Introduction – What is Suffering?

1. There are two opposing factors to deal with when one is trying to convey the message of the Buddha to others:

  • Foremost, the other person needs to be able to comprehend what I write. If I use too many Pāli words some people, especially those in the Western world, may not understand fully and also may get discouraged.
  • On the other hand, I need to be careful not to distort the meaning of some key Pāli words. Sometimes there is no English word that truly conveys the meaning of a Pāli word. Providing incorrect information is worse than doing nothing.

2. I would like to test this new approach where I will describe concepts with minimal Pāli words. When one gets the basic idea, one could “dig in deeper” by reading regular posts.

3. Buddha Dhamma is all about ending suffering and finding permanent happiness IN THIS VERY LIFE.  Paticca samuppāda describes how root causes for suffering lead to suffering step by step. If we understand these root causes for suffering, we can avoid such causes and make sure suffering would not arise in the future.

  • The Buddha said, we suffer when we cannot maintain things to our satisfaction. Therefore, the main idea is to see whether there is ANYTHING in this WORLD that CAN BE maintained to our satisfaction.
  • However, before analyzing the steps in the Paticca samuppāda, it is necessary to sort out what suffering is.
Three Categories of Suffering

The three categories of suffering are described in the Dukkhata Sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya. A short conventional (“padaparama“) description is available at:

Dukkhata Sutta: Suffering

Here we will discuss it in detail, so that we can get a good understanding of what the Buddha meant by “suffering”. It is not the feeling (vedana) of suffering.

1. What is our world? Our existence, our lives, are basically what we experience: we sense things through our five physical senses and then think about them using our minds. Thus our world can be summed up by saying that it is what we experience through our INTERNAL six senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind). If we can have “good experiences” we are happy, otherwise, we get sad and suffer.

  • Now what we experience depends on WHAT WE SENSE through our physical senses  (visuals, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables) and also WHAT WE THINK ABOUT such experiences (thoughts and concepts).
  • Those twelve (six INTERNAL and six EXTERNAL) make up “our world”. Everything is included in those twelve.
  • Mind is complex, so let us first focus on the body and the five physical senses. Before the end of the essay we will inevitably get to the mind.

2. Let us start our analysis with the simplest ten out of twelve that make up our world:

  • Can we keep our internal physical senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and the body) to our satisfaction?
  • Can we keep those that we like to experience that are in the outside world (visuals, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables) to our satisfaction?

3. Let us discuss these two issue one by one. First, let us think about whether we can keep our physical bodies and its associated senses to our satisfaction.

  • It is true that we can 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. There are many temptations out there and we cannot wait to “get back to such senses pleasures”. This is why the Buddha said that the suffering is “hidden behind a veil of apparent pleasures”.
  • We start feeling this hidden suffering when we pass the middle age. Our five physical senses start getting weaker. The eyesight start dropping, hearing may start decreasing, our tongues may start losing its ability to taste, our noses becomes 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 appearance. There is absolutely nothing wrong with some of these “fixes”; for example, we need to be able 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.

4. But 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 may become tasteless. The best way to realize this first hand 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 just 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 due to one aspect of anicca: things are subjected to decay and destruction, and nothing in this world is exempt from that; this is part of what is called “viparināma dukkha”, suffering that arises due to change and decay.

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

  • The suffering associated with external things arise NOT necessarily because they are “impermanent” as is incorrectly believed by many. There are many external things that are permanent, at least compared to our lifetime in this life. For example, a gold necklace will last for even millions of years. If there is any suffering arises in anyone due to a gold necklace that is definitely NOT because that necklace is “impermanent”. We will discuss some examples below.

7. Of course there are many truly “impermanent” things that we use. And we do become distraught when they break down. For example, we buy a nice set of dinner plates and if they get broken we become distraught. But we can always buy another, and that is not a problem especially if one is wealthy. Even if a wealthy person’s whole house is burned down, that person can easily buy a better one. So, one would think that wealthy people will be subjected to less suffering.

  • But that is not the case. Even though having wealth helps, as far as suffering is concerned, wealth is not a big factor. We hear wealthy and famous people even committing suicide all the time.
  • Most of the suffering associated with external things arise due to “unfruitful thoughts” in our minds: Suffering arises mainly due to things we are attached to, and things that we like to hate. This is a KEY POINT and needs a lot of thought.

8. Let us consider some examples to clarify this important point.

  • A hurricane lands and destroys a large cultivated area that results in a significant damage. Most people who live close-by would be just glad that their homes were not damaged but they will not become distraught over the loss to that particular land. The only one who suffers is the one who is the owner of that land. Suffering arises due to a loss or damage or destruction of something one is attached to. The suffering was not embedded in that land; the only person who suffered was the one who had an attachment to it.

Let us take another example. A wealthy person A hires person B to live in his house and to take care of the house and the gardens. Person A may not even live in that house. Person B lives in the house and takes good care of the house and the gardens. Anyone who does not know the real owner would think that person B is the owner, the way he takes good care of the house. Person B goes out-of-town to visit his family for a few days and an enemy of person A burns down the house. Who is the one that suffers? Person B may feel bad about his employer’s loss, but it is person A who will mostly suffer due to the loss of the house. Even though person B may have lived in that house for many years on his own, he did not have any sense of “ownership” to the house; he may become somewhat distraught  because of him having lived there and formed a lesser attachment to the house.

  • In the case of the gold necklace that we mentioned earlier, someone may suffer if she lost it. The suffering was not due to an “impermanence” associated with the necklace; rather it was due to the inability of that person to “maintain it to her satisfaction”.

9. Does this mean a person who does not own anything is the happiest? Not at all. Even though one may not have ownership to anything valuable, that person still has cravings for pleasurable things. Much of his suffering is due to the INABILITY to GET what he wants. He may want a big house, a nice car, tasty foods, etc. He suffers not due to a loss of physical items, but his inability to get such items.

  • Thus whether wealthy or poor does not matter. The real cause of suffering is in our MINDS. A wealthy person may suffer due to a loss of something he had, and a poor person may suffer due to the inability 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 sense pleasure.

10. External things also include people. The amount of suffering due to a loss of a person is directly proportional to how close that person was to oneself. 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. 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 greed. But this also will become much more clear as we proceed with paticca samuppāda.

11. Of course sankhāra 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 for. We will examine the root causes for hate in paticca samuppāda, but for now 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 be able to see the reason (or the cause) in many cases, because the rebirth process keeps things hidden from us.

  • In any case, when we start thinking about a hateful person or a thing, it is ourselves that 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 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.

We discuss “dukkha dukkha” , the third and final category of suffering, in the next post: Introduction -2 – The Three Characteristics of Nature.

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