Category Archives: Dukkha

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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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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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?



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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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Feelings and views

We’ve been considering some of the challenges involved with understanding the workings of our own minds. A recent interview with Bhikkhu Anālayo in the Insight Journal illuminated a particular facet of this inquiry, so I share it here:

Insight Journal: How does the craving that arises in dependence on vedanā [hedonic feeling] lead to the view-forming process? And how can that process be worked with or transcended?

Bhikkhu Anālayo: Psychologists call it the Myside Bias, which means that I always assume that my views are correct and others’ are wrong. Any information that comes in I manipulate in such a way that it confirms that my views are right and the views of others are wrong. The underlying cause for this is the hedonic investment I have in my own views – the pleasant feeling they give me – the pleasure of feeling that I got it right, and it’s the others who got it wrong. There is something psychologists call Cognitive Dissonance, which we all try very hard to avoid. This means that if I say something is so and you agree, I experience pleasant feelings. If you disagree, unpleasant feelings. If you bring up evidence against what I have said, very unpleasant, very painful feelings.

When we really work with feelings, we learn to hold views without clinging to them.

The full interview is here:

If we take a step back, we will remember that our own views come from our experience, from the assumptions we grew up with (good and bad), and all the things that have happened since, AND that others’ experience is different from ours – therefore, their views and opinions are likely to be different from ours. This is not a problem unless we make it one, it’s just a fact. Remembering this can make the difference between a mindfulness that is narrow and rigid and one that is open and receptive.

Further down in the interview, Bhikkhu Anālayo says: In Buddhist thought we have this beautiful tetralemma. In Western philosophy, everything is black and white – either something is true or else it is false. But according to the tetralemma, something can be true, can also be false, can be neither true nor false, or can be both. And that opens up an alternative to this kind of fundamentalist black and white worldview. 

It is important not to assume that having any sort of view is bad. We do and will have strong views on some things; it’s simply our nature. But regardless of the strength of our opinions, we can be more or less attached to them; we can identify with them to a greater or lesser degree. Training ourselves to see clearly takes time! We don’t just notice how views create problems and give them up; we have to consciously tune in to the hedonic flavor or color of our experience when views arise.  We need to keep track of this feeling of being affirmed or threatened. How intense is our need to be agreed with, to have our opinions acknowledged and not criticized?

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We’ve been meandering through the pāramīs or perfections, especially patience. Skipping over truthfulness for the moment, we come to resolve or determination (adhiṭṭhāna pāramī). This has been a problematic perfection for me. It’s easy to set ourselves up for failure by thinking, “I should be able to do X, and I commit to doing it.”, but then if we find the challenge too daunting we may experience guilt, anxiety and/or hopelessness. The whole idea of setting challenges for ourselves can feel awkward.

Another way to understand resolve is as a “home base” that we go back to when doubt arises. We can touch in with our deepest intentions and use those as our guides. If we commit to generosity and ethical behavior, deeply and over the long term, then when we stray from those intentions, resolve brings us back to center. It’s an answer to the question, “where can I turn?”

From the book, Pāramī [Perfections] by Ajahn Sucitto:

The Buddhist emphasis on knowing through one’s direct experience has always felt very sane to me. The Buddha’s Dhamma is shown not through, ‘This is Truth, this is Ultimate Reality and the Secret Law of the Cosmos’, but as, ‘This is what you do to get through the mess.’ And it offers an opportunity, a way to explore the mind and step back from the samsāra of its turmoil through the simple expedient of picking up a reasonable intention – like focusing on breathing – and witnessing how the mind skids and wobbles around that intention with its transient likes and dislikes.

We may be accustomed to thinking of determination or resolve as a test that we either pass or fail. But we can start with the understanding that we WILL fail sometimes, AND we can always start again. In fact, we have to start again unless we’re just going to give up and take the attitude that nothing matters. Perfection is not possible (for humans), but steady forward motion is possible and is satisfying. As Ajahn Sucitto points out, we’re not aiming at a superhuman state, we are looking for the best way to move through the messy and sometimes painful business of life.

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