July 22, 2013

Is All of Life Suffering? ~ Daniel Scharpenburg

Painting: David G Arenson ND

The Buddha taught the four noble truths.


  • All of life is suffering.
  • The cause of suffering is attachment.
  • There is a way out of suffer
  • The way out of suffering is the eightfold path.

The First Noble Truth is essentially the foundation of all of Buddhist philosophy, so it’s worth scrutinizing further.

The Buddha said, “All that I teach is suffering and the way out of suffering.” Sounds like more of a life coach than religious teacher, doesn’t he?

I’ve heard these questions: Is all of life really suffering? Can that be true? Isn’t that a really negative way of looking at life?

I don’t know if you’ve met a lot of Buddhists, but we don’t tend to look at life in a really negative way. “All of life is suffering” does sound really negative. It makes it sound like Buddhists are all weird goth kids who sit around writing bad poetry about how sad they are or something, but this is not the case.

Obviously plenty of things in life are not suffering—hearing my children laugh, having my cat come sit with me when I meditate, and making love. All of these things are clearly not suffering.

So, what’s the deal? Did the Buddha tell us something that’s only partly true? Is the foundation of Buddhism shaky?

Suffering is a partially adequate word for it, of course. The connotations involve things not going the way we want them to, life not meeting our expectations. Suffering, in this context, represents not the pain of life, but the way our minds sometimes tend to make things worse.

If I lose my keys, that’s a problem, but if I start to get stressed out and frantic about the fact that I lost my keys, that makes the problem much worse than it was initially. That is what is meant by life is suffering. A better way to put it might be to say, we have a tendency to exacerbate our suffering. The Buddha taught, “How to stop exacerbating our suffering.”

We have to remember an important thing. The Buddha didn’t use the word, “suffering.” He couldn’t have, because he didn’t speak English. He spoke a language called Pali and the word he used was dukkha. We only use the word suffering because that was the original translation the first time someone translated a Buddhist text into English.

So, what does dukkha mean? It’s been translated as suffering, or stressful, or unsatisfactory. The way I see it, those terms have the some problems.

What does dukkha really mean?

It has several connotations in the original language. It can mean suffering, but it can also mean always changing, or impermanent.

Imagine if the original translation was “all of life is change” instead of “all of life is suffering.”

Things change all the time and many things change that we wish wouldn’t. Some change is good and some is bad, but change happens whether we like it or not. People do struggle with this. It’s the most obvious in the way that people try to avoid aging since aging is a sure sign of impermanence. As we get older, we have a constant reminder that things are always changing. Some people handle this well and some don’t.

Do change and impermanence relate to suffering? Obviously they do. We lose things we want to keep forever, up to and including our youth and our health.

I would translate it as “life will never be perfect” instead of “life is suffering” if it were up to me. We sometimes think that if our life is a certain way we will finally stop suffering. That’s not really how the world works, but it’s an intellectual trap that we can easily fall into.

I humbly suggest that we stop using the word suffering. There are some words that are difficult to translate, such as words for which we just use the original terms: dharma, sangha, karma, and Buddha. We’ve decided to use these words instead of English equivalents because it’s simply too hard to adequately convey their meaning in translation.

I think dukkha should be added to this list because when we say, “all of life is suffering,” it can easily give people the wrong idea.

The four noble truths may seem simple at first, but understanding them can be difficult.



Like elephant Buddhadharma on Facebook


Assistant Ed: Dana Gornall/Ed: Brianna Bemel

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

danielschar Jul 22, 2013 4:33pm

thanks for the comment, Padma.

That's why my final argument on the subject was that we should simply use the word 'dukkha'.

Padma Kadag Jul 22, 2013 8:04am

Suffering is the concept that most often turns people away from buddhism. I agree. There is the truth of suffering. The major point in mahayana and vajrayana is when we observe others they are in a constant state of suffering whether they are aware or not, whether they believe what makes them always temporarily happy will end in dissappointment which is suffering. Ignorance to the nature of samsara creates suffering because we continue to act in ways to alleviate our wanting to be happy with no success. It is the believing in the illusion that creates dukkha. This is suffering. We see all beings suffering and we feel compassion. To say, " “life will never be perfect", does not speak to alll of the categories of suffering nor the heartfelt compassion one must generate for all beings.Watering down buddhism to entice people into a teaching does not teach buddhism. The Buddha did not leave his kingdom to find an end to "life will never be perfect".

Read Elephant’s Best Articles of the Week here.
Readers voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares:
Click here to see which Writers & Issues Won.

Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg lives in Kansas City. He’s been practicing Buddhism for nearly 20 years. He teaches at the Open Heart Project Sangha and is a Zen Teacher (Fashi) in the Dharma Winds Zen Order. His main focus is on mindfulness practices rooted in the earliest Zen teachings and compassion practices rooted in the Bodhisattva Tradition. He has taken Bodhisattva Vows and Brahmajala Precepts and he is affiliated with the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun.
Find out more about Daniel on his blog and connect with him on Facebook