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TOPIC: The truth of dukkha

The truth of dukkha 24 Apr 2015 14:57 #98473

As long as you draw breath, there is dukkha. It's not because you are doing it wrong. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand Buddhism.

This is my opinion. What is yours?
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 09:04 #98482

What this pointer piques in me is a reminder to question motives to use practice to fix my life.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 09:17 #98483

I respectfully disagree. I think it is possible to eradicate one's suffering completely while one is still alive. The Four Noble Truths seem to agree. Where is the misunderstanding?
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 10:19 #98485

I find that I suffer less when I don't have expectations that I can eliminate suffering. It's paradoxical, but not really, because a lot of my suffering came from needing to "fix" myself. This doesn't mean I don't have things I need to attend to. I need medical care, for example. My son needs guidance and positive role models in his life. At all stages of life, people need constructive interactions with others.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 10:23 #98486

I wonder if these 2 views are necessarily mutually exclusive, or if the former could be a skillful means toward the latter? It's an important point that you raise, I'm really interested. (Laurel, didn't see your post. Yeah, I was wondering if it could be a seeming paradox but not necessarily? But it may also be a legitimate challenge.)
Last Edit: 25 Apr 2015 10:30 by Kacchapa.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 11:45 #98488

Riffing on the idea of paradox (which means simply something that appears self-contradictory, not something that is self-contradictory), and along the lines of my current ruminations on "what makes the first truth, that of suffering, 'noble' as opposed to simply factual?"

It seems, both in practice and in some of the teaching stories that have been handed down, that we're being invited to look and see if it is not true that everywhere we look, within ourselves and in the larger world, there is gross suffering or subtle unsatisfactoriness. Some of the teaching points to the impossibility of attaining a permanent state of perfection, even if we are lucky enough to have a perfect moment, or a series of them; some of them point to the universality of pain and loss.

Spending time with open eyes and hearts taking in the truth of suffering, paradoxically releases us into compassionate awareness-- the antithesis of a major source of suffering: the tight bonds of "me versus them/it." And it is not a matter of undergoing a rigorous regime to set a wrong right: it is a matter of allowing the snake to un-knot itself, the truth to reveal itself.

Off the top; so far.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 12:04 #98489

Kate, you said what I meant, only more completely. :)
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 13:06 #98492

Jake Yeager:
I think it is possible to eradicate one's suffering completely while one is still alive.

This discussion gets nuanced and thus definitions of our terms are helpful. So, Jake, when you use the term "suffering" what do you mean? My observation is that there are several distinctly different meanings of the word "suffering" so we will need to discern that before we can go much further. This request would apply to Kenneth's original comment, too.
Last Edit: 25 Apr 2015 13:48 by Chris Marti.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 14:19 #98493

Jake Yeager wrote:
I respectfully disagree. I think it is possible to eradicate one's suffering completely while one is still alive. The Four Noble Truths seem to agree. Where is the misunderstanding?

Hi Jake,

This is one of my favorite discussions, because it cuts to the core of Buddhism. What's more, understanding it has huge implications for pragmatic dharma. In other words, we can reasonably ask what the early Buddhists were trying to say, and whether they were right. If they were right, how can we benefit from their ideas and instructions in our own lives? If they were wrong, how can we improve upon their ideas and instructions?

Here is one interpretation of the Four Noble Truths:

1. There is dukkha.

For the purposes of this discussion, let's translate dukkha as "unsatisfactoriness, stress, suffering."

2. The cause of dukkha is tanha.

Let's define tanha as any sense whatsoever that you'd like this present experience to be other than it is.

3. There is an end to dukkha, namely nibbana.

My working definition of nibbana is absence of experience.

4. The recipe for nibbana is the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path is a fairly comprehensive set of instructions for both getting off the "wheel of death and rebirth" and for mitigating unecessary suffering while one remains living.


I like this simple formulation because it all hangs together. It assumes that the early Buddhists knew what they were talking about, because by these definitions they are not asking me to believe anything I cannot verify in my own experience. My observation is that tanha is an essential component of a living organism. We move toward things that tend toward individual and species survival, and away from things that tend toward individual death and species extinction. We can see this behavior even in bacteria, and we can see a kind of proto-tanha in plants as they move toward the light of the sun. In humans, tanha can be said to be unsatisfactory, stressful, and even suffering. Hence, dukkha. Since this constant reactivity to our environment is baked into us at the very deepest levels, it is implausible to expect it to stop while we continue to draw breath.

