Many years ago now I had a neighbor – a pretty young woman who played violin in the symphony. She was healthy and good natured, with an abundance of friends and stimulating work that took her to beautiful places all over the world. Her home was brightly furnished and stylish, and her European sedan was shiny and clean. There didn’t seem to be a single thing in the world that she lacked – with the exception of me, of course! Oh, the crush I had on that woman!
We were taking a walk one day and, knowing of my interest in Buddhism, she asked me for my take on it. Anyway, I took a deep breath and began what I thought would be a fairly involved monologue about how our existence is suffering and that this suffering is rooted in our fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. I anticipated that these first two Noble Truths were going to sound like a real downer, so I intended to make my way fairly quickly to the Buddhist equivalent of Christianity’s “good news” – that this suffering can be alleviated and that the way to do so is by following the Noble Eightfold Path (the Third and Fourth Noble Truths, respectively).
“Wait a minute,” she countered before I could even hit full stride. “How can you say that our entire existence is suffering?”
“Well, because it is.”
“No,” she said, and as she did her beautiful, dark eyebrows arranged themselves into a gorgeously delicate frown, “people starving over in
Africa are suffering. People dying of diseases are suffering. The homeless people downtown sleeping out in the cold are suffering. I’m not suffering. Do you think you’re suffering?”
Sigh… How I suffered over that woman!
Okay, I must admit that I was just a little bit unskillful with my words in rendering the First Noble Truth as “existence is suffering.” Indeed, I am not the first person to have summarized it so; it’s just that I now see that it almost invites the contentious response that I received. In contrast, the Dalai Lama summarized the First Noble Truth more skillfully as “the truth of suffering” – a translation that, according to Rahula (1959), is used by almost all scholars (p. 16). So what is the truth of suffering, anyway?
It is the Sanskrit word, duhkha, that is most often translated as suffering. (In Pali, the word is dukkha – Pali being a language that is related to the more ancient Sanskrit, and the one that is the presumed language of the historical Buddha.) Actually, duhkha is often used without translation because of the difficulty of finding a one-word English equivalent. In order to understand the nature of this difficulty, try reading the following passage from the Samyutta Nikaya (56.11) a few times – interchanging the words stress/stressful, suffering, and duhkha each time:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.
Certainly the word stressful just doesn’t seem to have the weight that the word suffering does when describing disease, aging, and death, for example; but the word suffering might be a little too strong when describing those ordinary life situations encompassed within ‘not getting what we want’ – not getting that quadruple-shot cappuccino in the morning, for instance, or not getting speedy passage through the checkout line at the supermarket. Do we really suffer when such inconveniences occur? It would seem then that it was this troubling aspect of the word suffering that gave my neighbor pause when I blithely stated that “our existence is suffering.”
The Dalai Lama (1997) states that “duhkha is the ground or basis of painful experience, and refers generally to our state of existence as conditioned by karma, delusions and afflictive emotions” (p. 43). In fact, however, the “ground or basis” referred to here is fairly all-encompassing. Again, according to Rahula (1959):
The Buddha does not deny happiness in life when he says there is suffering…. [T]here is… the happiness of family life and the happiness of the life of a recluse, the happiness of sense pleasure and the happiness of renunciation, the happiness of attachment and the happiness of detachment, physical happiness and mental happiness, etc. But all these are included in dukkha [duhkha]. Even the very pure spiritual states… attained by the practice of higher meditation, free from even a shadow of suffering in the accepted sense of the word… – even these very high spiritual states are included in dukkha… [for] they are [in the Buddha’s words] ‘impermanent, dukkha, and subject to change… [W]hatever is impermanent is dukkha’. (pp. 17-18)
Apparently, then, my statement that ‘existence is suffering’ was not wholly without merit, it’s just that, without adequately contextualizing such a statement within the entirety of Buddhist teaching (as well as the subtle nuances of translation), it merely opens up a Pandora’s Box of negative and pessimistic interpretations. So, can we get a better handle on this word, duhkha?
Some years ago I heard a teacher speak about the etymology of the Sanskrit word, duhkha – now so commonly translated as suffering. She described how duhkha refers to the rolling of a wheel whose axle hole has not been crafted well, thereby causing the wheel to wobble back and forth or otherwise not roll quite as smoothly as it could or would in a perfect world. (You know that perfect world, don’t you, the one where everything happens precisely as it should – the one where everyone you ever have a crush on suddenly decides to ‘crush on you’ just as hard in return?) Anyway, I’d not heard duhkha described in such terms since that time, so I set out to see whether I could corroborate that interpretation. Being unable to confirm it with sources from my own library, I went in search of confirmation elsewhere.
