Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Meaning of Duhkha for Zen Naturalism:A Revaluation of the Four Noble Truths

In as much as Buddhism, which as the larger Yoga tradition of which it is a part, is a moksha-śāstra, or “liberation teaching,” Buddhism’s whole purpose is the cultivation of freedom from dukkha. The engagement with dukkha, thought of within the broad Yoga tradition as the existential situation within which living beings find themselves, is at the heart of all yoga practice. How dukkha is defined and conceptualized, and the myriad ways how one goes about addressing it, are intimately related, and are also at the base of many of the distinctions found among the various teachings throughout the Yoga tradition: Hindu, Buddhist and Jain.

As dukkha and our relationship to it are at the heart of all Yoga, including the Buddhist traditions, it is imperative to have a clear understanding of how dukkha is conceptualized, for this will determine first, whether there is anything we can skillfully and constructively do about it, which will further involve investigating its causes, and second, if we find we can do something about dukkha, we then need to examine what it is we can and should do.

Georg Feuerstein describes dukkha thusly:

Duhkha originally meant “having a bad axle hole,” but early on came to signify “sorrow,” “suffering,” or “pain.” According to the spiritual traditions of India, existence is inherently sorrowful. This doctrine has frequently led Western critics to summarily portray Indian philosophy as profoundly pessimistic. This typification is demonstrably misleading, however, since the avowed goal of Indian spirituality is the perfect transcendence of sorrow or pain. Indeed, most schools of Indian spirituality describe the ultimate Reality as utterly blissful. Sorrow, then, pertains only to the ego-ensconced individual, not to the Self. What more optimistic orientation could there be? (Feuerstein, 1997: 94)

Leaving aside for now Feuerstein’s commentary regarding the issue of Indian spirituality’s alleged pessimism, the nature of “ultimate Reality” and issues of the “Self,” we see that Buddhism shares with the larger Yoga tradition the notion, paraphrasing Feuerstein above, that existence is inherently dukkha.

At the Sanskrit-EnglishDictionary found at:,
is the following entry for duhkha, duhkham and dush:

duHkha = sorrow * = 1 mfn. (according to grammarians properly written {duS-kha} and said to be from {dus} and {kha} [cf. {su-kha4}]; but more probably a Prâkritized form for {duH-stha} q.v.) uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult R. Hariv. (compar. {-tara} MBh. R.); n. (ifc. f. {A}) uneasiness, pain, sorrow, trouble, difficulty; to be sad or uneasy, to cause or feel pain.

duHkhaM = distress

dush*= ind. a prefix to nouns and rarely to verbs or adverbs (Pân. 2-1, 6; 2, 18 Vârtt. 2 Pat.; iii, 3, 126 &c.) implying evil, bad, difficult, hard [488, 2]; badly, hardly; slight, inferior &c. (opp. to {su}),

And finally, The Digital South Asia Library, sponsored by the University of Chicago has the following definition for duhkha, and its related etymology of dus (or dush) and kha:

duhkha [ duh-khá ] a. unpleasant, fraught with hardship, wretched; n. pain, hardship, misery, suffering: -m, in., ab., °ree;-, with difficulty, scarce ly, hardly, reluctantly; -m âs, stand sorrow fully. (Digital South Asia Library,,

dus°ree; [ dus- ] px. (=dush-) bad; wrong; hard.

kha [ kh&asharp; ] f. [hole], spring, well.

If we do accept the etymological roots of the word dukkha to mean “bad” or “wrong hole,” as relating to a faulty axle hole, we can get a visceral understanding of the feeling-tone associated with dukkha. A faulty hole in the wheel of an ox cart, for instance, would lead to a rather bumpy, unsettling and painful ride. If the bad hole were in a ceramic wheel, it would be quite difficult, if not impossible, to create anything truly beautiful and useful. The strain might even lead to one making a mess of things. As a metaphor for the human condition, it tells us that when we live ‘un-centered,’ out of alignment with truth or reality (to align a wheel is said to ‘make it true’), life is painful. It is difficult or impossible to make of our lives something beautiful and useful.

Various translations have been offered for the word dukkha: e.g. suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, anguish, unease, dis-ease, stress, ill, affliction, discontentment. It has been described as the feeling that ‘something is missing’ or just not right with things. Of all these different translations, “suffering” is the one that has been used most frequently by most teachers in the West.

