Dukkha is Suffering
by Wayne Sensei (Ren Cheng)
Buddhist teachings traditionally recognize three types of suffering (dukkha) in the human experience. In our contemporary culture there is another to be recognized. There are physical phenomena that arise as the result from injury or disease, psychoemotional phenomena that arise from unrealistic views, and conscious phenomena that arise as a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the causal Universe. There is also suffering that arises from social and economic factors. The Four Ennobling Truths offers the realities of suffering and the Eightfold Path to the alleviation of it; it is up to each of us to learn to recognize the unique situations that bring about its arising and the skillful methods needed to alleviate it.
Dukkha-dukkha is obvious suffering. It is physical pain that arises from injury or disease.
Some people enjoy growing roses. They invest time, effort and skill in order to reap the reward of beauty. Invariably during planting or pruning, even when harvesting beautiful flowers to put in a vase in the house they’ll get pricked by thorns or nick their finger with pruning shears. This is suffering caused by physical pain (dukkha-dukkha).
Viparinama-dukkha is suffering that arises due to change or impermanence. The degree of attachment one holds for the mental or physical phenomena relates directly to degree of suffering. It also arises when a phenomena is sought after and never achieved.
Some people enjoy the process of nurturing bare roots and canes through the first warm days of spring. Time and energy is invested in planting, fertilizing, pruning, taking care of plants through disease and infestation to finally seeing blossoms unfurl and smelling their perfumes. It is a labor of love and caring. All is done in anticipation of fragrant blossoms in vibrant colors. Some rose bushes die from known and unknown factors, some rose bushes don’t bloom every season, and rose bushes can get stolen from unfenced gardens. This is psychoemotional suffering that arises from attachment (vapriana-dukkha).
Sankhara-dukkha is the subtle, all-pervasive suffering that arises as a reaction to the condition of things that are not recognized for the illusions they are. This occurs most frequently in reaction to the skandhas (aggregates) that can be wrongly perceived as “self” – form, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Suffering is due to pleasurable constructs that cause psychoemotional pain even while they are being experienced.
Traditionally this dukkha is described being as difficult to perceive as an eyelash laying in your palm, but it is a palpable as that same eyelash stuck in your eye.
Some people grow roses because it helps them create an image of themselves. The thought of the work needed bothers them, the actions of kneeling in the soil and dealing with bugs and black mold sickens them, but they pursue the illusion of being a gardener of roses. The pleasure they find is in being able to say “I raise roses”, in becoming part of a tribe that values such activity. All during the process the subtle suffering is denied through the strength of the illusion (sankhara-dukkha).
These aspects of suffering – dukkha-dukkha, viparinama-dukkha and sankhara-dukkha – describe the types of discontentment and anguish we may struggle with internally and through discerning and then coming to terms with them become effective examples to others who are experiencing the same. They are aspects of suffering that we can take control of because we have the knowledge and resources to do
so. We don’t have to look too far or too deeply to realize there is another pervasive and encompassing suffering going on in the world. It is suffering that can only be addressed through social engagement.
Let’s name it mahajanika-dukkha, mahajanika is the Pali word for social so it is social-suffering. View this type of discontentment and anguish as arising from social and economic factors beyond the immediate control of those experiencing it. Think of peoples all over the world who don’t have the opportunities or resources to deal with issues such as poverty, famine, lack of clean water and violence. The peoples whose governments neglect or abuse them, whose religious and secular institutions control them without bringing benefit to their lives. They are experiencing mahajanika-dukkha. It isn’t that the people suffering don’t want a better life, it is that their present circumstances deny them the opportunity and resources to achieve it. It is the responsibility of those who have the resources and knowledge to engage these issues alongside the people and become a factor in combating suffering.
The Four Ennobling Truths identify the source, the symptoms, the cure and the treatment for suffering. Starting with the practice of meditation the path to the alleviation of suffering is through the bodymind. Change the way one thinks, changes the way one acts – changing the way one acts, changes the way one thinks. What can be confusing is just what mode of thinking is critical to alter. In the Discourse on the All (Sabba Sutta) the Buddha teaches that one must “abandon the all”, that one must let go of their attachment to phenomena. What ever is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and thought (the skandhas) whether pleasurable, painful or neutral must be abandoned. Knowing directly, through experience that all things, objects, feelings, emotions and formations are subject to arising and falling away that one can alleviate all three forms of suffering is an empowering realization.
In the Buddha’s time his disciples were expected to wander the countryside being an example of the value of this new spiritual practice. There are no suttas or descriptions of what these monastics actually did but with the Four Ennobling Truths as their guide it isn’t unreasonable to believe they were engaging with the people and communities on their path. The path of the Bodhisattva is one of the alleviation of mahajanika-dukkha.
The Buddha said, “This is that all which, by knowing it directly, by fully understanding it, by developing dispassion toward it, and by forsaking it, one will be able to destroy suffering.” We first have to accept and understand the reality of discontentment, suffering and anguish that we encounter. Compassion is the path to recognizing the need, dispassion (altruism) the path to realizing a solution. In each instance that there is lessening or reversing of the causes of suffering then those who live with discontentment and anguish can forsake it for an opportunity to participate in human flourishing.