What is suffering? In his very first sermon after his Enlightenment, the Buddha expounded the following to the five bhikkhus at Deer Park (as recorded in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta):
Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.”
No one, be it a king or a thief, the rich or the poor, the wise or the foolish, can escape suffering. Even the Buddha himself was not spared. This life of ours is at the mercy of suffering. The body and mind are continuously being subjected to various modes and levels of suffering. Suffering begins even before we were born. The Visuddhimagga describes the state of the fetus in graphic details. “When this being is born in the mother’s womb, he is like a worm in rotting fish…in a position that is below the stomach and above the rectum…pervaded by various smells of ordure…being cooked like a pudding…with no bending, stretching”. At the moment of birth, as the baby is flung out into the world, what is his/her expression? S/he exclaims not the joy of laughter, but screams of pain and discomfort. It is paradoxical that we celebrate births!
According to early Buddhism, life is nothing but a process of grasping the five aggregates (material form, feelings, perception, mental construction, consciousness) that are constantly changing. The grasping of the five aggregates is suffering itself, since whatever that is constantly changing is not under our true control, and whatever we cannot truly control leads to suffering. Therefore, not only we experience suffering in life (such as during birth), but actually life itself is suffering.
The Pali word dukkha, which is generally translated as suffering, is the First Noble Truth in Buddhism. Ven. Rahula, however, objects to this rather generic and superficial interpretation. He says while it is true the word dukkha can mean suffering, pain, sorrow, misery and so on, the word, serving as the first Noble Truth, embraces much more. Dukkha also entails notions like imperfection, impermanence, emptiness, and insubstantiality.
Therefore dukkha goes very much beyond our general understanding of mere pains and aches. Yet, complex may be the Truth of Suffering, the phenomenon is easily verifiable in our daily lives. The emotions that we go through each day: happiness, anger, sorrow, worry; the physical feelings that our body undergoes: hunger, thirst, sickness, insomnia; the mental anxieties we experience: work pressure, peer pressure, making a living, safeguarding property. All are clearly unpleasant and act as burdens to our lives. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu said “dukkha is what we are running from all the time. It is what interferes with a life of calm and ease. It is anything that interferes with spiritual perfection”. This interpretation is easily observed among Hong Kong residents who are well known to be stressed. We often try to “run away” from stresses by indulging in all kinds of sensual pleasures. We seek relief from suffering, without knowing that the relief itself is also suffering. One classic example is the urge of getting intoxicated by alcohol or drugs. We foolishly think intoxicants wipe away our worries, but only to find out hours later that not only the worries remained, but new worries also arose from the effects of the intoxicants there were self-administered.
In the Anuradha Sutta, Ven. Anuradha finds himself obsessing over questions about the fate of an arahant after death. The Buddha pulls him out of his confused thinking, and suggests that the only thing truly worth contemplating is suffering and its cessation. In the very end of the Sutta, the Buddha declared, "Very good, Anuradha. Very good. Both formerly & now, it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress”. Given this prominent “status” of the Truth of Suffering in Buddhism, serious followers of the Dhamma must comprehend both theoretically and practically the characteristics of dukkha, and verify how it is very much part and parcel to the rhythm of life.
Perhaps ironically, without dukkha, there would also be no Buddhism. It was only because Prince Siddharta saw dukkha that he left the household life, and took on the formidable challenge to search for the solution to extinguish it, and succeeded. Dukkha in fact inspires us to seek liberation, therefore we must learn to co-exist with it, appreciate it, and accept it.
Dukkha may generally be categorized into three levels: Ordinary suffering (dukkha-dukkha), suffering as produced by change (viparinama-dukkha), and suffering due to formations (sankhara-dukkha). A similar categorization can be seen from the Dukkha Sutta: on one occasion Ven. Sariputta told a wanderer in Magadha that there are three forms of stressfulness: the stressfulness of pain, the stressfulness of change, and the stressfulness of fabrication".
Ordinary suffering includes forms of physical and mental suffering, such as birth, old age, sickness, and death. The suffering resulting from the vicissitudes of life, such as the fading away of a happy feeling or a happy condition falls under the second category (suffering produced by change). The final category of suffering relates to the earlier discussion that the grasping of the five aggregates itself is suffering. What we call a person is a mere nomenclature given to the five aggregates which are in constant flux and thus impermanent. And, whatever is impermanent is dukkha.
Due to Buddhism’s detailed analysis into dukkha, critics often attempt to accuse Buddhism as being a pessimistic or gloomy belief. Therefore it must be clarified that the Buddha does not deny happiness in life. Just that such happiness, if impermanent, still falls under the grip of dukkha. The very fact that Nibbana is defined as the Highest Happiness shows that there are other levels of happiness. In the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha gives good advice on how to maintain peace and harmony in the home between husband and wife in order to achieve a happy married life. Parental responsibilities for children and the children's duties toward parents are also clearly mentioned in the Sutta as useful guidelines for the attainment of a happy home.
No doubt Buddhism does expose the unsatisfactory nature of everything in this world. Yet one cannot conclude, based on this observation alone, that Buddhism is pessimistic. Buddhism is not pessimistic, but realistic (Rahula 17)! If Buddhism were purely pessimistic, its teachings would only need to dwell in the doom and gloom. Buddhism explores suffering for the very purpose of showing the deliverance from it. That is, it teaches us how to get rid of this unhappiness. According to the Buddha, even the worst sinner can attain salvation. Buddhism offers every human being the hope of attaining his salvation one day, and the way to salvation is expounded in the other Noble Truths.