To understand the meaning of suffering through the perspective of Buddha and other Buddhist philosophers, one must first learn about the life of Buddha and how the interpretation of suffering first came to life. At first glance, people might think how the son of such a great king can even begin to comprehend the meaning of suffering or why he would leave a life where suffering was nowhere to be seen. This same life, if looked closely, will uncover some details that show how knowingly or unknowingly, prince Siddhartha knew the suffering since the day he was born. To those who don’t know, prince Siddhartha’s mother died right after giving birth to him.
This was the first form of suffering he ever experienced, growing up without his mother. When he was still an infant, a sage predicted the future of prince Siddhartha. He said that the prince would either grow up to be one of the greatest kings to ever live, or he would become a sage himself, wiser than any that lived before him and the ones who will live after. Since the king did not want the prince to become a sage, he raised him inside the palace, untouched by the outside world. In this palace he was given everything a man could ever desire. He lived a life of luxury to the fullest. For 29 years he lived this life, but it all changed when he stepped outside his palace. In his short travel, he had 4 significant encounters that changed his life. His first encounter is with an old man. When he asked his attendant, he tells him that it is change, and how everyone grows old with time. His second encounter is with a sick man. When he asked his attendant, he tells him how everybody, even the prince himself will get sick. His third encounter is with a corpse. He realizes how everything has an end and how this is the true suffering of life. On his fourth encounter, he sees a spiritual seeker. He saw how the spiritual seeker had left everything in order to seek the answer to suffering. This is when his journey to understand suffering began.
The life of Buddha even before he started his spiritual journey shows a very interesting view on suffering. The fact that his father did everything he could to prevent the prince to suffer, was the main reason he understood about suffering in such a shocking way. The prince, having lived all his life without any suffering was so overwhelmed when he saw what suffering looked like, that he decided to leave everything to try to find a way to stop it. Had he grew up knowing what suffering was, maybe he would have been so accustomed to it that he wouldn’t have thought much about it, which would mean that he would not have made is spiritual journey and Buddha would never have existed. Either way, this shows how suffering is inevitable. It shows that even after living such a luxurious life, prince Siddhartha still felt suffering.
Dukkha is sanskrit translates to suffering. Dukkha, if directly translated is not just suffering of the body, it also means being dissatisfied all the time. It is the feeling of always desiring more things, the feeling of never being complete. This is the suffering which the Buddha refers to, rather than the more used of meaning of pain. Since i personally understand the word dukkha, just understanding the word helps in understanding the meaning of suffering. Suffering has always been the beginning of Buddhism as the life of Buddha himself shows. This led to the creation of the four noble truths. This is fundamentally what his teachings are based on. The four noble truths are:
- (Dukkha) All life is suffering
- (Samudaya) All suffering comes from desire and attachment
- (Nirodha) To end suffering you must let go of your desires and attachments
- (Magga) To let go of your desires and attachments you must follow the eightfold path
Suffering is not viewed as just one thing in Buddhist philosophy. The first noble truth states that all life is suffering, it is stated because Buddha wants you to not only acknowledge the fact that all life is suffering but also to realize and to see how this is true. By knowing what causes suffering, you will be able to deal with suffering and ultimately be free from it. Buddha makes an interesting analogy of suffering by comparing it with a disease. He says that if you have a disease, you have to do a lot of tests to figure out what disease it is so that you can take the required measures to eliminate it. So the first noble truth helps with developing an awareness of suffering.
In the second noble truth, Buddha taught us how suffering arises. He said that suffering has less to do with the outside physical world and more to do with our own mental state. The unsatisfactory experiences in our mind comes from the desire to have more and attachments. The exact word for this is Tanha in pali texts. Tanha means thirst or desire. It includes the desire to be someone, or the desire to be with someone, or the desire obtain a lot of materialistic possessions. Whatever you desire, you become attached. You attach the idea of those desires to yourself, your self image. We build our lives around things that we desire and by doing so we are attached to everything in our lives, whether it is someone you love or your job or your car. Even when we surround our lives with everything we desire we are not completely happy as you can always find someone better for you or a higher paying job or a more expensive car. There are two reasons why this causes suffering. The first is that you cannot get everything you desire. The second reason is that since you are attached to everything you have right now, due to the impermanence of all things, it will cause you even more suffering when you lose it. There this endless void of desire is the root of all suffering.
In the third noble truth, the Buddha says that you can be free of suffering if you remove the main cause of it. By letting go of our desires, we can get rid of suffering in ourselves. It is to extinguish the burning desire that makes us suffer. Even in the life of Buddha, prince Siddhartha begins his journey of spirituality by leaving behind his wife and infant child. His child was born on the day Buddha left everything behind. He even names his child Rahula, which translates to a chain putting someone down. This is how Buddha let go of his desires and attachments, his attachment to his wife, his son, his palace with all its luxury and his life as a prince.
In the fourth noble truth, the Buddha taught that in order to be able to let go of all your desires, you have to change the way your mind works. He taught us by showing the eightfold path as a path that we should follow in order to achieve such a state of mind where we can truly let go of our desires and by doing so end suffering.
The eightfold path are eight aspects of ourselves that we have to be aware of and actively observe and follow in order to live a life of compassion, wisdom and happiness. The eightfold paths are:
- Right View
- Right view also means right understanding. It is the acceptance of our surroundings as they are.
- Right Intention
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration