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Lions Roar : May 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2007 29 IF SOMEONE ASKED YOU TO SUMMARIZE the teachings of the Buddha, what would you say? For most Buddhists, probably the first thing that would come to mind is the four noble (or “en- nobling”) truths: dukkha (usually translated as “suffering”), its causes, its cessation (better known as nirvana), and the eightfold path that leads to cessation. Shakyamuni Buddha himself is be- lieved to have emphasized those four truths in his first dharma talk, and those of us who teach Buddhism find them quite help- ful, because all his other teachings can be included somewhere within them. Nevertheless, there is nothing exclusively or dis- tinctively Buddhist about any of the four noble truths. Buddhism has its own take on them, of course, but in their basic form the four noble truths are common to many Indian religious traditions. Dukkha is where many of those spiritual paths begin, including Jainism and Sankhya-Yoga; there is wide agreement that the cause of dukkha is craving, and that libera- tion from craving is possible; and they all include some sort of way to realize that liberation. Yoga, for example, has a path with seven limbs, which is quite similar to Buddhism’s eightfold path. So what is truly distinctive about Buddhist teaching? How does it differ from other religious traditions that also explain the world and our role within it? Its main distinction is that no other spiritual path focuses so sharply on the intrinsic connection be- tween dukkha and our delusive sense of self. These two are not only related: for Buddhism the self is dukkha. Although dukkha is usually translated as “suffering,” that is too narrow. The point of dukkha is that even those who are wealthy and healthy experience a basic dissatisfaction, a dis-ease, which continually festers. That we find life dissatisfactory, one damn problem after another, is not accidental, because it is the nature of the unawakened sense-of-self to be bothered about something. Pali Buddhism distinguishes three basic types of dukkha. Everything we usually identify as physical and mental suffer- ing—including being separated from those we want to be with, and being stuck with those we don’t want to be with (the Buddha had a sense of humor!)—is included in the first type. The second type is the dukkha due to impermanence: the realization that, although I might be enjoying an ice cream cone right now, it will soon be finished. The best example of this type is awareness of mortality, which haunts our apprecia- tion of life. Knowing that death is inevitable casts a shadow that usually hinders our ability to live fully now. The third type of dukkha is more difficult to understand be- cause it is connected with the delusion of self. It is dukkha due to sankhara, “conditioned states,” which is sometimes taken as a reference to the ripening of past karma. More generally, how- ever, sankhara refers to the constructedness of all our experience, including the experience of self. When looked at from the other side, this constructedness is anatta, “nonself.” Yet there is no un- conditioned self within our constructed sense of self, and this is the source of our deepest dukkha, our worst anguish. This anguished sense of being a self that is separate from the world I am in is illusory. In fact, it is our most dangerous delu- sion. Here we can benefit from what is now a truism in con- temporary psychology, which has also realized that the sense of self is a psychological-social-linguistic construct. Psychological, because the ego-self is a product of mental conditioning. Social, because a sense of self develops due to social interaction with other constructed selves. Linguistic, because acquiring a sense of Why We Suffer While all religions address the problem of suffering, Buddhism’s unique contribution is to identify its actual source. DAVID LOY explains why suffering and self are synonymous. PHOTOSBYURSULASOKOLOWSKA