Category Archives: Dukkha

Reviewing ourselves

In the monastic community, giving and accepting criticism of each others’ behavior is a standard part of the training. In lay life we tend not to welcome any indication that we or our views are not perfect. However, we rarely notice our own flaws, even when they are obvious to others. In MN 15, Ven. Mogallana, one of the Buddha’s most senior disciples, gives a long description of the characteristics of people who do and don’t accept correction from others.

A small part of the sutta goes like this (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation):

Now, friends, a monk should review himself thus: (1) ‘Do I have evil desires and am I dominated by evil desires?’ If, when he reviews himself, he know: ‘I have evil desires, I am dominated by evil desires,’ then he should make an effort to abandon those evil unwholesome qualities. But if, when he reviews himself, he knows: ‘I have no evil desires, I am not dominated by evil desires,’ then he can abide happy and glad, training day and night in wholesome qualities.

“Having evil desires” is the first of sixteen qualities that Ven. Mogallana lists as characteristic of a monk who will not accept criticism. Some of the others are:

2. Praising oneself and disparaging others.
3. Being angry.
5. Being stubborn.
7. When reproved, resisting the reprover.
8. When reproved, denigrating the reprover.
10. When reproved, prevaricating [evading], leading the talk aside [changing the subject], showing anger, hate, and bitterness.
12. Being contemptuous and insolent.
16. Adhering to his own view, holding to it tenaciously.

We probably recognize some or all of these strategies used by people who can’t bear to be corrected or shown any indication that they may be behaving unwisely. Unfortunately, in our public life, we often see senior figures deploying these tactics.

If we agree that accepting correction from others can be a pathway to spiritual and psychological growth, then we might be willing to review our own reactions to those who challenge us. Can we listen to others who disagree with our positions? Do we bristle at any suggestion that our view is incorrect? Do we immediately doubt the integrity or intelligence of the questioner? Does criticism make us dig in to our position deeper than before?

We all have a profound instinct for self-preservation. At one time in human history this quality protected us from real, physical dangers, so in an evolutionary sense, it’s essential. However, now that we don’t live in savannahs populated by wild animals, the instinct has morphed into (sometimes hyper-) sensitivity to “ego threats”. If someone expresses an opinion different from or opposite to our own, what is being threatened? If someone points out that we’ve inadvertently caused harm or inconvenience to someone else, why do we sometimes react as if there is danger?

This is a specific situation in which mindfulness can lead to understanding. When feelings of resistance rise up, can we look inside and observe our reaction? Can we wait, reflect, feel the physical sensations involved, and calm ourselves enough to listen to what’s actually being said? Can we consider another point of view?


Filed under Anger, Causes and results, Dukkha, Friendships, Patience, Relationships, Speech

It’s not the same

An underlying cause of unease is our desire for stability, for predictability, for security. We get nervous when people or things change in unexpected ways. When someone says, “It will never be the same again”, I automatically think: “Well, it wasn’t staying the same before, either”.  Nothing stays the same. Mostly we think that things are fine if we don’t hear anything to the contrary; or we assume that nothing changes if we’re not paying attention to it. But everything is changing all the time: the weather, our attitudes, peoples’ health, our opinions, our locations, our moods. Physical things decay and eventually break. This is the characteristic of all existence called anicca, or impermanence.

Anicca is one reason it can be hard to make changes in our lives. We think that if we can hold “just this one thing” steady, we won’t become disoriented or afraid. We sometimes prefer an unpleasant reality to an unknown one.

What would it be like to actually know that everything is changing all the time? If we tuned into this reality every day, we’d become more alert, more closely observing of ourselves and others. We’d have to remember that the way we perceive and imagine things today is not the same as it was yesterday, and it could well be different tomorrow. Both the subject and the objects of our awareness are in flux.

To sustain awareness of anicca, we would need to learn to relax into it, and part of that ability to accept change is to accept our own dislike of it, a primary form of dukkha (stress or suffering). We can distract ourselves to the point of exhaustion, but there’s no escape, is there? If we can start to accept our own liking and disliking and (through wisdom) reduce our reactivity, our grasping and pushing away, everything becomes easier. Physical discomfort? It’s unpleasant but (in almost all cases) it will pass. Extreme elation? Very pleasant, and it will pass. Weather, bad or good? It, too, will change. Relationship difficulties or ecstasies? All of the nature to pass away. Our favorite possessions? All will inevitably be lost, broken, or become rubbish one day. If we acknowledge these realities on a regular basis, we begin to go with the flow of anicca.

