SUFFERING AND THE END OF SUFFERING: The Context of Practice
by Philip L. Jones
All of the practices that have been presented on this site are actually tools for exploring our lives. The context for this exploration is provided by four statements called the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha found these statements to be true in his own life. Then he presented them when he first began teaching and continued to use them throughout the remaining 45 years of his life. These Four Truths are:
There is suffering.
There is a cause of suffering.
There is freedom from suffering.
There is a way to the end of suffering.
Although the Four Noble Truths are at the core of the Buddha's teaching, one doesn't have to be a Buddhist to recognize their veracity. All one has to do is look at one's own life. This is all the Buddha asked his students to do. Each of these truths will be explored briefly. After studying these Four Truths, investigate them for yourself. See whether you find them to be true in your life as well.
There is Suffering
This simple statement is very powerful. It is an acknowledgement of a basic reality of life: There is suffering. It doesn't say that all of life is suffering. It simply acknowledges that suffering is part of life. People often find relief in this statement. They often feel that if they only lived the right way, then everything would be ok and they would not suffer. But because they do suffer, they feel that there must be something wrong with them. Hearing this simple statement "There is suffering." can offer reassurance that they are not bad or crazy after all. They are simply experiencing life as it sometimes is.
Suffering comes in a number of forms. One form is the suffering which might more accurately be called pain. Having a physical body means that there will be pain. There are many kinds of pain including hunger pains, itches, aches and pains and physical illness. There is also the pain of loss that occurs naturally as human relationships change over the life cycle. These kinds of pain or suffering are an unavoidable part of the human experience.
Another form of suffering comes from wishing that things were different from the way that they are. Most simply, we want pleasant things to stay pleasant and we want unpleasant things to go away. This form of suffering comes from fighting with reality. Short of totally denying reality, this is a fight that can't be won. Reality is the way that it is. Pleasant things come and go, as do unpleasant things.
Whether one is experiencing the pain that comes with life or the suffering that comes from fighting reality, there is suffering. We often resist experiencing and knowing suffering, doing everything we can to escape from it. But the first step in freedom is often knowing and accepting what is present in this moment. So as we practice it is useful to notice when we are in fact suffering. Sometimes the suffering is fairly close to the surface and all we have to do is quiet the mind for it to be seen and experienced clearly. At other times, though, it can be a slow process of first seeing clearly and accepting the various forms of resistance, such as anger, sleepiness and restlessness. This is sort of like peeling away layers of an onion. Once the suffering is clearly seen and there is acceptance, there is often a shift in the experience.
There is a Cause of Suffering
This is actually a very optimistic statement. If there is a cause of suffering, it means that suffering doesn't just happen on a random basis. If there is a cause, it means that we may be able to do something to change the cause so that we experience a different result. For instance, we may not be able to avoid pain, but the way that we react to it may determine whether we also experience suffering.
If there is a cause of suffering, then it is important to understand how it is created. When the Buddha turned inward and looked into his own life, he discovered that craving, wanting things to be a certain way, was the cause of suffering. Look into your own life. When you want things to be other than the way that they are, does this cause suffering? In what areas of your life does this wish operate? If you notice that you are suffering, sometimes it is useful to investigate with mindfulness, acceptance and compassion to see if there is something that is being held onto or resisted. Is there a cause for the suffering?
There is Freedom from Suffering
Fortunately, we do not suffer all of the time. All of us have at least a few moments each day in which we are at peace with our lives. This provides us with some proof that freedom from suffering is possible. There are two words that are sometimes used to describe this quality of freedom: equanimity and contentment. Both of them point to an ability to be at peace with the way that life is in this moment, whether it is joyous, ecstatic, mildly amusing, irritating or downright difficult. Some people are able to live with a teeny bit of equanimity. Some people have a moderate amount of it. And some people have complete contentment. In A Still Forest Pool, Ajahn Chah, the twentieth century Thai Buddhist teacher, summed it up this way:
"If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end."
When you experience suffering and then meet it with acceptance, letting go into it, then what do you experience? What is it like on the other side of letting go?
There is a Way to the End of Suffering
If, as Ajahn Chah says, finding peace or contentment involves letting go, then how does one learn to let go and what to let go? This Fourth Truth presents a model for aligning one's life with contentment. It is called the Noble Eightfold Path, which is described more fully in another article on this site.
It is one thing to read about these Four Truths and to know them intellectually. But unless we make these truths our own by looking deeply into our own lives, they will not help us when life gets difficult. There is only one person who can verify that these statements are really true. That person is you.
So, please explore these Four Truths by looking at your own life with mindfulness and compassion.