The problem with suffering is the idea we have that we shouldn’t suffer. Suffering is a word that has become synonymous with the core Buddhist teachings of the 4 Noble Truths. What if our understanding of those teachings has been misunderstood because of our views of what it means to suffer? In this episode, I will talk about suffering and unsatisfactoriness and how the latter makes more sense to me in terms of Buddhist practice.
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 122. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m going to talk about the problem with suffering. Keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use this to learn to be a better whatever you already are. So let’s get started with a discussion around the koan that I shared in the last podcast episode. This is where a monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax, “What is Buddha?” Tozan said, “This flax weighs three pounds.” Now this is a koan that I really enjoy because as I’ve mentioned before, the whole point of these koans at times seems to be, for me at least, that they’re trying to get us out of conceptual thinking and back into the experiential, into the present moment and that’s exactly what this koan does.
It’s like you’re in the middle of weighing some flax, and someone says, “What is Buddha?” That’s a concept. It’s an idea, but you know what’s real? This flax weighs three pounds and that’s exactly what the monk was teaching in this koan, and I think it’s a really fun and a simple and a profound lesson that the questions that we ask sometimes, sometimes it’s the question that’s the problem. In other words, sometimes the absurdity of the question merits an answer like this. There’s another koan that the whole koan says, what is the color of wind? That to me, it’s like, well, you could wrestle with that question all day long, but if you fail to understand that the problem with that is the question itself, that’s just the wrong question. It’s an absurd question.
But we do that, we have questions and they entertain the thoughts in our minds and they distract us from the experiential, and this koan is one of those invitations to bring us back to reality. In this specific case, reality is that this flax weighs three pounds. So I like this. It reminds me to stay mindful of the questions that I’m entertaining. Now, I think I’ve mentioned this in a previous podcast episode, but one of the things that really drew my attention to Buddhism in the first place was the focus on the questions rather than the focus on the answers because I feel like a lot of ideologies focus so much on giving you the answers, the answers to big existential questions. For example, what happens when we die or why are we here? Where did we come from?
You’re not going to find answers to those questions in a tradition like Buddhism because Buddhism is much more focused the question, in fact, it would prioritize the question. If you were to ask, “Well, what happens when I die?” They would say it’s more important to know why am I asking that question or why does that question matter so much to me? That to me is a really fascinating way of thinking where you prioritize the question rather than focus on giving the right answer. I think a lot of times these koans are trying to do that. Here you have a direct question, what is Buddha, and the answer that’s given has nothing to do with the question because it’s reminding you that the question was misguided in the first place because in real life, in that moment, one thing that’s true or at least that mattered in that moment, is that the flax seed weighs three pounds, and I love the shift there.
So that’s how I interpret that koan. For me in my own life, I often find myself in the position of the monk that’s asking questions like, what is Buddha? What is enlightenment? What is suffering? Can we eliminate suffering? Questions like that. Or, what is God? Is there a God? These are big questions. That’s not to say we should dismiss all questions. I love the idea of thinking deeply and I’m glad that people have questions because those big questions lead to ideologies and philosophy and religions and it gives us something to work with and something to think about. So I’m not trying to minimize or dismiss the question. I’m trying to just emphasize that in this particular case, these koans are helping us to understand the importance of the experiential in the present moment versus the conceptual that’s taking place somewhere that’s not here and now with a question like what is Buddha versus the flax weighs three pounds.
It says right there, monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax. So here Tozan is doing something and he’s been interrupted with a question that has nothing to do with what he’s doing. So he’s saying the answer this flax weighs three pounds, that’s more important and I just love that. I love the way of thinking there. So those are my thoughts on the koan from last week. But this kind of leads into the topic that I wanted to discuss in the podcast episode today, the problem with suffering. This kind of started with a question that I received. Someone was asking me, would unenlightened person still suffer or mourn over the loss of a loved one or over say the pain of a broken bone or things of that nature.
