What is Dukkha?

| June 21, 2011 | 131 Comments

This is the first of a series of posts in which I hope to explore ideas Stephen Batchelor discussed in a series of dharma talks in Fall 2010.  You can hear them at dharmaseed.org.

What is the First Noble Truth?  If you’re deep enough in the Buddhist weeds to be reading this, you will probably answer, “The noble truth of suffering.”  Perhaps you might even say “Life is suffering.”  This is, after all, part of the standard Western formulation of the Four Noble Truths: Life is suffering, suffering is caused by craving, the cessation of craving is Nirvana, the Eightfold Path leads to Nirvana.

But that’s not what the Pali canon says.

The word so habitually translated as “suffering” is dukkha.  In his first sermon in theDeer Park, Gotama tells us what dukkha means:

“This is dukkha: birth is painful, aging is painful, sickness is painful, death is painful, encountering what is not dear is painful, separation from what is dear is painful, not getting what one wants is painful. This psycho-physical condition is painful.”  (Mv.I)

In the twentieth chapter of the Dhammapada, we read, “All conditioned things are dukkha.”  In other words, dukkha is part of the fundamental nature of our phenomenal world.   It’s clear that the noble truth of dukkha means much more than the subjective experience of “suffering.”

This observation may seem like a quibble – after all, painful things cause us to suffer.  But realizing that dukkha is not simply how we feel, but is instead a characteristic that inheres in the nature of the world as we experience it, undermines the meaning of the Four Truths as so many of our dharma teachers present them.  For what would it mean for nirvana to be the cessation of suffering, if that suffering includes birth, sickness, death and loss?   Is there any practice or realization that will keep us from getting sick or old?  That will keep us from dying?

Well, of course, there is – if that practice keeps us from being born in the first place.  And as Buddhist doctrine had evolved by the time the Pali canon was composed, that’s precisely what was meant.  We can see this in the traditional 12-step version of the chain of conditioned arising, a version that can only be understood as extending over three lifetimes.  Steps 9 through 11 tell us that Craving leads to Grasping, which leads to Existence, which leads to Birth—rebirth in the next life.   In this rebirth-oriented presentation, the cessation of craving isn’t about ending the suffering I experience in this life – it’s primarily about ending the cycle of birth and death.

When dukkha is translated into English as “suffering,” however, this essentially metaphysical understanding of the Four Noble Truths is elided.  We have instead a presentation that seems to offer a straightforward therapeutic formula: suffering is the problem, craving is the cause; the cessation of craving is the cure, the Eightfold Path is the treatment.  But does craving cause the fundamentally painful and unreliable nature of existence?  And did Gotama teach that we can, or should, free ourselves from suffering?

The First Sermon again clarifies what dukkha is and how it fits in with the rest of the Four Truths:

“Such is dukkha. It can be fully known.  It has been fully known.

Such is craving.  It can be let go of.  It has been let go of.

Such is cessation.  It can be experienced.  It has been experienced.

Such is the path.  It can be cultivated.  It has been cultivated. . .

Only when my knowledge and vision was clear in all these ways did I claim to have had such an awakening.” (Mv I)

Instead of freeing ourselves from suffering, the First Sermon advises us to embrace it, to know it fully.  That embrace is the first and fundamental step of the awakening Gotama describes in this sutta. Only when we fully internalize the dukkha-nature of our human condition will we recognize the folly of our habitual reactions to dukkha—clinging and aversion—and begin to abandon them.

If we read this presentation of the Four Truths the same way we read the chain of dependent origination – that is, as a series of cause-effect relationships – a very different formulation appears from either the traditional or the standard Western presentations.  By fully knowing dukkha, we can release craving.  By releasing craving, we can experience the cessation of craving.  And when we are no longer in the grip of craving, we have the freedom to cultivate the Path.

In a future post, I will explore the significance this formulation for our practice.   But I will observe for now that this presentation of the Four Truths frees us from both the metaphysical basis of the traditional presentation in the Pali canon and from the mistranslation and misunderstanding on which the standard Western presentation is based.  It has the additional advantage of having its basis in the very first teaching Gotama is purported to have given following his awakening, and of being consistent with the principle of conditioned arising on which all of his ideas, and his awakening itself, are predicated.

