Introduction -2 – The Three Categories of Suffering

June 20, 2021

Three Categories of Suffering

1. In the previous post, “Introduction – What is Suffering?” we discussed what is meant by suffering in Buddha Dhamma. Here we continue that discussion. The three categories of suffering are stated in the Dukkhatā Sutta (SN 45.165): “…Dukkha dukkhatā, saṅkhāra dukkhatā, vipariṇāma dukkhatāimā kho, bhikkhave, tisso dukkhatā.”

  • It does not make sense to try to translate the names of the 3 categories: Dukkha dukkhatā, saṅkhāra dukkhatā, vipariṇāma dukkhatā. Instead, it is better to understand the meanings of those 3 types of suffering. Here, dukkhatā means “type of dukkha.”
  • Thus, we can say that the 3 categories of suffering are dukkha-dukkha, saṅkhāra-dukkha, and vipariṇāma-dukkha.
  • We can briefly identify them as follows. Vipariṇāma-dukkha arises when rupa (both internal and external) change against our liking. Saṅkhāra- dukkha is associated with our efforts (based on mano, vaci, and kāya saṅkhāra) to try to acquire and maintain rupa to our liking. Such efforts lead to more kammā, which in turn bring dukkha-dukkha as kamma vipāka.
What Is Suffering Based on?

2. What is our whole world? We sense external rupa through our five physical senses (internal rupa) and then think about them. Thus we can sum up our world as what we experience through our INTERNAL six senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind). If any of our internal 6 senses stop working or get weaker, we suffer.

  • Using those sensory faculties, we experience 6 types of rupa in the external world: visuals, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and dhammā. If those are not our liking, we suffer.
  • Those twelve (six INTERNAL and six EXTERNAL) make up “our world.” Everything is included in those twelve—all 12 lead to suffering, not only in this life but also in future lives.
  • Let us first discuss vipariṇāma-dukkha due to our internal rupa (internal āyatana.)
Vipariṇāma-Dukkha Due to Internal Rupa

3. Any rupa undergoes change (sometimes unexpected change), leading to suffering. First, let us consider whether we can keep our physical bodies and their associated sensory faculties to our satisfaction.

  • We may be able to maintain our five physical senses to our satisfaction for many years. And this is why people do not even take time to think about these ideas.
  • We start feeling this hidden suffering when we pass middle age. Our five physical senses start getting weaker. For example, the eyesight starts dropping; the hearing may decrease, our tongues start losing their ability to taste, our noses become less sensitive, and our bodies start sagging. We may start losing hair, teeth, etc.
  • So, what do most of us do? We start looking for ways to “prop them up”: We can take temporary measures by wearing glasses, hearing aids, adding more spices/flavor to food, and doing cosmetic procedures to try to maintain the body’s appearance. There is absolutely nothing wrong with some of these “fixes”; for example, we need to see, so we need to take precautions to protect our eyes and start wearing glasses. Ditto for hearing aids and even for adding spices to food. Even doing some cosmetic procedures (coloring the hair, for example) may be needed to maintain a  level of self-confidence, as may be the case.
  • These “remedies” require effort and are part of “saṅkhāra-dukkha,” as we discuss below.

4. The point is that no matter what we do, there comes a time when nothing works. The whole body starts falling apart. We may lose all the hair; the skin sagging may no longer be prevented by surgery; we may lose all hearing; the food becomes tasteless. The best way to realize this firsthand is to visit a home for the elderly.

  • We also tend to get sick and come down with diseases easily as we get old.
  • But the worst part is that our brains will start getting weaker, which will lead to memory loss and, most importantly, the ability to think.
  • If we wait until we get to that stage, it WILL BE TOO LATE. By the time we realize that our minds are weak, then we become really helpless.

5. Some people die of unexpected causes before getting to old age. But that is also the same thing: they could not maintain things the way they expected. We could have prevented at least some of this suffering if we understood the root causes for suffering and focused our attention on doing “fruitful things” while doing some of those temporary measures to keep our sense faculties in good shape. We will discuss such ‘fruitful deeds” after discussing the suffering associated with external things in this world.

  • The suffering that we discussed so far arises from one aspect of anicca: things are subjected to decay, and destruction and nothing in this world are exempt from that; this is part of what is called “viparināma dukkha,” suffering that arises due to changes and decay (both expected and unexpected.)
Vipariṇāma-Dukkha Due to External Rupa

6. Now, let us look at the EXTERNAL rupa that make up “our physical world”: visuals, sounds, smells, tastes, touches are experienced with our five physical senses.

  • The suffering associated with external things arises NOT necessarily because they are “impermanent,” as is incorrectly believed by many. On the contrary, many external things seem to be permanent, at least compared to our lifetime.
  • For example, a gold necklace will last for even millions of years. If any suffering arises in anyone due to a gold necklace, that is definitely NOT because that necklace is “impermanent.” For example, if a woman had a necklace, but she lost it, that suffering was not due to an “impermanence” associated with the necklace; rather, it was due to the inability of that person to keep it in her possession.
  • Sometimes things that we own break down unexpectedly: house burns down or gets flooded, the brand new car gets destroyed in an accident, etc. Suffering in such cases is due to “unexpected changes” also fall under the “vipariṇāma-dukkha” category.
Saṅkhāra-Dukkha

7. Saṅkhāra-dukkha is associated with maintaining our internal rupa and acquiring and maintaining external rupa. All such efforts require thinking, speaking, and bodily actions; they involve mano, vaci, and kāya saṅkhāra. See, “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means.”

