August 16, 2021; revised December 13, 2022
Dukkha – An Inherent Characteristic of This World and Not the Dukkha Vedana
1. The most misunderstood aspect of Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta) is to think that dukkha means the “suffering that we experience.” Most meditation programs focus on the physical discomforts during a session. That is a complete misunderstanding. We need to focus on the “dukkha nature” of this world.
- A “lakkhana” means an intrinsic “characteristic” or a “quality.” For example, the “Lakkhaṇa Sutta (DN 30)” describes a Buddha’s 31 unique qualities/characteristics.
- Someone may live a happy life for many years. Yet, old age and eventual death are intrinsic lakkhana of any life. Even though that person may not be suffering right now, they WILL face suffering without any doubt.
- Therefore, the “dukkha lakkhana” refers to one of the three intrinsic characteristics (Tilakkhana) of Nature, i.e., of this world.
- Before you get all pessimistic about Buddha Dhamma, the Buddha also explained how to escape that cycle of suffering. But we must first understand this world’s “dukkha nature.” To solve a problem, one first needs to realize that there is a problem and then find its root causes. Only then will one be able to remove those root causes and eliminate the problem!
Anything In This World Has Those Three Characteristics!
2. In previous posts in this series, we discussed that EVERYTHING in this world (i.e., not only living beings) has those three characteristics. However, we will suffer only if we attach to those things. In other words, pañcakkhandha has the dukkha lakkhana, but we will be subjected to suffering ONLY DUE TO pañcupādānakhandhā, a tiny fraction of pañcakkhandha that we attach to. See “Anicca and Anatta – Two Characteristics of the World” for discussion and sutta references.
- Many more suttas state the same in different ways; see References 1 and 2 below.
3. Think about that carefully. Anything in this world has the dukkha (and anicca and anatta) characteristics “built-in.”
- There is no way to avoid future suffering as long as one uses those six internal sensory faculties to “enjoy” the six types of external entities with greed, hate, and ignorance of the Noble Truths!
- However, giving up cravings for worldly things is hard to do. It would be impossible without knowing HOW and WHY suffering would be the result.
- That is why it is essential to understand the Four Noble Truths, Tilakkhana, and Paṭicca Samuppāda. They are interrelated and explain HOW and WHY such attachments lead to future suffering.
- Here is an analogy. An alcoholic will not be able to give up drinking without fully comprehending HOW and WHY alcohol consumption leads to suffering.
This World Is “Anchored on Suffering”
4. The primary message of the Buddha is that there is unimaginable suffering in the rebirth process among the 31 realms. Most births are in the four lowest realms (apāyās), where suffering dominates any temporary relief.
- As long as there is existence in this world of 31 realms, that existence WILL encounter both sukha and dukkha.
- However, since living beings are tempted to engage in akusala/pāpa kamma, most rebirths are in the apāyās. We have discussed this “vast imbalance” as pointed out by the Buddha in many suttas. We discussed a few in the post “Introduction – What is Suffering?“
Translated: “The world is inhabited by death, the world is anchored on suffering; Craving/attachment has trapped the world; it is enveloped by decay and old age.”
- A series of short suttas (SN 1.61 through SN 1.81) provides the basis for deeper suttas in Saṁyutta Nikāya. Read through those starting with the “Nāma Sutta (SN 1. 61).”
- We can end that “long-term suffering” by understanding the root causes for births among the 31 realms. In particular, births in the apāyās are caused by immoral deeds (akusala kamma) done while seeking sensory pleasures.
Not Possible to Reach a State with “No Suffering” in This World
6. Understanding the Three Characteristics (Tilakkhana) helps to understand the Four Noble Truths.
- The Nature of this world is such that no matter how hard we try, it is not possible to get to a place free of suffering.
- Let us start with the assumption that there is no rebirth process. Some people have made enough money not only to sustain their families but even to fund the economy of a small country for a year! But would they not be subjected to suffering? We all get old and die one day!
- No matter how successful one becomes, that cannot be said to have led to a “state free of suffering.”
- Those people who commit suicide hope that their suffering will end at death! Unfortunately, that is not the case either. Rebirth is inevitable for anyone below the Arahant stage, and births in the apāyās are possible for anyone who has not at least started to understand the Four Nobel Truths, Tilakkhana, and Paṭicca Samuppāda. That is why one should not waste any time!
Understanding “True Suffering” – It Is in the Rebirth Process
7. in the post “Rebirth – Connection to Suffering in the First Noble Truth,” we discussed references in the Tipiṭaka that MOST rebirths are in the four lowest realms (apāyās.) We can only see the suffering in one of them, the animal realm.
- The Buddha has discussed, in detail, the types of suffering in the other three apāyās. For example, in the “Bālapaṇḍita Sutta (MN 129)” and “Devadūta Sutta (MN 130)” the Buddha explains, in detail, the types of suffering encountered in various lower realms.
