Is Everything Suffering?

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths as a way out of suffering. He described the process like this:

  1. Suffering
  2. The Cause of Suffering
  3. The Cessation of Suffering
  4. The Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering

For those unfamiliar with the teachings, this emphasis on suffering might seem like a pretty depressing philosophy. But if we look at it from a slightly different perspective this is what we get:

  1. Unhappiness
  2. The Cause of Unhappiness
  3. The Ending of Unhappiness
  4. How We Got to the Ending of Unhappiness

There are many different kinds of suffering descibed in great detail in the texts, but the first, ‘the suffering of suffering’ is the one we are all probably most familiar with.

This type of suffering is associated with unpleasant feelings, like a toothache, losing your temper, or just feeling cold and damp on a wet winter’s day.

While reading Thich Nhat Hahn’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, I came across this statement:

We can put an end to our suffering by realising that suffering is not worth suffering for!

But how does this work? In the Four Noble Truths above, the Buddha has given a direction. Recognise your unhappiness, investigate the cause, get over it, and stay on the path that will prevent you getting caught up in it again.

How do we come to this realisation? When we begin to notice that most, if not all, of our unhappiness is self-inflicted, we find ourselves drawing back from the mental states that create and reinforce our suffering.

Let’s take an example

Someone does or says something I don’t like or disagree with. It upsets me. I begin to go over the details in my mind. Mentally, I recreate the situation again and again. My hurt or anger increases to the point where I have to speak out, either directly to the person who caused the problem, or to someone prepared to listen to my grievance.

But if I’m able to stand back and witness this process objectively I might become aware of something very different. The first sentence above gives it away: ‘Someone has done or said something to upset me’.

But have they? When I look closely I must see that my suffering is something I must take responsibility for and that actually my suffering was not caused by that other person, but by my own reaction to the situation. At the time the problem occurred I had a choice — whether to take offence or to just let it go.

Most of the time we don’t see that we have a choice, but if we can step back and witness our reactions and see the problem for what it is we can let it go.

Thich Nhat Hahn confirms this. Here’s his full statement:

We can put an end to our suffering by realising that suffering is not worth suffering for! How many people kill themselves because of rage and despair. In that moment they do not see the vast happiness that is available. Mindfulness puts an end to such a limited perspective.

Here is the clue. By developing mindfulness we can reach the point where we begin to see the what the Buddha means by suffering,
how it is caused, how it can cease and how, if we continue to practice, we have the path to the eventual cessation of suffering in all its varied forms.


4 thoughts on “Is Everything Suffering?

  1. Too many mistakenly say “unhappiness” when they mean sadness.

    un = not. happy = having haps. ness = fullness of.

    Happy is an Old English word. We can first attest the word happy from 1340, meaning “lucky” from hap “chance, fortune”.

    Most times, others should say glad or joyous when they say, wrongly, happy.

    An unhappy man is one who does not bend like bamboo during storms, does not flow like water, that is, without hesitating, without pausing, fluid, flowing.

    The happy man is an optimist, optimizing each moment, maximizing his living during every unfolding incident under circumstances.

    The Buddha seems like a pessimist.

  2. I like your description of a happy man.
    The term ‘unsatisfactoriness’ is sometimes used instead of ‘suffering’.
    Some people do see Buddhism as a ‘pessimistic religion’. My view is that it’s neither pessimistic nor a religion. It’s a philosophy and a practical psychology.

  3. my dentist here in our small town in thailand is a very devout buddist. he told me that the word we translate as “suffering” actually is more like “discomfort” or “out of place” which corresponds to some of my other readings. i always had trouble with the translation as “suffering” most of the time i don’t feel like i’m “suffering”. i may be uncomfortable, desirous, feeling needs etc, but that’s hardly ‘suffering’. when i hurt my back, and was in constant pain- that was suffering.

  4. I agree. We often struggle with the term ‘suffering’, but I think in Buddhist terms it has a much deeper meaning. At some level all life is ‘suffering’ until we realise the truth of existence. Whatever that may be…

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