The Incessant Distress (“Peleema”) – Key to Dukkha Sacca

This post may not be suitable for those who are starting out. It could be really helpful to someone who has some level of understanding on anicca, dukkha, anatta.

Most people think that the first Noble Truth on suffering is the physical suffering itself, i.e., they associate it with the vedana cetasika. However, the Buddha said,  “This Dhamma is unlike anything that the world has ever seen”. The real truth on suffering is the suffering that is hidden in what everyone perceives to be happiness. It needs to be seen with the panna (wisdom) cetasika.

  • In fact it is difficult to understand the first Noble Truth on suffering for someone who is feeling the suffering. When someone is hurting with an ailment or when someone’s mind is too weak at old age, it is not possible to contemplate on the deep message of the Buddha, as we will see below.

Dukkha sacca (pronounced, “sachcha”) is the Truth of Suffering; sacca is truth.

  • Peleema” is the Pali (and Sinhala) word for distress, or hardship, where the first part “pe” rhymes like “pen”. This is part of the suffering we undergo even without realizing.

This is the kind of meditation (contemplation) one needs to do initially, even before starting on the Ariya Anapanasati bhavana. I cannot emphasize enough the importance in understanding the real message of the Buddha first.

1. Even though we do not realize it, we are stressed out ALL THE TIME, due to our desire to keep our six senses satisfied. Anyone who has had temporary relief from this incessant distress via a good meditation program knows this; it is called niramisa sukha. It is even more apparent if one can have a jhanic experience. Only when one gets into a jhanic state (where the focus is held on a single object) that one realizes that one had been under incessant stress all life.

  • We do not realize this because this is the “baseline” for existence (our “comfort zone”); this is what we have done over innumerable rebirths.
  • In order to get some relief from this incessant distress, we constantly think about ways to bring about periods of happiness. We are constantly thinking of ways to get a better house, car, or zillions of other “things” that are supposed to provide us with happiness, i.e., we are ALWAYS stressing out in order to adjust this “baseline comfort zone”. We move to a bigger house, buy a set of new furniture, work harder to get a better job etc.
  • Furthermore, when we go a little bit below the current “comfort level”, we need to do work (sankhara) to remedy that. For example, when we get hungry, we may have to prepare a meal or walk/drive to a restaurant to get a meal.
  • Or, we may be sitting at home, satisfied after a meal, but then all of a sudden we again go “below the comfort level” for no apparent reason; we just become “bored” sitting at home, and think about going to movie. So, we get in the car drive to a movie theater.
  • I am sure you can think about zillion other things we do all day long.

2. This unending “urges” we constantly get is one type of dukkha: dukkha dukkha. This is the repeated, unending bouts of suffering due to our desire to satisfy the six senses:

  • Our senses are constantly asking for enjoyment: the eye wants to see beautiful things, the ear wants to listen to pleasurable sounds, the nose wants to smell nice fragrances, the tongue wants to taste sumptuous foods, the body wants luxurious touch, and the mind likes to think about pleasing thoughts. We have to WORK (sankhara) to satisfy these needs. This is a second type of dukkha: sankhara dukkha.
  • In addition to doing work going to restaurant, travelling to a cinema, etc, we also need to do a job to make money for all those activities. This is doing constant work (sankhara) to keep afloat.
  • Most times, we get one urge on top another: we may want to eat and drink, we may want to watch a movie, but also may want company (gather friends).
  • We do not realize this suffering because our minds are focused on the end result, the pleasure we get after doing all that work.
  • You may be thinking, “What is he talking about? Isn’t this what the life is supposed to be?”. Exactly! We do not even realize this, because this is our “baseline” of existence. We have done this over and over extending to beginning-less time, and we PERCEIVE this to be “normal”.