- English translation of the first one: “The Foolish and the Astute (MN 129.).” That sutta explains that a person who engages in immoral activities (“bālo” or a “fool”) can expect the consequences (kamma vipāka) both in this life and in future existences in the apāyās. The account of the experiences in the niraya (lowest realm) is terrifying.
8. A related sutta is the “Pāyāsi Sutta (DN 23).” It is about the wrong views that there is no rebirth process, etc. See the English translation: “With Pāyāsi (DN 23).” For those who have doubts about the validity of the rebirth process or the existence of apāyās, it is a good idea to read the above suttās.
- As mentioned in the first post, “Buddha Dhamma – Noble Truths, Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana,” in this series of posts, we discuss anicca, dukkha, anatta with the focus on the summary statement, “aniccaṁ khayaṭṭhena dukkhaṁ bhayaṭṭhena anattā asārakaṭṭhenāti.” It can be stated as follows:
- “Anything in this world (rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa) is of anicca nature because one’s hopes for enjoying them will only lead to one’s demise (“aniccaṁ khayaṭṭhena.”) It will eventually lead to sufferings that one should be afraid of (“dukkhaṁ bhayaṭṭhena.”) Therefore, such cravings/efforts are unfruitful and will make one helpless in the rebirth process (“anattā asārakaṭṭhenāti.”)
- One would not become serious about learning Buddha Dhamma until realizing the unimaginable suffering associated with the rebirth process!
What Is Nibbāna?
9. A key point here is that there are many instances where one can experience “periods of happiness” even for long times. Life is mostly of “sensual pleasures” in the 6 Deva realms. In the 20 Brahma realms, it is mostly “jhānic pleasures” that they experience. Even some humans experience high levels of “sensual pleasures” for most of their lives.
- However, all those “periods of happiness” or “pleasures” are VERY SHORT in the time scale of the rebirth process, which is effectively infinite. See “Infinity – How Big Is It?“
- Furthermore, all humans, Devas, and Brahmas will end up in the four lowest realms unless they get to the Sotapanna stage!
- Without a Buddha, we would be unaware of the rebirth process and that births in the apāyās are much more frequent than births in the “good realms.”
Nibbāna Is About the Cessation of Suffering
10. This is why the First Noble Truth is about the CESSATION of suffering and NOT about happiness or even jhānic experiences. Since NOTHING in this world exists in Nibbāna, all vedanās (dukkha or sukha, AS WE KNOW) are absent in Nibbāna.
- Even though suttas discuss Nibbāna as “Nibbānic bliss,” the term “bliss” indicates the bliss associated with the TOTAL absence of suffering. It is indeed bliss to be free of suffering forever!
- The closest analogy is the following. Suppose someone has had a migraine headache for years. If it goes away one day, they will be free of that horrible suffering. That would be a great relief to get rid of all that suffering.
- We should think of Nibbāna the same way, not as a paradise with sensual or jhānic pleasures. We can only say for sure that there is not even a trace of suffering in Nibbāna. See, “Nibbāna “Exists,” but Not in This World.”
1. Twelve suttas begin with the “Ajjhattānicca Sutta (SN 35.1)” and end with the “Bāhirānattātītānāgata Sutta (SN 35.12)” state that our six internal sensory faculties (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind) AND the six types of rupa experienced by those faculties all have the Three Characteristics (Tilakkhana.)
- For example, they say, “cakkhu, sota, ghāna, jivhā, kāya, mano” all have the anicca, dukkha, and anatta qualities or characteristics. That means all six sensory faculties have “built-in” anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature.
- The same is true for the six types of external rupa that we experience: rūpa, sadda, gandha, rasa, phoṭṭhabba, and dhammā.
- But we will be subjected to suffering only if we attach to them!
- MANY other suttas state the same in different ways: 138 suttas say the five aggregates all have anicca, dukkha, anatta nature: “138 results for vedanā AND viññāṇaṁ AND aniccā.” Of course, the five aggregates encompass everything in this world.
- To state the same differently, five aggregates (pañcakkhandha) are “subject to suffering.” Even an Arahant is subject to suffering until the death of the physical body (Parinibbāna.) The Buddha himself had bodily ailments.
- However, all that suffering ends at Parinibbāna.
3. Each person creates their own future suffering from their own actions based on (abhi)saṅkhāra that arise due to the ignorance of this “big picture.”
- When a mind grasps this “big picture,” one attains the Sotapanna stage. No matter how strong the temptation is, it will NEVER trigger the mind to commit “apāyagāmi actions” (those lead to rebirth in the apāyās). That is the meaning of “dassanena pahātabbā” or “remove defilements with clear vision” that we briefly mentioned in the first post in this series: “Buddha Dhamma – Noble Truths, Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana.”
- That is the same as getting to the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path, Samma Diṭṭhi.