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Suffering: A Buddhist Perspective
Why we suffer and what we can do about it.
Buddha is often quoted as saying that life is suffering.
But that’s an oversimplification.
He used the word “dukkha” which can be translated as suffering.
However, it does have a range of more subtle meanings which can be lost in translation.
The word can imply that life is like a wheel that is off its axel or that life does not satisfy.
Buddha taught that there were three kinds of suffering.
The physical and mental pain which come from the stresses of life.
The suffering the we feel from the changes that happen as a consequence of life and living.
The suffering which can come from questions relating to life, death, rebirth. The existential suffering of questioning the eternal.
At the heart of these three kinds of suffering we can find the concepts of cravings, desires and attachments. It is these things which get in the way of enlightenment and lead to having to re-experience the never ending wheel of samsara; birth, life, death and rebirth.
The idea of rebirth is not what we, in the West, consider as reincarnation. In Buddhist teachings there is no permanent or unchanging soul. After death the soul ceases to exist. It doesn’t go anywhere because there’s nowhere to go
“The idea of rebirth rejects any conception of an unchanging self or soul.
According to Buddhism, a new consciousness comes into being with every birth and passes on when the person dies, thus eliminating a permanent unchangeable entity that moves from one life to another.”
So, rebirth is not about someone coming back but rather it is the passing away of one state of existence and arising in another – a process of transition which will cease only when Nirvana is reached.
Trying not to digress here, but it is relevant.
The Four Noble Truths
Life is driven by the natural law of cause and effect or Karma. It is our conscious actions which power the wheel of samsara or lead us to Nirvana.
One of the Buddhas key teachings was the insights drawn from the four noble truths.
There is the truth of suffering; the truth that there is a cause of that suffering; the truth of the possibility of the end of suffering and the truth of the specific ways to end suffering.
More simply put, suffering exists; it has a cause; it has an end; and it has a cause to bring about its end.
“At the root of all kinds of dukkha is craving, or attachment. We go through life grasping at or clinging to what we think will gratify us and avoiding what we dislike. The second noble truth tells us that this very grasping, or clinging, or avoidance is the source of dukkha. We are like drowning people who reach for something floating by to save us, then discover that what we’ve latched onto provides only momentary relief, or temporary satisfaction. What we desire is never enough and never lasts.”
The Three Poisons
The Wheel of Life, Samsara, has at its centre a depiction of the three poison which keep us locked in a perpetual cycle of life, death and rebirth.
The three poisons are represented a pig, a bird, and a snake.
The pig, represents ignorance or delusion
The rooster represents greed or lust
The snake represents hatred or anger
These then are the three poisons responsible for our suffering. The poisons we can seek antidotes for.
Some Practical Suggestions
“If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows them like a shadow that never leaves them (Dhammapada, Chapter 1, Verse 2).”
In basic terms we can consider that we are the source of our own suffering.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we cannot be injured, traumatised or feel pain caused by others or by events beyond our control but, rather what we choose to do about those injuries, traumas or pains.
Perhaps at the root of all suffering bubble these three poisons.
We make assumptions about the world and the people in…
We accept the illusion of permanence and reject or fear change…
We want more than we need…
We believe that happiness is about something we aren’t yet obtained…
We hold onto emotions that do nt truly serve us…
We find it difficult to forgive
These are choices we make to either take action or not. These choices are links in a chain of cause and effect; they are our karma.
The Eightfold Path
The “way” to discover freedom from suffering, the Buddhas prescription.
An understanding of the nature of things. Such an understanding would include the Four Noble Truths; the illusion of permanence and the nature of cause and effect (karma)
Acting with intention, avoiding thoughts of attachment, harmful intent, anger or hatred.
Minding how you speak and what you speak about. Lying, deceit, senselessness are things we need to guard against. Incitement, hatred and harmful sppech effect both the speaker and the listener.
This is really about how we carry ourselves in the world. Our behaviours towards ourself and other. Bullying, harassment, violence, sexual misconduct are examples of “wrong action”
How we choose to earn our living; what we are creating, selling or providing will be a reflection of how we see ourselves and otthers.
Putting our efforts into keeping what we could call a positive mindset. Approaching situations with openness, curiosity and with no preconceptions.
Being in the now. Being aware of where and when we are. Our thoughts, feelings and sensory experiences of the moment.
Being able to bring our attention to what we are doing, when we are doing it.
These “paths” are really practices or attitudes to life and living. They are things that we can all do. As we understand our interaction with the world, others within it and ourselves we can adjust our practices.
The Take Away
Three simple antidotes to the three poisons…
Learning and a willingness to look beyond our own limited perspectives.
To understand that happiness s not conditional on other people, things or situation.
Practicing gratitude, forgiveness and random acts of kindness
Thanks for reading
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