Dukkha (Suffering) as Human Experience

by Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi

In Buddhist philosophy there are three types of suffering (dukkha) recognized in the human experience. In our contemporary experience there is another to be recognized. There are physical phenomena that arise as the result from injury or disease, psycho-emotional phenomena that arise from unrealistic views and perceptions, and conscious phenomena that arise as a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the causal Universe. Contemporarily a practitioner must also accept that suffering that arises from social and economic factors. The Four Ennobling Truths offer the realities of suffering and the Eightfold Path as the way to alleviate suffering; it is up to each of us to learn to recognize the unique situations that bring about the arising of suffering and the skillful methods needed to alleviate it.

One of the Four Ennobling Truths is that human beings suffer. Another is that suffering arises as a result of craving or unnatural desire. Experiential verification can open hearts and minds to these truths when mindfulness and awareness are present in the bodymind. The opportunity to alleviate suffering by applying the ideal guide of the Eightfold Path to how one responds can only arise when one understands and accepts the reality of suffering. One must overcome ignorance before one can become wise.

Suffering is the subject of the Dukkhata Sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya. The Buddha teaches that there are three kinds of suffering. Suffering caused by pain, suffering caused by the formations (or causal conditioning), suffering due to change. It is for the full and clear understanding, ceasing and alleviation of these three forms of suffering that a practitioner engages the Eightfold Path.

Dukkha-dukkha is obvious suffering. It is physical pain that arises from injury or disease.

Many 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 get pricked by thorns or nick their finger with pruning shears. Dukkha-dukkha can also be the result of illness. Something must be done when black spots appear on the leaves of a rose bush or the plant will die. This is suffering in the form of physical pain (dukkha-dukkha) and must be responded to appropriately.

Viparinama-dukkha is suffering that arises due to change or impermanence. The degree of attachment one holds for the mental or physical phenomena undergoing change relates directly to degree of suffering. It also arises when a phenomena is craved for and never achieved.

Many people enjoy the process of nurturing the bare roots and canes of rose bushes 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 pests can decimate them. This can cause psycho-emotional suffering that arises from attachment (vapriana-dukkha) and craving.

Sankhara-dukkha is the subtle, all-pervasive suffering that arises as a reaction to the condition of things that are not recognized for the delusions 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 psycho-emotional pain even while they are being experienced.

Traditionally this dukkha is described as 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 delusion 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 delusion (sankhara-dukkha).

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 all phenemona. 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.

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 these people and become a factor in combatting their social-suffering.

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.

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4 thoughts on “Dukkha (Suffering) as Human Experience

  1. Thank you Shifu! Your words are as beautiful and vibrant as American Beauty. Truths unfolded are universal and the media impermanent. Ignorance? I’m working on that!
    _/|\_
    Happy Trails,
    Bobo

    • Bobo, A rose by another name is still the reality of the dharma. Ignorance can seem to be permanent but with commitment and effort the realization of its impermanence does arise. Practice and study to fertilize the bodymind.

  2. Without the mud there can not be a lotus flower? So by understanding and accepting suffering we can start working towards the path of happiness for oneself and others?

  3. Yuri,

    The trick is in HOW do we come to understand and accept suffering. For example, accepting the suffering that minorities must endure is easier than actually understanding that suffering. The adage of ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ is apt. To understand one must have direct experience, while to accept takes awareness and compassion.

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