Dukkha: why Buddhists want to get enlightened

Posted by on Jun 11, 2013 in Buddhism | 587 Comments
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What’s so good about enlightenment? Why do Buddhists spend so much time talking about it, and practising in the hope that they might one day achieve it?

One word. Dukkha.

It’s a Pali word, so I’ll need some other words to explain it.

The meaning of ‘dukkha’

‘Dukkha’ gets translated with a number of different English words:

  • suffering
  • displeasure
  • stress
  • unsatisfactoriness

I prefer the last two. Though sometimes the other two are totally right!

Dukka is the fundamental quality of unenlightened existence. (Translation: before you are a Buddha, you experience dukkha.)

Some people have used this to label Buddhism as a pessimistic religion.

Life is suffering? Seriously?

This is why the concept needs some unpacking.

Here’s how it’s often put in the early Buddhist texts:

Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha; association with the loathed is dukkha, dissociation from the loved is dukkha, not to get what one wants is dukkha

Here’s how (Buddhist scholar) Rupert Gethin puts it (note, he spells ‘dukkha’ the Sankrit way):

Rich in meaning and nuance, the word duḥkha is one of the basic terms of Buddhist and other Indian religious discourse. Literally ‘pain’ or ‘anguish’, in its religious and philosophical contexts duḥkha is, however, suggestive of an underlying sense of ‘unsatisfactoriness’ or ‘unease’ that must ultimately mar even our experience of happiness.

Is life really suffering?

For many people reading this, they’ll know intuitively what dukkha means.

Sometimes, life is suffering. There are no two ways about it.

But sometimes, life is pretty awesome. Is it still dukkha then?

According to Buddhism, even happiness is dukkha.

This is because firstly, it’s always possible to imagine more of it, and secondly, happiness always comes to an end when it is dependent on something conditioned.

And everything this side of Buddhahood is conditioned.

If life is going well for you right now, you may not want to focus on this truth. You may just want to party.

This could be true for your entire life.

Ajahn Chah (who set up the Thai Forest Sangha) once said, only when you are tired of both sadness and happiness will you really be able to practice the Dhamma (i.e. the Buddhist way).

It takes a while to tire of an addiction. At first, it seems pretty fun.

It can be some time before we really get that happiness comes and goes no matter what you do, and that spending one’s whole life in its pursuit is, in itself, a form of suffering.

I’m not saying happiness is a bad thing. I wish you as much happiness as possible!

Indeed, having a certain amount of happiness helps with practice. When we have enough happiness can we start to really look at it.

Mark Epstein, a Buddhist psychiatrist who wrote a book called ‘Thoughts Without a Thinker’, talks about a feeling of things being somehow broken. Even when things are going well, we can have a sense of disconnection from it. We’re not fully able to dive into the happiness and escape into the moment.

Because of this, we think there’s something wrong with us. We think we’re not doing life right, and we start trying to fix ourselves. (Enter consumer society, resplendent with a gazillion potential solutions!)

But the problem isn’t us. It’s the nature of unenlightened existence.

This feeling doesn’t even go when we ‘attain’ Buddhahood. We just stop thinking that there’s anything wrong with it. And we stop identifying with it as part of us.

Buddhahood isn’t eternal bliss. It’s a radical re-orientation of ourselves in relation to the universe, including the part of it we think of as our minds and hearts.

The beginning of the path

When we tire of this game that can’t be won we start to look at the machinery of the game itself, and try to step outside of that.

At that point, things start to get interesting.

This is the start of the Buddhist path. We arrive at the First Noble Truth: life is dukkha.

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