Suffering, and the End of Suffering

So, of course I write this Buddhism column because I’m an Enlightened Being and have no personal problems, having ended all suffering and being Liberated from the Wh…


Okay, stop laughing, especially all you people who know me personally. I’m trying to make a point.

Which is, nobody, not even the Buddha, stops having personal problems. His Dad, Suddhodana, took a long time to reconcile with his son after Siddhartha gave up the career Dad wanted for him — world-conqueror — and took up saving all sentient beings from suffering.

His cousin Ananda, who we talked about last time, was apparently sometimes a bit officious and no doubt tried to boss the Buddha around and make sure he moved on to his next interview on time. After all, he may have been the World-Honored One but he was also Ananda’s cousin Siddhartha who everyone gossiped about at home. And I’d bet a lahk that his wife Yasodhara sometimes nagged him about their son Rahula when Rahula was a teenager. And I’m sure Buddha swore when he stubbed his toe and scratched mosquito bites when they itched.

What was different is that he didn’t suffer. He didn’t have that thing with the Sanskrit name we keep talking about, duhkha. He also said that we could all stop suffering if we practiced three things:

  • we had to decide we wanted to stop suffering;
  • we had to order our affairs ethically so that we minimize the drama and angst that lead to suffering;
  • and we needed to pay attention so that we didn’t fall into suffering.

This all comes to mind because, well, I had my own opportunities to fall into suffering fairly often in the last month or so: laid off my day job, some disappointments in relationships, and all the day to day tsooris that everyone goes through. I’ve also got a young friend who is having his own troubles and has been talking to me about them. So, the topic of suffering has been on my mind.


Of course this brings us back to the first three of the Four Noble Truths (and don’t think you’re going to get away from the Fourth in our Sunday School lesson, because I snuck that one in a couple paragraphs back.)

  • life is full of duhkha
  • duhkha arises from our desire to make the world behave the way we want it to behave
  • we stop duhkha when we stop trying to make the world do what we tell it to do dammit.

Which sounds great, but how?

The Sanskrit word for that desire is trishna — thirst. Buddha saw that the root of suffering is that “thirst”, and broke that metaphorical thirst into three kinds:

  • we want to feel good — kamatrishna and that kama is the same word as in Kama Sutra: sensual pleasure, all the fun things like good food, good wine, sexual ecstasy. Eat a chocolate, think “wow, that’s good” and get another one: kamatrishna.
  • we want to be something, to live forever — bhavatrishna, the desire to attain, to become. When you, as a kid, want to be a fireman, and Matt Dillon, and Katy Perry, and both Miley Stewart and Hannah Montana, and a surgeon, and a mailman, that’s bhavatrishna. But it’s also bhavatrishna when you want to be the Head Clerk or a Judge or a famous blogger.
  • we want not to feel bad, not to feel pain — vibhavatrishna, the desire to be rid of something. Stub a toe and go to get an Advil to make the pain go away: vibhavatrishna.


What Buddha saw was that when we suffer — not when we feel pleasure, or pain, or when we want to do something, but when we’re frustrated and annoyed and unhappy and dissatisfied because of those things — it’s because we’re doing it to ourselves. Eating chocolate isn’t suffering — but dwelling on missing the chocolate when we’ve run out is suffering.

So to stop suffering, you simply have to stop those roots, which are all things that happen when we’re letting ourselves dwell on those thoughts.

That’s where meditation comes in. Buddhist meditation is basically letting ourselves become aware of what thoughts, images, fantasies we’re dwelling on, and then letting them go.

Here’s a really really basic explanation of beginning meditation. (As always, I suggest Brad Warner’s explanations for details. I’ve just discovered he did a lovely video which I would recommend if I could find a version where the audio doesn’t cut out early.)

You get sitting comfortably in a position that feels stable and doesn’t require a lot of muscular effort to sustain. I can tell you from experience, this is harder than it sounds, but with a little practice it becomes pretty natural. I differ a bit from Brad in that I don’t think the posture is absolutely necessary, especially if you aren’t physically able.

The easiest, baby-steps version is to then start breathing normally, and counting your breaths. In — one. Out — two. Do this for five breaths, ie, up to ten. No big deal so far.

Here’s the meditation part: you lose count. When you do, don’t indulge in thinking about what a dummy you are: go back to one. No prizes are awarded for getting to ten.

You start thinking about the office. Don’t indulge in thinking about the office: go back to counting. If you lost count too — I bet you did — go back to one. Your back starts to hurt: notice it hurts, go back to counting your breaths. Unless something really hurts — then move about a bit, stretch, and then go back to counting your breaths. No prizes are awarded for the amount of pain you can ignore either.

Surprise: pretty much every thought will be about one of the roots of duhkha. You start thinking about supper: kamatrishna. You wonder if you need an aspirin for your tired shoulders: vibhavatrishna. You think “Hey! I’m really getting good at this!”: bhavatrishna.

The thing is, though, this doesn’t go on only when you’re trying to meditate. It happens all the freaking time. You daydream about getting out of the office, you think about whoever you currently have a crush on, you worry if that mole really is changing, you think back to breaking up with your ex-wife or to when something embarrassing happened when you were in fourth grade.

All that is duhkha. And the solution? Learn to be aware of it, and when you notice it, remind yourself that dwelling on those thoughts is a root of suffering. Then relax and let it go. No big thing, it’s just another thought. There’ll be another one coming along like a streetcar in a second, and it won’t mean any more than the last one.

When you find a space between those thoughts you’re dwelling on?

The end of suffering.