In life there is suffering. Suffering is caused. Suffering can end. The way to its
end is through the practice of discipline, concentration, and wisdom. It might seem
pessimistic for the Buddha to say that in life there is suffering. But he did not
leave it at that for like a good doctor, he diagnosed the fundamental problem of
life and declared it: Life involves suffering. As a caring doctor, he optimistically
determined that a cure exists, and prescribed the requisite treatment: proper practice
and right understanding.
Upon hearing that in life there is suffering, people often say they do not “suffer.”
We might understand better if we think of life as never being completely satisfactory.
We very often feel some degree of physical or mental discomfort. At other times in
our lives, we all undergo genuine suffering. Initially, we undergo the trauma of
birth; later, we experience disease and illness. Many of us will undergo aging, and
none of us will escape death.
Regardless of whether we say suffering or non-satisfaction, all beings are subject
to distress. Simply put, things usually do not go as we wish. Suffering is inherent
in everything within our existence. Thus, this is the first truth: in life there
What causes suffering? Ignorance and greed. Ignorance is the lack of understanding
that all conditioned things are impermanent and void of an everlasting individual
identity. Greed is the craving and attachment for material things or pleasant experiences
and much more.
All of us have greed, desires, and attachments for things, people, life, and more.
Why? We are deluded, and in our unawareness we do not see things as they really are.
We do not understand that life is suffering, that suffering is caused by craving,
that suffering can end, and that there is a way to its end.
When we do not get what we want, we become annoyed. When we lose what we have, we
feel resentful. When we are unable to be with people we like, we become irritated.
These are all forms of anger. Anger has its roots in the discriminatory and mistaken
idea that “I am an individual” and, consequently, that I need to protect my ideas
and possessions; that I need to protect who I am individually. Ignorance leads us
to think in terms of gain or loss, plus and minus: that I need to protect what is
mine, whether it is a thing, an idea, or a person.
This concept of “mine” leads to selfishness, which in turn results in our wanting,
either of what we do not have or more of what we already have. Greed and anger arise
because we are ignorant and do not know that craving leads to more craving. This,
the Buddha said is the second truth: Suffering is caused.
The Buddha did not just tell us what the problem was—that life is suffering, that
our lives are filled with dissatisfaction, that we are unhappy much of the time—and
then leave it at that. He went on and explained that this suffering is caused by
our own greed which comes from our ignorance. And then he told us unequivocally that
there is a way to end this suffering.
We can do this by eliminating our selfishness. When our greed and attachments no
longer exist, suffering ceases, and the state of Nirvana is attained. Nirvana is
the state in which we are permanently liberated from our suffering. In this state,
there is no thought of “me” or “mine,” and there is no more greed, anger, and ignorance.
There is peace, love, wisdom, and a level of complete happiness that we cannot imagine
or begin to describe.
The Buddha did not tell us about suffering to take the joy out of our lives. He did
not intend that we should feel that life was depressing or unbearable or hopeless.
He wanted to shake us out of our complacency. He hoped that we would awaken and replace
our current state of ignorance with one of understanding. To deny that suffering
exists is pointless. But to become immersed in feelings of hopelessness is equally
futile. We need to follow the middle path and find an inner balance, to neither drown
in nor ignore suffering, but to strive to overcome our unsatisfactory existence.
Thus, we now realize the third truth: Suffering can end.
The way to its end is the fourth truth: practice. Different traditions and teachers
may explain the practice in slightly different ways, but the essence of practice
is the threefold learning of discipline, concentration, and wisdom.