Expounding On The Nature Of Dukkha: ‘Something Here Isn’t Right’

English Buddhist scholar Peter Harvey has written a fine paper in which he discusses “Dukkha, Non-self, and the Teaching of the Four ‘Noble Truths” (PDF here).

In but a few words, the Buddha seeks to sketch the human, or really creaturely, condition (Harvey translation and internal notes):

Now this, monks, for the spiritually ennobled, is the painful (dukkha) true reality (ariyasacca): [i] birth [i.e., being born] is painful, aging is painful, illness is painful, death is painful; [ii] sorrow, lamentation, (physical) pain, unhappiness and distress are painful; [iii] union with what is disliked is painful; separation from what is liked is painful; not to get what one wants is painful; [iv] in brief, the fi ve bundles of grasping-fuel are painful. (SN.V.421)

Harvey, p. 29

Today I’ll simply comment on i. and ii.

i. Biological Conditions

Harvey observes that the first list consisting of being birth, aging, getting ill, and dying are all “biological conditions,” all of which tend to give rise to what is painful (dukkha).

To see the veracity of the Buddha’s claim, let’s examine aging in American culture. It’s not the case that getting older, on its own, is dukkha. It’s just a phenomenon, a fact. But it is the case that getting older tends, in American culture, to engender dukkha: “I don’t want to be ugly, irrelevant, out of the game, passed by; I don’t want my youth to end; and I don’t want to accept that I’m getting closer to death.” A similar analysis applies to getting ill.

Of course, as Shankara would say, “The ‘I am the body’ idea is the source of all misery.” While we’re still on the diagnosing stage (i.e., we’re just considering what dukkha is), it’s clear in the case of biological conditions that attachment to being the body or to being in the body or to possessing the body are creating dis-ease.

ii. Life’s Vicissitudes

Harvey suggests that the “second set of features refer to physical or mental pains that arise from the vicissitudes of life” (pp. 30-31). I would say: “that tend to arise.”

The idea here is that the seemingly endless ups and downs of sentient life can give rise to dukkha. It’s not that change itself is distressing, but it is true that, for many people, change in the form of loss is and thus generates sorrow and lamentation. Or consider a second obvious case: if Jane tells herself the story about her being “change-averse,” then any change as small as her significant other’s rearranging her bedroom furniture can make her feel ill at ease.

Getting the Point

What can scarcely be overemphasized is the almost all-pervasive not-quite-right-ness embedded most people’s takes on life. This is the existential flavor of dukkha: “I can’t quite get my bearings. I can’t seem to settle down. I’m itching in my own skin. Something doesn’t feel right. Something feels off. I must always be improving something or other.” And so on. Dukkha hints at the low-level frantic restlessness that is catapulting us onward. In the arms of dukkha, we feel disturbance.

The First Noble Truth: A Lot Of Hurt

In “Four Noble Truths,” published by The Oxford Research of Encyclopedias, Buddhist scholar Carol S. Anderson discusses, well, the Four Noble Truths. For many years, I’ve been fascinated by the first one, the one that gets the whole inquiry underway.

Sometimes it’s said–“There is suffering”–but that feels too vague, especially if we add a qualifier like this: “In human life, there is suffering.” Of course, suffering exists; no one would deny this! Now, someone might say, just get on with the business of living your life and be done with all this.

At other times, it might be written: “Life is suffering.” And now that sounds overly dramatic, harsh, and untrue! Is, on the this interpretation, the Buddha saying that all of life–that every single moment–is suffering? Of course not!

Here’s what he actually says in the Sutta on the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma,

This, monks, is the noble truth that is pain. Birth is pain, old age is pain, illness is pain, death is pain, sorrow and grief, physical and mental suffering, and disturbance are pain. Association with things not liked is pain, separation from desired things is pain, not getting what one wants is pain; in short, the five aggregates of grasping are pain.

And now here is just a bit of Anderson’s interpretation:

The Pāli term dukkha is most often translated as “suffering.” However, it is more accurately construed as pain: dukkha refers to those things that hurt, that are painful. The four truths should be understood descriptively: the buddha was simply describing the truths—the ultimate and real truths—that he realized while sitting under the bodhi tree during his experience of enlightenment. The first truth, then, is not an argument or a debate about the fact that human life is painful. The first truth is an observation that human life is full of pain. What is painful? All of these things: birth, death, old age, illness, not getting what we want, having to deal with things that we don’t want to deal with, and so on—all of these things are painful. 

