Once I told my mother I was feeling down. She said ‘Well, you shouldn’t.’ I knew she was right. It didn’t add up. I had all the prerequisites for happiness. Okay, but then what do I do with this feeling? (Don’t judge her. She was a woman of her time, before emotional intelligence was even a thing. She was of a generation that took pride in soldiering through any emotional turmoil.)
But the Buddha knew what I was talking about. He recognized this ongoing sense of angst and not-enoughness and called it dukkha, which has been translated as suffering, unsatisfactoriness and discontent. There’s no perfect word in the English language for dukkha, and besides the original Pali word is so perfect for us English-speakers because it marries two common words we may use for feces: doo-doo and caca. Doo-cah. Dukkha. Yup, that works to describe feeling poopy. We don’t need a specific reason to feel that way, do we? Sometimes we just do. We might say ‘I woke up on the wrong side of the bed’ which makes no sense at all but we feel the need to ascribe this feeling to something.
Sometimes the conditions of our lives do activate unhappy emotions, but often what we find to blame for this ooky feeling didn’t bother us yesterday. Yesterday we didn’t find someone’s habits annoying, but today for some reason we do. It has to be the fault of someone or something, doesn’t it?
No! According to the Buddha, it doesn’t. Dukkha exists. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to deal with it. The Buddha provides a brilliant set of solutions that we will be exploring in upcoming posts. But it’s important to first notice the existence of dukkha in our lives, and to notice that blame is not useful. Making an enemy of anything is not useful.
The Ill-fitting Axle Hole
In Pali dukkha literally means ‘ill-fitting axle hole’. Such a great metaphor for how dukkha feels in our lives. Imagine riding along in a cart with a wheel that is wobbly or otherwise dysfunctional. It makes a continuous ker-thump. Some of the time the beautiful scenery or the delightful conversation distracts us from the ongoing ker-thumping, but it’s there. Sometimes we can’t sense anything else because the constant irritation of the rough ride makes enjoying anything impossible. And that’s just like dukkha. It’s an underlying irritant that creates discontent even in otherwise pleasant circumstances.
This recognition of dukkha’s existence, even in the lives of those who seem to ‘have it all’ was the starting point of Siddhartha Gautama’s quest to end suffering for himself and all beings circa 600 BCE in northern India. He was born into wealth and destined to rule. Yet as a young man he felt a sense of unsatisfactoriness. No one is immune to dukkha. Because he was born into wealth, he knew that luxury can be a source of pleasure but not of true happiness. This saved him a lot of time that many of us spend striving and seeking material success, fame, admiration, etc. thinking it will wipe out the dukkha we are experiencing. Can we take his word for that? If not, we can look around at the rich and famous in our own culture and recognize that whatever true happiness they experience is not a product of their wealth or position, and whatever sadness they experience cannot be cured by another villa, island or fancy car. (Many recent studies show that beyond an income that assures sufficient food, shelter and health, wealth is no indicator of happiness.)
(Not familiar with the Buddha’s life story? Take this four post pilgrimage.)
The First Noble Truth that the Buddha taught when he, after years of meditative practice, became enlightened was the importance of acknowledging the existence of dukkha in our lives. Our lifelong patterns of trying to ignore it make this a challenge, but the regular practice and the exploration of the teachings with a group of others, our sangha, who share the wholesome desire to understand and to cultivate awakening, make it possible.
In the Four Noble Truths, his first teaching after awakening, the Buddha named the problem we face as human beings. Then he identified the causes of the problem, identified the solution, and shared the necessary steps to implement that solution. Seeing the truth of his words, his small group of fellow seekers became his first followers. Over the decades of his life, his followers grew, and they took it far and wide. His teachings have been passed down over millennia and they are as alive today — as we explore them, investigating their veracity — as they were in his day in the forests with his followers.
During the week, see if you can notice dukkha’s presence in your own life, from minor discomforts to overpowering mental and physical pain. Over the coming posts we’ll discover what causes dukkha and how to liberate ourselves from it.
That is the heart of the Buddha’s offering.