Wednesday, August 16, 2006

What is Suffering?

What is suffering? The First Noble Truth, the first thing the Buddha ever taught, tells us that suffering exists. Having been born, being alive right now, you will suffer. Because suffering plays such a key role in Buddhist practice, we employ a very specific definition of that word that differs in some ways from common usage.

My alarm wakes me at 5:00 am. Groggy, I sit up and rub my eyes. I stand and walk unevenly out of the bedroom, but just before escaping that den of rest, I slam my little toe into the corner of the oak dresser. Pain, terrible pain, rockets through my foot. If I relax, sit down, and rub my toe, ensure that it’s not broken, then limp, when I am able, out of the bedroom to continue my morning, I do not suffer. But if I lament over my clumsiness, pour over how this is going to affect my volleyball later, chastise myself for being so stupid, I cause myself to suffer.

Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. (Sallatha Sutta, trans. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

My phone rings at work. It’s my best friend’s wife, Sarah. Tears in her voice, she tells me Bill had a massive heart attack. He passed an hour ago. I grieve for a day, a week, a month. The length doesn’t matter. Over that time, I think about Bill—it makes me sad. But I go about my life, and work through my grief. Sorrow is just that—sorrow. Having been born, I will experience it. There is nothing abnormal, harmful, or unskillful about it. But if my sadness causes me to avoid my responsibilities, if I allow it to get out of hand and cause me or another harm, then I suffer. Sadness, sorrow, grief, is not suffering unless I attach to it, identify with it, claim it as “mine.” Without attachment, identification, or claims of ownership, sadness is an emotion that I feel. That’s it.
Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental. (Ibid.)

In the comments here, Nixie said, “I always understood [suffering] to mean that eliminating suffering is achieved by eliminating desires. Once we no longer have attachments to things or our physical world, then we are no longer are a slave to our desires and thereby our suffering is eliminated.”

Generally speaking, this is true. But English really lacks the proper vocabulary to translate into a single word the meaning of the Sanskrit word we generally read as “desire” in Buddhist texts. Desires are not bad, in and of themselves. It’s not harmful to want to accomplish some goal. It IS harmful—and a cause of suffering—to attach to that goal. If you want to get an article published, you write the article and submit it. If it’s rejected, you respond in one of two basic ways, attached or unattached. If you are attached to this goal, you may mourn your rejection, question your work or your writing ability, or curse the editor. You suffer. If you are unattached, you consider the reasons for rejection, ask yourself if you still want to publish this article here, and begin work on your revisions. You may feel sad or disappointed. But that’s ok. Be with your sadness. Embrace it. Know it. Don’t chase it away. When you are mindful of it, its nature will become apparent. This wisdom brings suffering to an end.

It’s when those feelings go beyond the base feeling—when they “get into your head”—that’s when you suffer.

For a learned person
who has fathomed the Dhamma,
clearly seeing this world & the next,
desirable things don't charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His acceptance
& rejection are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist. (Ibid.)

*This article was posted by Mike of Unknowing Mind while he was a guest blogger here. When I switched over to the new Blogger system on 9/12/06, the byline was changed by Blogger. I want to give credit where credit is due.


S. Nichole said...

Suffering, from a Buddhist perspective, seems to be more of a mental block than physical pain. Does that sound right?

Mike said...

Yes, that's pretty close. There's no way to avoid physical pain. Being born, we will get sick, we will age, we will die. All of that involved physical pain. Additionally, however, we will also experience mental pain that is unavoidable (i.e. grief over the death of a loved one, sadness over how others treat the Earth, etc.)

The primary difference between these pains (both physical & mental) and suffering is that suffering is WHAT WE DO WITH THOSE PAINS. Do we attach to them and make them more than what they are, causing us further pain (this time in the form of suffering)?

Suffering is not physical pain. Suffering is not mental/emotional pain. Suffering is anything we do with physical/mental/emotional pain that causes us further hurt.

Bernulf said...

Thank you, very much, for that clarification!

Frido said...

I don't understand what you are talking about. You give two examples, one about getting shot with an arrow. The obvious responses to this is to avoid further assaults, by fighting back or fleeing, and to minimize damage by tending to the wound. Pain exists to inform us about the need for these reactions. Grief from the loss of a comrade is probably mostly a socially learned response. We provide condolences, reorder our thinking to take into account the loss of the person, and take actions to compensate for the person's death. Mentally, this is not as simple as physical pain, and the reordering is facilitated by an emotional reaction, i.e., pouring into the brain of various neurochemicals to promote reordering the thoughts. Obviously it is hugely harder to evolve such a system as compared to the simple neural pain responses.

Not attaching oneself sounds like self training of a response to failure to achieve goals that promote achievement of substitute goals -- like some executive management classes might teach.

There isn't any need to get really complicated about this.