Understanding Suffering

It sticks on the skin and goes into the flesh; from the flesh it gets into the bones. It’s like an insect on a tree that eats through the bark, into the wood and then into the core, until finally the tree dies.

We’ve grown up like that. It gets buried deep inside. Our parents taught us grasping and attachment, giving meaning to things, believing firmly that we exist as a self-entity and that things belong to us. From our birth that’s what we are taught. We hear this over and over again, and it penetrates our hearts and stays there as our habitual feeling. We’re taught to get things, to accumulate and hold on to them, to see them as important and as ours. This is what our parents know, and this is what they teach us. So it gets into our minds, into our bones.

When we take an interest in meditation and hear the teaching of a spiritual guide it’s not easy to understand. It doesn’t really grab us. We’re taught not to see and to do things the old way, but when we hear the teaching, it doesn’t penetrate the mind; we only hear it with our ears. People just don’t know themselves.

So we sit and listen to teachings, but it’s just sound entering the ears. It doesn’t get inside and affect us. It’s like we’re boxing and we keep hitting the other guy but he doesn’t go down. We remain stuck in our self-conceit. The wise have said that moving a mountain from one place to another is easier than moving the self-conceit of people.

We can use explosives to level a mountain and then move the earth. But the tight grasping of our self-conceit - oh man! The wise can teach us to our dying day, but they can’t get rid of it. It remains hard and fast. Our wrong ideas and bad tendencies remain so solid and unbudging, and we’re not even aware of it. So the wise have said that removing this self-conceit and turning wrong understanding into right understanding is about the hardest thing to do.

For us puthujjana (worldly beings) to progress on to being kalyānajana (virtuous beings) is so hard. Puthujjana means people who are thickly obscured, who are dark, who are stuck deep in this darkness and obscuration. The kalyānajana has made things lighter. We teach people to lighten, but they don’t want to do that because they don’t understand their situation, their condition of obscuration. So they keep on wandering in their confused state.

If we come across a pile of buffalo dung we won’t think it’s ours and we won’t want to pick it up. We will just leave it where it is because we know what it is.

It’s like that. That’s what’s good in the way of the impure. Evil is the food of bad people. If you teach them about doing good they’re not interested, but prefer to stay as they are because they don’t see the harm in it. Without seeing the harm there’s no way things can be rectified. If you recognize it, then you think, ‘‘Oh! My whole pile of dung doesn’t have the value of a small piece of gold!’’ And then you will want gold instead; you won’t want the dung anymore. If you don’t recognize this you remain the owner of a pile of dung. Even if you are offered a diamond or a ruby, you won’t be interested.

That’s the ‘good’ of the impure. Gold, jewels and diamonds are considered something good in the realm of humans. The foul and rotten is good for flies and other insects. If you put perfume on it they would all flee. What those with wrong view consider good is like that. That’s the ‘good’ for those with wrong view, for the defiled. It doesn’t smell good, but if we tell them it stinks they’ll say it’s fragrant. They can’t reverse this view very easily. So it’s not easy to teach them.

If you gather fresh flowers the flies won’t be interested in them. Even if you tried to pay them, they wouldn’t come. But wherever there’s a dead animal, wherever there’s something rotten, that’s where they’ll go. You don’t need to call them - they just go. Wrong view is like that. It delights in that kind of thing. The stinking and rotten is what smells good to it. It’s bogged down and immersed in that. What’s sweet smelling to a bee is not sweet to a fly. The fly doesn’t see anything good or valuable in it and has no craving for it.

There is difficulty in practice, but in anything we undertake we have to pass through difficulty to reach ease. In Dhamma practice we begin with the truth of dukkha, the pervasive unsatisfactoriness of existence. But as soon as we experience this we lose heart. We don’t want to look at it. Dukkha is really the truth, but we want to get around it somehow. It’s similar to the way we don’t like to look at old people, but prefer to look at those who are young.

If we don’t want to look at dukkha we will never understand dukkha, no matter how many births we go through. Dukkha is a noble truth. If we allow ourselves to face it then we will start to seek a way out of it. If we are trying to go somewhere and the road is blocked we will think about how to make a pathway. Working at it day after day we can get through. When we encounter problems we develop wisdom like this. Without seeing dukkha we don’t really look into and resolve our problems; we just pass them by indifferently.