In a way it left me thinking of this koan because I had been thinking about the koan all week when that question came in and I almost thought, well, there’s no appropriate answer to the question because to me that question is flawed. It’s not the right question. The real question would be pertaining to whatever it is we were doing in that moment. I started thinking about it later and thinking about the problem with the word suffering, the problem with the word enlightenment, enlightened person. What is an enlightened person? Why would an enlightened person not suffer over the loss of a loved one? So this got me thinking, in Buddhism we’re always talking about suffering, and the word suffering.
We discuss it in the context of three different types of suffering, the suffering of suffering, which is essentially pain, right? Like a broken bone. The suffering of loss, when we lose a loved one or a job or we’re nostalgic for the past, that’s the suffering of loss. Then there’s this third type of suffering that we talk about often, which is all pervasive suffering. It got me thinking, what if what we really have is just an error in word choice? It’s like we’re jumping through hoops trying to make the word suffering work for a concept or an idea that may be the problem with suffering is the word itself, the word suffering and what that word means to us. We know that to some extent that’s absolutely true because in the original teachings, what is being talked about as suffering doesn’t necessarily mean suffering.
The actual word is Dukkha, but you can’t take an idea from one language and then explain the idea and another language without translating the word. So right there from the very get go, you have the first problem, which were do we choose. Unfortunately in our case, the word that has been most commonly used is suffering. The problem with concepts and ideas and words, everything is just a concept. It’s all stories. So they’re inherited from our society, from our culture, from our religion, from our families, but including, and especially words, the words themselves. So suffering is a word that has meaning and we’ve inherited that meaning. Somebody at some point described what suffering is to you. But imagine how would someone describe suffering to you without using any words. How would you convey that to another person to help them understand what it is to suffer?
We can’t really do that. You could feel it and then recognize, oh, this is that feeling that they’re talking about. But suffering is a word and so we’re kind of stuck with the meaning that society has given us for what that word means. That’s the problem we run into with every word, whether it’s enlightenment or suffering. So just to address that a little bit, I think what we really want to get at, the word Dukkha, we know has other translations and scholars have since talked about maybe using a different word like unsatisfactoriness and that’s a word that lately I’ve been using more in my mind. I like that, the idea of unsatisfactoriness. But going back really quick to enlightenment, it’s the same problem, right? The idea of enlightenment is a story. So thinking you are enlightened, well, that’s just a story and thinking that you’re not enlightened, well, that’s also just the story.
I love the on that I’ve talked about before, the gateless gate where Manjushri is being asked to enter this gate and he sees no need to enter the gate because he doesn’t see himself as being outside. That to me is a really profound understanding of this concept or this idea of enlightenment. How can you enter a space that you’re not outside of, right? It’s impossible. How can I enter a room if I’m already in that room? That is the teaching in this koan of the gateless gate and think of the implication of that profound lesson when you apply it to something like the concept of enlightenment. So going back to the original question that someone was asking me, would an enlightened person, it’s like, okay, well we got to stop there. What is an enlightened person to you? Because we may not be seeing that the same. I don’t think there’s such a thing. I think the whole concept of enlightened is it’s just a concept.
I think a lot of people get hung up on concepts and ideas like enlightenment and with suffering, which is what I wanted to talk about in this episode. We know we can’t stick with the original word because we don’t even know what that means unless someone tells us, well, what does… Translate the word for me. Well, now you’ve got the problem. You open up the can of worms. So I would like to have us consider for a moment unsatisfactoriness as a more appropriate word that we could use. I understand that it’s difficult to do this because anytime someone comes along and says, “Well, wait, what if this word makes more sense?” Others will say, “Well, now you’re changing the whole thing.” I ran into this when I was writing my book, No‑Nonsense Buddhism for Beginner and I was talking about the four noble truths and the concept of suffering and that… Because we talk about how in life there is suffering and then later you’re talking about a way to end suffering.