But how did the Buddha himself elaborate on what dukkha is? The Pali Canon tradition states:

And what, monks, is the Noble Truth of ? Birth is < dukkha,> ageing is < dukkha,> death is < dukkha,> sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness and distress are < dukkha,> Being attached to the unloved is < dukkha,> being separated from the loved is < dukkha,> not getting want one wants is < dukkha.> In short, the five aggregates of grasping are < dukkha >. (DN 22.18, Walshe, 1995: 344)

And in other places we find “illness” is also enumerated. (SN 56.11, Bodhi, 2000: 1844)

Looking at what is elaborated as dukkha in this passage attributed to the Buddha, we see that while it may be the most conventionally used translation of dukkha, the word “suffering” is ultimately inaccurate and misleading. At best, it is only appropriate in a general, inexact sense. Perhaps the main difficulty with translating dukkha as “suffering” is that “suffering” has primarily a psychological and emotional connotation. The oft-heard statement, made by many students and practitioners of Buddhism, that “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” leads one to assume that the Buddha was talking only about mental suffering: anguish, dissatisfaction, unease etc. However, it is clear from the above that physical pain is indeed dukkha as well.

Peter Harvey points to this when, for example, he says that to say “birth is suffering” makes it sound either like suffering is something birth is doing, or that birth is a form of suffering, which he argues is not the case: birth and ageing “can only be occasions for or causes of suffering, which is an experience, a mental state.” (Harvey, BUDMO1, Session 7, Section 2.1) Re-reading the above quote from the Buddha, substituting “stressful” and “painful” for dukkha where Walshe has “suffering” gives a fuller and more accurate understanding.

I think it’s important to give some time to this, because of the prevalence of the psychologizing of dukkha we find so common in the west, as made explicit by Philip Moffit:

The Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths begins with the injunction that if you are to attain liberation, you must understand and fully experience how your life is entwined and defined by “dukkha,” meaning your mental experiences of discomfort, pain, anxiety, stress, instability, inadequacy, failure, and disappointment, each of which is felt as suffering in your mind. This teaching is often referred to as the “Truth of Suffering,” (Moffitt, 2008: 27)

While this understanding has its merit when dealing with mental anguish, when passages where the Buddha defines dukkha are examined, it seems to be missing an essential point. In fact, the psychological understanding of dukkha as the “mental experiences of discomfort etc.” listed by Moffitt as a reaction to birth, aging, illness, pain, not getting what one wants, being separated from the loved and attached to the unloved seems more a description of the “second dart” kind of dukkha that the Buddha describes in the Connected Discourses on Feeling:

"Bhikkhus, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments; he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught. He feels two feelings -- a bodily one and a mental one. Suppose they were to strike a man with a dart, and then they would strike him immediately afterwards with a second dart, so that the man would feel a feeling caused by two darts. So too, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling… he feels two feelings -- a bodily one and a mental one.

“Bhikkhus, when the instructed noble disciple is contacted by a painful feeling, he does not sorrow, grieve, or lament; he does not weep beating his breast and become distraught. He feels one feeling – a bodily one, not a mental one.”(SN 36.6, Bodhi, 2000: 1264)

The Buddha’s disciple, Sāriputta, when asked “What is dukkha?” replies:

“There are, friend, three kinds of painfulness (dukkhatā): the painfulness of pain (dukkha-dukkhatā), the painfulness of conditioned things (sankhāra-dukkatā) and the painfulness of change (vipaiṇāma-dukkhatā). (SN 38.14; translation by Harvey, BUDMO1, Session 7, Section 2.2)

This understanding of the three types of dukkha is seen as pointing to the subtle aspect of dukkha that permeates even happiness (other than the happiness of nirvana) so that even happiness is declared to be dukkha. The point is that all happiness, other than that of nirvāṇa, is conditioned, limited and thus not ultimately satisfactory. The sheer fact of its impermanence is seen as dukkha. It is said that a subtle feeling of unease often accompanies happiness because deep down we know it is impermanent.

The matter becomes further complicated when samudaya, said to be the cause of dukkha is, examined. In its most succinct formulation, the Buddha says the origin of dukkha is craving (DN 22.19, Walshe, 1995: 346), specifically sensual craving, craving for existence and craving for non-existence. The word translated as craving is taṇhā, which means “thirst.” Harvey describes this craving as referring to “demanding desires or drives which are ever on the lookout for gratification.” He goes on to say that such craving leads to dukkha in three primary ways:

Firstly, they lead to the suffering of frustration, as their demands for lasting and wholly satisfying fulfillment are perpetually disappointed by a changing and unsatisfactory world. Secondly, they motivate people to perform various actions, whose karmic results lead on to further rebirths, with their attendant dukkha. Thirdly, they lead to quarrels, strife and conflict between individuals and groups. (Harvey, 1990: 53)

Thich Nhat Hanh points out that while the Buddha mentions craving as the cause of dukkha in the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma, in an oral culture this is understood to be the first item of a list of afflictions (kleshas) used to represent the whole list. (Hanh, 1998: 21) Among these other causes are views, conceit and ignorance.