3. What we perceive as happiness actually comes from the relief we get when the distress level is subdued via our efforts. All we do is to suppress the incessant “imbalances”. This is illustrated by the following example:

  • Suppose a person has his hands bound behind him. Then someone hits him hard with a stick. He feels the pain. This is analogous to dukkha dukkha, the incessant battering imparted by nature.
  • If someone starts massaging the place that was hit, the person feels good, and asks to be massaged more. But work must be done to impart this happiness. This is compared to the sankhara dukkha. In this example, someone else is doing this work, but in real life each person is doing this extra work for himself. For example, when one is hungry, one needs to prepare food. Then he becomes happy after eating the food.
  • Now if we ask this person if we should hit him again so that he can get the pleasure of the massage again, of course he will refuse. This is because he KNOWS the pain associated with the hit.
  • On the other hand, we seek pleasure by working to satisfy our senses because we DO NOT know that there is a root cause for the baseline distress, and we DO NOT even realize that there is such a “baseline suffering” until a Buddha discovers it. This can be compared directly to the above example, if we can impart a hit on the person while he is under anesthetics. In that case, when he comes out of anesthesia, he feels the pain, but does not know what caused it.

4. The reality is that no matter what we do to please the senses, those pleasing moments are limited. Even if we can maintain that sense input for long times, the senses get tired after a while, and ask for a different kind of experience. Let us look at some examples:

  • We can be lying in the most comfortable bed, but sooner or later, we start shifting and rolling trying to find a better posture, and eventually cannot stay in bed anymore.
  • Even the most delicious food, we can eat only so much at a time. Not only that, if we eat the same kinds of foods for a week, we get tired of it regardless of how good they are, and want to try a different type of food.
  • This is called viparinama dukkha, another kind of dukkha. This arises because NOTHING we do can maintain the status quo, anything that brings us pleasure is destroyed eventually.
  • Many people think viparinama dukkha arises due to change or “anitya“. But “change” is “parinäma“; “viparinäma” is the “unexpected change”. If something changes as expected, that is easier to handle mentally; but due to “anicca nature” things happen unexpectedly and that causes “viparinama dukkha“.

5. In summary, (i) we are under constant stress due to ever-present demands to satisfy the six senses (dukkha dukkha) mainly due to kamma vipaka, (ii) we suffer more by working to get relief from such demands (sankhara dukkha), and (iii) whatever satisfaction we get ends, either due to that “sense fulfilling process” breaking down unexpectedly OR us getting bored with it (viparinama dukkha).

  • However, the longing for such temporary bouts of happiness keeps all three types of suffering hidden. The Buddha gave the following simile: if you attach a pile of straw in front of an ox is pulling a cart, the ox will keep moving forward eagerly trying to get to the straw; it does not even feel its effort, because it is only thinking about the reward that it thinks it is hoping to get very soon.
  • This is our ignorance. We do not realize that no matter what we do, it is not possible to maintain anything to our satisfaction for long times. This is the characteristic of anicca.

6. The worse part is that in the lowest four realms, beings become truly helpless. There is very little a being can do (sankhara) in order to make amends for the incessant dukkha dukkha in those realms. For example, a wild animal has very few choices when it gets hungry. If food is not found, it will go hungry for days with much suffering and eventually become prey to a stronger animal when it gets weak. In the wild, you do  not see any old, sick animals; just as they get weak, they are eaten by bigger, stronger animals. This is the true meaning of anatta; one becomes truly helpless, especially in those lower realms.

7. There is nowhere in the 31 realms where dukkha is absent. The three types of dukkha are present in the 31 realms in varying degrees:

  • In the lowest realm, the nirayas, dukkha dukkha is predominant; there is only suffering, and no way to get relief by doing sankhara. Even in the animal realm there is relative little sankhara dukkha; they just suffer directly as pointed out  above.
  • In the higher realms (above the human realm), there is very little dukkha dukkha because those are “good births” that originated due to meritorious kamma. In these higher realms, it is the viparinama dukkha that ends the life there. Also, any Brahma has not overcome suffering in the lowest four realms in the future, unless the Sotapanna stage has been attained.
  • It is in the human realm that all three types of dukkha are present at significant levels; also, the sankhara dukkha is highest compared to all the realms.

8. This is the First Noble Truth, Dukkha Sacca, that there is hidden dukkha even in bouts of apparent happiness, and that there is no place within the 31 realms where dukkha can be overcome permanently.

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