Need to Experience Suffering in Order to Understand it?


Revised February 4, 2017; April 26, 2020

1. It is a common misconception that one needs to experience harsh suffering in order to understand what the Buddha meant by the First Noble Truth, that there is “suffering in this world”.

  • Thus, especially in the days of the Buddha, some people deliberately lived a miserable life, thinking that it will help understand suffering. They subjected their bodies to various forms of discomfort and even torture.
  • This is actually one extreme that the Buddha said NOT to follow: “atta kilamathānu yoga“, or subjecting oneself to unnecessary suffering. Closest English translations would be “an ascetic life”, where one forcefully abstains from any comforts.

2. Buddha never encouraged anyone to deliberately undergo suffering. The suffering that the Buddha talked about is hidden and is about future suffering in this life and in future lives. There are two kinds of “hidden suffering” that the Buddha revealed to the world:

3. If one needs to suffer more to attain Nibbāna, then those who are in the apāyā would be the first attain Nibbāna! Most of the suffering is experienced when one is born in the apāyā or the lower four realms, see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“.

  • In order to actually realize the true suffering, whether in this life or in the lower four realms, one needs to contemplate (bhävanä) with a healthy body and a clear mind.
  • If one is hungry, one CANNOT understand the causes of suffering; rather one will be generating hateful thoughts. The same is true for all four necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing, and medicine. We NEED those things to survive.
  • What we should NOT do is to over-indulge in any of the above four necessities of life. That is the other extreme that the Buddha said to avoid: “kāma sukhallikānu yoga“, or to over-indulge in sense pleasures, i.e., to live a hedonistic life.

4. It is commonly said that the Buddha advocated the “middle ground”, i.e., to avoid both an ascetic life (with self-induced suffering) or a hedonistic (over-indulgent) life. That is true, but there is more to it.

There is a deeper meaning to “majjhima paṭipadā“. The way to a peaceful existence (or to Nibbāna) is to get rid of greed, hate, AND ignorance. The two extremes that we talked about above do involve hate or at least paṭigha or “friction” (when subjecting oneself to suffering) and greed (indulging in excessive sense pleasures).

  • Just because one stays away from those two extremes does not necessarily mean one is on the “correct path”. The Path is not just a “middle ground” between those two extremes.
  • The key is to learn Dhamma and to systematically reduce greed, hate, and ignorance.
  • Of course, living a life away from the two extremes is conducive — even necessary — to learn Dhamma and to gradually remove defilements from the mind.

5. In between those two extremes, one needs to avoid being influenced by an “intoxicated mind”. In between the above two extremes, people also act in improper ways intoxicated by power, beauty, position, (book) knowledge, lineage, etc as well as by alcohol and drugs. This is due to avijjā or ignorance.

  • Thus, “majjhima paṭipadā” really means to follow a simple lifestyle without veering to the extremes.
  • Thus majjhima paṭipadā is to follow a lifestyle that avoids the corruption of the mind by excess attachments to sense pleasures. On the other hand, there is no need to subject one’s body to unnecessary hardships either.

6. In summary, the Buddha recommended a “common sense” comfortable, but simple, life that is conducive to meditation. Here meditation (Bhāvanā) is not necessarily “formal meditation”. The Buddha said, “bhāvanāya bahuleekathāya“, or “contemplate as often as possible”.

  • One also needs to be avoiding immoral actions, speech, or thoughts as much as possible, and actually cultivate moral actions, speech, and thoughts. That helps suppress the five hindrances (pañcanīvaraṇa) and have a peaceful state of mind, i.e., one could start experiencing the niramisa sukha that arises due to a “more pure state of mind”.

7. One can be contemplating the nature of the world as one goes through daily chores. Another aspect of this is the ability to calm the mind; see, “Key to Calming the Mind“.

  • A bigger picture implied here is that we need to educate our children so that they can find good employment and thus be able to live without having to worry about those four necessities of life. As they grow up, we need to educate them in Dhamma (how to live a moral life) too, but not at the expense of them getting a good education.

8. Suffering  is NOT the Noble truth on Suffering, i.e., Dukha (feeling of suffering) is NOT dukkha sacca (the Noble Truth that suffering can be stopped from arising); sacca pronounced “sachcha” and means “truth”.

  • The Noble Truth of dukkha sacca is about comprehending how suffering ARISES due to greed, hate, and ignorance (of this fact). One can understand that –and take steps to avoid future suffering — by learning Dhamma: anicca, dukkha, anatta, Paṭicca Samuppāda, etc.
  • The Buddha said, “This Dhamma is unlike anything that the world has ever seen”. The actual suffering is hidden WITHIN the apparent enjoyments. Also see, “The Incessant Distress (“Pīḷana”) – Key to Dukkha Sacca“.
  • For another description of majjhima paṭipadā, see, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta“.

Next, “What is Unique in Buddha Dhamma?“, ………

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