My way of training people involves some suffering, because suffering is the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. He wanted us to see suffering and to see origination, cessation and the path. This is the way out for all the ariya, the awakened ones. If you don’t go this way there is no way out. The only way is knowing suffering, knowing the cause of suffering, knowing the cessation of suffering and knowing the path of practice leading to the cessation of suffering. This is the way that the ariya, beginning with Stream Entry, were able to escape. It’s necessary to know suffering.

If we know suffering, we will see it in everything we experience. Some people feel that they don’t really suffer much. Practice in Buddhism is for the purpose of freeing ourselves from suffering. What should we do not to suffer anymore? When dukkha arises we should investigate to see the causes of its arising. Then once we know that, we can practice to remove those causes. Suffering, origination, cessation - in order to bring it to cessation we have to understand the path of practice. Then once we travel the path to fulfillment, dukkha will no longer arise. In Buddhism, this is the way out.

Opposing our habits creates some suffering. Generally we are afraid of suffering. If something will make us suffer, we don’t want to do it. We are interested in what appears to be good and beautiful, but we feel that anything involving suffering is bad. It’s not like that. Suffering is saccadhamma, truth. If there is suffering in the heart it becomes the cause that makes you think about escaping. It leads you to contemplate. You won’t sleep so soundly because you will be intent on investigating to find out what is really going on, trying to see causes and their results.

Happy people don’t develop wisdom. They are asleep. It’s like a dog that eats its fill. Afterwards it doesn’t want to do anything. It can sleep all day. It won’t bark if a burglar comes - it’s too full, too tired. But if you only give it a little food it will be alert and awake. If someone tries to come sneaking around, it will jump up and start barking. Have you seen that?

We humans are trapped and imprisoned in this world and have troubles in such abundance, and we are always full of doubts, confusion and worry. This is no game. It’s really something difficult and troublesome. So there’s something we need to get rid of. According to the way of spiritual cultivation we should give up our bodies, give up ourselves. We have to resolve to give our lives. We can see the example of great renunciants, such as the Buddha. He was a noble of the warrior caste, but he was able to leave it all behind and not turn back. He was the heir to riches and power, but he could renounce them.

If we speak the subtle Dhamma, most people will be frightened by it. They won’t dare to enter it. Even saying, ‘‘Don’t do evil,’’ most people can’t follow this. That’s how it is. So I’ve sought all kinds of means to get this across. One thing I often say is, no matter if we are delighted or upset, happy or suffering, shedding tears or singing songs, never mind - living in this world we are in a cage. We don’t get beyond this condition of being in a cage. Even if you are rich, you are living in a cage. If you are poor, you are living in a cage. If you sing and dance, you’re singing and dancing in a cage. If you watch a movie, you’re watching it in a cage.

What is this cage? It is the cage of birth, the cage of aging, the cage of illness, the cage of death. In this way, we are imprisoned in the world. ‘‘This is mine.’’ ‘‘That belongs to me.’’ We don’t know what we really are or what we’re doing. Actually all we are doing is accumulating suffering for ourselves. It’s not something far away that causes our suffering but we don’t look at ourselves. However much happiness and comfort we may have, having been born we cannot avoid aging, we must fall ill and we must die. This is dukkha itself, here and now.

We can always be afflicted with pain or illness. It can happen at any time. It’s like we’ve stolen something. They could come to arrest us at any time because we’ve done the deed. That’s our situation. There is danger and trouble. We exist among harmful things; birth, aging and illness reign over our lives. We can’t go elsewhere and escape them. They can come catch us at any time - it’s always a good opportunity for them. So we have to cede this to them and accept the situation. We have to plead guilty. If we do, the sentence won’t be so heavy. If we don’t, we suffer enormously. If we plead guilty, they’ll go easy on us. We won’t be incarcerated too long.

When the body is born it doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s like our meditation hall. After it’s built spiders come to stay in it. Lizards come to stay in it. All sorts of insects and crawling things come to stay in it. Snakes may come to live in it. Anything may come to live in it. It’s not only our hall; it’s everything’s hall.

These bodies are the same. They aren’t ours. People come to stay in and depend on them. Illness, pain and aging come to reside in them and we are merely residing along with them. When these bodies reach the end of pain and illness, and finally break up and die, that is not us dying. So don’t hold on to any of this. Instead, you have to contemplate the matter and then your grasping will gradually be exhausted. When you see correctly, wrong understanding will stop.

