The Three Characteristics: Suffering

Dukkha, “suffering” (also translated as “unsatisfactoriness”), is central to the Buddha’s teaching; in fact, he reputedly said, “I teach only suffering, and the end of suffering.” We’ve already encountered the role of suffering in the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha also appears as one of the three marks or characteristics of existence, permeating our lives and our surroundings through and through. There are things that please us, beguile us, hook us in; but none of these things satisfies.

When we’re young, we are full of plans for what we want to do with our lives. For most of us, these plans might include things like a career, marriage, children, a nice place to live, money to spend on necessities and a few luxuries, travel, hobbies, good food, nice clothes, and friends. Young people are encouraged by their families and teachers to look to the future and to consider their immediate difficulties to be transitory. I recall a conversation with my mother and one of her friends, during a time in my life when I didn’t fit in. “Some day,” they told me, “none of this will matter.” They were wrong: as I became an adult, the identity I formed in adolescence proved to be remarkably tenacious.

Enter the Buddha and his teachings regarding dukkha. One of my dharma teachers, Kenneth Folk, has said that “the Buddha is not your friend.” Warm, rosy predictions of a brilliant life in samsara, the turning wheel of birth and death, are entirely unfounded. Some adults in our own culture might agree with him once we hit our midlife crisis, when we realize that our fond hopes in youth have not materialized; or maybe they have, but without bringing the happiness we had expected. People may be tempted to jump ship, make a career change or look for a new partner, or buy a new house or car they can’t really afford. It might work out in the short run, but letdown is inevitable.

From time to time I imagine my life as if it had been different in some significant way. Maybe I never had the stage fright, and would be able to perform in music ensembles without stress. Maybe I had the kind of systematic focus that would allow me to work an eight-hour day, go home and relax, engage in an enjoyable hobby, and then go to sleep without difficulty. Maybe I wasn’t plagued by the grandiose illusion that I needed a big, fat career, and so would never be constantly comparing myself to others, or feeling like a failure just doing a good job day in and day out. In other words, I imagine a life without dukkha.

This Other Laurel is still a meditator, I’ve decided. She gets up early, makes herself a cup of tea, maybe takes a brisk walk around the block, and then settles down for some cushion time. After work she heads to the meditation center for a half hour sit with a group before heading home. She also volunteers in her community (because of course, she has the energy for it). She lives simply but comfortably; she is not tempted to spend more than she earns. Is she married? Sometimes I imagine her as single, but it seems like a lonely life to me, so I give her my husband, except he’s the Other Husband, also free of dukkha.

I have found a place for this paragon to live, and have even imagined her car and her wardrobe. The entire fantasy seems to be an equivalent of the dreams I had as a young person, except instead of dreaming of my imaginary future, I dream of an imaginary past. But although I can see the outer trappings of this person’s life, I am unable to make sense of what lies within. I can only try to imagine the absence of things like stress, depression, boredom, regret, negative judgments, and anxiety, all the while knowing that it is impossible.

Traveling allows us to see other places, and imagine what life might be like for us if we lived there. We read novels or watch movies and television shows in order to put ourselves in the place of the protagonist. Maybe we fall in love with one of the characters—the protagonist’s love interest, most likely—or imagine ourselves working in that person’s occupation. Such experiences help us to broaden our understanding of what it means to be a human in the world, to place ourselves in another person’s skin or context, which is an essential component of a moral education. Still, they can never be more than the product of our imaginings.

I have recently longed to move somewhere else, either to the city that is an hour’s drive from here or to a warmer climate, or maybe even out of the country altogether. These longings are accompanied by imaginings of Other Laurels living in Other Places with the Other Husband. Yet several years ago I looked out the kitchen window at the trees in my neighbor’s yard, and just realized, “This is it!” I laughed. It was so simple that I might not even have noticed. This is it, just this. This is all that is it. No other, no else. Just this.

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