A Wikipedia check of dukkha does turn up a nice article which, in part, delves into the etymology of the word; and, indeed, it does allude to the nature of axle holes. Encouraged, I began trolling around for online Sanskrit dictionaries. The Sanskrit-English Dictionary does provide evidence for the aforementioned story, stating that kha, among other things, can refer to “the hole in the nave of a wheel through which the axis runs” (http://bhagavata.org/downloads/SanskritDictionary.html). This possible meaning of kha is confirmed by the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon, as well (http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/scans/MWScan/tamil/index.html). Both sources also corroborate that su and dus are Sanskrit prefixes that modify the root as either good or bad, respectively. The difficulty, however, is that both of these sources, as well as Wikipedia, utilize the same Monier-Williams dictionary for the aforementioned quote related to “the hole in the nave of a wheel” (http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/monier/). Thus, at the present time, I have to leave open the possibility that the story that I heard told, as well as the interpretations discussed here, are all rooted in the scholarship undergirding that single Monier-Williams source.
Such questions notwithstanding, I appreciate this interpretation of duhkha and sukha. Sometimes life rolls along smoothly and with ease – sukha; and sometimes it wobbles harshly and with difficulty – duhkha. But even when things are going well we always know on some level that everything is going to change. Thus, even with sukha there is duhkha. Duhkha, pervades everything. Often we don’t get what we want, and when we do get what we want it doesn’t seem to last long enough, or if it does last long enough we end up getting tired of it. More often (it might seem) we end up either not getting what we want or getting what we don’t want – and when that happens it seems to just last and last and last! We long to spend time with people that we’re attracted to, and we’re frustrated that we have to spend time with people that bore us, agitate us, challenge us, or threaten us. And even when everything is going just swimmingly – when we’re enjoying intimacy with a loved one, or a beautiful sunset, or a feeling of profound peace – we know that it’s not going to last. We know that our intimacy will end and we will once again be alone; the sunset will fade into darkness; and our sense of peace will once again give way to anxiety over worldly affairs. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned sickness, aging and death, have I?
So, back to my conversation with my neighbor on whom I had such a profound crush: Indeed, I was experiencing dukkha in all of its glory! I longed for our relationship to be more than what it was – a neighborly friendship – but I feared her rejection. I wanted to impress her with what I knew but at the same time I knew that our walk together was going to be a mere sip of water on my thirsty lips. I wanted her to do the talking so that all I would have to do was listen, and look at her – albeit with glances that were all too brief due to our having to walk side by side. Sigh! And all of this turmoil going on inside of me was absolutely and unequivocally keeping me from simply enjoying to the fullest a walk with someone that I truly wanted to spend time with. Oh yes, our existence is suffering!
If only it were easier to simply accept things as they are – neither wanting them to be more than what they are, nor less. Our minds are always grasping, though, always wanting to hold on tightly or else push things away. Thankfully, through meditation we become more adept at watching this constant ebb and flow of the tides of attachment and aversion, and by doing so we gain freedom from their pull. We’re able to stop our karma, as Yoshida roshi describes it. (See Now, In Entering Into Zen.) At this point, let me close with a nice passage from The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma (Bodhidharma lived around 475 A.D. and was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to
People of this world are deluded. They’re always longing for something – always, in a word, seeking. But the wise wake up. They choose reason over custom. They fix their minds on the sublime and let their bodies change with the seasons. All phenomena are empty. They contain nothing worth desiring. Calamity forever alternates with Prosperity. To dwell in the three realms is to dwell in a burning house. To have a body is to suffer. Does anyone with a body know peace? Those who understand this detach themselves from all that exists and stop imagining or seeking anything. The sutras say, “To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.” When you seek nothing, you’re on the Path. (pp. 5-7)
Dalai Lama (1997) The Four Noble Truths – Fundamentals of the Buddhist teachings. Thorsons, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Pine, R. (1987). The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma (tr. Red Pine). North Point Press. A division of Farrar, Straus and
. Giroux, New York
Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press,
. New York
Samyutta Nikaya (SN 56.11) Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu). Access to Insight, 25 August 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html. Retrieved on 14 October 2011.
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society –
Rusty Cart Wheel image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons via:
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank