What did the Buddha mean by suffering?

The Buddha’s very first worthy fact is most often– however erroneously– rendered in English as “life is suffering.” As is typically the case, this piece of ancient text loses a lot in translation.

The Pali word dukkha, usually translated as “suffering,” has a more subtle range of meanings. It’s sometimes described metaphorically as a wheel that is off its axle. A more actual translation of the first noble fact might be “life does not please.”

The Buddha taught there are 3 kinds of dukkha. The first kind is physical and mental pain from the unavoidable stresses of life like old age, sickness, and death. The 2nd is the distress we feel as a result of impermanence and change, such as the pain of failing to get what we want and of losing what we hold dear. The 3rd type of dukkha is a type of existential suffering, the angst of being human, of living a conditioned presence and being subject to rebirth.

At the root of all type of dukkha is craving, or attachment. We go through life grasping at or clinging to what we think will gratify us and avoiding what we dislike. The second worthy truth tells us that this really grasping, or clinging, or avoidance is the source of dukkha. We resemble drowning individuals who reach for something floating by to conserve us, then find that what we have actually latched onto supplies just momentary relief, or temporary fulfillment. What we want is never ever sufficient and never lasts.

The 3rd worthy truth assures us there is another way to discover an end to suffering, and that method, as discussed in the 4th honorable truth, is the practice of the honorable eightfold path. As we practice, we establish a happiness that is not based on external things or life occasions however results from a cultivated state of mind that does not come and go as scenarios change. Even physical discomfort ends up being less stressful with the awareness of a cultivated mind.

So, the teaching of the four worthy truths is not that life is destined to be absolutely nothing but suffering, however that the ways of finding freedom from suffering is constantly available to us. In this sense Buddhism is not pessimistic, as many people presume, however optimistic.

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