While we remain deluded regarding the nature of samsara (the cycle of birth and death which we are currently experiencing), we will not feel the motivation to study and practice the Dharma. What is the nature of our delusion? Plainly speaking, delusion is the belief that some adjustment in our circumstances will lead to happiness in the material world.
“If only I could have this one thing; if I could secure this position; if such and such would treat me kindly; if I were healthy and young; if I were beautiful, or rich, or powerful, I would be happy!” These and other similar thoughts are deeply ingrained in our consciousness. Sadly, the truth is that if we were to attain any one of these wishes, or even all of them simultaneously, we would not be permanently happy.
The nature of cyclic existence is suffering. This is not a pessimistic assessment. Yes, there are moments of happiness in this world, but they are never complete, and are always temporary.
We experience many different types of suffering. All are included in three categories:
· the suffering of suffering refers to unpleasant events and conditions that can be directly perceived through the five senses and the mental consciousness
o contact with the unpleasant
Sounds that are too loud or imperceptible, excessively acute or dull; harsh words; disparaging remarks; words that lead to sadness, anger, or regret; and all over auditory events that are unwelcome, constitute the suffering of suffering mediated by the ear.
Tactile sensations that are too rough, too hot, too cold, too sharp, or otherwise unpleasant, as well as the longing to be touched, and all other tactile events that are unwelcome, constitute the suffering of suffering mediated by touch.
Visual perceptions that are too bright or too dim, frightening or ugly, and all other visual events that are unwelcome, constitute the suffering of suffering mediated by sight.
Taste sensations that are excessively sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent; bland; nauseating, and all other gustatory events that are unwelcome, constitute the suffering of suffering mediated by taste.
Odors that are too strong or offensive, and all other olfactory events that are unwelcome, constitute the suffering of suffering mediated by smell.
Thoughts that generate or increase attachment, aversion, or indifference, and evoke sadness, regret, shame, doubts, agitation, and all other thought events that are unwelcome, constitute the suffering of suffering mediated by thinking.
Meeting people who are rude, demanding, or unkind.
o separation from the pleasant
The end or loss of auditory, tactile, visual, gustatory, and olfactory perceptions that are welcome, and the departure of enjoyable thoughts, constitute the suffering of suffering caused by separation from the pleasant.
Parting with people who are friendly, gentle, and kind.
· the suffering of change refers to the unavoidable transformation of pleasure into suffering
o pleasure is impermanent
The inability to sustain pleasurable sensations, thoughts, and relationships, and their inevitable end, constitute the suffering of change caused by the impermanence of pleasure.
o the causes and conditions of pleasure become causes of pain
Continuous exposure to the causes and conditions of pleasant auditory, tactile, visual, gustatory, and olfactory sensations, brings about surfeit, numbness, and pain. For example, indulging in excessive consumption of our favorite foods eventually results in suffering, rather than in increasing happiness.
Repeatedly entertaining pleasant thoughts will lead to obsession, and the fear that we may lose the ability to recall them.
· all-pervasive suffering refers to the nature of experience in cyclic existence
Birth is suffering
According to Buddhism, the duration of each phenomenon consists of 3 phases, namely: genesis, development, and dissolution. The moment of genesis is birth, the moment of dissolution is death and the development phase is ageing.
By the birth of a being is meant the genesis of the new mind and matter after death upon dissolution of the old existence; i.e. the first germ of life in the new existence. No suffering or pain as such exists, of course, at the first moment of genesis, but since birth serves as the basis for later appearance of physical and mental suffering throughout the whole of the ensuing existence, birth is considered as suffering.
Birth takes place in one of the Six Realms. Traditional Buddhist teachings speak extensively of the six realms or paths into which sentient beings are born (gods, demigods, humans, animals, ghosts, and hell beings), and one must be careful to both present the teachings and receive them in accordance with the intentions of the Buddhas.
