One of the most important words in the Pali language, from the perspective of early Buddhist teachings, is dukkha. This word points to the uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable moments, when we are confronted with that which we do not like and do not want. The moments when we tend to get swept up in reactivity. The felt-sense of the word’s meaning can be described as a four-wheeled wagon with one of the wheels not fitting well into its axle. This makes for a bumpy ride. There really isn’t one good word in the English language to explain the various nuances of dukkha. The early translators of Buddhist scriptures in Victorian England chose “suffering.” More recently, we have “stress,” “unsatisfactoriness,” “reactivity,” and “discontent.”
The Buddha’s aspiration was to learn how to cope successfully with the undeniable fact that dukkha happens in every human life. His eventual awakening gave him clarity on how to live in a world where things are often startling, unpleasant, unpredictable, and unreliable. He realized a way to not perpetuate and grow more dukkha once it has arisen. His first teaching presents an instruction guide on creating a harmonious life for ourselves and for those we share the world with.
This basic four-part guide is called the Four Noble Truths or the Four Ennobling Tasks or, sometimes, the Twelve Insights. Its purpose is to help us experience a happier, more meaningful life in which we feel both warmly connected to others and more courageous and bold in our own authenticity. This important teaching is a core part of the philosophical underpinnings of the Buddhist Insight tradition, of which VIMS is a part. This month our three regular sitting groups are embarking on period of studying, practicing and integrating these insights into our lives. We’ll be reading Phillip Moffitt’s Dancing with Life as an aid to our explorations. Whether or not you are able to participate in our groups, please join us in reading the book and reflecting on this important teaching with us.
“You should not underestimate this challenge, as it demands that you voluntarily show up for your own [life] with no agenda other than knowing the truth of it.”
–– Phillip Moffitt, Dancing with Life, Chapter 1
The first step in the guidebook to a happier life is contrary to our initial instinct to flee and withdraw from the uncomfortable; instead, we are encouraged to move towards the moments of dukkha with self-compassion and interest––to embrace and fully open to its challenges. It is important for us to understand that dukkha arises in everyone’s life. Though it is not always present, it will be at times. It is unavoidable. As living beings, we are subject to pain in our bodies and our minds. Illness, aging, and injury are inevitable. The people, animals, places, and objects that we hold dear will change and pass away. We know that we are not fully in control of them or of the experiences that arise in our outer or inner lives. As human beings, our lives are conditioned. This is not our fault; it is simply the way things are. The arising of stress or a negative emotion is not under your control; but once you are aware of it with kind acceptance, you can be more proactive in its unfolding.
The second instruction arises out of the first. In it, we are encouraged to look for the underlying cause of the growing discontent. Some have called this mental factor, which perpetuates and increases dukkha, “clinging,” “desire,” “reactivity,” “denial,” or “ignorance.” What might you call it? What happens in your own life that causes a painful experience to generate more distress? Once we know the cause, understand it and recognize its presence, we are encouraged to abandon it, to let it be, to not fuel it with further rumination, self-criticism, or dogged resistance.
The third step is to recognize those moments when dukkha is not present, when the ride of life is not bumpy, and to savor the experiences of contentment and ease. There are plenty of these times in our life. We are encouraged to know happiness and peace of mind directly, to savor them, and not to cling to them. Such moments give us a sense of the direction in which we want to aim the heart and the mind. An embodied knowledge of happiness (in Pali, sukkah) will fuel the next step. This fourth and final step is the Eightfold path, a series of practices and reflections that will stabilize and open our experience of freedom.
This instruction guide from 2,500 years ago gives us a way for our lives and our relationships with all beings to flourish; a way to create a caring, peaceful culture. We live in a very complex time, one with great wealth and great poverty, and one with much suffering. Our world changes constantly and rapidly in surprising ways: sometimes these new arisings are clear and wonderful, sometimes murky and terrifying. How do we find a way through the uncertainties of our daily individual and collective lives? This is what the Buddha’s teachings are concerned with: this, and only this.
“The first noble truth leads us to the practice of compassion, because it is the practice of letting things in, letting people in, letting all parts of ourselves in.”
––Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening