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Studies in Buddhism a Multi-Part Lecture Series: Where Does Suffering Originate?

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 1 0

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At the root of Buddhism is the concept that with life, suffering exists. It is often misstated or misunderstood in Western thinking (and translations) that the Buddha said that “All life is suffering.” This comes from a translation of a quote attributed to the Buddha saying . . . birth is suffering, aging is suffering, and death is suffering. However, this statement is misunderstood as suffering being an absolute condition of birth and aging and death.[1]

Sañkhittana Pañupādāna Kkhandhā Dukkhā

(translated:  The five aggregates, when clung to, are suffering.)

The Buddha

I remember that as one of the first lessons I received to Buddhism in an academic setting. However, as my studies became more in depth and I read early teachings, various translations of the Pali Canon (Tripitaka), and listen to lectures, particularly by Professor Robert A. F. Thurman, Thich Nhat Hanh and The Dalai Lama, the more it became obvious that a better description of “suffering” in Buddhism is:  Suffering is the bane of existence. It is something that is always present trying to take hold of the many experiences of life. It does not mean that suffering cannot be stopped, held back, resisted, denied, defied or what have you; that is the goal – ending, or controlling,  suffering in one’s life.[2]

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Birth, aging and death would not be suffering were there no attachment to birth, aging, or death.  We currently grasp at birth, aging, pain and death as ours. If we don't grasp or cling to them, we are not suffering. Birth, aging, pain and death are only bodily changes. The concept of "I" as is a delusion to start with so seen a bodily change as my birth or my aging one might death is yet he further delusion.  But just as soon as we do see these bodily changes of birth, aging and death as they are (bodily changes), the "I" disappears, there is no longer any "I" or "me" and thus this condition is no longer suffering.

The Five Aggregates

Body, sensations, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness; according to the Buddha, these aggregates are what constitute a person. We tend to look at these as identified as “I” or “Mine;” it’s my body, my thought, my feeling, my idea, my possession; I am, I did, I own, I made, I created, etc. And yet, everything is impermanent. Just as basic as suffering is in life, so is impermanence. It is when our mind looks at things as, I or mine, craving begins. Attachment and craving coexist. Together they form suffering.  Craving and attachment must be eliminated. They can be a result of an attachment to wealth, illusions of power and prestige, and honor and fame. When you think you have them you cling to them.  When you crave them you grasp at them.  Remember the old saying “you can't take it with you.”  Wealth power prestige honor and fame will not go with you until the next life, but karma will travel with you into the next life.  

If there is grasping at anything as being “I” or “Mine,” then the five aggregates are suffering. Anything we cling to keeps us bound to it. The house is on fire and all “my” possessions are inside and I can’t let my possessions burn up so I cling to them, gather them and try to carry them with me even though it’s impossible to leave the burning home carrying everything. Thus, I suffer either by burning alive as a result of clinging, or I suffer from losing everything because everything I “clung to” burned in the fire. It is this clinging that IS the cause of suffering.

If I look at myself and say that I am fat and I attribute a value to being fat as negative, a bad thing, then I may suffer IF I attach a perception of “I” as negative, wrong, unhappy, or what have you. I’m cling to the notion of a positive body type, a notion of what a good or proper body looks like, I will cling to the notion of what the "positive should be" thus I suffer seeing myself (my perception of myself) as negative.  

The aggregates of mind and body together constitute the person. Cling or grasping at any aspect or phase of life or the condition of mind and body as being “I” or “Mine,” it becomes suffering. If the condition of “aging” is grasped or clung to as being “I” or “Mine” the result is suffering. I want to be young forever and I see my aging negatively; seeing my aging body and attaching a value, a description, results in having feelings and perceptions that bring on suffering. Not necessarily physical pain, but mental conscious pain by cling to something that is impermanent; even aging is impermanent; eventually the body dies and no longer ages. Without clinging, it cannot be suffering. When the aggregates are dissociating from grasping and craving, there is no suffering. If there is grasping at anything as being “I or mine,” the five aggregates are suffering.

Suffering and Karma

What is karma?  Karma is a Sanskrit word that literally means "action". As used in Buddhism, it more accurately means volitional act or actions, inclusive of the forces arising from these acts. The law of karma describes the connection between actions and the resulting forces, as follows: wholesome actions lead to wholesome states while unwholesome actions lead to unwholesome states, individually as well as collectively. Suffering as discussed here influences karma and vice versa. The continued clinging, craving, desire, possessiveness lingering unresolved, un-released, or freed aspects of life that exists upon the moment of death served can affect your cumulative karma, that karma that follows you into the next existence.

Separate articles in the works on “Karma in Buddhism Explained” and “Rebirth in the Cycle of Existence.”

Suffering is something that arises from cause and conditions.  And these causes and conditions are of several sorts, kinds and varieties.  Ignorance is a cause, craving is a cause, clinging (attachment) is a cause, and karma is a cause too.  Karma is cumulative what has happened in our past lives creates circumstances for our current life; our actions in this life will in turn off at the next; brand new ignorance and brand new craving and brand new attachment of this new life with new cravings and suffering. Yesterday suffering has already been and gone.  It can't come back; it is done.  It is suffering that arises today, right now, that is the problem.  Suffering that may rise tomorrow is not as yet a problem.  But the suffering arising in existing right now must be eradicated.  It must be eradicated at its roots.  We must study life until we realize that, as the Buddha said, suffering arises simply from grasping in cleaning.

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Final Thought

At its root, Buddhism is about freedom from suffering through reasoning and not dogma; not blind faith. It is an education system over that of a religion or religious system. It does not require the religion aspect or ideas. Recognize the philosophical and psychological aspects of mindfulness, meditation, letting go of craving and clinging to that which causes suffering.  After the Buddha announced that he is enlightened and that he understands everything; he said to those that came to ask questions and seek his knowledge and wisdom, don't just take my word as proof of what I say.  Take that which I say and discover for yourself if it is true for you.  If not, then disregard it.  Don't follow blindly.



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  1. Dwight Goddard A Buddhist Bible. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
  2. Thich Nhat Hanh The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.

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