The Three Types of Suffering in Buddhism – Dukkha

The Four Noble Truths are of great significance and their understanding is highly important.

The First Truth, The Noble Truth of Suffering, does not analyze suffering on a superficial level alone, as we commonly know it (physical or mental suffering), but also the different levels of suffering: suffering of suffering, suffering of change and omni-penetrating suffering.

These ways of defining suffering truly correspond with our situation.

We need to understand The Three Types of Suffering (Dukkha) so that we can engage in the practice of Dharma sincerely.

The suffering of suffering

The analysis of our own example of human beings demonstrates that we have within us all suffering, not lacking any of them, living them all. We endure all.

We endure all, starting with the most obvious up to the most hidden: depression, pain, hardship, hunger, and thirst …

All these types of physical and mental suffering are part of our own experience. This doesn’t mean that we bear the pain all the time, such as illness for instance. However, even a healthy person can suffer: may feel all types of suffering, at different levels anytime.

We are constantly concerned about decreasing suffering, for example, continuously looking for food and drink, because these are indispensable to us. If we lack these even for one day, the unbearable suffering immediately begins.

When it comes to fasting, we are able to bear the lack of food for two or three days, without suffering too much. However, not drinking any water may be a suffering that can shortly ruin us. This is our type of existence: fragile and vulnerable, possessing the nature of the most obvious and coarse suffering.

However, in relation to other sentient beings, we are more fortunate, as we have favorable conditions that allow us to meet our basic needs with a certain easiness.f

Indeed finding food and drink is not that hard. In addition, we live in a quiet and pleasant environment, in which most of the people are being friendly. This is due to the existing positive conditions.

On the contrary, if we were in a less favorable situation, for instance being unable to get food and drink easily, this pleasant aspect would disappear immediately. Our life would become very unpleasant and in a relatively short time, unbearable. In such a situation we would suffer increasingly more.

So it is with our mind. Its nature is similar: the slightest thing can influence our state of contentment.

For instance, if we lose a friend or someone offends us, if we are not appreciated at our true value or someone misbehaves, the pleasant state of contentment until then immediately turns into one of suffering and sadness. We can easily understand that our situation depends on conditions of no great importance and that it can radically change fast enough.

In addition, as a human being, we bear sickness, old age and finally, the greatest suffering: death. These sufferings can not be avoided. There is no method or way to dodge them. Therefore, we can conclude that our way of existence possesses the very nature of suffering, belonging to the first type of suffering.

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Dalai Lama said:

Dalai Lama

„On top of the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death, we encounter the pains of facing the unpleasant, separating from the pleasant, and not finding what we want. The basic problem lies with the type of mind and body that we have. Our mind-body complex serves as a basis for present sufferings in the form of aging, sickness, and death, and promotes future suffering through our usual responses to painful situations.”

The suffering of change

The superficial and temporary happiness (physical pleasure, satisfaction or mental contentment) that we can enjoy, are not pure but possess the nature of suffering.

All these joys are short-lived and quickly disappear. In addition, they are very limited because when we reach a certain point, the happiness that we feel begins to diminish. This is the very proof of the second aspect of suffering. All contentment and happiness that we gain by (material) enrichment, end in sadness and loss; all contentment of a meeting knows the pain of separation in the end; all happiness and satisfaction that earnings offer, social situation or reputation bring the suffering of wealth loss or decadence.

All these types of happiness that we encounter during our existence are brief and very limited. At some point, they begin to degenerate.

Those who are in power and are attached to it or their high position, do everything possible not to lose these benefits, but sooner or later they will not have these advantages anymore and will leave this position. The vast majority of those who were before in this advantageous position had to leave it in the meantime.

The beginning of life is an event which we consider out of the ordinary. The birth of a baby is such a happy moment that we celebrate it each year. On a conventional level, birth is a joyful moment, but we have to realize that this life will end with the sadness of funeral, with death.

That’s life: at first, there is the joy of living, being born, and then everything always ends the same way.

Be careful though!

Even when we enjoy the happiness and pleasures we have to be careful and temperate, to take advantage of it correctly, convenient and wisely, because, otherwise, it can immediately turn into a cause of suffering.

Take for instance food, which is generally a great pleasure. If we eat improperly, with attachment and greed or too much, this act quickly becomes distasteful. In addition, by repeating this, it can cause us physical suffering, even becoming a danger to our health.

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We see that the simple act of eating, very pleasant at first, it will change into something undesirable: after a holiday where we ate and drank too much, we don’t feel good, our stomach is turned inside out because of the throwing up and also we may experience heavy head sensations.

