Wk5, Day1: Exploring Dukkha
After a rich continuation of an ongoing discussion with spiritual friends on Sunday, I’ve become more interested in exploring the Four Noble Truths. The first has conventionally been translated as “Life is suffering.” Several authors I read reminded us that the Buddha did not speak English, though. Synonyms for suffering are offered (stress, uneasiness, dissatisfaction, pain) as an antidote to sometimes strong responses to what may appear to be a nihilistic statement. The term interpreted as suffering, dukkha, does not actually have a direct translation. In effect, any version of the term could strike Westerners as unsatisfactory.
After reading an excerpt of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, I became more interested in alternatives to the full phrasing (“Life is suffering.”). He explains the First Noble Truth as a form of diagnosing—similar to what might be done with a Western medical doctor. ‘It hurts here.’ ‘Oh, yes, that is suffering,’ the imagined doctor might say. ‘And here…’ ‘Yes that is also suffering.’ ‘And here and here.’ ‘Yes, that as well.’
Reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s story, the phrasing (“Life is suffering.”) shifted to, “There is suffering.”
This phrasing opened up in two ways as I inquired with it. First, I was struck by the conditioned identification with the dissatisfied state. ‘Ow,’ we point out to ourselves, our loved ones, anyone who might listen. As a young child might do, holding up his arm to a grandparent. “Yes dear, there, right there, as you say, is suffering.” Over time, with practice in this manner, the realization that the suffering is there, over there, not a part of this being, emerges. “I am suffering; I am hurt” learns to shift to “there is suffering.”
I am here. Over there, is the suffering. Being observed.
Practice with that perspective unearths a second realization. Regularly de-identifying in this way, the ubiquity of the condition appears. Over there is suffering. And there…and there. Oh, and there it is as well. Wow, there really is suffering.
Existence is suffering.
Life is suffering. There it is.
Absent of its initial appearance of nihilism, the phrasing opens up as merely a pointer to what is taking place, to what is present to be observed.