Defining ‘dukkha’: The idea of suffering in Buddhism

An article I published in the Myanmar Times on 18th March, 2015.


Defining ‘dukkha’: The idea of suffering in Buddhism

One of the key features of Buddhism is its description of “suffering” (dukkha). Essential to this is the idea that the Buddha’s teachings should not become an object of attachment. If the Buddha’s teachings do become an object of attachment they are liable to be a cause of suffering. Throughout Buddhist history this has formed the cornerstone of much Buddhist philosophy.

In the Pali Canon, which forms the textual basis of Theravada Buddhism, this idea is expressed in a conversation between the Buddha and Dandapani. One can imagine Dandapani as a philosopher, round-shouldered, spending all his time disputing ideas. His name appears to suggest this, literally meaning “stick in hand”, implying that he walks around, leaning on his stick, looking somewhat arrogant.

Hearing of the Buddha, he decides to find out his position – what doctrine he proclaims, what he believes in – and engage him in debate. The philosophically minded young man approaches the Buddha and asks him, “What is the doctrine of the recluse, what does he proclaim?” (kimvadi samano kim akkhayi).

The reply he receives from the Buddha is probably not what he had expected, or particularly wants. He wants a clear doctrine, a set of beliefs, that he can argue with. The Buddha however replies, “I assert and proclaim such a doctrine that one does not argue with anyone in the world … Detached from sense pleasures, without perplexity, remorse cut off.” It is a teaching that leads to complete detachment and freedom from craving and suffering.

Dandapani is clearly confused by what the Buddha has told him: He shakes his head, raises his eyebrows, grimaces three times, and walks away, leaning on his stick. It seems to me that this is the kind of response we can expect to a religious teaching which ultimately leads to the abandoning of all positions, indeed the abandoning of all beliefs.

The Buddha does not propose a set of doctrines that followers of Buddhism should believe in, but makes pronouncements about suffering – its arising, its cessation, and the path to the overcoming of suffering.

When the Buddha began preaching, his first lesson was about the nature of suffering. This teaching is preserved in a discourse called the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta, (Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion). The term dhamma here has the meaning of the teachings of a Buddha. The text is an indication that the teachings of a Buddha have once again been set in motion. According to the Theravada tradition, all the Buddhas of the past and all the Buddhas in the future will teach a similar teaching. The Buddha’s analysis of the religious path rests on the idea that suffering is an inescapable aspect of all human, animal and godly existence. From the lowest life form to the highest heavenly realm, suffering is an inescapable part of experience.

The Buddha describes this situation by teaching that birth is suffering. Ageing, illness and death are also suffering. He describes attachment with what is displeasing and separation from what is pleasing as suffering. He states that to not get what one wants is suffering. So, when a Buddha preaches, he preaches about suffering.

The idea of suffering is developed in the context of three key themes that were much discussed in the Indian religious context of the time of the Buddha. The first is the idea that all sentient beings are subject to an endless round of rebirths called samsara, or thanthayar in Myanmar language. Within this round of rebirths suffering is unavoidable. Following on from this the second idea is that our actions are causing us to be repeatedly reborn. This is the familiar notion of karma – that all of our actions have consequences. Wholesome actions, those based upon generosity and friendliness, and unwholesome actions, based upon greed and hatred, produce either a positive or negative consequence. But even a good rebirth, in the analysis of the Buddha, will be an impermanent rebirth and this impermanence is a form of suffering. This leads to the final idea: that one should strive to escape from the cycle of rebirths and achieve liberation. In Buddhism liberation is termed nibbana, literally the “blowing out” of greed, hatred and delusion, and the escape from the endless cycle of rebirths.

Suffering is then part of all forms of existence. The term does not merely point to physical suffering, but also to mental suffering and anxiety. Everything pertaining to an unenlightened individual is, on the final analysis, suffering. Even happiness is subject to certain conditions and when these conditions are dismantled happiness will disappear.

There is an important point to be made here about Buddhist culture. The Buddhist monastic is removed from society and is symbolically closer to understanding suffering. Through emulating the Buddha they are thought worthy of respect and donations. In this way we might gain an understanding of one of the reasons that reverence is shown to the monk in Buddhist societies.

The first form of suffering described by the Buddha is physical pain – the pain you feel when touching something hot, for example. The second way of describing suffering is that of change. As all things are “impermanent” (anicca), everything changes and becomes otherwise. The third way that suffering is described is that of conditions. This means that we rely on certain unstable conditions for our happiness and these conditions are unreliable. The conditioned and unstable nature of existence means that the world is frustrating.

It is in the context of the Buddhist description of suffering that we might better appreciate why the Buddha replied to Dandapani in the manner he is reported to have done. In an important sense Buddhism teaches a doctrine whereby the follower of Buddhism does not argue with anyone in the world. Elsewhere in the Pali Canon it is explained that to argue and dispute with others leads to worry, vexation and remorse. Obstinately defending any position with the idea “only this is true, anything else is wrong” (idam eva saccam, moggam annan ti) will lead to even more suffering.

Therefore, in an important way Buddhism is not a belief system but a description of how to escape from an endless cycle of suffering. Throughout the history of Buddhism its philosophers have been concerned with this fundamental idea contained in the Buddha’s teachings: namely, that to believe too rigidly in what the Buddha taught, in the dhamma, is a form of attachment and therefore a cause of suffering. In many ways, Buddhist philosophy is based upon this idea.

Paul Fuller has taught religious studies at universities in Southeast Asia, Australia and the United Kingdom. His research interests include early Indian Buddhist philosophy, the Buddhist ideas of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and ethnocentric Buddhism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.