But these concepts are really difficult to use if you’re limited with your understanding of the word suffering. So what I was trying to help my publisher understand is that when I’m referring to suffering here, I’m referring to the Buddhist understanding of suffering, which is all pervasive suffering, which if somebody in Western society thinks of the word suffering and then you talk about the idea of eliminating suffering, you’re running into a whole lot of problems here because first you have to unpack what suffering actually means from the Buddhist perspective rather than what suffering means to the average Western way of thinking. But I couldn’t get around that. I couldn’t interject other words because the publisher said, “Well, the most common way that Buddhists talk about Dukkha is suffering so you’re just going to use the word suffering,” and that’s what I was limited to.
So in a way my hands were tied and it’s like, okay, well, I’ll explain this concept using the only words that I’m allowed to use and in this case, suffering was one of those words. So again, I was presented with the problem of suffering where the problem of suffering is the word itself. So I feel a sense of discomfort or unsatisfactoriness at times in my life and that’s separate from what I feel when I’m feeling suffering. In that sense, I like to remember it’s totally okay. There’s no problem with experiencing suffering. I experience suffering at times in life and that’s okay. That’s not the problem. The only problem with suffering is when we think we shouldn’t experience suffering, or even worse, we think there’s some magical way to eventually avoid or eliminate suffering altogether and that’s a problematic thought. That’s a problematic concept or belief or idea to hold unless you start unpacking a lot of things in there, what the suffering actually mean.
There’s just not a way to eliminate suffering in the general sense that we think of suffering. So I wanted to discuss that a little bit in this podcast episode. I think we should quit striving to only feel good in our lives and instead we should strive to be good at feeling, feeling whatever it is that we’re feeling. Instances of suffering are a great invitation to pause in that moment and really pay attention to what we’re feeling. Here’s something that’s interesting to me with this problem of the word suffering. It’s known in the story of the Buddha that when the Buddha attained enlightenment, he came to understand that he was it. He was the source of all his Dukkha, all of his unsatisfactoriness. Well, what does that tell me? When I’m experiencing any form of unsatisfactoriness in my life, I can look inward and I can try to explore and say, “What does this say about me?”
If I’m the source of what I’m feeling, then where did all this start? Why am I feeling what I’m feeling? What stories do I have in my mind that affect me experiencing the specific emotion that I’m experiencing? I don’t think suffering fits in that whole description because we know in the story of the Buddha that when he was old and the night before, or I don’t remember if it was the night before, but not long before he passed away, he had eaten something that caused him a lot of pain and he was experiencing stomach cramps and then he talks about that. So here you have the example of someone who’s suffering. So it’s odd thousands of years later that somebody would have this concept in their mind of enlightenment and ask the question, “Well, could an enlightened person feel pain?” It’s like, well, of course.
Here we have the story of the Buddha where he ate something and his stomach was causing him a lot of pain and he was probably holding the stomach the way we would if we were feeling pain and it wouldn’t have occurred to someone to be like, hey, wait a second, aren’t you enlightened? Why is that hurting? Because back then they would have thought enlightenment and suffering, those aren’t… That’s not the right correlation to think that an enlightened person doesn’t experience suffering. Ironically, in our day and age, that is the exact word that’s used to correlate to enlightenment, thinking somebody who’s learned to transcend suffering is someone who’s enlightened and that’s just very problematic to me because we’re messing with words that the words are the problem there. I don’t think that’s the right way to think of it.
So unsatisfactoriness to me, that’s a whole different thing. I can be experiencing pain and it can be an unsatisfactory experience and it’s that unsatisfactoriness that I think that’s something I have to work with because I could also be feeling pain or loss and with a sense of satisfaction. Not meaning that I like it, but for example, when I think about the suffering I’m going to experience at the loss of a loved one. I mentioned this not long ago on a podcast, but at the thought of my children dying or at the thought of my parents passing away, I experienced a sense of of loss, a sense of discomfort around the pain that I’m going to inevitably feel when that moment finally comes. But what I don’t feel is a version to that pain.