Perhaps the hardest part of waking up to our existential situation is acknowledging that there’s a lot more we don’t know than we do know, but we can become accustomed to living with uncertainty. “I don’t know”, “let’s wait and see”, and similar phrases can help us live in a less fraught world. Nobody knows the whole story, except perhaps a fully awakened being, and whoever she is, she’s not talking. She knows that we have to find our own way to greater clarity.



Filed under Causes and results, Compassion, Dukkha, General

Children and attachment

In a recent issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly (Spring 2017), in the department called “Ask the Teachers”, the question posed is “How do I reconcile parenting with nonattachment?” I recommend the journal itself (, and this article in particular. Since this article is not freely available on line, I offer here the part that seems most helpful.

Q: I’m a longtime practitioner, but now that I have children, I’m struggling with the notion of nonattachment. How do I reconcile nonattachment with the deep connection I have with my kids – and with my concerns for their well-being and safety?

A: [Answers are given from Buddhist teachers in three different traditions. Here is only the third answer, from Sumi Loudon Kim, a minister with Buddhist Families of Durham, NC.]

The heart of this humdinger question is that the word “attachment” means one thing in the context of parenting and another in the context of Buddhist teachings. The association of the word “attachment” with parenting has its origins in the phrase “attachment parenting”, a theory of child-rearing developed by pediatrician William Sears in the 1980s. In parenting, attachment is thought to provide a foundational sense of safety and security, giving a child the courage to explore and thus learn essential facts about their world. Your concern for your children’s well-being and safety comes from a healthy, natural bonding derived from empathy, care, and love – none of which are against the dharma.

In the Buddhist world, attachment is understood as a mental factor, a psychological pattern that is a mega-cause of suffering. However, the neutral sense of the English word “attachment” doesn’t convey the potency and misery of what Buddhists mean by it. Buddhist texts use the Sanskrit word trsna, an English-language cognate of which is the word “thirst”. “Thirst” accurately conveys the sense of need that characterizes this mental state. We are thirsty for sense gratification, thirsty for experiences. Other translations of this kind of attachment are “clinging”, “craving”, and “desire”. Although it doesn’t sound human to say, “Don’t be attached to your children,” it does sound right to say, “Don’t cling to them.” (We even disapprove of overly clingy parents.)

Nonetheless, the Buddhist notion of attachment, as craving, can teach us something about parenting pitfalls. Since we can crave just about anything, it’s possible to develop a sticky clinginess to our own children. For example, we might crave their demonstrations of affection, respect, or loyalty. We can become attached to our children behaving or performing in a particular way, believing that our child should be a good soccer player, academically successful, polite to others, and so on, because we are worried about our own public image, self-worth, unresolved issues, or value as a “good” parent. This kind of attachment is primarily self-centered, serving our own needs. As many of us know from experience, staking our happiness on a child fulfilling our expectations invariably results in suffering. (Although I’m quite certain that the moment my children stop leaving dirty socks around the house, my life will be perfect.) In the final analysis of this type of clingy attachment, it’s not so much that we are directly attached to our children as we are attached to our misconception of what will bring us happiness.

The parenting notion of attachment as bonding can also teach us something about parenting potential. In fact, the Buddha himself urges us to create the “bonds of fellowship”, as taught in the Sangaha Sutta. Through generosity, kind words, beneficial help, and consistency in the face of changing conditions, he said, parents sustain a favorable, respectful relationship with their children. In other words, parenting is dharma practice. Far from trying to detach ourselves from our children, our relationship with our children is an amazing ground on which we can practice attunement, the gift of creating safety, generosity, aid, and unconditional love. This in turn develops our capacity to feel the same bonds of fellowship for the children of others – and for others as once-children. In the end, we are called to discover the bonds of fellowship we have with all beings.

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Filed under Causes and results, Dukkha, General, Relationships

Understanding dukkha

One useful definition if dukkha is not getting what we want, and getting what we don’t want.

