the second noble truth reveals—the more we fight our suffering, the more we try to master it and banish it from our lives—the worse it becomes. What we do not realize is that suffering’s existence depends entirely on our resistance. It continues as an intractable problem in our lives solely because we are constantly struggling against it. It is thus not suffering itself that is the problem, but rather our relationship to it.
This, of course, suggests the possibility of some resolution to our dilemma: that if we could discover a different way of relating with our suffering, we might have some hope of unlocking its riddle.