There is a word in the Buddha’s language (Pali, a cousin of Sanskrit) that is usually translated as “suffering.” That word is dukkha. In order to understand its meaning better, we might consider its opposite and counterpart, sukkha. Sukka sounds something like the word “sugar,” to which it is related. We can imagine an experience of sweetness, of bliss, of pleasantness, and then turn to the opposite of these things to recognize dukkha as bitterness, bad feelings, or unpleasantness. The first of the Four Noble Truths asserts that there is a component of dukkha in all human experience. This is as true for the healthy, beautiful, privileged, rich, and famous as it is for those whose lives are full of obvious misery.
Imagine your most delectable experience, maybe sex with the partner of your dreams, or eating a slice of chocolate cake, or feeling a pleasant breeze on a summer day at the beach. No matter how delightful, these experiences don’t last forever, and when they are over, we are on to something else. “Yes,” you may say, “but it was wonderful while it lasted.” It was indeed. Yet if you look closely at each pleasurable experience, you may find that it wasn’t entirely wonderful. Perhaps a touch of performance anxiety accompanied the sex, or maybe there was a sense of frustration that the chocolate cake was gone so soon, or there was an annoying sound of nearby construction marring the beach scene. Maybe after the fact the partner showed too much attention to someone else, prompting jealousy, or the chocolate cake ended up causing a stab of concern about gaining weight, or the return to office work after the trip to the beach was all the more frustrating in comparison with what you were leaving behind.
I am not trying to accentuate the negative here so much as to unpack what the Buddha asserted as a simple fact: that suffering is universal. All of us are subject to sickness, old age, and death, and all of us, most of the time, want things to be other than they are. One thing we do in response is to try to pack our lives with as many pleasant, rewarding experiences as possible. When our efforts are unsuccessful, we tune out the things we don’t like and distract ourselves, finding ways of not being completely present. If we undergo too much trauma we may find ourselves unable to feel much at all, good or bad, or we may find ourselves acting out in a variety of ways.
The Buddha further taught that the root of universal dukkha is tanha, translated as “craving.” This is the Second Noble Truth. We crave not only this or that self-gratifying thing, but existence itself (we can even crave non-existence at times). Craving is part of a sequence called Dependent Origination, a highly complex process through which we become who and what we perceive ourselves to be. This is a convoluted sentence for the sake of expressing a difficult concept, that we are the orchestrators of our own identities. The most debilitating suffering, underlying any other, is the effort we make to hold ourselves together, because in truth there is nothing to hold onto. Craving and its next stage, clinging, mark our overwhelming need to be someone and something, literally to make something of ourselves.
The fruit of these efforts shows up in suffering. Returning to our examples, at the same time we are enjoying a sexual experience with someone, we also are creating a self that is sexy and desirable. When we are rejected or when we fail to perform, that image is shattered, and we suffer humiliation. Even if we are mature enough to handle such setbacks with ease, there is disappointment and a need to move on to better things. When we bite into a delicious piece of cake, we have an underlying personal narrative about food that accompanies the pleasure; for example, “What am I doing? What about my resolve to avoid sugar and eat healthy? Why do I do these things? What the hell is wrong with me anyway?!” Or maybe it’s more like, “That’s okay, I can do this if I want to, I am not a child, I don’t have to worry.” The self-talk serves the need to make sense of the experience within the context of our picture of who we are. Finally, as we enjoy the ocean breezes, we may be thinking, “I just love the ocean! I wish I lived here. Maybe when I retire I can come move to this town,” or else, “This is nice. I want to make a family tradition of coming here every year.” Then we become The Person Who Loves the Ocean.
The Buddha doesn’t leave us hanging on the edge of a cliff with our suffering, but rather gives us the Third Noble Truth, which is nirodha, cessation, the end of suffering. When we understand what is happening we are able to let go of craving, clinging, and everything that goes with it, especially the delusion of the separate, unconditioned self. We drop our defenses, stop propping up our image, and allow things to be as they are. Developing the insight to do this is difficult, but it is also possible. The Fourth Noble Truth is the means of doing this, the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. It’s a tall order, but it’s also the key to liberation from suffering.