When I put all this together, it seems straightforward enough; dukkha and experience are inseparable. So the only way to be free of dukkha is to have no experience. Absence of experience is called nibbana.

This, however, does not leave open the possibility of eradicating dukkha while still living, and this can seem harsh, even offensive to modern sensibilities. Still, I appreciate the elegance of a conceptual framework that is internally consistent.

Finally, there is the fact that I've never met anyone who did not experience unsatisfactoriness, stress, and suffering, even though I've spent a reasonable amount of time in the company of advanced practitioners of Buddhism and other contemplative practices. Contemplative adepts often experience profound changes in the way they experience their lives over time, but they don't eradicate tanha or dukkha. In the rare cases where people have claimed such a thing, further exposure to them has led me to the conclusion that they were mistaken, and perhaps pathologically delusional.

Taken together, this leads me to a very down-to-earth view; awakening is possible and almost unimaginably beneficial for individual humans. There may also be societal benefits. Eradication of dukkha, however, where dukkha means unsatisfactoriness, stress, and sufffering while still alive, was never on the table and could not be, given the basic biology of the human organism. And that is fine with me... or at least I am willing to acknowledge that it is this way, even though I may wish it were otherwise. I would even go so far as to say that the more I am able to acknowledge that things are not the way I wish them to be, the more enlightened I feel, with a nod to the irony that what I used to think of as enlightenment seems a bit cartoonish from my current perspective, and that from that former perspective my current views seem a giant step backwards.

What are your thoughts?
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 15:30 #98495

Here's my (practical) take on the four truths:

1. There is dukkha.

Dukkha is having the identity as being "socially inadequate" or "physically wounded"

2. The cause of dukkha is tanha.

Tanha is instinctual craving that dependently wants to both "have a problem, so I can fix the problem". This creates an endless stressful cycle of being and wanting and being and wanting which is almost impossible to see in perspective.

3. There is an end to dukkha, namely nibbana.

Nibbana is the cooling/extinguishing of the assumption that >sensations< of inadequacy or woundedness means an >identity< of inadequacy or woundedness

4. The recipe for nibbana is the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path is living in a way that minimizes external "triggers" for feeling of inadequacy or woundedness, to help support practices that investigate and release the confusion of "sensations vs. identity" of inadequacy and woundedness. It can't just be a hobby because we're basically hacking the instinctual survival mechanism of "finding what's wrong and fixing it". Practice helps us see how entire worldviews arise dependent on sensations that imply an identity "I'm afraid because I feel afraid" or "I'm powerful because I feel powerful", etc. When we have insights into the tautology of worldviews and when the sensations of the survival instinct is seen through, we realize that concerns about survival (impermanence), comfort (suffering), and identity (no-self) cannot be fixed, yet they have been seen through so we don't get confused for these drives being our identity. Our survival, comfort, and identity needs are not what we >are<.. Life continues, nothing changes, but everything has changed.

Dang, not bad! :) That's been ruminating in my noggin for a while... Hope it adds to the conversation!
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 16:30 #98496

Kenneth-- I was with you, up to defining nibbana as the absence of experience. Maybe that reflects my lack of study of Theravadin interpretations; in Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings with which I have more familiarity, it is made clear that emptiness/absence of experience is never more than a provisional goal-- access to the "pause" button, if you will, rather than a permanent full stop. Otherwise, there are various ways of achieving oblivion that are more accessible than dharma practice.

My teachers have said that the ultimate nonduality is the nonduality of samsara and nirvana. So far, that seems both true and apprehensible.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 16:39 #98497

Yeah, I was going to say something along those lines, except that I'm of the "don't know" school when it comes to figuring out what nibbana is. I like what Kate says, even if I don't really understand it.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 17:33 #98499

Chris Marti wrote:
Jake Yeager:
I think it is possible to eradicate one's suffering completely while one is still alive.