“Views” (diṭṭhi) refers to speculative view-points, theories, opinions, or perspectives, most especially when they lead to dogmatic and unyielding positions. Such clinging to views is seen as blocking the vital process of inquiry and awakening. When we are caught in our views, even if truth comes knocking at our door, we refuse to let it in. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Clinging fanatically to an ideology or a doctrine not only prevents us from learning, but also creates bloody conflicts.” He goes on to emphasize the importance of this point in reference to the First Precept (ahimsa or non-harm). “We usually think that killing occurs in the domain of the body, but a fanatical mind can cause the killing of not just one, but millions of human beings.” (Hanh, 1993: 22)

The Buddha placed a great emphasis on views of “Self,” which tend towards positing the existence of a substantial Self within the five khandhas (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness). Such views were said to lead to clinging identification with one or some combination of the khandhas as Self, and this attachment was a form of dukkha as well as a cause of dukkha. Even in advanced practitioners who have overcome such views, “conceit” as the sense of “I am” is said to remain in a vague, unspecified way.

In what is perhaps the Buddha’s core teaching of Conditioned Arising (paṭicca-samuppāda) variously translated as “Dependent Origination” or “Dependent Co-origination,” craving is said to lead to, or condition, grasping. This grasping is both for, and conditions, existence, which then leads to birth, leading to ageing, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. In short: dukkha!

While not technically considered a “first cause,” the whole chain of conditioning in one sense certainly, can be said to arise because of a fundamental mis-perception. Ignorance (avijjā), can be thought of as a kind of ignore-ance or, in contemporary language, “denial.” It literally means “not-seeing,” and what is not seen is ‘things as they are.’ Because of this fundamental not-seeing or ignoring of the reality of not-Self, the reality that all conditioned things are impermanent and not-Self, beings get caught in views of an existing Self, and then are compelled to act in ways to aggrandize the Self/self, protecting and defending what is ultimately at best an illusion of perception. Buddhism, like its other Yoga siblings, sees this spiritual ignorance as the fundamental cause or root of dukkha.

The question then becomes, whether things are dukkha in themselves, or only when craving for things is present. For instance, when we say ageing, or not getting what one wants is dukkha, are we saying that by its very nature, ageing or not getting what one wants is painful or stressful, or are we saying that ageing and not getting what one wants is only painful when there is craving for staying youthful and getting what one wants?

There have been varying responses to this question, with both perspectives seeming to be implied in the Pali Canon. Craving and grasping at anything most certainly leads to psychological pain or dukkha. This is true in that the very act of grasping and holding on are tension-filled and painful as well as that whatever conditioned phenomenon one might grasp and attempt to hold on to is by it very nature impermanent and subject to change. But the Pali Canon also seems to imply that “conditioned things are to be seen, in themselves, as dukkha in the sense of being limited and imperfect.” (Harvey, BUD01, Session 7, Section 2.5)

But some problems arise with this viewpoint, most notably that the concepts of “limited” and “imperfect” are themselves conditioned and lack any inherent, independent existence. It is most certainly possible to conceive of a viewpoint that does not see impermanence as inherently a limitation or imperfection. In fact, whole aesthetics of impermanence celebrate change. Again, it comes down to our pre-conceptions and grasping after what isn’t that underlies perceiving impermanence as necessarily dukkha.

Equating all conditioned things with inherently being dukkha leads to the idea that life itself is dukkha, which has led to a fairly common and persistent charge of pessimism made against Buddhism. In an essay on “The Four Nutriments of Life,” Nyanaponika Thera quotes a familiar saying from the Pali Suttas: “Only suffering arises where anything arises and only suffering ceases where anything ceases.” (

Such an outlook can justifiably be called “pessimistic,” especially when it leads to the morbid perspective also found in the same essay:

The writer once visited large subterranean caverns which had long passages and high-roofed temple-like halls with huge stalactites and stalagmites resembling the lofty columns of a cathedral. For the convenience of the numerous visitors to the caverns, electric light was installed, and where the bulbs were low enough one could see around them a small spread of lichen, the only trace of organic life amidst the barren rocks. Life springs up wherever it gets the slightest chance through favoring conditions like warmth, moisture, and light. In the spectator's mind this little harmless proliferation of primitive plant life assumed the menacing features of a beast of prey that, having lurked long under the cover of darkness, at last got the chance for its hungry leap. (Emphasis added)

One could just as well marvel at the wondrousness of life that can subsist and thrive in such conditions, but mainstream Buddhism, seeing life as inherently dukkha tends toward this ‘world-weary’ view of existence. This is of course compounded by the belief in rebirth, which posits an almost numberless round of births and deaths.
Interestingly, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in his essay “Life Isn’t Just Suffering,” argues against the charge that Buddhism is pessimistic by denying that phenomena are dukkha in themselves:

Other discourses show that the problem isn't with body and feelings in and of themselves. They themselves aren't suffering. The suffering lies in clinging to them. In his definition of the first noble truth, the Buddha summarizes all types of suffering under the phrase, "the five aggregates of clinging": clinging to physical form (including the body), feelings, perceptions, thought constructs, and consciousness. However, when the five aggregates are free from clinging, he tells us, they lead to long-term benefit and happiness. (

