☸️ A Basic Foundation in Buddhism:
Kinpusen lectures by Rev. Masahirao Asahda.
Editing and Translation by Jisho

A Basic Foundation in Buddhism Part 2: The Truth of Duḥkha

Have you ever asked yourself, 'what is the truth of existence?'. Many people will say, 'I can't live my life thinking about such things'. Day to day, we can't help but to be tossed around and bewildered by the events that unfold before us. The Buddhadharma, however, teaches us not to be thrown about by what lies before us, but rather to investigate ourselves, self and phenomena carefully. Through looking into these things carefully, it is said that one will come to know truth.

We may want to know this truth, but on the other hand, we might be terrified to look into it. This is because the 'I' that is living and breathing right now may die at any moment. It may be decades, years, or hours, but we all know that we must die. However, to think about this truth seriously is terrifying. It is true that the I, who is robust and healthy now, cannot avoid illness. Equally, I can not avoid eventually growing old. Because of this, we tend to put a lid on these painful thoughts and try not to think about them directly. I've heard people say, "If you're advocating a life of constantly thinking that things are suffering, then I'd rather spend my life thinking things are pleasant!"

At first glance, this kind of thinking may receive a nod of approval, but it is a way of thinking that says to not take ones condition seriously. That is, it's a way of thinking that says, "If it stinks, put a lid on it!"

The honourable Sakyamuni decided not to look only at this convenient, one-sided aspect of life. In doing so, he was able to see into the true nature of things. Further, he was able to recognise duḥkha as a marker of existence. This is referred to as the truth of suffering. We all wish for life to be pleasant, comfortable and enjoyable. Truth, however, cannot be found in these thoughts and the appetite of our desires. On the contrary, it is found through direct insight into suffering.

What does the suffering of existence mean then in a Buddhist context and how is it measured? Generally speaking, suffering is spoken of in categories of four (四苦; shikku) and eight (八苦; hakku). These categories reveal the content of 'the truth of suffering'.

The Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra (大宝積経; daihoshaku-kyo) speaks of two kinds of suffering; internal and external. The heat of summer, the cold of winter, facing the wind and rain, being stung by insects, being thrown in prison and so on are all examples of external suffering, as they are experienced as externally to us.

These external forms of suffering aren't usually the primary focus of the Buddhadharma. Rather, it is inner-suffering that takes the lime light. Suffering experienced in the body and mind; this is called internal suffering. The first of these are the 'four sufferings' of birth, aging, sickness, and death (生老病死; shōrōbyōshi). These are largely without controversy, except for maybe the suffering of birth (生苦; shōku).

There are shallow and deep interpretations. To begin with, the Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra interprets the suffering of birth as 'the suffering of birth itself'. That is, when we are born, we are exposed to the particularities of cold and heat. As babies, the first experience of wind is overwhelming and causes great anguish. This sutra tells us that when a baby emerges from the womb and comes into contact with the world, it is like a skinned cow touching a hedge of thorns. This unbearable pain is the 'suffering of birth'.

As we have no memory of this moment, it is difficult to understand the meaning of 'the suffering of birth'. Everyone, however, has a sense of fear related to the pain of death. This is the suffering of death (死苦; shiku). Even though death is something we will all experience, it is also true that many people have a sentiment somewhere in their hearts that says 'death is something experienced by others, but not me!'

Death constitutes an unknown world, so it's true that there is also a sentiment which says, 'it can't be helped, so I don't take it too seriously'. Even these kinds of people still know in theory that someday they must die. Therefore, it can be said that we all have some vague perception of the suffering of death. Sickness and ageing are the easiest to fully understand, however even if you spend hours preaching 'life is marked by suffering' to young people who are not ill, far from old age, and oblivious to death, they will not understand it. After all, duḥkha is something you experience. This is a basic perspective on the four kinds of suffering.

The expression 'four and eight kinds of suffering' seems to emphasise the first four, but what then are the extra four which make a the total of 'eight sufferings' (八苦; hakku)? The last four refer to, first, ⑤ the suffering experienced when we are separated from the persons and things that we love (愛別離苦; aibetsuriku). Parting from friends, parents, siblings and loved ones is guaranteed, but this becomes all the more meaningful when we think of unforeseen accidents and other situations where the sorrow of separation takes on a horrific quality. As a priest, I often conduct services at funerals, and nothing makes me sadder than seeing a parent who has met with the death of their child.

Second, ⑥ is the suffering experienced when we are forced to associate with people and things that we dislike (怨憎會苦; onzōeku). Most obviously this refers to having to face someone or a situation which we despise. We are guaranteed to be in contact with people who hold grudges, who hate each other and so on, and so this is a suffering that is experienced regardless of age.

Third, ⑦ is the suffering we experience when we cannot obtain those things which we desire (求不得苦; gufutokuku). It is often said that our desires are higher than the mountains and deeper than the seas, and that our wants spring up one after the other. Those who wish for $100 will find themselves wishing for $1000 when they get it. Getting $1000, they will wish for a million; there is no end in sight. We are never satisfied with one point in time and live day and night in the thirst of craving.

Fourth, ⑧ is the suffering associated with the five skandhas (五盛陰苦; gojōonku). You may have heard that in the Prajnaparamitahrdaya (Heart) Sutra, the five aggregates of form (色蘊/rūpa), sensation (受蘊/vedanā), perception (想蘊/ saṃjñā), impulse (行蘊/saṃskāra) and consciousness (識蘊/vijñāna) are mentioned. Form refers to the aggregation of matter such as the material body itself. The aggregate of form (色蘊; shikiun) refers to the clusters of material existence, that is, the physical aspects of human beings and the world. Following on from this, the aggregates of sensation, perception, impulse and consciousness can all be said to be mental or spiritual functions. Sensation refers to the function of feeling, perception refers to the function of representation, impulse refers to the function of volition and consciousness refers to the function of cognition. The suffering of the five aggregates (五盛陰苦; gojounku) thus refers to every kind of physical and mental suffering which arises from craving and clinging (執着; shūjaku).

These eight categories of suffering teach us to honestly reflect on and re-evaluate our experience of reality. It should also be mentioned that there are various other ways of classifying duḥkha. For example the teaching of the 'three forms of duḥkha' (三苦; sanku) discusses suffering in relation to, first, physical and sensory suffering (苦苦; kuku), that is, the ordinary conditions of suffering which come with sickness, hunger and so on, second, the suffering of conditioned existence (行苦; gyōku), that is, the inevitable suffering of impermanence and chance (such as discouragement and disappointment), and third, the suffering of decay (壞苦; eku), that is, the suffering that people experience when they lose things and conditions which they are attached to. This last category is also referred to as 'all suffering' (一切行苦; issai-gyōku), that is, the suffering inherent to all phenomena.

It is this final category that interests me most. To say that all phenomena are marked by suffering is to say that all conditioned things are impermanent and in a continual state of flux (諸行無常; shogyō-mujō). When we hear the term 'duḥkha' as 'suffering' we often think of suffering as contrasted to pleasure or joy. That is, it is thought of as a relative kind of suffering. The suffering associated with the impermanent nature of all conditioned phenomena however is something that cannot be avoided. That is, because all things in the world are impermanent and conditioned, the four and eight kinds of suffering are guaranteed. This is suffering in the absolute sense. The recognition of this perspective on suffering is the one which is in line with the Buddhadharma. This is the meaning of the truth of 'existence being marked by suffering'.

— a basic foundation in buddhismthe truth of duḥkha