I’m not going out of my way to mask those feelings of discomfort and when the time comes, I’m going to allow myself to feel in the broadest sense and the widest range of that feeling every single emotion that’s going to flood into my mind and into my heart when I’m going through that difficult stage. That’s the difference. I feel like there may have been a time where I would be doing everything possible to avoid that discomfort and now I’m not afraid of it. I don’t have an aversion to it. To me, that is what Buddhism as a practice is trying to get us to do, to be really good at feeling not to just be feeling good. In that sense, the unsatisfactoriness associated with the pain and suffering of losing a loved one, that’s what goes away. There’s no sense of unsatisfactoriness there.
In fact, I will probably feel quite alive at that moment of that intense emotion that I’ll be experiencing because those are the moments where you cherish life, right? When you’re looking at the face of death or confronted with the concept of death because of a loved one who just passed away, man, those are the moments we feel most alive. Our priorities get totally shifted and rearranged and things that mattered suddenly don’t matter and it’s a beautiful time to just feel, to just it all. In that moment, I don’t think that there’s that sense of unsatisfactoriness and that’s what I wanted to get at with the problem with suffering is the word suffering itself. What if we got rid of that concept and thought what we’re really dealing with is unsatisfactoriness in life? There are times when we have a sense of unsatisfactoriness.
Then when you take in the four noble truths and apply it with that definition in your mind, it all makes so much more sense, at least to me. The acronym of ELSA where E is embracing the instance of suffering or the instance of unsatisfactoriness. So here this thing happens and suddenly I just embrace, oh, this is what I’m feeling. So that’s E. The L is letting go of the habitual reactivity or the instinctive reactivity. So it’s like here’s this thing that happened and boom, I start spiraling. I feel this so I’m going to do that, I’m going to do that, so I’m going to say this. That chain, I’m breaking it by just letting it be, observing it. Which is what the S is in the acronym. S is seeing the stopping of the reactivity.
It’s recognizing, wow, that felt really unpleasant, which made me feel this way, which made me start to say this and then I was able to pause and I see in that moment the stopping of the reactivity and the spiral, rather than spiraling down, I just stopped and I’m letting myself feel everything that I’m feeling, which leads to the most powerful part of the entire process, the A in the acronym, which is act skillfully. I may have acted unskillfully three or four steps into this to reach the point where now this fourth step in this chain of reactivity, that is going to be more skillful than it would have been had I not been practicing this way of life, of trying to be mindful. I hope that makes sense to you, guys. That’s definitely how I see it and that’s how I experience it working in my own day to day life.
I experienced moments of unsatisfactoriness all the time. It’s inevitable as a parent, as a spouse, as an employee, as a person who drives in traffic, as a person who deals with navigating Facebook. There’s just no way around this. But the unsatisfactoriness, that’s different than suffering and saying, “Oh, I shouldn’t feel suffering.” That’s different. When I’m feeling a sense of unsatisfactoriness, I can pause and say, “Huh, why does this bother me so much?” Using Facebook as an example, right? Somebody posts something and you’re like, “Oh,” and you feel this in your stomach. You can pause and say, “Huh, why does that bother me so much?” That mental exploration can lead to an understanding of the causes and conditions that led to the unsatisfactoriness. It can lead to the pausing and the reactivity. Suddenly you catch yourself not needing to reply or comment on that post and then you act more skillfully and suddenly, there you did it. You applied the ELSA acronym in your day to day life and it was never about suffering, it was about the unsatisfactoriness.
So that’s something I wanted to highlight. It would make so much more sense to a lot of people if we just didn’t even use the word suffering when we’re talking about this. Instead, we had another word like anguish or unsatisfactoriness or something. I don’t know. For right now, that seems like the best word, but I don’t know, maybe another word will make more sense. While we’re kind of on this topic, I was talking to my son [Ryko 00:21:44]. We just got, my wife just bought a computer, a laptop that she’s using to run the software for one of her dance competitions and it’s a gaming laptop. It needed whatever gaming laptops have. So my son Ryko who loves computers and gaming, he saw it and said, “Why can’t I use that one instead of the normal computer we use?” That got us on the topic of computers.