Ironically, Thanissaro comes off sounding like Moffitt when he continues to say:

So the first noble truth, simply put, is that clinging is suffering. It's because of clinging that physical pain becomes mental pain. It's because of clinging that aging, illness, and death cause mental distress. The paradox here is that, in clinging to things, we don't trap them or get them under our control. Instead, we trap ourselves. When we realize our captivity, we naturally search for a way out. And this is where it's so important that the first noble truth not say that "Life is suffering." If life were suffering, where would we look for an end to suffering? We'd be left with nothing but death and annihilation. But when the actual truth is that clinging is suffering, we simply have to look for the clinging and eliminate its causes. (

This robust and confident call to action is a far cry from pessimism or world-weariness, but again seems to be addressing dukkha as merely psychological and ignoring the suttas that declare birth, ageing, death, being attached to the unloved, being separated from the loved, and not getting want one wants are dukkha, and not merely our mental distress at these phenomena.

Historically, the long-honored traditional way of understanding the Four Noble Truths (or as Harvey now prefers, “The Realities for the Noble Ones” Harvey, BUDMO1, Session 7) tells us that dukkha permeates life; samudaya is what causes the illness to arise. According to this understanding, the main cause is craving or grasping, sometimes even understood as desire. The Third Reality for the Noble Ones, nirodha, translated as “cessation,” tells us that dukkha can be absolutely ended with the letting go of craving. And we can do so by following a path (magga), taught by the Buddha as the Noble Eightfold Path.

The traditional formulation states that dukkha can be completely extinguished. Of course, even after the Buddha became enlightened, he got sick, was wounded, felt pain, and eventually died. Superficially, it would seem contradictory that he should suffer illness, pain and death (all forms of dukkha) if he were enlightened. The traditional understanding, especially in those Buddhist schools most influenced by Indian culture, such as the Theravada and Tibetan traditions, is that the Buddha meant that mental phenomena such as craving in one life gives rise to physical phenomena in another life. We are born into this life because of desire, craving and attachment in previous lives. The Buddha’s enlightenment meant that he would no longer be re-born into another life after he died in this life. You can see from this why so many have thought Buddhism to be a “life-denying” or escapist philosophy since our very birth and life is seen as dukkha, the result of previous desire and craving, (something seen as to be eradicated) and the goal is therefore to get off the cycle of rebirth and not be reborn again. This standard interpretation makes The Four Noble Truths into a metaphysical doctrine about cycles of life after life, and the great achievement of the Buddha was that he had finally reached a life from which he would not be reborn. The ultimate implication of such a metaphysic is that the best thing you can do with life is escape from it! Buddhism so understood may not be exactly “pessimistic” in that it sees an ending to dukkha as possible. But its postulating the cessation of dukkha as radically transcendent ultimately devalues life itself as something one seeks to escape from and avoid “falling into” again in future lives.

Some modernists, such as Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, have rejected a literal, metaphysical or ontological understanding of rebirth and given the following re-interpretation based upon the “birth” and “death” of the sense of “I” and “mine:”

A single emergence of the feeling of “I” and “mine” is called one birth (jāti). This is the real meaning of the word “birth.” Don’t take it to mean birth from a mother’s womb. A person is born from the womb once and gets laid out in the coffin once. That’s not the birth the Buddha pointed to; that’s much too physical. The Buddha was pointing to a spiritual birth, the birth of clinging to “I” and “mine.” In one day there can be hundreds of such births. The number depends on a person’s facility for it, but in each birth the “I” and “mine” arises, slowly fades, gradually disappears, and dies. Shortly, on contact with another sense object, “I” and “mine” arise again. (Buddhadāsa, 1994: 86)

Buddhadāsa also agrees with the understanding that it is clinging, specifically clinging to “I” and “mine,” that is dukkha:

“Anything that has no clinging to “I” or “mine” is not dukkha. Therefore birth, old age, sickness, and death, and so on, if they are not clung to as “I” or “mine” cannot be dukkha. Only when birth, old age, sickness, and death are clung to as “I” or “mine” are they dukkha…. Only when there is clinging to “I” or “mine” do they become dukkha. With the pure and undefiled body and mind, that of the Arahant, there is no dukkha at all. (Buddhadaasa, 1994: 17)

Such an understanding seems more life affirming in that it denies that life is inherently dukkha, and by establishing cessation within life and not as some transcendent realm.
Another, more radical understanding has been offered by David Brazier:

“When the Buddha says that affliction (dukkha) is a truth, I do not think that he is saying that it is something which can be escaped. Quite the contrary. He is pointing out that it cannot be escaped. Dukkha is inescapable. To suffer affliction is authentic. It is real and it makes life real.” (Brazier, 1998: 51 – 52)

Obviously we can escape from at least some particular afflictions, at least temporarily. When hungry, we can eat; if we’re cold, we can wrap up etc. But there is no way to set up our lives so that affliction, pain or stress (dukkha) will not occur. A life with no dukkha is an unreal life, purely conceptual. Remember, even when the axle is centered in the wheel, there is friction, without which, the wheel could not roll. Movement and life requires friction. Resistance is necessary. The very process of life requires dukkha! Trees grow strong by way of resistance to the wind. The very nature of The Middle Way, and how the Buddha came to realize it, embodies this understanding. The Buddha had tried to escape dukkha, first through sensual indulgence, and then through self-mortification, and found no way out. But like the balanced wheel, he found a Middle Way, which brings us to the “Noble” aspect of the Realities for the Noble.

