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

Revised July 14, 2018

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 paññā (wisdom) cetasika.

  • In fact it is difficult to understand the first Noble Truth on suffering for someone who is feeling too much 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.

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

This is the kind of meditation (contemplation) one needs to do initially, even before starting on the Ariya Anāpānasati bhāvanā. 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 physical body and the six senses satisfied. Anyone who has had temporary relief from this incessant distress (pilana) via a good meditation program knows this; it is called nirāmisa sukha. It is even more apparent if one can have a jhānic experience. Only when one gets into a jhānic 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 (sankhāra) 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. These unending “distresses” belong to one type of dukkha: dukkha dukkha. It is due to the physical body that we have inherited:

  • 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.
  • And we get hungry, thirsty, lonely, bored, etc etc.

3. Then we have to things (i.e.,  work or do sankhāra) to satisfy these needs. This is a second type of dukkha: sankhāra 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 (sankhāra) to keep us 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”.

4. 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:

  • We naturally get hungry and thirsty, which are two main “pilana” that we cannot avoid as long as we have this physical body.
  • However, when we eat and drink, that leads to a sense of happiness. But we never think that this “happiness” actually arose due to an inevitable distress.
  • If we cannot find water when we get thirsty, that will lead to real suffering. At that point a glass water will tasty heavenly. However, after drinking a glass or two, we will not be able to enjoy drinking any more water.
  • That “happiness” actually arose when getting rid of the pilana due to thirst.

5. The reality is that no matter what we do to please the senses, those pleasing moments are limited, and if you think carefully, they do not arise without “pilana” or an inherent distress associated with the body. 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:

  • When we are in a warm climate, we are overjoyed to be in an air-conditioned room. But that would not like to be in an air-conditioned room in the middle of winter in Alaska; rather we would like the room to be warmed up. The “happiness” is not associated with cold or hot air; we will feel happy when we remove “pilana” or the discomfort/distress for the body by cooling or warming the environment.
  • 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.
  • The most beautiful scenery can be watched only for so long, and would get bored.  Joy of sex is gone once satisfied, and that urge will not arise until at a later time again.

6. Then there is a third type of suffering called viparinama dukkha. That is also associated with the body, but is due to “unexpected changes” or “viparinama“.

  • For example, we can get injured in accidents or we can come down with a major illness like cancer.
  • This is the suffering that is easy to see.

5. In summary, out of the three types of suffering, we really notice (and worry about) only the viparinama dukkha.

  • One may not even notice the other two types of suffering. They are masked by our perceived “happiness” that is actually rooted in suffering itself. Especially those of us who are born with reasonable level of  wealth can overcome both easily.
  • We get to eat before we become really hungry and it becomes painful. Furthermore, we don’t need to go hunting and kill an animal to eat; we can go to a restaurant and have a nice meal.
  • Therefore, those two types of sufferings are really hidden from us. But we know that there are many who really feel such suffering, and that in future lives we are likely to face them too.

6. The worse part is that in the lowest four realms, beings become truly helpless. There is very little a being can do (sankhāra) 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 sankhāra. Even in the animal realm there is relative little sankhāra 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 sankhāra 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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