In that conversation I said, “Isn’t it interesting to know that that computer and the other one, because that one’s a PC and the one we have that he uses is normally is a Mac?” I said, “Isn’t it interesting that the hardware, the components that make a computer a computer are essentially the same but the software makes these two entirely different systems? They work differently and the PC cannot help but to be a PC because of the software that makes its operating system and the Mac cannot help but to be a Mac because that’s the software?” I said, I was telling Ryko, “We’re like that. We’re like those computers where we inherit a software that’s installed in us little by little from the moment we’re born.” That’s the language that you speak. That’s your operating system. The ideas and the beliefs that you have, that’s part of your operating system. The societal norms and views from simple little things like a green light means go and a red light means stop, those concepts, those ideas, that’s part of the software.
At the end of the day you have these little computers running around that think that they’re… What really makes me me is all these, all my software and fail to recognize, no, you’re not your software. You’re all the hardware, your genetics and DNA and those interact and contribute with a software to, right? But in essence, what I’m trying to get at is I’m hydrogen and I’m oxygen and I’m all these other materials that make me me, but my software that’s programmed in me, I can’t help that. That’s just what it is and it’s changed and evolved over time, sure. But I can’t just take it and reboot and install new software and suddenly I’m not, I don’t have the words to speak English and Spanish. Suddenly I’m just, I only understand Chinese culture. It doesn’t work that way. I could learn and adapt another culture, but I can’t stop being what I already am.
Talking to Ryko about that, it really helped me feel like that’s hitting home on some of these concepts that we explore in Buddhism where we’re just programmed. The idea of stories and especially the idea of eliminating suffering, that’s just a story. If you believe it, you’re going to continue to experience suffering on one level because it’s inevitable and then on a deeper level because you’re experiencing something that you don’t want to experience or that you don’t think you should be experiencing and that just aggravates it. Why not just stay on the first level that when you experience suffering, you just experience it? Like any emotion, when I’m feeling it, I’m just feeling it and I’m allowing myself to feel that. That’s what I wanted to get at with this concept and this idea of the problem with suffering.
I want to be clear that, I mean, I don’t particularly like to suffer. It’s unpleasant. I’m not trying to say, “Hey, what you should do in all of those practices, learn to accept suffering and go suffer.” No, but what I’m saying is in those instances of unsatisfactoriness, feelings that are unpleasant, those are moments that can be a beautiful reminder of how alive we are and how unique it is that we can feel something so intensely and be aware of the fact that we’re feeling something so intensely. So my goal with this, with all of this is to be really good at feeling, feeling every range of emotion that will arise at every stage of life for me. I don’t want to just feel good. Sure, that’s a pleasant thing and it’s nice to feel good, but I want to enjoy the full range of emotions as they arise, the emotions that arise when I lose loved ones, when I win little happy moments in life where you get something new or I get to go flying or I get to see my kids succeed at something.
It’s the full range, not just the, the difficult and uncomfortable stuff, but to fully feel the pleasant and the comfortable stuff too, the moments of happiness and joy along with the moments of sadness or sorrow. That’s what I wanted to get at with the problem of suffering. That’s all I have for this podcast episode. As always, thank you for listening and if you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, consider a patron and joining the online community where we discuss these koans and the podcast episodes and more and you can learn more about that by visiting secularbuddhism.com. If you enjoyed the podcast episode, give it a rating in iTunes, share it with others, but that’s all I have for now and I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon.
But before I go, here is your Zen koan to work with between now and the next podcast episode. In early times in Japan, bamboo and paper lanterns were used with candles inside. A blind man visiting a friend one night was offered a lantern to carry home with him. “I do not need a lantern,” he said. “Darkness or light. It’s all the same to me.” “I know you don’t need a land turn to find your way,” his friend replied, “but if you don’t have one, someone else may run into you, so you must take it.” The blind man started off with a lantern and before he had walked very far, someone ran squarely into him. “Look out where you’re going,” he exclaimed to the stranger, “can’t you see this lantern?” “Your candle has burned out, brother,” replied the stranger. That’s all I have for this podcast episode. Until next time.