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Nov 05
Dharma Teachings
What is Suffering?

Some thoughts on suffering, in the Buddhist tradition and in the Shambhala teachings

by Larry Steele


It is said that the Buddha gave his first teachings at Deer Park, near what is now known as Varanasi, India. There, after years of searching and contemplation, he presented the four noble truths about suffering.

This is known as the first turning of the wheel of dharma, the first lesson offered by Shakyamuni Buddha to explain the essential truth of life to the people around him. In the 2600 years since uninterrupted lineages of Buddhist teachers have tried to explain suffering in words and practices that people everywhere could understand and use.

The four noble truths are Buddhism’s way of understanding suffering. The first noble truth is the truth of suffering. In other words, everyone is suffering. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in his book “The Truth of Suffering,” said that “we are all trapped…everyone, without exception.” In his inimitable way of relating to everyday life, Trungpa described the many ways we suffer, including loneliness, hunger, illness, not liking our clothes, the insecurity of our homes, and many, many others. Each of us suffers in our own special way. “There is always some kind of struggle going on. We are always in that situation: we are in pain all the time,” he said.

But in Buddhism is suffering is not all about doom and gloom. One of the main points of Trungpa’s teaching, says Shastri Matthew Lyon, is that there is meaning in suffering. “It can be redemptive, transformative, and motivational,” he says. “Suffering can help us learn humility. It can help us perceive the world in a new way.”

When we attend our first meditation classes, many of us are struggling to understand some personal pain or suffering. As we continue, we begin to realize that meditation can really help. By noticing our thoughts, which is what we do in meditation, we begin to notice our own special ways of suffering. We can see how our thoughts of anxiety and fear have what Trungpa called a “flickering” nature. “Seeing our pain as it is, is a tremendous help,” he said. For many of us, realizing that thoughts of suffering flicker in and out of our minds makes them a less permanent part of who we are.

Birth, old age, sickness, and death: the Wheel of Life

The second noble truth is that we can recognize the origins of suffering. In “The Truth of Suffering,” Trungpa dissected the causes of suffering into ever-smaller parts, or categories, to help us recognize them quickly. For example, birth, old age, sickness, and death, are “inherited suffering” that we all experience simply as part of being human. Other types of suffering manifest in our own minds. We want to avoid unpleasant experiences. We cling to pleasant ones. We don’t get what we want. And finally, Trungpa said, even at moments of fantastic satisfaction we have a subtle sense of dissatisfaction. “We cannot experience just one thing, without having some contrast to it,” he said.

The Dalai Lama divides suffering into similar categories. In his book, “Ethics for the New Millenium,” he says that with wisdom and compassion, human beings could actually avoid the most familiar types of suffering that arise from “war, poverty, violence, crime – even things like illiteracy and certain diseases.” But when it comes to the suffering and pain in our minds, they are “inalienable facts of life.”

When we meditate, we don’t expect our thoughts, including anxieties, fears, and other types of emotional suffering, to stop. But with practice, we may begin to see them as a part of life that we can choose to dwell on, or not. The third noble truth says that we can find liberation from suffering.

One specialty of the Shambhala teachings is an emphasis on connecting ultimate truth with everyday life. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche calls this “bringing heaven down to earth.” We want to do more than discover the truth about our own suffering. We want to show up in the world in ways that can release everyone from suffering. In Shambhala, we call this creating an enlightened society. Perhaps this is like the fourth noble truth, which says there is a path, often called the eightfold path, that leads to liberation from suffering.

In “Ruling Your World,” the Sakyong talks about pain and suffering almost without using those words. Instead, he talks about following a path of openness and brilliance and the natural human wisdom he calls “basic goodness.”

“As human beings, we are so wise. Our minds are vast and profound,” he says. From the very beginning of our practice, we realize that our thoughts come and go. We can practice resting in the view that our world is full of positive potential; it is basically good.

In a recent issue of “Lion’s Roar,” dozens of prominent Buddhist teachers published a call to people of all faiths to “Stand Against Suffering.” While Buddhism has traditionally emphasized the personal causes of suffering, today we also discern how the three poisons of greed, aggression, and indifference operate through political, economic, and social systems to cause suffering on a vast scale. From simply being kind, or planting a garden, to protest and direct action, the authors of that article call all of us to find ways to serve others, and to “hold fast to our timeless ideals of wisdom, love, compassion, and justice.”

Our darkest suffering and the darkest suffering of others is an invitation to discover the potential for change.

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2 responses to “ What is Suffering? ”
  1. Larry: Nice summary of our human condition and a vision of a way out of suffering.

  2. Sylvie Stevenson
    Nov 10, 2017

    Thank you, Larry, for this phenomonally good reminder not to lose hope, faith or lungta that we can share our incremental growth and aspiration on this path. It makes life so much more meaningful. I much appreciate this reminder I am reading on Lha Bab Duchen. Appreciate your wisdom, generosity and skillful means with distilling the Buddha’s message (and that of our teacher and most Buddhist teachers) into totally accessible language.

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