This discussion gets nuanced and thus definitions of our terms are helpful. So, Jake, when you use the term "suffering" what do you mean? My observation is that there are several distinctly different meanings of the word "suffering" so we will need to discern that before we can go much further. This request would apply to Kenneth's original comment, too.

Hey Chris. I would define "suffering" as any emotion that arises due to attachment to the "objective" world. The objective world includes all phenomena that are or can be objectified by the "I," such as the body, sensations, thoughts, mental images, emotions, beliefs, friends, family, the natural world, froyo, etc.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 17:48 #98500

Kate Gowen wrote:
Kenneth-- I was with you, up to defining nibbana as the absence of experience. Maybe that reflects my lack of study of Theravadin interpretations; in Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings with which I have more familiarity, it is made clear that emptiness/absence of experience is never more than a provisional goal-- access to the "pause" button, if you will, rather than a permanent full stop. Otherwise, there are various ways of achieving oblivion that are more accessible than dharma practice.

So, it seems we can bypass the question of nibbana given that the Theravada and Mahayana interpretations of the word essentially cancel each other out.

We're left with the question of whether it's possible to walk around without dukkha, which seems to me to be a highly practical question. I think I hear you saying "no, I don't believe that." Am I reading you right? Laurel seems to also be saying "no." Jake says "yes." And Shargrol is defining dukkha in a unique way, but hasn't said whether he believes it's possible to live without it on an ongoing basis given his definition.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 18:04 #98502

I think the word dukka tends to be use in both the sensation sense as well as the identity sense. I can imagine a zen guy saying:

There is dukka that is not dukka,
and there is dukka that is dukka.
The dukka that is not dukka is known as dukka,
whereas the dukka that is dukka is dukka.
:D

My answer to the question "is it possible to live without it on an ongoing basis given my definition?" is sometimes yes, sometimes no. To create a world view where there is an entity called dukka which goes out of experience, exists somewhere where it is not experienced, and comes back into experience again would be a perfect example of creating an entity/identity out of a sensation (the sensation of dukka implying the identity of a entity called Dukka).
Last Edit: 25 Apr 2015 18:07 by shargrol.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 18:05 #98503

I think emotions, "good" and "bad" and all shades in between, are part and parcel of our humanity. I don't believe we can rid ourselves of them, nor do we want to (having no emotions would rob me of a lot of the beauty of being alive, frankly). That, then, leaves the more practical question of what the Buddha meant when he said that there is an end to dukkha. I know there are many explanations and variants but it appears obvious to me that dukkha is not emotions, per se. So, Jake, I believe I can have emotions of all kinds and not be attached to them or allow them to have me attaching to objects. And... that also squares nicely with my experience.

One more reply:
The objective world includes all phenomena that are or can be objectified by the "I,"...

The "I" is an object (really better described as a whole plethora of objects depending on circumstances) but it's just like all the others you named, so it isn't really the "I" that is objectifying things. This, too, is my experience.
Last Edit: 26 Apr 2015 11:11 by Chris Marti.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 18:13 #98504

"We're left with the question of whether it's possible to walk around without dukkha, which seems to me to be a highly practical question. I think I hear you saying "no, I don't believe that." Am I reading you right?"

Um, no, I don't think so. I don't think we define 'dukkha' the same way: you are defining it as a kind of self-existent, problematical 'thing'-- or so it seems to me-- whereas I would say that it is a quality, a coloration, of experience. As such, it can be changed by practice and insight. The way in which it is changed is not by ending it by obliviating, but by opening up our subjectivity to understanding both our own nature and that of experience. Meditation is the means by which this happens: and it effects a transformation in the quality of experience-- even of the same phenomena.

That all sounds-- unfortunately-- extremely abstract, but that reflects more on my own limitations of expression, than the felt texture of experience.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 18:38 #98505

Chris Marti wrote:
I think emotions, "good" and "bad" and all shares in between, are part and parcel of our humanity. I don't believe we can rid ourselves of them, nor do we want to (having no emotions would rob me of a lot of the beauty of being alive, frankly).

I was about to write a response to this and then I realized, nah, I don't have the experience so I'll just shut up! :lol:
Chris Marti wrote:
The "I" is an object (really better described as a whole plethora of objects depending on circumstances) but it's just like all the others you named, so it isn't really the "I" that is objectifying things. This, too, is my experience.

