Buddhist teaching begins with the first talk given by Gautama Shakyamuni, the spiritual leader who lived in India about 500 B.C.E., to five friends who had separated from him when he gave up the life of an ascetic.
When they saw him next, after his deep insight into the nature of reality (enlightenment), they called him the “Buddha,” the Awakened One. HIs first teaching was on the Four Noble Truths: 1) the nature of life includes both suffering and happiness; 2) suffering has causes; 3) suffering can be ended or transformed; and 4) the way out of suffering is The Eightfold Path.
The Sanskrit word for “suffering” is dukkha, which has a broader variety of meaning than our common understanding of suffering. Dukkha is any gradation of stress, distress, dissatisfaction, anxiety, frustration, unpleasantness, sorrow, unease, or discomfort, as well as physical pain.
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When I first studied Buddhism, I read “life is suffering.” I didn’t like that – it didn’t fit with my experience. My life overall was happy. But just like the word dukkha itself, to say life is suffering is an unfortunate simplification of what the Buddha taught. He said that life has suffering in it, which is true by anyone’s experience – who has not felt grief or acted in anger or stubbed their toe?
But the Buddha did not deny that happiness also existed in life, and he recognized that everyone wants to be happy. His awakening had to do with discerning what leads to unhappiness (dukkha) and what leads to happiness (sukkha).
I felt a sense of freedom in the First Noble Truth, because it told me that it was natural for life to be unpleasant sometimes. I think we assume in our culture that life is supposed to be happy all of the time, like some never-ending Disneyland where all our wishes come true.
And if they don’t, it’s our fault – because we weren’t smart enough, rich enough, or good enough. If the natural state is that sometimes things don’t go the way we want, then it’s easier to accept them and not blame ourselves or another for an event. This is a great antidote for perfectionism and ego.
Another way the Buddha described dukkha was “not getting what we want, or getting what we don’t want.” How many times has that happened? Denied an election, no toilet paper at the store, the wrong birthday gift? The most basic dukkha in life is aging, illness, and death, all processes none of us seek. Further, dukkha is “association with those we dislike, separation from those we love.” Novels and songs are written on these themes.
The Buddha tells a story about a man who is shot with an arrow (which is definitely dukkha!) but instead of removing the arrow and attending to the wound, he instead starts asking “Who shot the arrow? Where did it come from? How was it constructed? and so on.
The Buddha called these kinds of questions “the second arrow,” which also is dukkha. It builds on the original wound with a story that we can cling to and assign blame, shame, guilt, and revenge. My experience has been that the first arrow may come from life events, but the second arrow comes from my mind and can be just as (or even more) painful.
The Second Noble Truth is that dukkha has a cause. I’ve mentioned some of those causes already. Often we hear that the cause of suffering is craving. This also is one of those shorthand references that leads to misunderstanding. Craving is the first of a list of afflictions that can create suffering, and often in early Buddhism the first word was used to represent the whole list.
The first three are sometimes called “kleshas” (poisons): greed (craving); hatred (anger); and ignorance (delusion). Each of these has gradations, like selfishness, irritation, and confusion. Buddhism identifies 26 unwholesome mental formations and four more that can be either wholesome or unwholesome. Individually and collectively, these afflictions can cause dukkha.
The Third Noble Truth is that dukkha can end. Sometimes dukkha ends because everything in life is impermanent. Bad moods don’t last forever, and political regimes change. But we do not need to passively wait for dukkha to fade and new suffering to arise. We also have the ability to transform the dukkha in our lives into something more wholesome, happier, and peaceful.
The Fourth Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path is the means to transformation: View (perspective, understanding); Thinking; Speech; Action; Livelihood; Diligence; Mindfulness; and Concentration. If we pay attention to these eight aspects of our lives, moving them toward expressions of wholesome, healthy living, we will then have a happy life with less suffering in it.
A happy life is one where we are able to be free of mental afflictions, we feel peaceful and at ease, we are content, and we can see life clearly. A happy life expresses as both wisdom and compassion.
I’ll leave you with some resources to explore: “Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness” book by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, specifically on the Eightfold Path; “Old Path, White Clouds,” book by Thich Nhat Hanh, novelized story of the Buddha’s life and teaching with annotated bibliography; and a Ted Talk available on YouTube called “Happy Brain: How To Overcome Our Neural Predisposition to Suffering” by Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic.
Bio: Sandra (“Zan”) Murray is an ordained lay member of the Order of Interbeing established by Thich Nhat Hanh and a founding member of Flowing Mountains Sangha, an Open Way Community of Mindful Living (www.openway.org). Flowing Mountains meets weekly in Helena for meditation and programs (see website for details).