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Suffering - What Exactly is That About?


Suffering - what is that about?

Suffering (dukkha in Sanskrit) in Buddhism means more than just suffering pain; it refers to any kind of discomfort, frustration, including dissatisfaction and stress.

Three forms of suffering are distinguished:

  • Suffering itself is about the most obvious forms of suffering, such as physical pain, but also mental pain such as dissatisfaction, fear and sadness.
  • Suffering from change is about the problems caused by change itself; fun times don't last forever, health changes, friends die, etc.
  • All-pervasive suffering is a little more subtle and difficult to understand. It is caused by the fact that nothing is certain in life: something can go wrong at any moment, causing us to get into trouble and misery. Even death is not a solution for this, because according to Buddhism we will find ourselves again in a new body, which will also experience problems again. This constant threat is called "all-pervading suffering."

In Buddhism there is a lot of talk about impermanence, death and suffering... isn't that unhealthy?

Thinking about impermanence, death and suffering is not meant to make us become depressed! On the contrary, the goal is to gain a more realistic outlook about life and free ourselves from attachment, fear and false expectations. If we think about these things in a way that makes us afraid or sad, we are not looking at them through the Buddhist lens of logic and reasoning. Such topics should make our minds calm, clear and lucid because the confusion caused by attachment and false projections has been removed.

When you look around you, you see that everything is subject to change. Nothing stays the same, even our entire planet is constantly changing. However, we view most things (often unconsciously) as fixed and permanent. We easily get upset when they change. 'Yesterday the car still worked', 'An hour ago I still felt good'; they are everyday statements that show that we don't really expect things to change. Our minds are overwhelmed with such false projections of immutability. We see people and objects in an unreal way when we don't really realize that everything, including ourselves, is in a constant state of flux.

From the Buddhist perspective, we often experience problems and confusion because we have unrealistic expectations of people, businesses and life in general. Our loved ones don't last forever, a relationship doesn't always stay the same, a new car won't always be that shiny model from the showroom. So, we are disappointed again and again when we have to part with those we love, when our possessions diminish, when our bodies become weak or wrinkled. If we took a more realistic view of these basic truths from the start and accepted their impermanence - not just with words but with all our hearts - we could never end up being so disappointed.

In fact, thinking about impermanence and death can be very grounding and can actually reduce many of the pointless worries that haunt us and keep us from being happy and relaxed. Usually, we get confused when we are criticized or insulted. We are angry when our possessions are stolen; we are jealous when someone else gets the promotion we wanted so badly; we take pride in our looks or athletic achievements. However, all these attitudes are ultimately disruptive emotions, based on incorrect assumptions. In this life we are often not happy or satisfied. However, if we think carefully about how perishable the things in which we are disappointed are, if we remember that our life will surely end, and that we cannot take any of these things with us after death, then we can cease our zealous interest and the way we exaggerate their importance today. Then they are less problematic for us, and we can let them go, or more fully enjoy them, instead of being chained to them with our unhealthy attachments.

This does not mean that we become apathetic towards the people and things around us. On the contrary, by removing the erroneous understanding of immutability and the disruptive emotions associated with them, our minds become clearer and we are better able to enjoy things for what they are. We then live more in the here and now, and can better appreciate things as they are now, without fantasies about what they were or will be later. We therefore worry less about trifles and are less distracted from what is really important in life. We become less 'ego-sensitive' to everything others do in relation to us. This change of perspective and understanding can lead to a profound change in our experience of genuine happiness.

By thinking about impermanence and suffering, we can better deal with separation and pain when they arise. And these problems will certainly happen, because we are still in the cycle of recurring problems (samsara).

In short, by properly reflecting on these truths, our state of mind becomes healthier and we become happier.

Why is there suffering? How can we end suffering?

Suffering (problems, pain, etc.) exists simply because its causes exist: disruptive emotions and negative karma. Those disruptive emotions can be summarized as the "three poisons": attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Negative karma (actions that cause us problems and suffering) are things we do motivated by these misconceptions, such as killing, stealing, lying, etc. Most disruptive emotions are combinations of one or more of these three, but the factor of ignorance is always present. Only emotions like love, compassion and wisdom are seen as wise emotions in Buddhism because they are not disruptive.

The Buddha taught many helpful ways of thinking, to transform difficult conditions on the path to enlightenment. We can learn these and put them into practice when we have difficulties. Our attitude toward adversity largely determines how much we suffer from these issues. Good examples for transforming problems are to see problems as challenges, or failures as lessons.

By reducing your negative emotions and cultivating your own wisdom, you will be less likely to do harmful things to others. Your behavior will become more positive, and you will accumulate less negative karma, which is a direct cause for suffering in the future.

By developing the wisdom that realizes selflessness, you can stop the causes of all your difficulties completely. By removing the causes, these painful consequences can no longer occur; instead, you may even eventually reach a state of lasting happiness or nirvana. Before you have awakened that wisdom, you can also do purification exercises to prevent previously created negative activities (karma) from maturing.

Do we have to suffer to achieve liberation (nirvana)?

Practicing Buddha's teachings correctly, brings happiness and never pain. The spiritual path itself is not painful. Suffering is not a special virtue. We have enough problems already, so there's no reason to cause more in the name of our religious practice. However, this does not mean that we will not encounter problems while trying to follow Buddha's advice. For as we follow the path, negative past activities, which have not yet been purified, can mature and cause problems. When this happens, we can use the situation to encourage ourselves to work harder to reach a state beyond suffering, a state of everlasting happiness.

A close person (or myself) will die soon, what to do?

There are many helpful suggestions in Buddhism about coping with dying, after all, it is an important transition to the next life.

See the next page: Attachment