We are constitutionally inclined to want stability, reliability, and predictability, even more than we want pleasure. But all of our experience is characterized by anicca — instability. Everything that we can perceive or know is changing: short-term or long-term, visibly or invisibly, growing or diminishing, blooming or rotting, beginning or ending. Everything in nature, including all of us, our bodies and minds, falls into this category. It is one of the fundamental characteristics of our existence.

Largely because we wish things wouldn’t change in ways we don’t like, dukkha arises in our experience. We may not be aware of the specific cause of our dukkha, which can be frustrating, can make life seem unfair, and can sometimes make us angry or upset. But here’s the opportunity: we can accept and work with life as it is, or we can reject and resist it.

One area in which it’s particularly difficult to discern and accept dukkha is in the realm of love and attachment. In romantic love, feelings are often mercurial, up and down, intense and unpredictable. Love between friends can take many various forms. Love of our parents can be mixed with reservations of all kinds, or can be brightened with admiration and gratitude. Love for our children is probably the strongest and most complicated bond of all, and I’ll address it in the next post.

In our affections, as in most things, we desire stability. And yet all of our relationships are in constant flux; we need flexibility and forgiveness to make them last. If the challenges are accepted as normal events, we may be able to respond more constructively, with less reactivity.

We want our children, friends, parents, siblings, and ourselves to be happy, to be confident and successful (by any definition). These are wishes and feelings that might be directed to anyone and everyone, and when they are offered freely, that is mettā. When we recognize the fluctuations of sukkha and dukkha in our experience, dwelling in and radiating mettā can become a natural state.


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Filed under Dukkha, General, The 8-fold path

What is dukkha?

A dear friend told me recently that when she heard that the first noble truth was “life is suffering”, she felt that Buddhism couldn’t be for her. This is so common a misunderstanding of the first truth that I feel we need to clarify things; we need to learn how to discuss the Buddha’s teachings in less absolute and more useful terms.

The first truth is: there is dukkha. It’s not “all life is suffering” or “everything stinks”, it’s a recognition that within every aspect of our ongoing experience, there is (at least) a grain of dissatisfaction. The primary way in which our experiences are colored by dukkha is that every moment of our day “could be better”. We are always feeling that if only this or that aspect of what’s happening were different, it would be perfect. Moments of complete satisfaction and joy last only as long as it takes for the thought “I wish this could last forever” to form. Even when we find the perfect physical position to relax into, with no immediate worries and nothing to do, these conditions change (against our wishes). The body wants to adjust itself or something we need to do pops into our head and we get agitated. This is a description of sitting meditation, if you think about it.

So, with respect to the first truth, our instruction is to acknowledge it. If we can recognize these moments of dissatisfaction with the way things are, we can investigate what is causing the dukkha, and possibly find release.

The Pali word dukkha has a very broad meaning that includes more or less everything that we don’t like, from the smallest itch to a major catastrophe. One image associated with the word is a wagon wheel where the axle and hub don’t fit together smoothly, so wherever the cart goes, the ride will be bumpy. Our awareness of dukkha can be when things are going well or badly. There is always some “sand in the gears”, even if it’s something like “I wish person X could be here to enjoy this”.

The opposite of dukkha is sukkha, which includes everything we like, from worldly satisfactions to subtly joyful mindstates. Sometimes we think that sukkha is our birthright and that dukkha is a error, an unacceptable aberration. It’s easier to accept sukkha than dukkha.

If we recognize a moment in which dukkha is apparent, rather than turning away from it, trying to rush past it to something we like better, we can turn inward and investigate. Often just by naming our dissatisfactions, we take some power away from them. When someone else’s behavior annoys or frustrates us, we may be able to work out that their behavior and our reaction to it are two different things. We can’t control their behavior, but we may be able to re-direct our reaction, or at least understand and have compassion for it.

The second truth is the truth of the origin of dukkha. We can simply say that some form of clinging is always at the root of dukkha, but it is more useful to recognize this in our experience. What does dukkha feel like? Is there some way in which we are wishing that things were different from how they are? How strong is that feeling? Where does it resonate in the body? What desire of ours is making this experience uncomfortable?



