September 27, 2016

From the Buddhist Point of View: What is Suffering?

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” ~ Jalaluddin Rumi

When I was a kid I thought life was supreme.

As I grew up, I ascertained that most often life fails to live up to my expectations. I saw suffering everywhere and I experienced it myself.

External factors affected me so much that I became suffering itself. I perceived this suffering as temporary, or a sort of test before life became stable and supreme again.

It wasn’t long before I realized that what I perceived as “suffering” was skewed. Thankfully, traveling has also helped me change my impression of what I thought was true.

Apart from deeming suffering as transient, I thought that people who are deprived of basic needs suffer more. When I had interactions with these people, in particular in India, I saw another side of suffering.

There are plenty of people whose life circumstances and needs are not in their favor, yet they are happy—they aren’t suffering. On the other hand, I see people who have everything they wish for but are quite miserable. Throughout my daily life, I meet jobless people who are quite satisfied, yet meet others with stable jobs who are wretchedly discontented. I see happy single people, then meet miserable ones in relationships.

I have realized that suffering isn’t transient at all and most definitely, it has nothing to do with conditions. In fact, it is existing at all times. Buddhism has played a major role in helping me understand the phenomena of suffering. It’s helped me grasp where it truly lies: within us.

At last, I could see that there is an equal amount of suffering happening inside and outside of us. The only difference is that we only have control over what’s taking place inside.

Lama Yeshe emphasizes that the whole idea of “controlling” our inner world isn’t an Eastern or Buddhist thing. It’s a universal inclination that affects those of us who are caught up in the materialistic world and too involved emotionally and psychologically with our objects of attachment.

So, what is the true meaning of suffering?

Lama Yeshe explains that mental agitation is suffering. Dissatisfaction is suffering.

When Lord Buddha talked about it, he didn’t mean the pain of a wound or the kind of mental anguish that we often experience. Even when we say that we’re happy, we’ll still find at the core of our minds traces of dissatisfaction.

From the Buddhist point of view, the fact that we can’t control our minds is suffering (which is worse than physical suffering).

When I learned about this notion, I could finally comprehend why people with less basic needs are happy while the ones who are rich are miserable. Being poor or rich isn’t really my point here. What I’m trying to say is that conditions never dictate our state of mind.

That being said, suffering is mental but never physical. Even if we experience physical suffering, we can take the edge off of it when it is dealt with a positive and pure attitude.

In one of the courses that Lama Yeshe held in Nepal, one student asked him, “Why do we all experience suffering and what do we learn from it?”

I was intrigued by Lama Yeshe’s answer:

“That’s so simple, isn’t it? Why are you suffering? Because you’re too involved in acting out of ignorance and grasping with attachment. You learn from suffering by realizing where it comes from and exactly what it is that make you suffer. In our infinite previous lives, we have had so many experiences but we still haven’t learned that much. Many people think that they are learning from their experiences, but they’re not.”

Reflecting on what Lama Yeshe said, I found an undeniable truth in his words. We always claim that we learn from our experiences. But, do we really? Outer suffering will always be there, however, it will never be eradicated as long as we don’t learn how to mindfully deal with it.

In the past, I misunderstood the term “eradicating suffering”. I thought something, somewhere outside of me, in my daily life, would change (and this is why I kept blaming outer factors for my own misery). It turned out that I was completely wrong.

Just like Buddhism says, it is scientifically impossible for the world to change in one day so radically. If I see the world beautiful today, yet ugly tomorrow, it’s not because the world has changed; it’s because my mind has.

Understanding this, I have learned to accept that the world outside, with all its impermanent phenomena, is constant in its own way. Nonetheless, I am the one who is repeatedly changing. My opinions, my beliefs, my views, my emotions, and my thoughts are changing.

The only way to bring about a perfect balance between myself and the universe is to turn my mind as the constant here. This is how we walk in perfect harmony with everything else. When our minds are constant, we will stop labeling events and conditions as good or bad. We will stop seeking happiness through material objects and joyful situations.

Mostly, we will realize that suffering is man’s creation.

Instead of wondering whether we should see the glass half-full or empty, perhaps we should start practicing not seeing the glass at all. The glass, just like life, is an illusion. What Buddhists really mean is that everything around us isn’t as solid and real as we believe it to be. If we can truly understand this concept, we wouldn’t stop at every misery that’s taking place without. Rather, we’d apply the mind control that Lama Yeshe talked about.

We can also see the impermanent nature of the “glass”. Eventually, one day it will break. Our inner suffering will decrease to a great extent if we behold this truth.

As Dzongsar Khyentse says, “Change is inevitable. If you feel hopeless, remember this and you no longer will have a reason to be hopeless, because whatever is causing you despair will also change.”


Source: Becoming Your Own Therapist, Lama Yeshe.


Author: Elyane Youssef

Image: Luiz Fernando/Flickr

Editor: Caitlin Oriel

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