Birth has created this burden for us. But generally, we people can’t accept this. We think that not being born would be the greatest evil. Dying and not being born would be the worst thing of all. That’s how we view things. We usually only think about how much we want in the future. And then we desire further: ‘‘In the next life, may I be born among the gods, or may I be born as a wealthy person.’’

We’re asking for an even heavier burden! But we think that that will bring happiness. To really penetrate the Dhamma purely is thus very difficult. We need to rely on serious investigation.
Such thinking is an entirely different way from what the Buddha teaches. That way is heavy. The Buddha said to let go of it and cast it away. But we think, ‘‘I can’t let go.’’ So we keep carrying it and it keeps getting heavier. Because we were born we have this heaviness.

Going a little further, do you know if craving has its limits? At what point will it be satisfied? Is there such a thing? If you consider it you will see that tanhā, blind craving, can’t be satisfied. It keeps on desiring more and more; even if this brings such suffering that we are nearly dead, tanha will keep on wanting things because it can’t be satisfied.

This is something important. If we people could think in a balanced and moderate way - well, let’s talk about clothes. How many sets do we need? And food - how much do we eat? At the most, for one meal we might eat two plates and that’s enough for us. If we know moderation then we will be happy and comfortable, but this is not very common.

The Buddha taught ‘The Instructions for the Rich.’ What this teaching points to is being content with what we have. That is a rich person. I think this kind of knowledge is really worth studying. The knowledge taught in the Buddha’s way is something worth learning, worth reflecting on.

Then, the pure Dhamma of practice goes beyond that. It’s a lot deeper. Some of you may not be able to understand it. Just take the Buddha’s words that there is no more birth for him, that birth and becoming are finished. Hearing this makes you uncomfortable. To state it directly, the Buddha said that we should not be born, because that is suffering. Just this one thing, birth, the Buddha focused on, contemplating it and realizing its gravity. Being born, all dukkha comes along with that. It happens simultaneously with birth. When we come into this world we get eyes, a mouth, a nose. It all comes along only because of birth. But if we hear about dying and not being born again, we feel it would be utter ruination. We don’t want to go there. But the deepest teaching of the Buddha is like this.

Why are we suffering now? Because we were born. So we are taught to put an end to birth. This is not just talking about the body being born and the body dying. That much is easy to see. A child can understand it. The breath comes to an end, the body dies and then it just lies there. This is what we usually mean when we talk about death. But a breathing dead person? That’s something we don’t know about. A dead person who can walk and talk and smile is something we haven’t thought about. We only know about the corpse that’s no longer breathing. That’s what we call death.

It’s the same with birth. When we say someone has been born, we mean that a woman went to the hospital and gave birth. But the moment of the mind taking birth - have you noticed that, such as when you get upset over something at home? Sometimes love is born. Sometimes aversion is born. Being pleased, being displeased - all sorts of states. This is all nothing but birth.

We suffer just because of this. When the eyes see something displeasing, dukkha is born. When the ears hear something that you really like, dukkha is also born. There is only suffering.
The Buddha summed it up by saying that there is only a mass of suffering. Suffering is born and suffering ceases. That’s all there is. We pounce on and grab at it again and again - pouncing on arising, pouncing on cessation, never really understanding it.

When dukkha arises we call that suffering. When it ceases we call that happiness. It’s all old stuff, arising and ceasing. We are taught to watch body and mind arising and ceasing. There’s nothing else outside of this. To sum it up, there is no happiness; there’s only dukkha. We recognize suffering as suffering when it arises. Then when it ceases, we consider that to be happiness. We see it and designate it as such, but it isn’t. It’s just dukkha ceasing. Dukkha arises and ceases, arises and ceases, and we pounce on it and catch hold of it. Happiness appears and we are pleased. Unhappiness appears and we are distraught. It’s really all the same, mere arising and ceasing. When there is arising there’s something, and when there is ceasing, it’s gone. This is where we doubt. Thus it’s taught that dukkha arises and ceases, and outside of that, there is nothing. When you come down to it, there is only suffering. But we don’t see clearly.