While not a very fashionable word nowadays (and not for lack of good cause, perhaps, given what we have been presented with as “nobility”) what is noble is what is worthy of respect. It is the opposite of something to be ashamed about. We know of, and have deep respect for, many people who bore great pain and suffering for worthy causes. Like the NYC firemen who rushed into the Twin Towers on 9/11/01, they may even have gone into situations knowing that they could very well be hurt or killed. The Buddha would often refer to himself as coming from the warrior caste. He knew that the honorable soldier faces hardship out of nobility: “the possessing of high or excellent qualities or properties.” (Woolf, 1975: 777)

A noble warrior is one who is courageous. It takes courage not to run away from dukkha. The Buddha called the truth of dukkha noble. Facing dukkha is the reality for noble persons. How could it be something to avoid or escape? As he says in his introduction to the Middle Way, it is ignoble to indulge oneself to excess, and it is equally ignoble to indulge in such self-mortification as extreme fasting and abusing the body in any way such as extreme exposure or flagellation. (SN 56.11) Both of these strategies have the avoidance of dukkha as their purpose.

There is an old story about a farmer who travels many miles to consult with the Buddha. Upon sitting at the Buddha’s feet, he tells the Buddha that he has 83 problems. The Buddha asks him about his problems. The farmer begins, “Well, I’m a farmer, and I love to farm. But last year we had a drought and we almost starved to death because of the meager harvest. This year, there was too much rain, and many of the crops were destroyed.”
The Buddha sat and sympathetically nodded his head. “Yes, go on.”
“Well, I love my wife very dearly, but I find myself growing bored and looking after other women.”
The Buddha continued to nod his head and encouraged the farmer to share his troubles.
“I have a son and a daughter. They’ve made me very proud. But they’re stubborn, and don’t take my advice,” the farmer continued.
After delivering his long litany of problems to the Buddha, he asked, “So can you help me? I hear you are a great teacher.”
The Buddha responds, “Well, it’s true you have 83 problems, and you haven’t even mentioned others like the fact that you are growing old and that you will die, and that everyone you know and love will also grow old and die.”
The farmer was aghast. Why wasn’t the Buddha helping him? Why was he loading on even more problems?
Then the Buddha said, “I cannot help you with any of those problems. But perhaps I can help you with the 84th problem.”
Exasperated, the farmer asks, “What is the 84th problem?”
“You want a life with no problems,” replied the Buddha.

We would like a life with no problems. Ideally, we would not grow old, infirm and die. We would not have to deal with such unpleasantness as losing our teeth, our eyesight growing dim, bad breath, wrinkles, graying and balding hair, let alone tumors, miscarriages, and the fact that, as the Golden Archies sing, “the number of ways to die is infinite.” (Gothic Archies, 2006)

The traditional Buddhist teachings tell us we can avoid all these problems by never being born again; by escaping from the wheel of life into nirvanic bliss. Other spiritual traditions offer visions of heavens where we’d always be surrounded by the pleasant and beautiful. And because it’s not how our life actually is, we are often led to feel shame. Many people actually feel shame when the body does something innocuously natural like fart, or when bellies make gurgling noises, when skin wrinkles or becomes diseased! And because of this conditioned shame, huge amounts of money, time and energy are expended trying to deny the fact that we are not “perfect,” distracting ourselves in myriad ways. Whole industries, anti-aging products, and body enhancing surgery, are devoted to this vain pursuit. The Buddha tells us that “imperfection” is real and we do not need to feel ashamed. It is “perfection” that is purely conceptual and unreal. And because we’ve fallen for this deluded conceptualization of “perfection,” we then conceptualize the real world we live in as “imperfect!” In fact, facing dukkha is noble and ennobling. Not turning away, and not exacerbating it, is the noble response taught by the Buddha. This noble response to existential reality is enlightenment itself. It is transcending the conceptual duality of “perfection” and “imperfection” and embracing just this, life as it is, perfectly imperfect!

This means we do not have to wait for some “ideal conditions” in order to practice enlightenment. The Japanese Zen Master Dogen (1200 – 1252) repeatedly teaches the identity of practice and enlightenment. We do not practice in order to reach awakening: practice is awakening and awakening is practice. His text, Shushogi, signifying “the meaning of enlightened practice” begins with the following words:

“The most important question for all Buddhists is how to understand, with a completely clear appreciation, birth and death completely. Buddha (enlightenment) exists within birth and death. Then birth and death vanish (as a problem). Birth and death (as reality) are nirvana. All you have to do is realize that birth and death, as such, should not be avoided and they will cease to exist for then, if you can understand that birth and death are nirvana itself, you will not seek nirvana by trying to avoid birth and death. This understanding breaks the chains that bind one to birth and death. This is the way to be free from birth and death. This is the most important point in all Buddhism.” (Yokoi, 1976: 58 / Brazier, 1998: 55)

If we understand “birth and death” as dukkha, then the above passage is telling us that Buddha (awakening) exists within dukkha. Seeing this clearly, dukkha stops to exist as a problem. Birth and death, as reality, are nirvāṇa. Problems exist only in relationship to our agendas. The noble life, the awakened life, is living one’s life just as it really is. It is in this sense that, the Buddha is reported to have said upon his awakening, according to the Zen tradition, “How marvelous, each and every being, just as they are perfect and whole, lacking nothing!”

We want birth, health, youth, pleasure, success, clarity. But life is what it is: birth and death, health and illness, youth and ageing, pleasure and pain, success and failure, clarity and confusion. An authentic life cannot be one in which we are desperately trying to have one half of the totality and not the other half. Dukkha is not a problem keeping us from happiness. The idea that Buddhism leads to happiness is correct. That it does so by eliminating dukkha is questionable. The Buddha taught the truth of drishta dharma sukha viharin: “dwelling happily in things as they are.” (Hanh, 1998: 22)

With this understanding of dukkha, a new interpretation of samudaya is offered. Rather than understanding samudaya as the cause of dukkha, samudaya is seen as the second step of a four-step process that leads to the wholesome (awakened) life. (Brazier, 1998: 124)

Traditionally understood as what causes dukkha to arise, the second half of the word, –udaya, means “to go up,” “to arise” or “be drawn out,” deriving from ut meaning “up.” ( The first part of the word, sam, has “with” or “together” among its most basic meanings. ( This differs from the etymology offered by Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga, where he similarly says sam denotes ‘coming together’ and u denotes rising up, but says aya denotes a reason. (Ñāṇamoli, 1999: 501) But as note 4 points out, aya as “reason” is not found in the Pali Text Society dictionary in this sense. (Ñāṇamoli, 1999: 823) As the compound word, samudaya, we get “coming up along with” or “co-arising,” or what we might call “response” or “reaction.” Dukkha samudaya can thus be understood as that which arises in the presence of dukkha. The First Reality for the Noble Ones relates to what happens to us, and The Second Reality concerns the feelings that are provoked by dukkha. That they are noble and true means there is nothing wrong, accidental or shameful about this situation.

As we have seen, the Buddha calls the feelings that arise with dukkha, the longing for things to be otherwise, taṇhā, meaning “thirst.” While mostly understood as “craving,” we should not forget the literal meaning is “thirst.” Taṇhā refers to the field of experience we call feelings, emotions or passions. I emphasize that as Noble Truths, or truths understood by noble persons, the Buddha can be seen as telling us that emotions are natural and as such pose no problem. However, problems do arise from how we respond to them; what we do with them, or from our attempts to avoid having them.

Taṇhā is the natural urge to move away from or to eliminate pain (dukkha). Even the amoeba moves toward food and away from what threatens it. Without the instinct to move away from pain we could not long survive as individuals or as a species. This is why the Buddha used the word “thirst” and not “craving.” Thirst is natural. You don’t feel ashamed of being thirsty on a hot summer day. Why feel ashamed of your natural proclivity to have emotional reactions?

The problem with emotions arises with how we relate to them. For instance we’ve been told that to suppress a feeling like anger correlates with the incidence of cancer. This led to the belief that it was healthy to express our anger, vent and “let it out” until it was discovered that those who vent their anger are more prone to heart disease. What to do? The Buddha points out that to suppress or express are both attempts to avoid or eliminate actually feeling the feeling! Actually opening to the raw experience is both noble and healing. Like the Buddha’s offering to help the farmer with the 84th problem, he wishes to show us how to avoid piling unnecessary suffering on top of the unavoidable reality of dukkha.

Strong emotions, passions such as grief, anger, fear, lust and greed are like fire. The spark that ignites the fire releases stored energy. When we lose a loved one, it is not just the absence of the loved one, but all the energy that is contained in the history of a long relationship that is released as grief. Generally speaking, our reaction to affliction, the experience of dukkha, is often out of all proportion to the event itself because of this release of what has been stored up in us. When such a fire is fanned, it has the sense of urgency and the compulsion of a raging thirst. It is extremely uncomfortable and in the moment feels like it will never end. It is at just such times as these when we may do something impulsive that can bring more pain to ourselves and to others.