In this post, I want to set aside the objective list of dukkha that the Buddha supplies. Notice, again and instead, that “human life is painful” is, nonetheless, not strong enough to get the inquiry into our Original Nature underway. For, someone might be inclined to ask, “How often is it painful? Sometimes? More often than not?”

My intuition says that the First Noble Truth is meant to be punchy without being hyperbolic. It’s trying to get us not just to realize something of the first importance but also to get us to embark upon the dang path already.

For these reasons, I think that Anderson provides us with a helpful clue when she stranslates dukkha not as pain but as hurt. Following this clue about hurt, I submit a potent gloss of the First Noble Truth:

  • A LOT of human life, including yours, is filled with hurt.

The above formulation provides just enough oomph we need to ask about the cause of this hurt (the Second Noble Truth), the complete cessation of all hurt (the Third Noble Truth), and the path from hurt to liberation (the Fourth Noble Truth).

Thus, you can reasonably ask, “Do I experience A LOT of hurt in my life?” The closer you look, the more obvious the affirmative answer will be.

Happiness And Suffering, Socrates And The Buddha

The Dalai Lama often states, “Everyone wants to be happy. Nobody wants to suffer.” Irrefutable!

The power of these two claims might be lost on us, however, if we simply gloss over them, accepting them as mere bromides.

If, instead, we examine them, we find that they are real jewels.

Socratic Question

Consider the first statement: “Everyone wants to be happy.” Here, the confusion begins:

(a) Very few know what happiness is.

(b) There are competing and conflicting conceptions of happiness operative in the modern world.

(c) In fact, many of us use the word happy in different ways–not uncommonly as we move from one sentence to the next–with the result that we’re likely mired in a kind of conceptual incoherence (cf. MacIntyre on “moral incoherence”).

(d) If you don’t know what happiness is, how can you know whether, right now or over the course of your life, you’re unhappy or unhappy?

(e) If you don’t know what happiness is, how can you genuinely pursue it? (Cf. Meno’s paradox of inquiry in Plato’s Meno.)

(f) Due to a lack of metacognitive awareness of the kind cultivated in rigorous meditation, you may not even know when, and whether, you are happy or not. In fact, you may not even be able to provide such a clear report–to yourself or to others.

From a-f, it can be inferred that we are living in a kind of haze at this point in modernity.

Buddha’s Reply: One Starting Point

One place to begin to get this inquiry underway is to accept the Buddha’s premises.

P1. With a little bit of practice, you can be aware of your suffering.

P2. If you are suffering, then you are not happy.

P3. The end of suffering entails abiding happiness.

At first glance, the third premise may be more difficult to stomach, but practice, experience, and guidance tell in its favor. For now, it suffices to take a closer look at P1 and P2.

To get yourself going, all you need is to recognize that you are suffering and thus that you are not happy. Then we can give a modified P3:

P3′ (weaker version). Dissolving at least some suffering makes you feel happier.

Therefore, any genuine insight in spiritual practice gives us, wrote the late Rob Burbea, to experience a diminution in suffering and therefore some greater happiness.

If the above still feels murky, then simply ask yourself the question: “Without this persistent form of suffering X, how would I be? Without X, how would my life be?” This question will get you going if you take it seriously.

Suffering, Cluelessness, & A Closed Heart: And Three Respective Paths

Three Paths

My thesis is that there are three higher paths available to us today:

  1. The Path of Awakening
  2. The Path of Wisdom
  3. The Path of Love

Each is a response to either a perennial concern or to a historical predicament. Or both.

0. Non-reduction

A brief objection: couldn’t all three paths be reduced to one? Possibly, but I’m not inclined to do so. Yes, those who are greatly enlightened may be wise and loving. Yes, those who are absolutely wise may be awake and loving. Yes, those who love all must (?) be awake and wise. In any case, perhaps.

But it seems to me more generous and generative to see that those with different dispositions will resonate more with awakening, wisdom, or love. Spiritual seekers may incline to the first, philosophers to the second, and artists to the third.

1. Suffering

Why would waking up be of the utmost importance to some? The reason is quite simple: life is filled with immense amounts of suffering.

What is hard to overemphasize is the seemingly endless, inexorable nature of human suffering. Contrary to what those of a political persuasion believe, diminishing political, economic, or ecological injustice, while a start, does not get to the root of dis-ease. What the Buddha taught is what the Buddha saw: the source of all suffering is epistemic and metaphysical–epistemic in that our minds are operating in error and illusion; metaphysical in that our understandings are not fundamentally aligned with the way that things actually unfold.