  • For example, if we come down with a sickness or an injury, we need to go to a physician and get treatment. We keep worrying about the problem, and that involves mano and vaci saṅkhāra. Then we talk to others about it and take appropriate actions with vaci and kāya saṅkhāra.
  • If we want a new house or a car, we need to work to make enough money. Once built, that house or the car will need maintenance. As discussed above, unexpected problems may arise (a house fire, car battery dying, etc.), and fixing those involving more mano, vaci, and kāya saṅkhāra. They all take a mental as well physical effort.

8. “saṅkhāra” means “san” + “khāra” or our efforts to accumulate/maintain things in this world (both internal and external) to our satisfaction. Any saṅkhata (both internal and external) arises due to due to such efforts. We will discuss that in future posts.

  • (Note that any action to live in this world involves saṅkhāra. For example, breathing is a kāya saṅkhāra that does not have kammic consequences. Those that involve lobha, dosa, moha are a special type of saṅkhāra; they are abhisaṅkhāra. But this distinction is not always emphasized (like in “avijjā paccyā saṅkhāra,” but one needs to be able to figure that out. )
  • In the end, all such efforts are in vain. No matter how much effort we make, our bodies will fall apart at old age (or even earlier), and when we die, we will have to leave behind all those external “valuables” that we accumulated with much effort. That is why we say saṅkhāra arise due avijja, i.e., “avijjā paccaya saṅkhāra.” All our efforts (based on “san” (greed, anger, and ignorance) are due to avijja!
Mental Stress – Big Part of Saṅkhāra-Dukkha

9. The main cause of suffering is in our MINDS. For example, a wealthy person may suffer due to a loss of something he had, and a poor person may suffer due to the inability to get what he wants. Either person becomes distraught due to his/her mind activities: attachment to what one has or craving for what one desires. This is another aspect of the Pāli term anicca. It is mostly mental and is called “sankhāra dukkha.” It arises through the struggles we engage in trying to maintain things to our satisfaction.

  • For example, when we buy a nice house, there are endless things that need to be done to “maintain it to our satisfaction”; this is also part of sankhāra dukkha. Sometimes we don’t even realize this suffering. Think about how much work we do to prepare a nice meal; then we enjoy it in 10-15 minutes, and then we need to spend more time cleaning up. We slaved through hours to get a brief sensory pleasure.

10. External rupa also include people. The amount of suffering due to a person’s loss is directly proportional to how close that person was. When person X dies, those who suffer the most are the closest family; for friends and distant relatives, suffering is less, and for those who do not even know X, there is no suffering.

  • But it is important to understand that one CANNOT get rid of this suffering by abandoning one’s family; that would be an immoral act with bad consequences.
  • Rather, the attachment becomes less as wisdom grows when one starts understanding deeper aspects of Dhamma: Basically, there is a difference between fulfilling responsibilities, paying back debts, and having attachment due to ignorance. This also will become much more clear as we proceed with Paṭicca samuppāda.

11. Of course, saṅkhāra-dukkha also arises due to hate. This is a bit deeper since hate arises as a “second aspect” of greed. Hate arises when something or someone gets in the way of us getting what we crave. We need to keep in mind that someone may be doing something bad (getting in our way) because we may have done something bad to that person in the past. Things ALWAYS happen for one or more reasons, and we may not see the reason (or the cause) in many cases because the rebirth process keeps things (past causes) hidden from us.

  • In any case, when we start thinking about a hateful person or a thing, we ourselves suffer. The mere mention of the name of someone that we despise will immediately make us think about those bad things that the person did, and we get “worked up.” We cause this suffering to ourselves. If we retaliate, then things get even worse.
  • It is good to analyze some of one’s own experiences.
Dukkha-Dukkha

12. The third category of suffering arises as kamma vipāka, i.e., due to kamma done in the past: getting burned, stabbed, shot, etc. Beings in the apāyā encounter harsher suffering, and in the niraya (lowest realm), that is all one feels.

  • A person who made money by killing another or stealing from another may live well in this life (at least outwardly) but will be subjected to much suffering in the upcoming births. This is the worst category of dukkha-dukkha, which arises due to immoral actions of the past. Until the death of the physical body, even an Arahant is subjected to dukkha-dukkha.
  • Therefore, the third category of suffering, dukkha-dukkha, arises from immoral acts (pāpa kamma/akusala kamma.) The severity of suffering depends on the severity of the violation. Paṭicca samuppāda (“pati+ichcha” leading to “sama”+”uppāda”) describes the underlying mechanism; see, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – “Pati+ichcha”+” Sama+uppäda,” where it is briefly discussed how one’s actions lead to effects that are similar “in-kind.”
  • The results of our actions are not going to be according to our wishes. Rather, they will be according to root causes (lobha, dosa, moha) and prevailing conditions at any time. Paṭicca samuppāda is Nature’s law-enforcing mechanism.
Dukkha-Dukkha Is Delayed Results of “Bad Saṅkhāra”

13. All our actions (including speech and thoughts) are initiated by saṅkhāra. Thus, dukkha-dukkha arises from the worst forms of saṅkhāra (involving lobha, dosa, moha,) which we call immoral actions (pāpa kamma/akusala kamma.) This dukkha-dukkha is the main form of suffering that we discussed in the previous post, “Introduction – What is Suffering?

  • Everything happens due to a reason (causes). If one does a good deed, that will lead to good results, and bad deeds will lead to bad results. This is the basis of science and also how nature works. “Every action has a reaction.” It is guaranteed, sooner or later.
  • This is why rebirth is a reality of nature. Some people live lavishly with money earned by immoral deeds. They WILL suffer the consequences in future rebirths.
  • It also explains why different people are born with different levels of health, wealth, beauty, etc., and why there are innumerable varieties of animals with different levels of suffering. Those are all results of bad deeds done in previous lives.
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