The Buddha offered a strong image to convey this. He says that lepers sometimes experience intense itching. There is really nothing that can be done to prevent the itching. The itching is dukkha. The leper may experience a craving or thirst to be free from the itching that is so powerful that he will put his arm into a fire because, though it burns away his flesh, it relieves the itching for at least a short time. In order to escape a temporary affliction, the leper inflicts upon himself an even greater affliction that will cause suffering for years to follow. Like the leper, when we are in the grip of intense craving for things to be other than they are, we may act in ways that cause us to be seriously burned.

However, the fires of our passions need not be destructive. They need not be feared. Anyone who has faced the cleansing flame of grief knows how strengthening and healing it can be. It is like the process of smelting ore into precious metal. Passion can inspire, enliven and sustain us. When engaged, dukkha can be a source of learning and growth, though it is easy to forget this in the midst of the fire.

In the midst of the fire, we are likely to pursue one of three strategies: we seek and grasp after pleasure, we seek to create a new life or way of being, or we seek oblivion. The Buddha tells us that we should let go of operating from these three strategies, which is not the same as letting go of the feelings.

When we are faced with dukkha and the feelings that arise, the first strategy of grasping after pleasure is known as greed, grasping and clinging. We seek pleasure as a way to distract ourselves. In order to avoid feeling affliction, we grasp after some temporary relief like the leper who puts his arm into the fire, and we end up exposed to serious harm. In fact, the most serious harm we do is often the result of our attempts to avoid or run away from dukkha.

The second strategy is to seek a different life, to have things be different. This aversive reaction is called anger or hate, and takes the form of blaming. We blame ourselves: “If only I were thinner, then I’d be happy.” “If I made his salary, then I’d be secure.” “If my meditation were deeper, then I’d not be upset by anything.” Or we blame others: “If it weren’t for my husband, I’d have the perfect marriage.” “If it weren’t for my boss, I’d love my job.” “If it weren’t for the traffic noise, I could have a deeper meditation.”

And finally, in seeking oblivion, the poison of delusion, many of us reach for the bottle, or joint, or whatever our drug of choice is. It might be television or exercise, and it might even be meditation practice with which we intoxicate ourselves, seeking the peace of oblivion, looking for the ‘yoga buzz.’ Indeed, many people misunderstood nirvāṇa as a kind of spiritual oblivion. Commonly translated as “extinction,” it was said to refer to the extinguishing of fire. Many translate it as “to blow out.” David Brazier offers a different translation:

In fact, the word means ‘without-wind.’ Nir means ‘out of’ or ‘without.’ Va means ‘wind…’ Wind is what makes fires dangerous. Everybody who listened to the Buddha would have understood this. We need the fire, but we need it under control. A fire extinguished is no use to anybody. (Brazier, 1998: 85)

When we understand the meaning as “without wind,” we see that it isn’t at all about putting the fire out. Wind makes fire dangerous, but without wind, the fire is useful. The Buddha’s instructions for living a noble, awakened life and the meditation practices he taught, offer us the opportunity to become masters of the fire. The Korean Zen Master, Kyong Ho (1849 – 1912) taught: “Don’t ask for perfect health – that’s just greed: make medicine from the suffering in sickness. Don’t hope to be without problems – that’s just laziness: accept life’s difficulties. Don’t expect your path to be free from obstacles – without them the fire of your enlightenment will go out: find liberation within the disturbances themselves.” (Brazier, 1998: 58 – 59)

With this understanding, the Third Reality for the Noble Ones, nirodha also gets a fresh interpretation. Often translated as “cessation,” a perhaps more accurate meaning of nirodha is “confine,” “restrict,” “enclose” or “contain.” ( Rodha originally meant an earthen bank, dam or blockade, with the denotation of “holding back, restraining, and shutting up in” ( and ni means “down.” If you’ve ever gone camping and made a fire, you know this image as the earth and stone bank with which you surround the fire in order to confine it and keep it from spreading disastrously.

It is a wonderful realization that the Buddha, a true son of Yoga, can be seen to have revamped the fire imagery of the Vedas and the fire cult of the Brahmins, in a way similar to the UpaniṢadic sages. Rejecting the overt practice of the priests who ruled over the fire sacrifice, the Buddha taught a different, interiorized mastery of fire.

Fire is, and has served as, a worldwide symbol of power, energy, passion, and emotion, and is closely associated with the idea of spirit. Fire is both useful and potentially dangerous. Spirituality is the art and practice of mastering our fire. Wind is what makes fire dangerous. The bank of earth we place around a fire protects it from the wind dispersing the fire or from putting it out completely. If we want the most useful fire possible, we build up the bank and cover the fire so that it is nearly completely contained by making an oven. Wind is channeled in an ordered way. Now the fire can even smelt ore and shape metal, melt sand and make glass, and cook food. The fire is now extremely useful for channeling it to a variety of skillful and beautiful ends. Nirodha means to protect the fire from the wind so that it is rendered useful and safe. Nirvāṇa means safe from the wind.