I agree with this. There appears to be objectification going on, but who is doing the objectifying? Using the word "I" here was my clumsy attempt to assign the act of objectification to some "thing," but objectification does not require a "thing" I guess!
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 19:12 #98506

I hope I'm not trying everyone's nerves if I persist in responding to this excellent question.

It occurred to me that I can get around the philosophical abstraction quandry if I ground this in the teaching story that came to mind at the outset: the one where a woman whose child had died sought out the Buddha for help...

"The Mustard Seed

The reputation of Buddha Shakyamuni had spread far and wide. Not only was he renowned as a great, compassionate and fully enlightened human being, but also as a skilled teacher and a miraculous healer who could even bring the dead back to life.

One day, a woman approached him after a teaching begging that he do something to restore her dead child to her. The Buddha listened patiently to her plea and saw how great was her despair. He said to her, "Mother, if you bring me just one mustard seed from any household in which no person has died, then I shall revive your child."

The woman was greatly encouraged by the Teacher's words. She traveled from door to door throughout her own village, but could not find even a single residence in which no one had died. She went out of town, wandering to this hamlet and that in search of the tiny seed that the Buddha had requested. Days later, muddy and footsore, she returned to the place where the Buddha and his followers were passing the rainy season.

She was ushered into the Teacher's presence worn out, but not discouraged. "Master, try as I might, I could not locate the token you requested as an offering. But I have come to understand that death visits every household and eventually, every single one of us. I would like now, to 'enter the stream' and work towards the liberation that the teachings provide."

So-- if by 'dukkha' you mean the fact that the child was dead, or that the mother felt grief-- we agree: there is no end to it.

But Gautama must have meant something else when he described the 4 Noble Truths, because he proposed a path beyond suffering, a path that did not include a miraculous change in objective conditions like death, loss, bereavement. Nor did it include a permanent end to experience in toto.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 19:17 #98507

Kenneth Folk wrote:
Kate Gowen wrote:
Kenneth-- I was with you, up to defining nibbana as the absence of experience. Maybe that reflects my lack of study of Theravadin interpretations; in Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings with which I have more familiarity, it is made clear that emptiness/absence of experience is never more than a provisional goal-- access to the "pause" button, if you will, rather than a permanent full stop. Otherwise, there are various ways of achieving oblivion that are more accessible than dharma practice.

So, it seems we can bypass the question of nibbana given that the Theravada and Mahayana interpretations of the word essentially cancel each other out.

I don't think this is so - I don't think the Theravada definition of nibbana is absence of experience, and I'd be interested in being pointed toward any Pali canon reference that would back up that interpretation. For example according to Lily Da Silva backed up by a thicket of canonical references, nibbana is characterized by "happiness, moral perfection, realization, and freedom" (reference here). We can discuss whether these are realistic/achievable but it would be a different question to the present one about dukkha which interprets nibbana as absence of experience.

I concur with Chris that the question here is actually the definition of 'dukkha.' To know what 'Buddhism' thinks about this and what is an accurate understanding of 'Buddhism' - if indeed we could reach such a thing - for me the best question to ask is, what did the Buddha do and say after his awakening? (noting that I come at this question from a Pali canon perspective). He definitely still experienced physical discomfort that he'd prefer to get away from, e.g. when his back was sore after teaching for a long time. He also seemed to find some things a hassle meaning, all things being equal, he would prefer not to do them, as when deciding to teach or not after his awakening ('beings have lots of dust in their eyes and teaching them will be a hassle').

Also, when deciding these questions I find it useful to notice clearly how we order paradigms of truth - e.g. Kenneth in your post above, evolution is given a higher truth status than Buddhist teachings, so when the two conflict, for you evolution ('we are inescapably programmed to go toward what has survival value and away from what doesn't') trumps canonical Buddhist teachings. On this note, it would also be worth asking how the evolutionary paradigm deals with the problem of altruism.

Kenneth, I identify with your point that also for me, my earlier imaginings of what nibbana might be now seem cartoony - basically, the idea that I will never feel negativity or aversion of any kind. However it's slippery, because what I often find these days, wherever I might be on any sort of trajectory (a model that has its own problems), is that states that previously I would have found to fall into this category - sadness, anger, that 'I don't want it!' reaction - are still there, but now are inhabited fully and/or seen as teachings, and sometimes seem even beautiful rather than undesirable. So, are they actually 'the same' as previously, and are they 'aversive'? Hard to say.