Are these realms actual physical environments? Yes and no. Like all other external perceptions, the six realms are internal mental representations, made to arise by the accumulated karma (impressions, experiences, beliefs, and dispositions) of sentient beings. But just because they are internal mental representations, they are not absolutely unreal. As long as we lack realization of emptiness, our perceptions are experienced as reality.
The six realms are not truly established, substantial realities, in the sense that they are impermanent and dependent on causes and conditions. And yet, they appear in great detail to those that experience them.
Dreams (nightmares, in this case) are a good analogy. While having a nightmare, we have the distinct impression that whatever is happening is actually taking place. We may even experience physical reactions: racing pulse, sweating, thrashing about, screaming, etc. Some persons have been known to die of fright during a nightmare!
Within the nightmare, the experience is very real. And yet, when we awaken, we know that nothing truly happened —it was all a bad dream. It was an internal mental representation. We may have been dreaming of being pursued by a tiger, but there is no tiger in the bedroom; it was only an internal image of a tiger in our mind. We may have dreamt of drowning, but all the time we were lying on a dry bed. We may have been dreaming of being engulfed in flames, but our skin is not scorched when we awaken.
The six realms are similar, although their duration may seem quite a bit longer. They are mental states, but while we are experiencing them, we suffer immensely. Is it not our current experience that pain seems to last much longer than pleasure? “Time flies when you’re having fun.” The opposite is also true: time transpires exceedingly slowly when we’re suffering.
Now, while some persons are ready to understand that the six realms are ‘only’ mental states, others are not. For them, these realms are quite substantial. There are persons among us (we may diagnose them as insane in today’s society) that firmly believe that what they experience in dreams or altered states of consciousness is substantially real. And for them (in terms of their subjective experience) this is a fact, regardless of what others may understand.
When the Buddhas teach about the six realms, They allow us to understand Their teachings with whatever capacity we have at the time. If we have the tendency to ascribe absolute reality to our perceptions (this common, everyday one included), we will do likewise with the six realms. If we are able to understand that this experience is an internal mental representation, then we will also be able to understand the six realms in this light.
The hell realms are the farthest distance away from our Buddha Nature, in the direction of aversion, just as the god realms are farthest in the direction of attachment. The demigod realms move us away through envy, the human realm through desire, the animal realm through stupidity, and the ghost realm through greed.
They are all mental states, distortions of clear View, and nothing more. Of course, even if they are not ‘real’ in any objective way, sentient beings experience subjective suffering in them. And yet, they are not punishments. They are merely the natural consequences of our afflicted emotions. The teachings on karma just warn us that if we do not become free of these afflicted emotions now, we are bound to continue experiencing them over and over.
The cause of these afflicted emotions is ignorance, and therefore the Buddhas do not judge anyone as evil –not even Hitler, or Stalin, or more common mass murderers. They feel intense compassion for all sentient beings, and especially for those who suffer most.
The ‘kingdom of hell’ is within us. But when we are there, it is very difficult to escape. We start blaming others for our condition, and that leads to greater fear and anger. Sociopaths are an extreme example of that. Their suffering is extreme.
The Buddhist teachings do not condone judging others, nor do they express any concept of punishment. Karma is not punitive, but corrective. When we experience suffering as a consequence of treating others poorly, eventually we come to understand that we are all in the same situation, and compassion begins to manifest, for others and for ourselves.
Ageing is suffering
Ageing means becoming grey-haired, toothless, wrinkled, bent, deaf, and poor in eyesight. In other words, decay has set in, very recognizably, in the aggregates of mind and matter of a particular existence. Ageing of the mind is not so apparent, and indications of it such as failing memory and senility become noticeable only when one becomes very old, and then only to those close to us.
Ageing is concerned with the developmental stage of the aggregates of mind and matter, and has no essence of pain or suffering in it. But because of ageing, there occurs failing of vitality, impairment of the sense faculties, weakening of health, loss of youth, strength, and good appearance, people are afraid of growing old. Since it forms the source of physical and mental suffering, ageing is said to be fearful suffering.
