Suffering in Buddhism: It Might Not Be What You Think

For even the most serious practitioner, the notion of suffering in Buddhism might be misunderstood and I have a feeling that it comes down to how we relate to and understand the translations of the words.  In Buddhism, there is Samsara and Dukkha and they are very different.  To make it slightly more difficult, Dukkha can be translated in two different ways.  So let’s address samsara first.

Strictly speaking, Samsara = Cycle Existence or Endless Reincarnation.  My guess is that most people don’t think of it this way or if they do, they mix it with other types of suffering.  But this is it, the cycle of death and rebirth.  Now, I’m not going to discuss the plausibility of this because I don’t have any experiential or concrete evidence to argue one way or the other.  To argue for or against reincarnation is just as useful as arguing for or against the existence of some god…there’s just no way to come to a conclusion.

Now, Dukkha is generally translated as “dissatisfaction” or a type of unrest in one’s life.  However, it is also used to denote our physical suffering.  This latter definition is of less concern because our physical existence is based in pain.  To be alive is to constantly ward off death.  If we stop eating, breathing or drinking water, we die and our bodies change throughout our entire lives.  All of this creates discomfort in various ways.  The elderly can surely teach us what it’s like to get older and the pain of change.  Yet, duke as dissatisfaction is of more interest to Buddhists because there’s not much we can do about the pain of being physically alive.

So here, dukkha = dissatisfaction or malcontent.  A restlessness and frustration with how things are and how things are not psychologically and environmentally.  So when we, as Buddhists, speak of the core problem that Buddhism addresses and works to resolve, let us speak of dukkha.  For those who believe in reincarnation, then we can speak of samsara but let us be clear about which one we are speaking of.  Of course, when one reads the teachings at length it becomes clear that they are very much intertwined but because Buddhism is very new to the Americas, let us speak clearly to help educate one another.  This will prove helpful in the years to come.

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