Filed under Dukkha, General, The 8-fold path

Flowing vs. fixating

A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I must be parted and separated from everyone and everything dear and agreeable to me.’
-From AN 5.57 (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

ALSO, we must eventually be parted from everything repellent and disagreeable to us.

Whether we like or dislike what is happening right now, it is sure to change and pass away. Remembering this fact can be a fruitful path of practice. If we look deeply into the activity of liking and not-liking as it arises in our hearts, we see that it is sometimes subtle and sometimes powerful, but it is always ephemeral.

If we feel intense love for someone, fixating on our feeling of love actually diverts our attention from the beloved. When strong anger or disgust overtakes our mind, if we fixate on that feeling, whatever it was that stimulated it may change without our noticing. Sayadaw U Tejaniya recommended tracking our liking and not-liking continuously because if we attend to the mercurial nature of our preferences we start to see that although they occupy a central place in our minds, they have no substance, no durability.

Sometimes we call memories to mind to re-experience the associated feeling. Do we know when we’re doing this? Is it a habit?

Strong feeling has its own attraction, whether it’s positive or negative; our ego enjoys both affirmation and a sense of righteous anger. We must discover for ourselves how insubstantial our own feelings are if we don’t want to be pushed around by them.

What could cause us to reduce our obsession with our own liking and not-liking? One possibility is knowing. The desire to understand our direct experience can provide the motivation to watch our preferences appear and disappear without our being swept away. When a boundless positive feeling is present, we can commit to it fully, including to it’s characteristic of rising and falling. When a powerful negative feeling comes up, we can breath in and out and observe how the feeling moves here and there without our directing it.

Moment to moment, we have the choice between fixating on our feelings and stepping back to observe their movements. Paradoxically, when we let our feelings come and go without our interference, we can experience and understand them more fully. Developing this skill can take us far towards strengthening a peaceful heart.


Filed under Causes and results, Dukkha, Mindfulness

Fear and refuge

Dhammapada verses 188-192, translated by Gil Fronsdal:

People threatened by fear
Go to many refuges;
To mountains, forests,
Parks, trees, and shrines.
None of these is a secure refuge;
None is a supreme refuge.
Not by going to such a refuge
Is one released from all suffering.

But when someone going for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
Sees, with right insight,
The Four Noble Truths:

The arising of suffering,
The overcoming of suffering,
And the eightfold path
Leading to the end of suffering,

Then this is the secure refuge;
This is the supreme refuge.
By going to such a refuge
One is released from all suffering.

I’ve been contemplating the question of where we seek refuge, what we lean on in times of fear or disorientation. The answers are personal and individual. Some of us find peace in nature, some in community, some in our homes or cars, some in various distractions, and there are many ways we might seek comfort. These worldly solutions can be effective at diverting us from worldly problems, but the existential questions remain. What’s going on here? How can people be so blind, uncaring, even cruel? Why do bad things happen to good people?

For the deeper questions, we have to look within for answers. We have to be willing to acknowledge that some things that seem very wrong cannot be fixed. Do we run away from this knowledge, or can we embrace it and investigate it?

During the Buddha’s life, the four truths were not generally presented to laypeople. The teaching of the truths was primarily for the ordained, because although the formulation sounds simple, to fully know the truths changes everything. It turns the me-centered world inside out; we have to give up on the idea of security (as we currently conceive it). An intellectual understanding is of no help; the four truths describe a practice which starts with seeing dukkha arising, within and outside of ourselves, and culminates in a complete understanding of karma, of cause and effect, of how things really come to be in the world. We could say that most of the work of the four truths is in the first one: acknowledging the truth of suffering in our experience. Rather than averting our eyes from our subtle or gross discomforts and dissatisfactions, we can look at them squarely and dispassionately.

Perhaps paradoxically, this is where real security begins: knowing that things are not under our control, that events and feelings come to us unbidden, that nothing in human experience lasts. For an excellent reflection on the meaning of dukkha, see:

Deep understanding cannot be gleaned in a moment, or by moving from one place to another. It takes a willingness to stop talking, to calm ourselves and look honestly and courageously at what is actually happening right now, again and again. This investigation, and acceptance of what we find, can be our refuge.

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Filed under Causes and results, Dhammapada, Dukkha, The 8-fold path