On Suffering: An Invitation to Dialogue

Zen rock garden at Ryōan-ji, Kyoto, Japan

When the Buddha appeared in the 6th century BCE, He encountered wide-spread materialism among the wealthy and miserable poverty among the less fortunate, thus explaining His emphasis on detachment, suffering, and compassion. Buddha’s teachings were also of course influenced by long-standing Indian religious traditions, in some cases dating to before the arrival of the Aryans1 (His emphasis on compassion can be linked to Dravidian beliefs), but my purpose here is to address His focus on suffering.

Buddha’s first noble truth, shortened in Buddhist nomenclature to dukkha or dukha2 is often translated as ‘Life is Suffering’. I believe this to be a gross simplification. What Buddha actually taught was that the realization of the transitory nature of life causes a vague dissatisfaction with living that leads to suffering. Perhaps a closer simplification would be “Life involves suffering.”

I think that we can all agree that life actually involves many things, suffering being one of them, but, as I have noted, the historical and cultural milieu in which Buddha lived and taught lead Him to focus on this particular feature of human life.

Buddha then went on to develop the remaining three corners of His doctrine, called collectively The Four Noble Truths.

1) Life involves suffering

2) Suffering stems from desire

3) Suffering can be defeated by eliminating desire

4) This can be accomplished by living a disciplined life conducted according to the Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path, also known as the Middle Way, is essentially a prescription for leading a moderate and balanced life. Walking the Middle Way entails turning away from devotion to luxury and extreme covetousness, while rejecting as well regimes of extreme asceticism, such as Buddha practiced before His enlightenment.

Specifically, the Noble Eightfold Path calls upon individuals to choose correct belief, correct resolve, correct speech, correct behavior, correct occupation, correct effort, correct contemplation, and correct meditation. Or more simply and succinctly, correct choice.

And what is life if not choice. An individual life moves in one direction—forward. The only thing one can do about yesterday’s bad decision is to make a better decision today. On the most basic level, free will is the least illusionary aspects of human life. With the exception of autonomous body functions (breathing, blood circulation, and so on), everything I do must be chosen; that my own past, or society, or whatever, compels me to chose this or that, does not negate my need to choose. Even if all choices are bad, one chooses. If you know of a circumstance that negates free will as I’m here defining it, I’d like to hear of it.

Yes, we are bound in a web of societal, cultural, and national constraints, we are bound by job pressures, family pressures, the need to eat and sleep, the need to care for the individuals around us, by all sorts of expectations. One could even argue that these various duties and expectations, to life, society, and humanity functionally negate choice.

Such obligations spring from religion and other belief systems (the idea of duty to society is secular as well as religious), and I personally accept many such obligations. This is also a choice, one I choose freely; I’m equally free to not follow this path. Duties, obligations, and constraints certainly exist, but these are all external forces, while the will to choose whether or not to comply is entirely internal. That duties and obligations can be neglected demonstrates that compliance (or non-compliance) is an act of will.

And so, while we are indeed bound by various circumstances, I still see these as nonetheless illusionary because, as Buddha noted, since life is transitory it is also illusionary, a functional illusion to be sure, but an illusion nonetheless. More importantly, while many certainly feel as if life is not within our control, how we respond is because one’s response is always a matter of choice (that we may be ill-equipped to make these choices is irrelevant).

Plus, that suffering can be overcome tells me that it is optional. Take for example a man who dies in battle, his death unbeknownst to his wife until she is informed. Baring fantastic examples of precognition, she cannot grieve (and suffer) until she knows that her husband is dead. The grief therefore is a choice. I’m not saying it’s the wrong choice (or the right choice); only that it is a choice. One might argue that said grief is a natural reaction, and I’m not ready to argue against this, but that grieving follows knowledge points to something important in my mind.

It is also entirely possible that choice itself is also illusionary, but this may depend on which choices are under discussion.

My point about ‘choice’ is that one must choose, every moment of everyday; you cannot put one foot in front of the other without choosing to do so. Once you get to more complex levels of ‘making choices’, and because we undergo a dreadful amount of conditioning before we even know free will exists, the conditioning kicks in (maybe) and subsequently, what one can/will choose becomes more limited. And since access to all possible options is nearly impossible, the idea that we have ‘choices’ is functionally problematic. Still, even when one is hemmed in by circumstances, one must still choose, leading me to believe that the exercise of free will is inescapable; that we must choose to do or to not do, to respond or to not respond, and how, no human can escape.

The idea of eliminating desire is Buddhist doctrine at its most basic level; Buddha’s point was primarily about attachment and detachment. Freedom from desire would perhaps be an ideal state, but were we to live in an ideal state, there would be no need for us to be here in the first place. The purpose of life is to go out into the world and to grow by testing ourselves; we were never meant to remain in the Garden. If we look at it from the perspective of the Eden metaphor, God’s ‘kicking us out of the garden’ was an act of Love. Baha’u’llah wrote, ‘Busy not thyself with this world, for with fire We test the gold, and with gold We test Our servants.’ But why test us at all? Because with no tests, there is no growth; if a plant is to bear fruit, it first must struggle to emerge from the seed. We might be ‘better off’ had we remained in the Garden but we would not be truly human.

A Secondary Consideration

It is quite possible that the acquisitiveness Buddha, and that fact, Christ in His time, witnessed, and that we can see today in our own society, is to some degree inescapable, part of our biological survival imperative. We have, after all, spent thousands of millennia just surviving; we’re wired for it. To choose to switch it off may require an act of will, but it is nonetheless a worthy choice.


1By about 1500 BCE, the Harappan civilization of the Indus River valley, India’s first civilization, was on the verge of collapse. At about this same time, a pastoral Indo-European people we call now called the ‘Aryans’ migrated into the Indus Valley and eventually what is now northern India and Pakistan. Color distinctions between the smaller, darker Dravidian peoples (who had created the Indus Valley civilization), and the lighter-skinned Caucasian Aryans became the foundation of the Indian caste system (while the caste system persists, the color distinction is no longer apparent).

Aryan society was tribal and warlike, but by 1000 BCE, they had developed iron metallurgy, with their iron axes and other tools, they opened new regions to cultivation, particularly the jungle-covered Ganges valley. These newly cleared lands yielded large harvests, leading to agricultural surpluses that could support regional states, and eventually empires.

These surpluses also encouraged the emergence of towns, the growth of trade, and further development of the caste system.  By the 7th century BCE, even the lower caste farmers, artisans, merchants, and landless peasants and serfs, were becoming wealthy, and thus challenging the prevailing order.  The development of wealth also led to the growth of its antecedent, poverty, and its attendant suffering

2Dukkha (Pāli दुक्ख; Sanskrit दुःख duḥkha; according to grammatical tradition derived from dus-kha “uneasy”, but according to Monier-Williams more likely a Prakritized form of dus-stha “unsteady, disquieted”) is a Pali term roughly corresponding to a number of terms in English including suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration. Source: wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dukkha

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