Death is suffering
Death is the extinction of the life-principle, which has been in ceaseless operation since the time of birth in a particular existence. All mortals are in constant fear of death. But death is not by itself pain or suffering, as it is the moment of dissolution of the life-principle of the aggregates of mind and matter.
However, when death comes, one has to abandon the physical body and leave behind one’s family and friends, together with one’s properties. The thought of leaving the present existence and the uncertainty of the future is frightening. As death draws near, all mortal beings are subject to severe attacks of disease and illness, which rack the body with unbearable pain. Death, which is the basis for all such physical and mental agony, has thus been named suffering by the Buddha.
Sorrow is suffering
Sorrow is the burning in the mind of one affected by the five kinds of misfortune: loss of relatives, destruction of property or possessions, deterioration of health and longevity, lapses in morality, and deviation from right view to wrong view. This sorrow is a form of mental displeasure, but has inner consuming as its characteristic, and as such is intrinsic suffering, the suffering of suffering.
Overwhelming distress occasioned by sorrow can lead to premature ageing and even death. Being thus a basis for other physical pains, sorrow is fearsome and is therefore named suffering by the Buddha.
Lamentation is suffering
Lamentation is wailing by one affected by loss of relatives, property, and any other losses. Absent-mindedly and hysterically, the distressed one clamors, proclaiming the virtues of the dead and the quality of the lost property, or denouncing the enemy or agency responsible for the loss. In reality, lamentation is merely the material quality of sound, and therefore not suffering in essence. But such wailing and hysterical proclamations produce physical discomfort and pain. The Buddha has therefore declared lamentation as suffering. To cry is to be subjected to pain, which is therefore suffering.
Physical pain is suffering
Bodily pains such as stiffness, aches, soreness, tiredness, itchiness, and feeling hot or cold are suffering. These physical pains are true intrinsic suffering called suffering-suffering. Even animals flee to safety at the slightest hint of getting beaten or shot at because they are afraid of physical pain. It is important to know that sickness and disease come under this category of physical pain. Physical pain is generally followed by mental distress and for thus serving as a cause for mental pain it is named suffering, dreadful suffering.
Mental displeasure is suffering
Mental pain denotes all sorts of mental aversion or displeasure, such as worry, anxiety, depression, dislike, hate, fear, misery, etc. Mental displeasure also is intrinsic suffering that not only oppresses the mind but also tortures the body by causing stress, insomnia, and loss of appetite, with consequent impairment of health and even the advent of death. It is a truly formidable suffering.
Despair is suffering
Despair is ill-humor or dejection produced by excessive mental agony in one affected by loss of loved ones, property, and any other losses or suffering. It causes repeated bemoaning over the loss, resulting in burning of the mind and physical distress, and can even lead to insanity or suicide. Despair is therefore suffering because of the intense burning of the mind and physical pain accompanying it. People, accordingly recognize the state of despair as a fearsome suffering.
As an illustration, sorrow is like cooking over a slow fire. Lamentation is like boiling over when cooking over a quick fire. Despair is like what remains in the pot after it has boiled over, and being unable to do so any more, goes on cooking in the pot till it dries up.
Association with the hateful is suffering
Association with the hateful is meeting with disagreeable beings or undesirable objects. Such meeting is not itself unbearable pain, but in such situations, reaction sets in at once in the form of mental disturbance and physical discomposure. As it serves as a cause of mental and physical distress, the Buddha designated it as suffering, dreadful suffering.
Separation from the beloved is suffering
Separation from the beloved is not itself a painful feeling. However, when separation takes place, by death or while still alive, from beloved ones or when parted from one’s treasured possessions, mental agony sets in at once. As it promotes various mental afflictions, the Buddha has called separation from the loved ones and desirable objects, suffering, dreadful suffering.
Not getting what one desires is suffering
Not getting what one desires is not itself a painful feeling. But the unfulfilled desire often results in great disappointment, despair, and may even lead to suicide. Suffering also arises out of desire for some unobtainable object, such as the desire to be free from suffering.