In order to create the heat necessary to smelt metal, the fire needs to be regulated, provided with a proper flow of air, and the energy needs to be harnessed so that it doesn’t leak out and dissipate. When applied to spiritual energy this is the practice of Yoga. This is the practice of yoking, or restraining one’s conditioned reactivity. We all have enormous potential that is all too often frittered away on trivial pursuits, conflict, distraction, and destruction. The Buddha wants us to harness this energy for the good of all beings.

His Third Noble Truth tells us that nirodha is the complete containment or restriction of our reactivity, our impulsive reactions or thirst that arise when confronted with dukkha. The practice of yoking is to refuse to dwell on or cling to the object of our thirst. And, it is by bringing conscious awareness to our breath – the “wind” that we begin to yoke our reactivity.

There were without doubt some traditions at the time of the Buddha, as well as before and since, that sought extinction. But the Buddha’s Yoga is not about annihilating or repressing the energy of our passion. It challenges us to the conscious direction of that energy. Nirodha means to contain, not to destroy or extinguish. By containing fire, civilizations arose. By containing our inner fire, our passion, we can transform our world.

The way to contain the energy of our feelings is not by suppressing them but by letting go of our attachment to the object of the feeling. This is a primary distinction one must learn to see. Feelings are forms of thirst or craving and it is always a thirst or craving for something. The cause of craving is affliction, or dukkha, but rather than look to the affliction we are all too quick to place our attention on the object of our craving that often has no direct connection with the cause of affliction. The Buddha’s yoga asks us to notice as soon as a craving arises, and then unhook from the object of our craving. It takes “gumption,” as Henepola Gunaratana says, to restrain the hand that reaches for the craved for object, but that effort allows the opportunity to look into the real driving factors at work.

We need not give up our desiring, but rather we let go of our attachment to the object of our desire. We take the backward step from our conditioning, and in that step find the possibility of freedom and creativity. We create the opportunity to respond creatively. By returning to the still point within, there is stillness and passion. We are alive to the movement within the stillness, and when we act, we do so from the stillness within the movement.

Magga means “path,” and traditionally is seen as the path that leads to awakening; to the cessation of dukkha. With the naturalistic understanding presented here, dukkha is not ended. It remains a fact of life. Our relationship to it, however, is radically transformed. We can indeed use each of the eight limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path as “prescriptive” of how to act in the world, and in so doing, make transformative changes in how we relate to dukkha. However, the path is also descriptive of the awakened life that naturally and authentically enfolds when our feelings, our passions have been yoked. So understood, the Middle Way is not the means to eliminate dukkha. It is the noble result of facing dukkha and working through what dukkha provokes in a wholehearted, courageous way. This path includes both “no” and “yes.” We say no to being taken over by our conditioned reactivity, and yes to facing our lives just as they are.

The eight limbs of the path are generally presented in English as: Right View (or Understanding); Right Thinking (or Intention, Aim, or Resolve); Right Speech; Right Action; Right Livelihood; Right Effort (or Diligence); Right Mindfulness: and Right Concentration (sometimes Meditation). Another, perhaps more helpful way of thinking of samyak (the word translated as “right”) is as meaning “complete,” “whole,” “coherent,” “congruent,” “proper,” and “appropriate.”

Samyak has the implication of “all flowing (or moving) in one direction.” ( This emphasizes the idea of congruence, coherence and coalescence. When looking at a river, we’ll see that the current in the middle flows swiftly. The water is powerful because it all flows in one direction. It is unified. If you watch the water at the edges of the river, you’ll see it move in vortices, and crosscurrents. One possible interpretation of the term “Middle Way” is this sense of unification of energy, all flowing together, not wasting energy or being divided against oneself. The Middle Way is not some meek compromise. It is living an authentic, congruent life of integrity.

While this interpretation of dukkha and its significance for practice is certainly rejected by traditionalists, I believe it offers a congruent way to understand practice and offers a way for a naturalist approach to liberation. I fully realize it will not satisfy those looking for transcendence and the cessation of dukkha. There are many of us who do not feel the need, see the reality, nor value such a traditional, transcendental understanding. This re-valuation is for them.


Access to Insight: Readings in Theravaada Buddhism,

Bodhi, B., 2000, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Sa.myutta Nikaaya, Boston, Wisdom Publications

Brazier, D., 1998, The Feeling Buddha. NY: Fromm International

Buddhadaasa, B., 1994, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree, Boston, Wisdom Publications

Digital South Asia Dictionary,

Feuerstein, G., 1997, The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga, Boston, Shambhala

Gothic Archies, The, 2006, The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events, “The World Is A Very Scary Place,” NYC, Nonesuch