“I teach dukkha and the ending of dukkha.”
The most important and fundamental aspect of our spiritual practice must start with an understanding of what the Buddha taught, what the aim of his teaching was, and that must start with an understanding of the one word that was the cornerstone of his teaching: dukkha.
Defining the Undefinable but Ever Present
No single English word adequately captures the full depth, range, and subtlety of the crucial Pali term dukkha. Over the years, many translations of the word have been used ("stress," "unsatisfactoriness," "suffering," etc.). Each has its own merits in a given context. There is value in not letting oneself get too comfortable with any one particular translation of the word, since the entire thrust of Buddhist practice is the broadening and deepening of one's understanding of dukkha until its roots are finally exposed and eradicated once and for all. One helpful rule of thumb: as soon as you think you've found the single best translation for the word, think again: for no matter how you describe dukkha, it's always deeper, subtler, and more unsatisfactory than that.
Dukkha is, from a definition by Buddhist scholar Francis Story: Disturbance, irritation, dejection, worry, despair, fear, dread, anguish, anxiety; vulnerability, injury, inability, inferiority; sickness, aging, decay of body and faculties, senility; pain/pleasure; excitement/boredom; deprivation/excess; desire/frustration, suppression; longing/aimlessness; hope/hopelessness; effort, activity, striving/repression; loss, want, insufficiency/satiety; love/lovelessness, friendlessness; dislike, aversion/attraction; parenthood/childlessness; submission/rebellion; decision/indecisiveness, vacillation, uncertainty.
Three Roots of Dukkha
(The Three Poisons: Greed, Anger, and Delusion)
What we notice from meditation is that we only do things, when all is said and done, to get more of what we want, what we like, what we think we should have or should be, or inversely, to get less of the things we don’t want, don’t like, and don’t think we should have.
We notice, as we watch our body and breath, that this constant desire for more is unending. We always need and want something more. This is the operant model we use for processing information. We filter all our experiences through this “greed” lens, storing all our memories in stories about whether we want more of this type of event or less.
We do this because of our delusion that the world should be other than what it is, and that if we can only get it to be our way, everything will be fine and we will be happy. This is nonsense. For it to work, everyone in the world would have to want things to be my way.
Because of this way of processing our lives, we are never able to be satisfied. And to make things worst, when we don’t get what we want, we become angry (everything from mild irritation to wrath arises from our greed and delusion).
This anger shadows our lives, an anger that arises from never getting enough, always having to protect and defend, never being satisfied. Simply put, we must overcome our greed and anger and delusion if we are to end our suffering. That is what the Buddha taught: life must be all about purifying ourselves and ending our suffering. Why would we choose anything else?
If you pay attention (to your body and breath) for just five minutes, you learn that pleasant sensations lead to the desire that these sensations will stay and that unpleasant sensations lead to the hope that they will go away. And both the attraction and the aversion amount to tension in the mind. Both are uncomfortable. So in the first minutes, you get a big lesson about suffering: wanting things to be other than what they are. Such a tremendous amount of truth to be learned just closing your eyes and paying attention to [your breath and] bodily sensations. –Sylvia Boorstein.
Try This Five Minute Meditation Now
Arrange yourself in a comfortable, upright position, in a chair or cross-legged on a sofa or the floor. Bring your attention to the sensation of breathing. Take a few deep breaths, observing the breaths at your abdomen. Find a spot in your abdomen where you can easily track your breath, allow yourself to breath normally, and focus there. Stay with that spot, noticing how it feels as you breathe in and out. Don't force the breath, or bear down too heavily with your focus. Let the breath flow naturally, and simply keep track of how it feels.
If your mind wanders off, simply bring it back.
Observe the breathe in that spot for a minute or so, then shift to a spot two-inches to the right of the original location. Notice how it feels in this new spot. Observe it there for a minute or so, then shift to a spot two-inches to the left of the original location. Again, notice how it feels in this new location. Observe it for a minute or so, then shift to a spot about two-inches above the original location. Again, observe it for a minute, then shift to a spot two-inches below the original location.
Finally, take a few noticeable, deep breaths and then gently open your eyes and consider how each spot felt different, how your created affinities and aversions, how you made your dukkha.
The Causes of Suffering
If we really want to end our suffering, we need some idea of what causes it. On the most basic level, the cause of suffering is our story-telling. As we experienced in the five-minute meditation above, we create our own suffering, we codify it into stories about what is good and fair, comfortable and satisfying, rather than allowing ourselves to just be present with what is.
To end our suffering, therefore, we have to eliminate the story-telling. This is best done methodically. It cannot be accomplished simply by an act of will, by wanting them to go away. The work must be guided by investigation.
Start by noticing the depth and breath of your stories.
Observe that all stories are fabrications, fictions, not real.
Next, notice the general structure of all story: they desire things to be other than what they are.
Then, observe how we attach to our stories, believe them to be true and accurate, protect and defend these foolish fictions.
Finally, stop believing your stories, stop believe that anything your mind tells you is true.
While you are practicing this, study hard the Two Truths, which will be the subject of a future blog.