Without practicing and developing the Noble Eightfold Path, freedom from suffering is unobtainable by mere wishing, and not getting what one wants causes mental anguish. Here the object of one’s desire also includes the worldly gains and wealth that cannot be attained by mere desiring. Not getting them as one desires is also suffering.
The Five Aggregates of Clinging are suffering
A sentient being is made up of the Five Aggregates or Groups that form the objects of clinging or grasping. The Five Aggregates of Clinging or Grasping are:
· The aggregate of matter or material forms
· The aggregate of feeling
· The aggregate of perception
· The aggregate of volitional activities
· The aggregate of consciousness
All sentient beings exist as such only with these five aggregates forming their substantive mass. They cling to their body, which is merely an aggregate of material forms, regarding it as “I, my body, permanent, etc.” Hence the group of material forms is called an aggregate of clinging. The mental groups made up of feeling, perception, mental activities and consciousness are also grasped at, taking them to be “I, my mind, it is I who thinks, permanent, etc.” Hence they are also called aggregates of clinging.
The Five Aggregates of Clinging at the moment of perception
· The eye and the visible object are the Material Aggregate.
· Feeling pleasant, unpleasant or neutral is the Feeling Aggregate.
· Recognizing or remembering the object is the Perception Aggregate.
· To will to see and turning the attention on the object is the Volitional Activities Aggregate.
· Just knowing that an object is seen is the Consciousness Aggregate.
a) The Suffering of suffering
The eleven types of suffering, starting from the suffering of birth to the suffering of not getting what one wants, are all obvious types of suffering known as suffering of suffering. They arise only because there are the 5 aggregates of clinging; without them, such suffering will not arise.
In short, because there is body or the material aggregate, physical and mental sufferings dependent on the body arise. Because there are feeling, perception, volitional activities, and consciousness aggregates, physical and mental sufferings based on them also arise.
Thus the 5 Aggregates of Clinging are suffering of suffering.
b) The suffering of change
Cases of suffering that are not so obvious, and occur as a result of the operation of the Law of Change are called the suffering of change. Pleasurable physical sensations arising from agreeable tactile impressions (touch) are called pleasant bodily feelings. Joyful states of mind arising from reviewing pleasurable sense objects are called pleasant mental feelings. These 2 forms of happy states please all beings. All beings go after these states all the time, even at the risk of their lives, and when these are attained, their happiness knows no bound.
However, while they are rejoicing with blissful contentment, if the sense objects that have given them so much happiness and delight disappear or get destroyed, great would be their agitation followed by agony. When the wealth which they have accumulated in the form of money or property suddenly is lost through one reason or another; when death or separation comes to their loved ones; intense grief and distress ensue, which can even cause derangement. Thus, these 2 forms of happiness (pleasant physical and mental feelings) are also a type of suffering, because of change. Because they arise dependent on the five aggregates, the five Aggregates of Clinging are suffering due to change.
c) The suffering of conditioned existence
The five Aggregates of Clinging are always in a state of flux; they are impermanent, and none of them is self-existing. They arise out of various causes. They are conditioned. Their existence depends on certain conditions, and when these conditions and causes cease to exist, they too cease to exist. As death awaits constantly, having to rely on the impermanent aggregates of clinging for physical substance or support is dreadful, like living in a building which shows signs of collapsing at any moment.
The transitory nature of the five Aggregates of Clinging requires constant effort for the maintenance of the status quo: the body needs constant feeding in order to survive, feelings of happiness require constant contact with agreeable sense objects, etc. Even everyday neutral feelings need effort for their maintenance: without adequate rain, there is a shortage of water and everyone suffers the effect of the drought. This implies laborious effort, which of course is suffering. Therefore, the five Aggregates of Clinging are suffering due to conditioning.
The five Aggregates of Clinging are intrinsic suffering, suffering due to change, and suffering due to conditioning. In short, the five Aggregates of Clinging are the Noble Truth of Suffering.