What’s interesting about Buddhism is that it takes pain to be not an exception to human experience, not something accorded a special status, but is, as an existential matter, put front and center. Pain is center stage. In this respect, it doesn’t give rise to the theodician-inspired question, “Why is there or must there be suffering?” That question, if asked, is answered in deflationary terms. There is suffering because we’re lost, held by a false picture of how reality works. Strictly speaking, we’re foolish.
To begin a further investigation of this sense of lostness or foolishness, it would be wise to come to a deeper understanding of the First Noble Truth that human life is dukkha. I’ve been reading the Tibetan Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa’s interesting yet rather fast-and-loose book The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Liberation. In one of the opening chapters on suffering, he distinguishes (not very clearly, so what follows is my attempt to iron things out) between (1) “all-pervading pain,” (2) “alternating pain,” and (3) “the pain of pain.” Dukkha is all three, and I discuss each type in turn.
I take it that “all-pervading pain” speaks to a basic or fundamental unsatisfactoriness of human life as it is. One type of all-pervading pain, I think, is existential anxiety (to borrow the term from Paul Tillich). I may have the not-yet-explicit feeling that something is awry, that things are “out-of-joint” (Hamlet), that something is uncannily off and this less-than-explicit feeling may elicit in me eeriness, subtle horror, restlessness, or something else. I take that to be pain at a certain pre-reflective metaphysical level. Another type of all-pervading pain could be not a toothache per se (since any case of the toothache may go away) but the neurotic fact that I’m subject, at any time, to toothaches, colds, flus, back pains, and so on. I suppose that this type of all-pervading pain points to something about a certain kind of take–fretful, trepidatious–on the finitude of the human condition. I have no doubt that there could be a catalogue of other types of all-pervading pains, but I leave off that exhaustive cataloging here.
To turn to the second basic type: I take “alternating pain” (thanks to Alexandra’s suggestion) to be the sort of pain that arises when I’m (a) reflective or aware of something or other causing me pain and (b) that pain becomes a something seemingly uncontrollably and obsessively for me. In “alternating pain,” my thoughts are wrapped up in this pain. Significantly do I relate myself, ongoingly, to it.
But why then call it alternating pain? Because I am not just wrapped up in pain X but I also believe that pain X is (or wish that pain X be) now gone forever, only for pain X to return. And for this–I take X to be gone for good and then X comes back–to happen again and again. It’s painful to see that what we had hoped to be eternal (painlessness with respect, say, to heartache) is actually impermanent (no heartache now, fresh heartache later). It seems to me that alternating pain is painful on two levels: on the level of the actual recurrence (“Damn, here it is!”) and on the level of the sense of human incapacity (“I thought I was finally through with this, and now it’s come back! Again!”).
The real kicker comes with the third main type, “the pain of pain.” I take “the pain of pain” to be a certain kind of awareness of these two first-order types of pain. What I begin to grasp in “the pain of pain” is that both first-order types of pain seem to cover the entire human landscape as I currently understand it. Everywhere I look, I see either all-pervading pain or else alternating pain or both. I see no gaps in the landscapes, no area not already covered by one of these. Recognizing that both of these types of pains are laws (so to say) of the given human condition is itself startlingly painful. But this, more succinctly, is just to say that what is painful is my realization that, from my current state of consciousness, there is no exit.
The qualifiers in this textual explication–“human life as it is,” “from my current state of consciousness,” “as I currently understand it,” and so forth–serve as pointers. As I see it, the Buddhist gamble is to say that this is only a certain form of consciousness, one from which we can, largely through our own cognitive-practical efforts, free ourselves. If one admits that life as it is is dukkha (for one could reject that metaphysical premise), then one is likely to be open to following the postulate that there is a way of liberation from dukkha. At least, one is open to try.