Suffering in Buddhism

In Buddhism one often hears of the three kinds of suffering (tri-duḥkhatā). This is one broad classification for categorizing the general characteristics of suffering (duḥkha) in Buddhism. For the purposes of this post I want to consider the meanings of these terms as well as the potential ramifications this concept has on a person. I would argue that two conclusions are easily drawn if one accepts the reality of suffering as described below. Firstly, that there is no lasting happiness in life. Secondly, the only logical course of action to take is to seek liberation.

Let us begin by examining the words of Asaṅga (4th century) in his work the Abhidharma-samuccaya.

It is said there are three forms of suffering. The eight kinds of suffering are included in them [birth, ageing, disease, death, association with the unpleasant, separation from the pleasant, not obtaining what one desires and five aggregates of attachment]. In that case are the eight included in the three, or are the three in the eight? They are grouped according to their own order: the sufferings of birth, ageing, disease, death, and association with what is unpleasant are mere sufferings (duḥkha-duḥkhatā); the sufferings of separation from what is pleasant and and not obtaining what one desires are sufferings caused by transformation (vipariṇāma-duḥkhatā); in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering as suffering caused by conditioned states (saṃskāra-duḥkha).1

The “suffering of suffering” (duḥkha-duḥkhatā) is easily understood as the common physical pains we experience throughout life such as disease and dying. Most would agree that such experiences cause mental unease and are undesirable.

The “suffering of change” or otherwise known as the “suffering of transformation” (vipariṇāma-duḥkhatā) is the suffering experienced due to the immutable fact that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent and subject to decay. The Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary defines the word vipariṇāma as “change , exchange , transformation”. As Asaṅga points out the separation from what is pleasant is included within this type of suffering. Put another way this is the failure of happy moments to last.

The analysis taken further will have one conclude that ordinary states of happiness or pleasure are actually just states of suffering. This is because upon ending they either result in a state of suffering or because they condition a being to attempt to reproduce the same experience, amplifying addiction to sensory pleasures. This is not say one should abandon anything that brings about pleasure, but it is best to identify and understand these states for what they are rather than what we would normally want them to be.

The “suffering caused by conditioned states” (saṃskāra-duḥkha) is, according to Asaṅga, the five aggregates of attachment, which are cause for agitation. The “five aggregates” (pañca-skandha) here refer to the five psycho-physical components which make up a person. They are form (rūpa), sensation (vedanā), perception (saṃjñā), mental formations (saṃskāra) and consciousness (vijñāna). This might also be called a “mass of suffering” because every ordinary aspect of it fosters future conditioned existence which is ultimately unsatisfying. When I say “ordinary” this is in contrast to aspects directed towards liberation, such a willed intention to be liberated, whose result would be cessation of this mass of suffering, otherwise known as a sentient being.

After considering the three kinds of suffering it is clearly apparent that life is full of suffering. There is to be found no lasting or ultimately satisfying happiness in mundane pleasures and pursuits as it is all subject to decay and moreover conditions future unsatisfying existence. It is the desire for sensory pleasures (kāma) which propels a being through cyclic existence, otherwise known as saṃsāra, as it predisposes the psycho-physical process, which is the sentient being, towards action (karma) directed at the experience of agreeable sensation. All worldly pleasures and favourable sensations experienced are merely palliative opiates that dull the pain of existence without remedying the root source of the disease. There should never be an expectation that worldly pleasures and temporal success will ever be satisfying. They should be seen for what they are, rather than what we would want them to be.

It would be best here to point out that because rebirth or reincarnation is a core component of Buddhism there is no point in suggesting that “if you have nothing to live for and all is suffering, you might as well die” because death does not rob a person of the causes of suffering. In modern times the general conception of death, owing to influences from materialist thinking, is that upon cessation of activity in the brain there is a kind of oblivion awaiting the individual when all sense of subjectivity and awareness are effectively terminated and erased. This position has been argued against by numerous schools of thought, including the Buddhists, over the centuries in India and elsewhere but I shall not go into that discussion here. If you are interested in empirical evidence of rebirth I recommend looking into the research conducted at the University of Virginia's Division of Perceptual Studies. The point I should like to emphasize is simply that in the Buddhist model rebirth is a reality and unless one cures the causes for suffering then death will be of little aid to a person seeking relief.

Fortunately there is relief and liberation – known as the Third Noble Truth – the truth of nirvāṇa. This indeed is the goal of any Buddhist tradition. Nirvāṇa is to saṃsāra as health is to illness. Being that there is no ultimately satisfying happiness to be found in life and being that the process of birth and death will continue indefinitely life after life, one may be inclined to investigate a remedy to the illness. There really is no other alternative. In the Buddhist context this is the primary driving force behind what in English is termed “practice”. Buddhists like to talk about their “practice” and this refers to activities directed at the cessation of their suffering. These activities are generally classified into three categories called the “three trainings” (śikṣā-traya), which are moral disciple or ethics (śīla), meditation (samādhi) and wisdom (prajñā). Wisdom is generally only possible through having gained mental stamina via meditation, which is only possible if one lives a proper lifestyle free from harmful behaviours.

Liberation being the only goal worth seriously pursuing in life many dedicated Buddhist practitioners can and will engage in activities that most ordinary people would find unreasonable and intolerable. One such example would be extended meditation retreats, which might be done in a cave or deep in a forest, where one is free from all human interaction and entertainment. However, such activities are not necessarily painful. Someone adept in the yogic arts will experience bliss in meditation. In a more down to earth context another example of what ordinary people might find unreasonable would be the practitioner's willingness to forsake money, career, position, power, sex, romance and/or worldly success in favour of yogic endeavours.

While it may seem unreasonable to many people, the reality is that upon understanding the nature of suffering and the precarious situation we as unliberated beings find ourselves in there is no other alternative but to seek liberation and do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. The more one tastes the bitterness of saṃsāra, the more one seeks the liberation from it.


1Asaṅga, Abhidharmasamucaya The Compendium of the Higher Teaching (Philosophy) by Asaṅga, translated into French and annotated by Walpola Rahula, English version from the French by Sara Boin-Webb (Fremont: Asian Humanities Press, 2001), 85.

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