When you hear the term suffering what do you think of? The first thing that comes to my mind is some sort of physical pain. People suffer when they don’t have enough to eat, are physically beaten, tortured, or have some severe or terminal illness. These things all have a relationship to the physical body and signify a painful experience in some way. Of course people can also suffer mentally from the loss of a loved one, or verbal abuse but this is not usually what comes to mind when someone says suffering. Webster says:
Definition of suffering
1 : the state or experience of one that suffers
2 : pain
In his teaching at the deer park the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths:
“The Noble Truth of the Origin (cause) of Suffering is this: It is this craving (thirst) which produces re-becoming (rebirth) accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence (self-annihilation).
“The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it.
“The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the Noble Eightfold Path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Whenever I can I read other blogs on the topics or religion and Buddhism in particular. Recently I have seen several posts talking about the Buddha’s teaching on suffering but they are using the term as I described in the first paragraph. They are saying that what the Buddha taught was that all suffering, which would then include the physical, are covered in the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. One thing I learned long ago is that all of the Buddha’s teachings are consistent. The different teachings of Impermanence, Not-Self, Emptiness and yes, Suffering, are not separate teachings that stand on their own. All of these teachings are totally interwoven to point to the true nature of reality and ourselves. So one way of knowing if something is what the Buddha taught is to correlate it against all of these other teachings and if they are in opposition to any of them then they are not what the Buddha taught.
Translation is a difficult process. If you ever spend time living in a foreign country and learn the language something will become apparent. There are not always direct translations for each and every word or concept that needs to be conveyed. In some cases a word in one language may express a concept that does not even exist in the culture that your language is used. In many Asian languages meanings are implied and not specifically spoken. The other thing you will find is that words have nuances that can significantly change the meaning that is being implied away from the strict dictionary definition. The word Dukkha is one of these words.
So somewhere in the distant past the word Dukkha was translated into English as just Suffering and that definition just sort of stuck. If you read the Buddha’s words in the Four Noble Truths above he says: ““The Noble Truth of the Origin (cause) of Suffering is this: It is this craving (thirst)” You will also see craving be translated as “desire”. So in this case we do not even have to correlate this concept against the Buddha’s other teachings, we can correlate the concept against the Four Noble Truths themselves. If a person is starving or has a painful terminal illness (Suffering) how could the cause of that pain possibly be craving, thirst, or desire? Someone that is suffering in this way can eliminate all craving in their mind but they will still be physically suffering. It just does not make any logical sense.
I believe that a closer translation of Dukkha is Unsatisfactoryness (this also is not exact but is somewhat closer than suffering). We go through life never being truly satisfied. The cause of this dissatisfaction is our constant craving, desire, thirst that is insatiable. We always want something we don’t have, or what we do have we are so enamored with that we are in a constant state of fear that we may lose it. Yes this unsatisfactoryness can cause us mental suffering but that is very different from the other physical suffering that we have talked about. This is why the word Dukkha is difficult to translate because there are many nuances that the English word Suffering just does not equate to. You can see that if this, Unsatisfactoryness in combination with the mental suffering it causes, is much closer to the meaning of the word Dhukkha then the Buddha’s prescription for the cure of following a path that eliminates craving, desire, and thirst makes perfect sense.
So what about that physical suffering, what can be done about that. Contrary to popular belief Buddhism is not a passive system of beliefs (lone monk meditating in a cave on a mountain top often comes to mind :)). It is indeed a very active pursuit. Buddhism is a practice and not just a faith. The word practice itself means that by it’s very nature it is active. There is much confusion in the west about what the Buddha taught because there is confusion about who he was teaching it to. The vast majority of the recorded words of the Buddha were sermons he was giving to monks. So therefore what he was teaching applied directly to them not always to us. We can strive to work toward the ideal of the monks life but we (the laity) have to many distractions in our daily life to be able to reach it. What is not understood is that there could not be Buddhist monastics if there were not a Buddhist laity. The monastics and the laity have a symbiotic relationship. The laity can be seen as the active element in Buddhism. They provide the support (food, clothing, shelter, financial support) that allows the monks to devote their entire life to spiritual practice and development. The monks are supposed to live a secluded life withdrawn from worldly distractions, the laity are not. It is understood that “householders”, as the laity are referred to, have responsibilities that preclude them from withdrawing from society. They have to hold a job to enable them to have income so that they can support both their family, the monastics, and the others in society that are in need. The laity in turn benefits be the teaching of the Dharma that the monks provide.
So what about the pain? That is where Karuna (Compassion) comes in. Compassion does not mean to sit around in some meditation hall feeling sorry for others in a bad situation. If you truly have compassion and empathy you will actually feel the pain of those around you that are suffering. If you yourself feel physical pain you naturally do something about it. If we truly understand Karuna and understand the Buddha’s teaching of Anatta (Not-Self) then when you know others are suffering you will just naturally take action to relive it. In my post “Don’t hide behind your Karma” I outlines how not understanding the active nature of the laity can lead people to use the Buddha’s teachings as an excuse to sit idly by while beings around them suffer. Compassion is the seed and action (Karma) is the fruit. If you really want to do something about your bad Karma then let your compassion be the catalyst for your action (Karma). Don’t just sit in the dark meditating and feeling sorry for those in need.