2020-05-05: Four Noble Truths - Dukkha (2 of 5) Understanding Suffering
5:04PM May 5, 2020
four noble truths
first noble truth
Continuing today on the second of five talks on the first noble truth, the noble truth of suffering. And the task that is mentioned by the Buddha, the task of the first noble truth is to understand it, to fully understand it. That's a different relationship than many people have with suffering. The idea that we should stop and really get to know it better - to study it, investigate it, really understand it - is maybe counterintuitive. We want to get rid of it. We're going to stop it. We want to turn it off. We want to escape. We want to attack it. We want to do something.
Of course, the purpose of Buddhism is to not suffer. So, of course, yes, it's okay to have a wish for the end of suffering and not to suffer. But one of the wise ways of doing that is to - maybe from our ledge of peace, of some kind of ease and equanimity - to be able to turn towards the suffering, to be with the suffering in a way that helps us to understand it in a deep way.
The wording of the first noble truth in its simplest form is, "This is suffering." But the full sentence it often comes with is: "One understands - or one knows - this is suffering." And the word is more 'know' here than 'understand' because 'understanding' can suggest something more complicated - one 'understands' where it comes from and all the elements of it and the consequences of it - the whole ecology of suffering. Whereas to 'know', implies something very particular - just to recognize, "Oh, this is suffering."
And that's a clue to the Buddhist approach to this thing called 'suffering'. That is we're learning how to be present for it, to see it in a way that is equanimous. Or see it in a way that in being present for suffering, we're not adding more suffering to it. We're not reacting to it, attacking it, attacking ourselves, being angry, collapsing into despair. The ability to sit upright - metaphorically at least - to sit somehow without collapsing, without pulling away, to just see suffering right in the eyes, "Suffering, I see you." This is suffering.
That's a difficult task. But that is the task of what Buddhist practice is. Slowly, we build a practice, build our capacity, build ability to be grounded and centered in ourselves, rooted. We find our ledge; we find our nest; we find our sea legs - like in the story yesterday - we can begin to be able to find a place to breathe quietly, and look, and be relaxed in a certain way, and really honestly look at our suffering, at what's going on.
For some people, hearing that this is the task of Buddhism, find a huge relief in that because they grew up in their society with their families, and it was all about avoiding suffering - pretending it's not there and denying it or somehow interpreting it in good ways, in ways that kind of prettied it and made it different than what it was.
To actually get the message that, "Yes, this is suffering." And "Yes, let's talk about it. Let's be with it. Let's look at it. But not so we suffer better." That's not the point of Buddhism. Understand, be with your sufferings, but you don't suffer better. The idea is that we suffer - well, maybe you suffer better in the sense that we suffer without all the extra. We don't suffer more. But we suffer without all the extra waves of reactivity that we have.
So to understand suffering is the task. Maybe it's interesting to say that the word for suffering is 'dukkha.' And this word is translated into English in a variety of different ways. It's kind of nice to have the different translations because each translation points to a different angle, a different aspect, a different perspective on this thing that we call 'suffering.'
And we might be able to take 'dukkha,' and also the English translation 'suffering,' as broad umbrella terms - terms that encompasses within them many component parts or different aspects of this particular human experience of suffering. Some of it is very mild, some very big, but there are all these different aspects of it. And the different translations give us different perspectives on it.
Some of you might feel, "Well, that's nice, but isn't there just one meaning of what the Four Noble Truths are?" And some teachers, in some books you read, will give you one explanation of what the Four Noble Truths are. But in fact, down through the centuries, there have been many explanations for what they are. Well then let's go back to the Buddha and get his one explanation. And you go back to the sutras, his teachings, he didn't have just one explanation. In my count, he had five different ones. Some very similar, but some quite different from each other. And the ones that are usually taught as the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, are just one of those five. And some of them are never really referred to in teachings.
So there are many different perspectives on this, and you'll see as we go through these days and weeks on the Four Noble Truths that I'll offer different perspectives. For now I wanted to give you some of the common English translations.
First, it's important to understand that the word 'dukkha' is an adjective, not a noun. And as an adjective, its literal meaning is 'painful,' 'pain.' And then by usage it comes to have other meanings and other associations. Maybe the core meaning is 'pain' or 'painfulness.' And that pain is then almost like a metaphor for all the forms of suffering human beings can have. But it points to that whatever dukkha is in our psychological, emotional, experiential, physical world, it's a big 'ouch.' It's something that maybe we contract around - something that hurts us.
We get a very different understanding of the Buddha's teachings if we translate 'dukkha' as 'painful.' So for example, there's a very common teaching that things like birth, old age, sickness and death are dukkha. And sometimes people translate it as, birth is suffering, sicknesses is suffering; old age is suffering; death is suffering. And that in the word 'suffering' is a noun. So it's one noun is the other noun. There's an equivalence, which leads to all kinds of philosophical challenges.
If we translate it as painful: "Birth is painful. Old age is painful. Sickness is painful. Death is painful." Now we're talking about something which many people can identify with, that your pain is also other things. Birth is other things besides painful, but it is painful. Old age is other things besides just painful, but it is also painful. Sickness is also painful, and death/dying can also be quite painful, in one way or the other.
For the Buddha to say this - I'm very touched in a very deep way and a little bit in awe - my appreciation of this ancient teaching goes up much more, when I consider that back in the time of the Buddha, they had no anesthetics. There's no aspirin, no novocaine, no anesthesia. And there's no palliative care to let us die painlessly in the way that now there is. We have a lot of wonderful medicines that can help us be much more comfortable while we're dying, if the dying is difficult.