Given the pervasiveness of suffering, it can be asked, “Is there an absolute end of suffering, or are there only brief caesuras, moments of temporary relief?”

There is an end of suffering. The name of the path we give to those who seek to end all suffering is the path of awakening.

2. Cluelessness

Leading a wise life is a response to a very different predicament. It is that one feels in one’s bones that one is clueless about how to live one’s life. Utterly clueless, if one is being so honest.

In modernity, it turns out, many are clueless about how to lead a good life, a life that makes sense, a life that is most worth leading.

Well, there is a word traditionally reserved for the kind of life that is on the opposite side of cluelessness. That word is wisdom.

Wisdom, I suggest, means knowing how to live and living that knowing consciously. Said differently, wisdom is the highest conduct flowing immediately from the clearest understanding of the cosmos and of our place in the cosmos.

The reason that many don’t embark on the path of wisdom is not just that they don’t know that, since the Classical Greeks, such a path has been available to us. It’s that the greatest vice of modernity is hubris, or pride. I don’t mean just that John or Jane is pride, though I mean that as well. I mean that modernity is itself the Time of Pride. And it is pride that is precisely what precludes the humble opening to the cluelessness and helplessness at the heart of one’s basic confusion.

Humble openness, then, is the beginning of wisdom.

3. A Closed Heart

Theodor Adorno once wrote that the modern world is marked by “coldness,” a certain rational coldness at that. It doesn’t help that our bureaucratic modern institutions are cold, clinical, and closed. Nor does it help that we are educating knowledge workers tasked with using their intellects to create more digital products.

What must be seen is the stony heart, the cold stone right here as you turn away from your brother, your neighbor, a stranger. Sadly, due to our misguided miseducation, many of us have learned to treat almost everyone as a stranger.

Beautifully, though, the path of love can open up right underfoot or right in the midst of experience. Poignancy, heart ache, intuitive sensitivity can all be cultivated. And what is the most open heart but the heart exuding love of and for all beings? A heart made to serve and give.

“My cup runneth over” is the statement of a heart open to all. “God is love” is the metaphysic that must surely guide one on the path of love. God is love, all beings are love, all is pulsating with love, and therefore all thoughts, words, and deeds may be penetrated and saturated by love.

In Sum

In response to suffering, Wake Up!

In response to cluelessness, Wise Up!

In response to a cold heart, Love All!

Charity, Lovableness, And Lovingkindness (Metta)

And here we have quite a beautiful point about metta, or lovingkindness practice, as it pertains to one’s enemies:

In his closing discussion on loving-kindness, Buddhaghosa asks, ‘What is the proximate cause of loving-kindness?’ The answer is the observation of lovableness in the person to whom you are attending.

B. Alan Wallace, The Four Immeasurables: Practices to Open the Heart, p. 112

Dang, that’s good!

Attending to what’s lovable in another being naturally gives rise to lovingkindness. Of course, this is a practice as the attention needs, more and more often, to be directed to another’s lovableness. The attention needs to be turned in that direction.

Riffing, I might say that charitableness begets attention to lovableness, which begets the natural expression of lovingkindness.

If this is correct, then learning to be charitable to one’s prima facie enemies and rivals–no easy thing at first–is a necessary prerequisite. Once we learn to soften the edges of our views of those whom we’ve tended to dislike, we might create room enough to attend to what’s lovable, or at least likable, about this being. And once we’re able to give ourselves up to what’s lovable or at least likable about so and so, then, boy, right then and there we’re able to start chipping away at some of our enmities.

And, geez, without enmities, wouldn’t we resemble Christ, if only a bit?

Alan Wallace tells the story of a Tibetan Buddhist Tenzen Choedak. This might be a good place to conclude this post:

Tenzin Choedak was the personal physician of the Dalai Lama in Tibet in the late fifties. He was a monk, and an outstanding physician and healer. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, this man was captured by the Chinese Communists. For about eighteen years (!), he was imprisoned in a concentration camp, tortured, and given pig swill to eat. Eventually they released him, on the death of Mao Zedong. Before long he got out of Tibet, was able to rejoin the Dalai Lama, and was immediately reinstated as his personal physician. His comment, which I found stunning–and I simply believe him–was that during those eighteen years he never harbored hostility, anger or hatred towards the Chinese. (p. 101)