Buddhism and Suffering

Suffering is part of the core teachings of Buddhism. In Buddhism, to study, understand and eliminate suffering is considered to be the ultimate goal of human life. 

It is said that when Buddha attained enlightenment and started his altruistic sermons, he stated the following; 

“O Monks, two things I only teach, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha” Buddha could see suffering at each stages of human life. He understood that from the moment of birth till the state of death, suffering was part of human life. 

Hence, we have the 4 Noble Truths given by Buddha that deal with sufferings in Buddhism: 

1. The truth of suffering (dukkha) 

2. The truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya) 

3. The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha) 

4. The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga) 

Collectively, these principles explain why humans hurt and how they can overcome suffering. Furthermore, Buddha taught that there are three kinds of sufferings. The first type of dukkha is the physical and mental pain from inevitable events like sickness, old age and death. The second type of dukkha occurs when we fail to get what we desire or to lose something that we hold dear. This type of dukkha appears due to impermanence and change. 

The third type of Dukkha is the suffering that arises due to man’s conditioned state of existence. In other words, it’s a kind of existential suffering arising due to the angst of being human, the very state of our existence and being subject to rebirth. 

Buddha, in his 2nd Noble truth explains the reason why humans are subject to suffering. Buddha says that suffering is part of a universal causal link. Universal causal link is a link that is a cycle of cause and effect. It states that for every effect to come into existence, there lies a cause of its origination. Hence suffering is a part of this cycle of causal link. From this causal link Buddha extracts 3 main reasons for humans to be subject to suffering. 

1. Birth According to Buddha, existence leads to suffering. i.e. From the moment we take birth we are bound to experience suffering in our lives. 

2. Attachments and Desires Buddha believes that the root cause of suffering is attachments and desires. When we attach ourselves to materialistic things or desires that cannot always be fulfilled, we are afflicted with pain and suffering. Buddha says that man has a sense of ‘I’, the belief that his existence is individualistic in nature. This belief leads him to feel the obligation to achieve all his desires. What we fail to understand in this belief is that these desires are temporary and momentary, thus we cannot always satisfy our desires and needs. In addition to this Buddha also says that there is no end to human desires, hence one cannot always achieve the things that he or she wishes or desires.

3. Ignorance According to Buddha this is the ultimate cause of suffering in human lives. Due to ignorance humans fail to gain knowledge about suffering and remain ignorant to reality. 

Ignorance also leads to the creation of the false sense of ‘I’. Thus, ignorance increases our infinite desires and attachments that later cause us suffering in our lives.

HOW TO END THIS SUFFERING? 

In his 3rd Noble Truth Buddha affirms that suffering can be ended. And in his 4th Noble Truth Buddha gives us the path to attain this end to suffering. 

Nirvana in Buddhism is a state of freedom from suffering. It is said that when one attains Nirvana, he or she is left with no desires, no attachments and no ignorance. 

Nirvana is a state where one feels ultimate happiness and peace. However, Nirvana is not always a static life but can also be an active life. Thus, there are two types of Nirvana 

1. Jivan Mukti – You attain Nirvana when you are alive. Example: Gautama Buddha 

2. Videh Mukti – You attain Nirvana after your death. Example: End of Rebirth

Since Buddhism accepts Karma and rebirth to be the main causes for humans to take birth and experience suffering, hence Nirvana is also a state where all Karma is annihilated and rebirth comes to an end.

To attain Nirvana, or to attain freedom from suffering Buddha further gives a middle path, i.e. an 8-fold path that advocates neither extreme self-indulgence nor extreme self-denial. It’s a middle path of these two extremes.

THE 8-FOLD-PATH TO ATTAIN FREEDOM FROM SUFFERING 

In no particular order, the Eightfold Path of Buddhism teaches the following ideals for ethical conduct, mental disciple and achieving wisdom: 

1. Right views Buddha said that in order to attain freedom, one needs to acquire right knowledge. Since ignorance is the ultimate cause of suffering, by attaining right knowledge about the 4 Noble Truths it will eventually help an individual to eliminate suffering.

2. Right resolve Right resolve refers to the act in accordance with right knowledge. An individual needs to have the right determination to make the right choices in life. 

3. Right speech Right Speech advises individual to not use harsh or abusive languages. It advises to refrain from cussing, cursing or hurting other people by using abusive words. 

4. Right conduct This talks about the behaviour of an individual. Right conduct is further explained using 5 ways. 

i. Non-Violence (Ahimsa) To not practice violence in any form; physical, mental or emotional. 

ii. Truth (Satyam) To always speak truth and never lie, no matter what condition one may be in. 

iii. Not Steal (Asteya) To never steal or shoplift no matter how much pleasure or happiness one gets from doing so. 

iv. Contentment (Aparigrah) This talks about how one should be satisfied with what he or she has and teaches to be grateful for the things one is blessed with. 

v. Celibacy (Brahmacharya) Celibacy here does not refer to an ascetic life but rather talks about how an individual should learn to control his/her emotions and desires.

5. Right Livelihood Right Livelihood encourages an individual to earn their wages or living expenses by following a moral path. That is, by working hard instead of stealing, murdering or any immoral acts.

6. Right Effort Right effort majorly talks about making an effort to develop and retain good thoughts, to remove existing evil thoughts (negative thoughts) and to prevent evil thoughts from entering the mind.

7. Right Mindfulness Mindfulness talks about retaining the good energy in our mind and encourages to constantly remember good things. 

8. Right Concentration This talks about analysing our sufferings and finding the root cause of it. It encourages individuals to concentrate in discovering our own selves and to detach from any unnecessary desires or attachments.

Hence it is only after following this 8-fold-path can one achieve liberation from suffering. 

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