At minimum, it’s clear that, if dukkha is the fundamental characteristic of our phenomenal existence, fully knowing dukkha starts with retiring the practice of defining the word as “suffering.”

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Mark J. Knickelbine, MA, C-MI, is a writer, editor, political activist, and certified meditation instructor. "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The End of Faith" led him to seek out a dharma practice without the supernatural beliefs of traditional Buddhism. He found it at a local health clinic, where he learned mindfulness in the manner of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has continued to study texts from the Pali, Chan and Zen traditions, and he is an active member of the mindfulness community at the UWHealth Department of Integrative Medicine. Mark is a member of the SBA board and serves as Practice Director.

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  1. Excellent post, Mark. Batchelor is addressing this now, and has some interesting things to say about how Dependent Origination — and actual experience — shows that it’s the reverse of what’s articulated in the Four Noble Truths. Craving is a *response* to the suffering that’s already there. Suffering causes craving is what he’s discussing.

  2. Neil Neil-Orangepeel says:

    I think this is an excellent question and one that should always be there with practice, but held with an enquiring attitude whenever possible. I think an exploration of what exactly the Buddha was getting at and putting it into a modern language and context would be of great benefit! I had a break through with this question some years ago, while I was on a meditation retreat. My friend and teacher at the time, a bloke called Suryacitta gave me a phrase to practice with, which went something like this ‘Identify what enters the mind, don’t identify with it, and if you do identify with it, just identify that you have identified with it’. Hahaha, sounds a bit long winded, but it made sense at the time. It basically helped me to start seeing how I created Dukkha in my own experience, and believe me I’ve tripped up countless times since, but it was an insight I well chrish of which I have a great deal of Sraddha (confidence) in now, which came directly from my own experience (of which was quite private, that I need not go into here LOL). So the question I want to propose is: Is identifying with phenomena, a large element in the Dukkha we experience?

    Best wishes to you all,


    • Andrew says:

      I wonder about this too – why does identifying with conditioned things result in an experience of dukkha? Is it because of some mis-apprehension by us? Some trap of dualism? It can’t be that phenomena are themselves of a nature of suffering.

      • Neil Neil-Orangepeel says:

        Hey Andrew

        For me identifying with conditioned things and the dukkha that it leads to comes from my own lack of insight into what they really are i.e. impermanant and lacking any essence. Therefore I relate to them (indentify with them) as permanant and having something lasting to them. Phenomena is either painful, pleasent (both to varying degrees) or neutral, but I don’t treat them as passing phenomena but rather as things to have and to keep or things to banish. So I think you’re correct about it being a mis-apprehension or rather, on my part at least, a lack of insight into what they truly are. Things that are pleasurable don’t last= Dukkha, things that are painful can last longer than I want them to= Dukkha hahaha. Developing insight into their nature helps us to relate to them for what they instead of adding a story to them. Hope that all makes sense, that’s how I’ve understood the way to practice anyway. Cheers, Neil

    • Andrew says:

      Hey Neil,

      I see from your explanation that phenomena aren’t of themeselves the nature of dukkha. It is only our relationship to them. On the flip side, I suppose that all phenomena could be regarded as arising by conditions, and therefore tinged with dukkha, since our minds created it, but not sure about that. Any room for risings unrelated to our influence? Must be a planet or sun somewhere in the universe we had nothing to do with….

      Aloha, Andrew

      • frank jude says:


        In my essay on the Four Noble Truths, link provided below, I point out that over time, there has been some debate over whether phenomena in and of themselves are dukkha or only when we cling to them. There are passages in the Pali Canon that can support either view!

        Buddhadasa, and Thanisarro, Bhikkhus, for instance, both reject the idea that they are inherently dukkha, and argues that it is only our unskillful relationship to them that results in dukkha. This is also my position.

        As for your question regarding conditions. While all phenomena are seen to arise upon causes and conditions, not all of them are ‘karmic,’ which the Buddha taught was only volitional action. There are four other forms of causality that have nothing to do with us!