The idea of pain was something that was very acute in the ancient world, and people had to learn to live with it and be with it and so when they say that birth is painful, they mean it! Old age is painful. Sicknesses is painful. Death is painful. Grief, mourning, distress, anguish are painful.
Sometimes a translation into English is the word 'stress.' And so, birth is 'stressful,' old age is 'stressful,' sickness is 'stressful,' death is 'stressful.' Mourning, grief, pain, distress, anguish - are 'stressful.' This is a raw experiential association for the word 'dukkha.' And it has the advantage that it's more physical without any evaluation of whether it's right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or not appropriate. It's just stressful.
One of the people who translates this way told me once that one of the most stressful things in a person's life apparently is marriage - getting married, marriage ceremonies. It's also hopefully one of the happiest days of a person's life, but apparently there can also be a lot of stress associated with it. So even wonderful things can have stress, and people can be exhausted at the end of it.
The idea is that stress can follow us around in all kinds of ways. Even with things that we look forward to and love to do and are great, there can be stress involved. And so to understand the wide extent in which stress is part of our life goes beyond what many people think of as suffering. And in fact it also applies to very deep mediation practice. As meditation goes deeper and deeper and becomes more concentrated, we experience some of the most happy, blissful, experiences that are possible for a human being.
Paradoxically, the more concentrated and still and wonderful the meditation is, the more hightened the sensitivity is to stress. In fact, some teachers will say that in the depths of the quietest, most peaceful and nicest kinds of meditation you can ever imagine – they'll say, "Ok now look for where the stress is. Look for where there's a little tension, a little bit of pressure that feels a teeny bit..." You know, the degree of stress is ridiculously light. In ordinary daily life, one would never associate the subtlety of stress, but that's kind of what's left. It's the last remnants of stress that is in a mind that's otherwise very peaceful. And that's a very useful instruction: to see that also as dukkha. So even in those states we continue the process of letting go.
When we translate 'dukkha' as 'suffering,' I don't know how it is for you or other people, but for me, that has a very strong emotional association. 'Suffering' feels almost like an emotional heavy word - "I'm suffering" - and it just feels holistically emotional and full - existential. It seems like this feeling of totality to it in my mind and my heart. It's 'suffering,' "I'm suffering," and it just feels like this is almost like the totality of who I am. Whereas stress, we can have stress - sometimes I feel like my eyes are stressed if I'm spending too much time on the computer - but the rest of me is quite happy. But suffering has a totality, an emotional totality to it. And sometimes it's a little difficult for people to get their mind around the word suffering because it's so big.
Another translation, the last one I'll mention, which can be quite popular, has, in my mind, a more intellectual or philosophical association. Or to say it more precisely, it's evaluative in nature. It has to do with making a little bit more evaluation, constructing an understanding - philosophical or intellectual understanding - that's a little bit removed from direct experience. Whereas pain can be really about direct experience. Stress can be really about direct experience. Suffering - exactly how much is direct experience or how much is evaluative or conceptual - is part of the discovery process of mindfulness. So this one that's more intellectual also has a more universal quality to it. And that is translating 'dukkha' as 'unsatisfactory.'
The recognition of that and then how it's evaluative or intellectual is that you have to then explain in what ways it is unsatisfactory. 'Pain' you don't have to explain in what way it's pain; you know, it's painful. 'Stress' may be the same way. 'Suffering' maybe is a little more complicated. But 'unsatisfactory' clearly is more complicated because it requires some explanation, some understanding that's more than just feeling or sensing that something's unsatisfactory. It begs the question: unsatisfactory in what way? And the usual explanation of people who choose this is something like, "If we're searching for lasting, reliable happiness and peace, we won't find it in the particular experiences, objects, things of the world, including the objects and experiences we can have within ourselves." Nothing that can be directly experienced as a particular concept/ idea/experience can provide lasting happiness because it's impermanent; it's inconstant; it comes and goes, appears and disappears. And any attempt to hold onto something - this is it; this is how you can be happy; this will make me happy.
I remember once very clearly when I when I was about twenty years old, I had a very nice summer. I just was kind of ecstatic by the end of the summer - very, very happy. And I remember having the thought, "I'll never be unhappy again." And then just a month later, or two months later, I was more depressed than I'd ever been in my life. So much for that idea that I would always be this way!
So 'unsatisfactory' - and in deep meditation, as also in ordinary life, people come to the wisdom to understand that what they were holding onto or expecting to do for themselves - to really make things great for them, happy for them, satisfying for them - that that is fleeting. It's not lasting. It doesn't live up to the full promise. And so many people are disappointed that what once made them happy at one point in life is no longer something that makes them happy later in life. And because it's fleeting, people who are always looking for something outside or some thing, some experience which will do it, will then just go on to search for another experience - another thing, another thing.
The Dharma is not about finding some thing, some experience, some idea that is 'it' that brings happiness. But rather it's more about discovering not some 'thing' but some absence of a thing. To discover the freedom, peace, and happiness that comes from the absence of clinging – the absence of thirsting, being compulsive, grabbing, holding on, and attachment - which includes very strong resistance to things. That absence of resistance, that absence of clinging, grasping, attachment – that is reliable, if we can let go fully.
So the purpose of really getting to know suffering, to really see it clearly and to understand it, is part of this project to come to the absence of suffering, to let go of clinging in a very deep way. That's what we'll look at over these days and weeks that we look at the Four Noble Truths more deeply.
I hope this is nice and this kind of explanation lays the groundwork for what's going to come. Thank you for being part of this, and I look forward to our time tomorrow.