Sunday, October 25, 2009




Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Hong Kong, 2009


Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong

The word “Dukkha” is translated into English as suffering, pain, impermanence, imperfection, emptiness, insubstantiality and unpleasant sensation. But the word Dukkha literally means “bad (duh) to the mouth (kha)”. Hence, dukkha is that which is unsavory, unwanted and unsatisfactory. So, dukkha should be understood as the reaction one has to the characteristics of existence similar to the reaction that an individual has when they taste something bad. According to the Buddha, his entire teaching is intended to explain only two basic things, the origin of suffering (dukkha-samudaya) and its cessation (dukkha-nirodha). Buddhism is primarily concerned with diagnosing and curing existential problems arising from existence. Buddha’s identification of suffering is illustrated by the Four Noble Truths. The argument of the four noble truths (cattari ariya-saccani) aims to identify and recognize the origin of suffering (dukkha), the causes and conditions of suffering (samudaya), cessation of suffering through the removal of the cause of suffering (nirodha), and provide a path to bring about the cessation of suffering (magga).
The First Truth refers to human beings’ present predicament (pathological), the Second seeks to explain its origination (diagnostical), the Third refers to the complete elimination of suffering (ideal) and the Fourth shows the way to its realization (prescriptive). Because of the logical sequence among the Four Noble Truths, the significance of each cannot be understood in a context from where the other three are excluded. Each assumes its significance in relation to the other three. Hence, it is emphasized that the fact of suffering is to be thoroughly understood (parinneyya), the cause of suffering is to be removed (pahatabba), the cessation of suffering is to be realized (sacchikatabba) and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering is to be developed (bhavetabba).

According to Buddhism, Dukkha is a fundamental concept in Buddha’s analysis of our very existence. In Buddhism, emphasis is given more to mental suffering than physical. The two main reasons of suffering in human life are (a) our everlasting desire of attachment to various material things or ideological concepts and this later progress to possessiveness and greed, ultimately leading to (b) cravings (tanhā). All Buddhist teachings converge on the problem of suffering and its solution through both the “graduated talk” (anupubbi-katha) and the “exalting discourse” (samukkamsika-desana). The “graduated talk” initiates the teachings of the Buddha and gradually prepares the mind of the listener as a proper receptacle (kallacitta, muducitta) for its proper understanding of the following deliverance of the “exalting discourse”.

Relevance of Suffering or “Dukkha” in Buddhism
The Buddha begins the four noble truths by asserting that conditioned existence is thoroughly unsatisfactory (dukkha). In other words, our existence is thoroughly marked by suffering. The Buddha had proclaimed that life itself is suffering and therefore makes dukkha the first of the four noble truths of suffering.

The Buddhist definition of suffering are based on trauma of birth, the pathology of sickness, the morbidity of decrepitude, the phobia of death, to be separated from what is pleasant, to be associated with what is unpleasant and impeded will or unfulfilled expectations. The comprehensive summing up of what is actual suffering in true sense is described as impeded will or unfulfilled expectations.

The Five Aggregates or “Khandhas”
According to Buddhism, each individual living being could be analyzed into five component groups called “aggregates” or “Khandhas”. These are corporeality/materiality (rupa), feelings (vedana), perceptions (sanna), mental formations or volitional activities (samkhara) and consciousness (vinnana). These are actually considered as five aggregates of grasping or attachment (panca upadanakkhandha) and they constitute our human personality. So, these five aggregates of grasping are rightly characterized as suffering. They can be a source of suffering when they become objects of grasping (upadana). This process of grasping manifests itself in three forms on egocentric principle through which the three-fold self-identification that the idea of “mine”, “I am” and “myself” arises. These details are as follows:
(a) This is mine (etam mama) – which is due to craving (tanhā)
(b) This I am (esoham asmi) – which is due to conceit (mana)
(c) This is myself (eso me atta) – which is due to mistaken belief in soul entity (ditthi)

Here, we need to keep in mind that Buddhism actually believes that life itself is suffering rather than just a mere concept that there is suffering in life. The samsara continues as long as the process of self-identification persists. When the process of self-identification is eliminated, suffering too comes to an end which is realized as the attainment of “Nibbana”. So, we need to realize that as long as the process of self-identification persists, there is suffering. The moment it stops, the samsaric process too comes to an end and together with it all suffering too comes to an end.

Types of Human Suffering According to Buddhism
At the most elemental level, suffering appears as physical pain and oppression. This is represented by the birth trauma (jati), the pathology of sickness (vyadhi) and the morbidity of decrepitude (jara). The fundamental sufferings in our day to day life could also be added to this list as hunger, thirst, privation and accident. The next level is suffering of psychological experience which is described as the association with what is unpleasant, or dissociation from what is pleasant or impeded will or frustrated desire. The third or the deepest level is anguish or disharmony, which seems to be at the very core of human life. It is this level which Buddhism takes into consideration when it proclaims that the five aggregates of grasping are themselves suffering.

