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Quest for Meaning, Conestoga College, Fall 2014

The Question of Meaning in Terms of Dis/Ease and Suffering

"I teach about suffering and the way to end it"

Shakyamuni Buddha

The Four Noble Truths


According to the Buddha, whatever life we lead, it has the nature of some aspect of suffering.
Even if we consider ourselves happy for a while, this happiness is transitory by nature. This
mean that at best, we can only find temporary happiness and pleasure in life.

Suffering (or unsatisfactoriness) can be distinguished in three types:

1. Suffering of suffering: this refers to the most obvious aspects like pain, fear and mental
2. Suffering of change: refers to the problems that change brings, like joy disappears, nothing
stays, decay and death.
3. All-pervasive suffering: this is the most difficult to understand aspect, it refers to the fact that
we always have the potential to suffer or can get into problematic situations. Even death is not a
solution in Buddhist philosophy, as we will simply find ourselves being reborn in a different
body, which will also experience problems.

To illustrate this with the words of the 7th Dalai Lama (from 'Songs of spiritual change'
translated by Glenn Mullin:

"Hundreds of stupid flies gather

On a piece of rotten meat,
Enjoying, they think, a delicious feast.
This image fits with the song
Of the myriads of foolish living beings
Who seek happiness in superficial pleasures;
In countless ways they try,
Yet I have never seen them satisfied."

Note that "suffering" is an inadequate translation of the word "Dukkha", but it is the one most
commonly found, lacking a better word in English. "Dukkha" means "intolerable",
"unsustainable", "difficult to endure", and can also mean "imperfect", "unsatisfying", or
"incapable of providing perfect happiness". Interestingly enough, some people actually translate
it as "stress".

"Suffering is a big word in Buddhist thought. It is a key term and it should be thoroughly
understood. The Pali word is dukkha, and it does not just mean the agony of the body. It means
that deep subtle sense of unsatisfactoriness which is a part of every mind moment and which
results directly from the mental treadmill. The essence of life is suffering, said the Buddha. At
first glance this seems exceedingly morbid and pessimistic. It even seems untrue. After all, there
are plenty of times when we are happy. Aren't there. No, there are not. It just seems that way.
Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you
will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension, that no matter how great this moment
is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are either going to lose some of it
or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have got and scheming how to get more. And in
the end, you are going to die. In the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory."
Henepola Gunaratana, from 'Mindfulness in Plain English'.


The reason that we experience suffering comes ultimately from our mind. According to
Buddhism, our main mental problems or root delusions are: attachment, anger and ignorance.
Because of these delusions, we engage in actions that cause problems to ourselves and others.
With every negative action (karma) we do, we create a potential for negative experiences. (See
also the page on karma.)

How can attachment bring us suffering?

We just have to think of chocolate and there is the temptation of eating more than is good for us.
Or as example, my favourite story: the way people used to catch monkeys in South India:

One takes a coconut and makes a hole in it, just large enough that a monkey can squeeze its hand
in. Next, tie the coconut down, and put a sweet inside. What happens next is pure attachment.
The monkey smells the sweet, puts his hand into the coconut, grabs the sweet and ... the hole is
too small to let a fist out of the coconut. The last thing a monkey would consider is to let go of
the sweet, so it is literally tied down by its own attachment. Often they only let go when they fall
asleep or become unconscious because of exhaustion.

Ultimately, the Buddha explains that our attachment to life keeps us in cyclic existence or
samsara, which does not bring us continuous happiness.

How can anger bring us suffering?

As will be explained in the page on karma, all of our actions have consequences. Doing harm to
others will return to us as being harmed. Anger is one of the main reasons we create harm to
others, so logically it is often the cause of suffering to ourselves.

How can ignorance bring us suffering?

This is explained in two ways:

- The conventional explanation is that because we are not omniscient, we regularly get ourselves
into trouble. We do not realise all the consequences of our actions, we do not understand other
beings and we do not understand why the world is exactly the way it is. So we often end up in
situations where we do not take the best actions. Just reflect for a moment how often we think:
"If only I had known this earlier..."

- The more complicated explanation refers to the most profound aspect of Buddhist philosophy:
ultimate truth or emptiness. This is a vast subject, and also after reading the page on wisdom it is
still unlikely that it will be completely clear; it takes years of study and meditation to realise the
insight into the wisdom of emptiness. To put it very simple: reality is not what it seems to us. As
reality is different from our opinions about it, we get ourselves into trouble. As long as we fail to
realise the ultimate truth, we will be stuck in cyclic existence. While being in cyclic existence,
we will always experience some aspect of suffering (which is at least having the potential for
future suffering).


This is the most positive message of Buddhism: although suffering is always present in cyclic
existence, we can end this cycle of problems and pain, and enter Nirvana, which is a state
beyond all suffering.
The reasoning behind this Third Noble Truth is the fact that suffering and the causes of suffering
are dependent on the state of our own mind, so if we can change our own mind, we can also
eliminate suffering. The reasons we do actions that cause ourselves and others harm come from
our delusions. When we possess the proper wisdom (conventional and ultimate), we can rid
ourselves of delusions, and thus of all our problems and suffering. When this process is
complete, we can leave cyclic existence and enjoy the state of Nirvana, free of problems.

The reasoning so far is simple enough, when we are ill, we go to a doctor. He knows (hopefully)
what is wrong and prescribes medicines and gives us advice, which we need to take and folow up
to get well again. Likewise, when a spiritual teacher prescribes us a practice and the development
of wisdom to end our suffering, we still need to follow the instructions, otherwise there will be
no effect. That leads us to the last Noble Truth of the Path of the 'medicine'.


If we can control our body and mind in a way that we help others instead of doing them harm,
and generating wisdom in our own mind, we can end our suffering and problems.

The Buddha summarised the correct attitude and actions in the Eight-fold Noble Path:

(The first 3 are avoiding the 10 non-virtues of mind, speech and body:)

1. Correct thought: avoiding covetousness, the wish to harm others and wrong views (like
thinking: actions have no consequences, I never have any problems, there are no ways to
end suffering etc.)

2. Correct speech: avoid lying, divisive and harsh speech and idle gossip.

3. Correct actions: avoid killing, stealing and sexual misconduct

4. Correct livelihood: try to make a living with the above attitude of thought, speech and

5. Correct understanding: developing genuine wisdom.

(The last three aspects refer mainly to the practice of meditation:)

6. Correct effort: after the first real step we need joyful perseverance to continue.

7. Correct mindfulness: try to be aware of the "here and now", instead of dreaming in the
"there and then".

8. Correct concentration: to keep a steady, calm and attentive state of mind.