We don’t recognize clearly that there is only suffering, because when it stops we see happiness there. We seize on it and get stuck there. We don’t really see the truth that everything is just arising and ceasing.

The Buddha summed things up by saying that there is only arising and ceasing, and nothing outside of that. This is difficult to listen to. But one who truly has a feel for the Dhamma doesn’t need to take hold of anything and dwells in ease. That’s the truth.
The truth is that in this world of ours there is nothing that does anything to anybody. There is nothing to be anxious about. There’s nothing worth crying over, nothing to laugh at. Nothing is inherently tragic or delightful. But such experiencing is what’s ordinary for people.

Our speech can be ordinary; we relate to others according to the ordinary way of seeing things. That’s okay. But if we are thinking in the ordinary way, that leads to tears.

In truth, if we really know the Dhamma and see it continuously, nothing is anything at all; there is only arising and passing away. There’s no real happiness or suffering. The heart is at peace then, when there is no happiness or suffering. When there is happiness and suffering, there is becoming and birth.

We usually create one kind of kamma, which is the attempt to stop suffering and produce happiness. That’s what we want. But what we want is not real peace; it’s happiness and suffering. The aim of the Buddha’s teaching is to practice to create a type of kamma that leads beyond happiness and suffering and that will bring peace. But we aren’t able to think like that. We can only think that having happiness will bring us peace. If we have happiness, we think that’s good enough.

Thus we humans wish for things in abundance. If we get a lot, that’s good. Generally that’s how we think. Doing good is supposed to bring good results, and if we get that we’re happy. We think that’s all we need to do and we stop there. But where does good come to conclusion? It doesn’t remain. We keep going back and forth, experiencing good and bad, trying day and night to seize on to what we feel is good.

The Buddha’s teaching is that first we should give up evil and then we practice what is good. Second, he said that we should give up evil and give up the good as well, not having attachment to it because that is also one kind of fuel. When there is something that is fuel it will eventually burst into flame. Good is fuel. Bad is fuel.

Speaking on this level kills people. People aren’t able to follow it. So we have to turn back to the beginning and teach morality. Don’t harm each other. Be responsible in your work and don’t harm or exploit others. The Buddha taught this, but just this much isn’t enough to stop.

Why do we find ourselves here, in this condition? It’s because of birth. As the Buddha said in his first teaching, the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of Dhamma: ‘‘Birth is ended. This is my final existence. There is no further birth for the Tathāgata.’’

Not many people really come back to this point and contemplate to understand according to the principles of the Buddha’s way. But if we have faith in the Buddha’s way, it will repay us. If people genuinely rely on the Three Jewels then practice is easy.

Extracted from Ajahn Chah site

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Going through the discussion on suffering now in my Lamrim class and also reading the article @jereme shared…
and this saying really struck a cord with me:


As the 《Bases of Discipline》 states:
The end of accumulated things is depletion.
The end of things that are high is a fall.
The end of meetings is separation.
The end of life is death.

Referencing: Lamrim Commentary Track 71b

@adrian Hmmmm… this set me thinking too…

If the things accumulated is undesirable, then would depletion no longer be suffering?
If a high position creates stress and unhappiness, perhaps a fall would be free from suffering?
If the meetings bring pain and grief, would separation be a relief and not suffering?
Also, if the life exists in a body that is no longer of use, would death be viewed as a sad end to life or an anticipated continuation to the next afterlife?


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hi @julieng,

I had a similar train of thought too…what is the point of life if it is full of suffering?
That is where Venerable Ri-Chang’s discourse helped me:

= 经上面就告诉我们,“积聚”,不管你有多少财产,最后呢“销散”;爬得多高—堕落;大家亲亲爱爱—别离;“有命咸归死”。你想到这里,这些东西都没有意思,忙它干什么啊?真正要忙的一件事情—赶快出离啊!所以“火烧头燃尚可暂置”

假定我们能够了解了像上面这样的过失的话, (p233) 唉呀,这一无可贪、一无可贪哪!那时候怎么办哪?不要贪着,去修行,修什么?修“三福”,三福下面说“三门善事”,就是身、口、意努力去做这个。

It led me to see that the contemplation and understanding of suffering is to help motivate me in my practice - by curbing my habit of pursuing worldly stuff and pushing me to devote more time in 修行.

It also made me appreciate the wisdom of these Buddhist teachers and to increase my confidence in depending on their teachings.