The concept of dukkha includes mainly three aspects: dukkha dukkha (ordinary suffering) viparināma dukkha (suffering produced by change), and sankhāra dukkha (suffering from conditioned states). The Buddha justifies his response to the human situation as dukkha by referencing these three aspects of human existence: he first defines pain in the world as the suffering of suffering, or what can be described as normal bodily suffering. Secondly, he suggests that pain results from change because there is no one satisfactory state of existence that is permanent, and finally the third aspect, no one can ever be content in one state because human beings are conditioned by their ever-changing environment. This definition also entails the concept of dependent origination that states that our existence is contingent upon other existences of life in nature, and is thus not self created, thereby also bringing about suffering.

Concept of Attachment and Craving (tanhā)
Underlying dukkha is the notion of desire. Desire is the root of all suffering because it causes individuals to get attached and grasp and cling to objects and experiences of existence (views). It is this grasping that result in pain; when an object or experience is removed from consciousness. It is desire / craving or tanhā, which ultimately causes suffering. But grasping or attachment to views, irrespective of right view or wrong view, is considered to be more harmful than craving for material objects. The present day terrorist activities are due to our attachment to wrong views. Within the Pāli canon tanhā is given three aspects: craving for sensuality, or sensual pleasures, craving for becoming or existing, and craving for non-becoming or non-existing. The final two definitions of the concept tanhā demonstrate Buddhism’s historical response to the positions of sasstavada and ucchedavada - the ideologies of eternalism and annihilation.

According to Buddhism, both of these positions must be transcended; one must not be attached to the ideology of death or the ideology of eternalism. Both would result in dukkha, as they are based on false interpretation of a self-identity or the self/soul. Thus, one can overcome the dukkha by overcoming self-centered desire, through the understanding of conditioned origination as the cause of impermanence. These are key concepts in developing Buddhist insight that leads to the cessation of suffering and the attainment of unconditioned states.

Buddhist Attitude towards Suffering
The Buddhist attitude towards suffering is analyzed as the four possible attitudes in respect of suffering. These are:
(a) The first one is denial of suffering in the face of all evidence, which is considered as sheer optimism
(b) The second is “passive resignation” and acceptance of a state of things which are believed by an individual as inevitable. This is considered as out-and-out pessimism
(c) The third is “camouflage of suffering by the help of pompous sophistry or by gratuitously attaching to it in an attempt to diminish its bitterness. This could be interpreted as rationalization of suffering.
(d) The fourth is the war against suffering, accompanied by the faith in the possibility of overcoming it. This might be considered as most rational and the most sane attitude to suffering.

The Buddha adopted the fourth attitude towards suffering, i.e., by declaring a war against suffering, which was accompanied by the faith in the possibility of overcoming it. This explains why he never made any attempts to interpret suffering. For any interpretation of suffering implies an attempt to rationalize it. Rationalization of suffering in turn, implies an attempt to “hide its bitterness” on spiritual or other grounds which would lead to escapism in the face of suffering. This would eventually lead to postponement of finding a true solution to suffering. The act of interpretation or rationalization of suffering does not lead to the transformation of aversion to dispassion, cessation of suffering and calming down of mental faculties and instill the desire for higher knowledge for awakening or to attain the Nibbana.

The Buddha had used the simile or analogy of a poisoned arrow (salla-viddha) to explain his attitude towards suffering. This explains what one should do and one should not do in a situation when he finds a person shot by a poisoned arrow. The Buddha has advised that in such a situation, one must not waste his precious time by asking such meaningless questions as to who shot the arrow, what is his name, caste etc. On moral grounds, one should not also insist that he would not get the poisoned arrow removed until he knows the answers to these questions. The Buddha repeatedly emphasized the very fact that all his life he had preached only two basic things, which are origination of suffering and the cessation of suffering.
Buddhism is concerned with the problem of suffering it is because it is more concerned with its solution. If it identifies all sources and occasions of suffering, it is in order to ensure that happiness is based on a sure and solid foundation. Thus, even the jhanic experience obtained by concentrating the mind and the delights of heavenly experience which for all practical purposes may be described as instances of supreme happiness are also identified as suffering. In the Dhammacakkappavattana the Buddha states that everything pertaining to the existence of an unenlightened being is duhkka. It is only possible to go beyond dukkha is by going beyond the world of samsara, which is considered to be a state that is composed of conditioned existence and impermanence.

Thus an individual can only overcome dukkha if he lives in a state that is not fraught with impermanence. But the theoretical understanding of the Dukkha is not enough for what we know; we need to put into our day to day practice. The understanding of dukkha must be cultivated through the practice of bhāvanā. Through bhāvanā one internalizes the intellectual understanding of dependent origination, impermanence, the Noble Eightfold Path, and anatta. One way this is done is by training the mind to no longer grasp at any object.

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