“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” –Buddha. Suffering is something that all human beings in society must endure over the course of their lifetime. It is perceived to be a negative part of life and something that cannot be avoided.
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However, has one ever dug deeper into the roots of suffering? Why do humans suffer? Is it something that can be further understood and better overcome? Buddhism explores the notion of suffering through its path to enlightenment by practicing such customs of morality and meditation. Throughout this paper, we will explore how Buddhism came about, who practices it and more specifically their fascinating beliefs around Dukka (suffering) and the four noble truths.
Around 2,500 years ago, a man named Siddhartha Gautama-also known as the Buddha, came into this world. He was born in the town of Lumbini, near the border of Nepal, into a royal family. Growing up he lived a luxurious life filled with pleasure until one day at the age of 29, he came across an old man, a sick man, and a corpse (Religion: Buddhism, 2009). Suddenly confronted with the reality of those suffering, Siddhartha was determined to find the path to enlightenment and to the liberation of suffering, and this is how Buddhism arose (Religion: Buddhism, 2009).
In present day, there are over 376 million people following Buddhism around the world. There are two main branches of Buddhism: Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is more commonly practiced in places such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Thailand and Mahayana Buddhism is commonly seen in Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia (Sockolov, 2018). Theravada monks live a monastic life focusing on meditation and concentration as a way to individual enlightenment while Mahayana focuses not only on the enlightenment of oneself but also the enlightenment of all beings, depicting their belief in selflessness and working to benefit others (Sockolov, 2018).
Despite these certain differences in these branches of Buddhism, one core belief that remains similar between the two is that of the four noble truths. These four truths were the foundations of the Buddha’s teaching and he believed that it was essential to not only know the four truths, but to fully understand them which in turn would bring one nobility. The first noble truth is that there is suffering, the truth of Dukkha. Dukkha is the pain and dissatisfaction one experiences in their life that leads to suffering. Therefore the first noble truth is about acknowledging that there is suffering and whether it be pain, fear, loss, anger or death; it exists and one must be able to accept that we encounter these difficulties in our daily life (Thorp, 2017).
The second noble truth is the cause of suffering. These causes are also known to be the three poisons: Ignorance, Attachment, and Aversion. Ignorance brings us suffering as one fails to perceive the true reality and is deluded to see things through a distorted lens and not how they actually are (Thorp, 2017). Secondly, attachment brings us suffering as we tend to cling to the pleasant experiences in our life and therefore when we are resting in an unpleasant experience; a craving arises where we wish we were somewhere else, creating suffering (Sockolov, 2018). Finally, aversion causes suffering because it is the feeling that arises from unpleasant experiences that we try and avoid. A key concept to grasp when trying to understand the second truth is karma. In Buddhism, karma mainly refers to one’s intention or motivation while doing an action. In other words, whatever you do intentionally to others will return back to you and relating this notion back to second noble truth; if you cause suffering to others it will cause suffering to yourself (Harderwijk, 2015).
The third and most positive noble truth is that there is the cessation to suffering. Since suffering and the causes of suffering are dependent on our state of mind, and our state of mind can be changed, we can therefore eliminate suffering from our lives and enter the state of nirvana (Harderwijk, 2015). Nirvana means “to extinguish” and attaining nirvana signifies reaching enlightenment. Once one has attained nirvana in the third noble truth, they have liberated themselves from suffering (Harderwijk, 2015). However, just because one has the wisdom to end suffering, the Buddha provides his prescription to end suffering in the fourth noble truth: the path to the cessation of suffering. This entails the Eight-Fold Noble Path, which are the eight “right” ways to end suffering and the means to achieving spiritual enlightenment according to the Buddha.
These eight stages can be grouped into the three main essentials of Buddhist training and discipline: Wisdom, ethical conduct and mental discipline. Wisdom constitutes of right thought and right understanding, essentially denoting that one has thoughts of selfless detachment, love, and non-violence and that one also understands the four noble truths, explaining how things really are (Rahula, 2018). Ethical conduct is mainly based on universal love and compassion and includes right speech (abstaining from telling lies, gossiping, and using rude/harsh language), right action (promoting moral, honourable, peaceful conduct) and right livelihood (abstaining from a profession that brings harm to others) (Rahula, 2018). Ethical conduct also goes to show how the Buddha strongly valued morality in his teachings of spiritual development. Mental discipline portrays the ways in which the mind is trained and disciplined through right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (Rahula, 2018). Essentially, these last three stages of the noble path go to promote meditation as an important practice on the path to spiritual enlightenment.
In conclusion, the way suffering is depicted in Buddhist practice can teach one many things about the self, guiding one to not only becoming a more enlightened person, but to reduce suffering as a whole and lead one to live a happier life. As people struggle to cope with suffering in their lives, the Buddha truly believed that suffering is something that can be avoided by practicing things such as morality and meditation, and by following and understanding the four noble truths. With all this being said, as we are taught to believe that suffering is “normal” in society, if we take the time to open our eyes to practices such as Buddhism, one will be able to change their perspective on suffering and realize that it is actually something that can be overcome by understanding the truths that lie within the spirit of the Buddha.
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