By running blinded after these pleasures, the actions that we carry won’t be useful to us, but they will change into causes of suffering. Various obsessions about these pleasures end up turning against us. This is also true for various joys that we encounter in our current life.

For this reason, when the Buddha classified various phenomena, he introduced conventional happiness into the suffering of change category, because in reality, it is not true happiness. Being happy means only a change in a specific category or in a different kind of suffering.

For those who suffer from loneliness or solitude is an unpleasant situation, meeting a friend appears as great happiness at first. Another example: someone who is hungry for a long time, will be extremely excited and happy when he finds food (no matter how shabby it).

The reality, however, is different: what we consider as happiness, it isn’t in fact true. Whenever a pleasant event occurs, it appears as being happiness; but in reality, this event is nothing but the diminishing of suffering that was unbearable to us before. This is the process that seems to be happiness or joy to us.

For one who is satiated, eating is not a great satisfaction. But the hungrier we are, the more eating becomes a pleasure. These levels of happiness depend on other happiness or are preceded by other sufferings. What seems to be happiness to us, is not nothing but a change of form of the suffering that we used to bear before.

In any case, this happiness is neither true, nor sustainable, nor pure.

In the cycle of existences, happiness’ feature is that it is based on suffering. Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t eat or to be always hungry? The Buddha has indicated this kind of suffering just so we don’t mistake it for high happiness, the ultimate one, which we have to reach at any cost.

“The suffering of change is that which is pleasant when arising, pleasant when remaining, but painful when ceasing.” – quote from the Sutras.

The omni-penetrating suffering

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The omni-penetrating suffering is clearly perceived in the current conditions in which we live: indeed, we have no control over our current situation, the destiny, actions, and over our own mind. This is the deepest suffering.

Although all beings wish for happiness, we see that they meet (just like us) unaccountable difficulties and sufferings, that they are subject to aging, illness, and death. Therefore, we can not avoid these undesirable events, we have no control over them, we are not free from them, but we live and obey them.

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In addition, after death, we have no certainty regarding future existences, having no control over them. We can not reborn as we would like because rebirth occurs due to the force of karma. This is our true situation, in which we have to be born, to live, to die and be reborn again: we have no freedom. If we had a choice, we would like a perfect rebirth or existence, without problems and suffering.

Unfortunately, we can not obtain such a rebirth.

Nothing can happen like this because everything depends on cause and conditions. We have no control over our future existences and we have no means by which to get what we want.

This lack of control is obvious and we can understand it by referring to our own existence: we came into this world with no possibility of control; we were born not knowing where we are coming, in a total lack of knowledge. We suddenly appeared somewhere without knowing how.

Likewise, we live without having any power over what happens to us, and at the end of life, we will have to die and be reborn again, without any freedom. This lack of freedom over our situation comes mainly from the fact that until now we have not gained any control over our mind.f

We may even state that we are led by the mind, which, in turn, is dominated entirely by mental disturbances. Our mental states are the result of mental disturbances, which cause a series of suffering to us and everyone else.

Being under the mind’s control, which is dominated by mental disturbances, places us in a paradoxical context: we want happiness, but not only do we never reach it, but also we end up getting suffering. This lack of control and freedom is the deepest suffering of beings from the “cycle of existences“ (samsara). It is a pain which we live continually.

“Suffering originates from various causes and conditions. But the root cause of our pain and suffering lies in our own ignorant and undisciplined state of mind. The happiness we seek can be attained only through the purification of our minds.” – Dalai Lama’s quote.

These are the different types of suffering that are part of our current existence. Our situation is by no means perfect, we have neither peace nor lasting happiness. On the contrary, we are subject to all possible sufferings.

This description of our situation is absolutely precise, is by no means exaggerated or underestimated. The Buddha explained it in the same way in his teachings on the “Four Noble Truths”. It is therefore very important to understand it and live by our own experience.

Post inspired by Gonsar Rinpoche’s teachings.

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1 thought on “The Three Types of Suffering in Buddhism – Dukkha”

  1. Thank you very much for this inspiring text. It gives a broader understanding of one’s/my own suffering. Contemplating this text allows me to see more clearly, where I am momentarly on the road to buddhaship.
    Even as I am not sure and somehow sceptical about issues like reincarnation, I am able, as my mind functions more on a sceptical, but open mind, to understand its deep meaning.
    My mother language is german, my english is quite good, but far away to being perfect. I used, instead of looking solemly for each not unclear understood word, the google translation tool. I have to say, it works astoundig good, even with grammar!

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