In fact, before this, I had swung towards the extreme of nihilism:

Further reading alerted me to the difference between Nihilism and Buddhism:

Nihilism is one of the two extremes that the Buddha’s “Middle Way” steers between. (The other is Eternalism).
Reddit - Dive into anything
What Buddhists Believe - Eternalism and Nihilism

Thanks @adrian for sharing the contemplation process.

So given that you truly understand this, at the cross road of given a promotion by your boss to handle more responsibilities (climbing to a higher position) and as a result, potentially more sufferings (from the incoming obstacles and eventually the fall from the position), how should one handle the decision making?

If by the Mahayana path, and your true motivation is to help more people, arriving at a place of influence that allows you to help more people (assuming that you truly do not care about power)… wouldn’t that be a path as well?

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I would think the point of life IS suffering, after all, that is the very first noble truth which the Buddha spoke of. However if we were to accept this truth by becoming either extremely depressed about it or extremely denial about it would be a waste of time and life. I agree like @adrian said, to use the truth of suffering as a motivation instead, which is how the Buddha responded when he contemplated upon seeing the sights of suffering when he was still a prince.

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loving the discussion from this :smile:

@TanSL said it quite well in reminding us about the first noble truth.

On the scenario that @Jereme provided, we can use it to play through in our mind how we will think and react.

Frankly, given my current state of 愚痴 (ignorance), I will accept the promotion and the pay increase that comes with it. I would probably reason it out that I owe it to my boss as a form of responsibility to help the firm. But deep down, it will be probably due to greed.

The motivation of using the influence that comes from a position of power to help more people is a positive one - from a secular point of view. But I am likely to stray from this motivation and go back to the habit of accumulating and guarding this power.

well…through this thought exercise…I have benefited with further examples of my flaws and why I need to continue to practise!

Brutal honesty. I like it. :rofl:
@adrian looks like you are quite clear what your crafty mind is going to tell you.

In short, we go with what Master says… if you have more time, don’t spend it on pursuing the mundane matters.

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Master Sheng Yen shares a view on suffering here:

Some thoughts I picked up;

  • 苦中作乐
  • in this lifetime, we live our lives as busy as a bee, and there aren’t many moments of genuine happiness.

Venerable Thubten Chodron touches on this topic:

choice quotes I like:

  • the body is in the nature of suffering
  • when we see that very clearly, we give up attachment to the body
  • we can never get the body comfortable
  • …use our body…to renounce rebirth in cyclic existence …then the body can become a helpful vehicle

Another video from Master Sheng Yen, talking about the Four Noble Truths, particularly suffering:

My notes from watching the discussion:

  • many people fear suffering but they still keep creating the causes of suffering without knowing it.
  • we reap what we sow

The discussion on this Reddit thread is pretty useful:

Quoting one of the contributors:

When times are going good, and everything sits right, I don’t feel aware. Everything seems to be just as is, sort of living life on autopilot.

I observe a similar state for myself.
I try to counter it with more reading of Master Ri-Chang’s Lamrim commentary and listening to talks by various Venerables - to remind myself that i am still in Suffering and that I must strive to break out of this.

Venerable Ru De mentions this phrase - 富贵学道难 in the video
The meaning can be roughly said as the people who are prosperous will find it difficult to practise Buddhism.

My thoughts:
Suffering, or more accurately wanting to get out of suffering, can motivate us to learn Buddhism.

Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanation on Why do we need Suffering?

  • Suffering and happiness are integral parts of life, akin to the necessity of both left and right directions; without one, the other cannot exist.
  • Analogous to nature, the growth of a lotus flower requires mud. While the mud may smell unpleasant, it is essential for the growth of the fragrant lotus. Similarly, suffering is the mud and happiness is the lotus.
  • Learning to use suffering effectively can lead to the creation of happiness. By managing suffering well, we can lessen its impact and duration, leading to greater understanding and compassion, which enhances happiness.
  • Thay expresses a hope for future educational systems to teach how to transform suffering into happiness.
  • Suffering is not entirely negative and can be useful, much like mud in organic gardening. Instead of discarding suffering, it can be transformed into a “compost” to cultivate happiness.
  • Properly viewed and managed, suffering can foster compassion and love, contributing significantly to overall happiness.
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