My cat, absorbed in the pleasure of warm sunshine on the window ledge, is an illustration of how all humans and animals are equal: our fundamental purpose in life is to experience pleasure and avoid pain. If we look at the reasons behind our behaviour, all our daily activities are directed towards obtaining sensory pleasure and happiness, or towards avoiding unpleasant experiences and unhappiness. There is nothing wrong in experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain, the problem is that we are not very good at achieving these goals. Even when we do find a degree of happiness, we are skilful at destroying it.
Upon achieving enlightenment, the Buddha remained for a long time without saying anything. It is said that his hesitation in spreading the good news was due to a thought that went something like, “I have discovered the profound truth of existence; they [you and I] will never be able to understand.” Fortunately, Buddha was persuaded by the great beings, Brahma and Indra, to reveal his knowledge. He began his first teaching by saying that life is miserable. I don’t know how the Indians reacted to this, but when a Buddhist nun in
Australia started a talk with this statement the audience immediately broke into applause.
Buddha’s next point may not have been so popular: “Your suffering comes from the karma and disturbing emotions in your own mind.”
We may reply to that, “Hey, it’s not me. Change the politicians, give me a great, well-paid job, a beautiful family, and a house by the seaside and I”ll show you whether life is miserable or not.”
In the early 1970s I travelled overland from India to England with the intention to immerse myself once more in the material world by working as a doctor in a London hospital. I felt that I had to taste ‘the real world” once more before I could accept my newly discovered Buddhist philosophy. On the way, I stayed with the owner of a Norwegian shipping line who, with his wife, had built their dream house on a quiet beach on the island of Crete. His wife had died just before the house was completed, and he was very, very lonely. Although I had attended a course with Tibetan lamas, I had not yet accepted the teachings to be true. I was still chasing the dream of a perfect partner, a great job, and unsullied happiness in my life. The sad situation of my Scandinavian friend made me reflect upon what the lamas had taught me: ‘the objects and situations we rely upon for happiness are unreliable because they do not last. Death and impermanence rule the world.”
Expanding upon his initial declaration that life is miserable, Buddha described three levels of suffering. Suffering of suffering refers to the experiences we all accept to be suffering, such as the physical pain of sickness and accidents. These need no explanation, but the second level of suffering, the suffering of change, is more difficult to understand. Suffering of change refers to what we ordinarily call “happiness.” Most languages possess the standard greeting formula that goes something like, “Hello, how are you?” Occasionally we may truthfully reply, “Bloody awful,” but usually, no matter how bad things are going, we give the
standard response, “I’m okay, how are you?” The truth has to be teased out of us:
“Are you happy?”
“Yes,” we reply, unconvincingly.
“Are you really happy?”
“Sort of, better than last week anyway,” or we may respond simply by bursting into tears.
When we take painkillers for a toothache, after a while we will say, “Now I feel great,” even though some pain persists. Feeling great is simply a lesser degree of the pain that we were experiencing before. Even though we call it happiness, we are still suffering, and the same can be said for every other happiness that we are trying to extract from this world.
Our life is pervaded by a sense of incompleteness and a need for something to make it better. “Happiness” is only a temporary respite from the gnawing anxiety within our mind. For a few moments we can forget our underlying unhappiness, but the happiness cannot stay because it depends upon the gathering of causes and conditions that cannot last forever. When the sources of our happiness cease, we inevitably experience “the party’s over” type of sadness. Why else does the song, Auld Lang Syne, produce tears in our eyes?
Internally, happiness becomes suffering because, through attachment, our mind clings to the object of happiness and the happy experience itself. Yearning to never separate from our lover, we feel unhappy when alone and become consumed with jealousy and resentment whenever he or she innocently talks to another. When we do eventually separate, our attachment causes us to pine for past happiness and dwell in fantasies of future happiness that are unlikely to be realised.
Another way of thinking that transforms happiness into suffering is believing that pleasure exists as an intrinsic property of the object of pleasure, and that the acquisition of that object should automatically bring happiness. At the beach we lie in the sunshine, like the cat on the window ledge, and think that the warmth is bliss. The heat soon becomes unbearable and we enter the water, thinking the coolness is bliss. The cold then becomes unbearable and we go back onto the sand, thinking the warmth is bliss. The situation is the same with physical obsessions. Our garages and attics are full of discarded possessions that were once thought to be so important for our happiness, and our address books are full of the names of people we were convinced would make us happy. This did not work out because our expectations were simply wrong; our friends and possessions were not the intrinsic sources of happiness we had anticipated them to be.
The third level of suffering described by Buddha is a deeper, more sinister, internal reason for unhappiness. It is called pervading suffering, the suffering of always being under the control of karma, disturbing emotions, and death. Karma is the tendency of our mind to meet with experiences that are similar to the effects our past actions have had upon others. We have no way of guaranteeing that even the temporary happiness of life can be sustained because when our good karma runs out the primary cause for happiness is lost. And when the karmic echoes of past harmful actions ripen in our mind, it is impossible to be happy no matter how much wealth we have or how big a circle of friends we have gathered around us. Death can and does occur at any time, and is rarely welcome. One moment of anger can cause us to drive too fast, crash the car, and ripen the karma to be consumed in an inferno of flames. Another karma will then throw us into our next life without choice. As we may continue to burn for aeons in hell to complete that karma, death is no guarantee of relief.
“Rest in Peace” is a graveyard fantasy.
3 Levels of Sufferring:
- Sufferring or Sufferring
- Suffering of Change
- Pervading Suffering