I am open, though, to the possibility that other people - maybe rare and exceptional? - actually have the 'cartoony' experience I've described above. But that doesn't seem to be exactly where my practice is leading as it unfolds, nor a good/useful goal for me (indeed, one thing that happens is that goals increasingly drop away). On that note, I concur with the paradoxical quality pointed out by Laurel above - excellent reminder!
Last Edit: 25 Apr 2015 19:24 by every3rdthought.
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 21:15 #98508

I'm not sure if I'm missing something here or going off-topic, but I'm gonna need some definitions to understand... How are you defining 'awakening' as you use it? How do you define 'getting off the wheel of birth and death', in your own interpretation or even your own interpretation about Buddha's interpretation? And, what's precipitated this change in view about the definition of nibbana?, if you don't mind answering

And, for getting to the bottom of what-this-path's-all-about this table might be useful. As he admits, both are caricatures but I think it might prove useful for this discussion, at least for identifying/examining caricatures of two sides.
meaningness.wordpress.com/2013/10/23/sutra-vs-tantra/
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The truth of dukkha 25 Apr 2015 21:47 #98509

Jake Yeager wrote:
objectification does not require a "thing" I guess!

This is actually exactly it, believe it or not. Over time, this insights dawns on us, more and more, until Oh!
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The truth of dukkha 26 Apr 2015 10:36 #98518

Kenneth Folk wrote:

I like this simple formulation because it all hangs together. It assumes that the early Buddhists knew what they were talking about...

When I put all this together, it seems straightforward enough; dukkha and experience are inseparable. So the only way to be free of dukkha is to have no experience. Absence of experience is called nibbana.


Does it have to ‘hang together” and make sense to the logical, rational part of our minds?

What if they deeply and intimately knew exactly what they were talking about but that something was difficult, even for them, to put into words that made sense? Hence a list that doesn’t quite hang together so that there are gaps to slip through into the experience they can point to but not describe?
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The truth of dukkha 26 Apr 2015 10:49 #98519

I'll throw something else out to consider: if no dukkha = having no experience, then there is the question of who is having experiences. I can suggest that stuff can be happening, but not to anyone. For example, in a few minutes I'm going to post on my thread, and there will be a litany of experiences, but they do not seem personal. Yet I don't wish to die (at least not yet). I can't see how "no experiences" is nibbana, or otherwise we would all be advised to die ASAP.
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The truth of dukkha 26 Apr 2015 12:17 #98521

Lots of great points in this thread and I hope to respond to many of them, but I want to answer this one right away, because it is fundamental to the discussion:

Deklan wrote:
what's precipitated this change in view about the definition of nibbana?

There is no change in my view about the definition of nibbana. This is the only definition of nibbana I ever learned from my Theravada Buddhist teachers, both Burmese and American. Nibbana means extinction. LIghts out. I know this is shocking to many people in modern times, but it's a fairly generic Theravada Buddhist understanding.

Take a look at Thanissaro Bikkhu's translation of several references to nibbana here. Without overlaying any preconceptions about what nibbana ought to be, just take it at face value. The simplest interpretation of nibbana is the end of experience. Any other interpretation requires some dancing.

My point is not to insist that nibbana as extinction is the Right Way to Think, but rather to establish it as one bookend within the conversation. Without this admittedly extreme view, with all its scary implications about the value (or nonvalue) of human existence, I don't believe we can have an informed conversation about Buddhism.

I find that Buddhist teachers often soft-pedal nibbana when speaking to contemporary audiences, especially Westerners. This is understandable given the mind-boggling clash with our pre-existing cultural values. But it does lead to this odd situation in which even people who have identified as Buddhists for years are shocked to learn that nibbana bears no resemblance to Christian ideals of Heaven or Hindu ideals of union with Brahman. I simply would point out that without this bookend concept of nibbana as extinction, nothing about early Buddhism makes sense, and that pragmatic dharma practitioners can learn a great deal by opening to the possibility that the Buddha was almost unimaginably more radical (and scary) than they ever realized.
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