  3. Earl Rectanus says:

    Mark, I’m still not clear as to why suffering is not a good translation, just so long as we recognize that suffering is an inherent aspect of life. To accept that suffering is an inherent part of life seems to be what you are talking about in embracing dukkha? Clearly, and whether this is what is or was meant in the formulations, acceptance of suffering is an early and essential skill in the development of any sort of equanimity in this life.

    • mknick says:

      Earl, the problem is twofold. First, that definition hides the clear metaphysical implication of early Buddhist doctrine that the only escape from dukkha is escape from rebirth, an idea that doesn’t make sense in terms of subjective human suffering and isn’t consistent with a secular understanding of the dharma. Second, we understand “suffering” as being “inside’ — a description of a subjective experience. Batchelor is arguing that dukkha as Gotama describes in the First Sermon is “outside” — it is the impermanent, empty, unreliable nature of the world as we experience it (including our internal process of perception and thinking). The implication here is that the aim of our practice is not the elimination of suffering but of freeing ourselves from our habitual reactions to dukkha. I agree with Batchelor that dukkha is such a complex term that there is no one English term that renders it without creating misunderstanding.

      • renzob says:

        @ mknick……….This is something close to the way I have come to see it, by reading extensively in neuro-psychology and Batchelor (and others). Philosophically minded scientists are also beginning to debate whether our human mental equipment is at all able to comprehend some of the paradoxes of the “real” universe(s). Can you think in four dimensions, seven, or eleven? Neither can I. Can you understand the gravity fluxes of black holes or imagine passing through one? I can’t. Do the existence of multiverses, infinite space, and time as a function of (only) space mystify you completely? Me too.
        My point (and that of others from whom I am learning it) is that dukkha might simply refer to our constitutional, absolute inability to “comprehend” (or in Heinlein’s words “grok”) the fact that we are finite and mortal, that we are contingent and unnecessary, that we are reactive and prisoner to mental fluctuations (citta_vRtti) that we cannot understand.
        Dukkha does not derive from the essential nature of phenomena at all (IMHO) but from the complete and total mismatch between our senses&intellect and the infinite complexity of the physical real universe we are in. This human inability to grok our existence and our (own tiny little single lonely) universe is for me “the frog jumping into the pond” that Batchelor refers to: the koan that (might) bringeth enlightenment. I really suspect that enlightenment or awakening are gradual movements anyway.

      • ruedade says:

        Can you explain how dukkha can exist “outside“ our subjective, internal experience of the world.
        Thank you.

        • Mark Knickelbine says:

          On reconsideration, that “inside/outside” trope is a problem. What I was trying to say is that dukkha is not just our bad mental habit. It is the result of how the human organism experiences the realities of its life. Certainly everything we experience is subjective, but changing our subjective perception of the world is not going to make life any less painful and unreliable.

          • ruedade says:

            If, as you state, everything we experience is subjective then wouldn’t it follow that how a person experiences dukkha is also subjective.
            Also, in accounting for these differences in experiencing dukkha, wouldn’t mental habits or attitudes play some role?

          • Mark Knickelbine says:

            It certainly would be subjective. But it would be the subjective experience of a human organism subject to sickness, aging, death, and the desire for happiness and security that is continually undermined. The fact that all we can know of the world is our subjective experience of it does not mean there isn’t a real world impacting that experience, or that our experience is infinitely malleable.

          • ruedade says:

            I don`t agree with how you interpret dukkha, I`m more inclined towards Linda`s view but thanks for sharing your insight.

  4. Andrew says:

    Here’s a translation for dukkha, taken from a sermon by Mark Gallagher Bell, a Vancouver Unitarian minister with Buddhist leanings:

    Dukkha = pervasive distress. I hadn’t heard that one before – not sure if it’s on the money or not…..

    • frank jude says:


      etymologically, the word ‘dukkha’ is related to ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ space. The image here is of an axle that is not centered in its wheel. Thinking of the cultural/historical context, what this means is a misaligned wheel on an ox-drawn cart over dirt roads! By analogy, the ancient yogis (dukkha is not simply a Buddhist concept) are saying life is uncomfortable, bumpy, unpleasant when we are not aligned, not centered with reality. We are literally ‘unbalanced’ with reality when we seek to impose ourselves on life.

      Sukkha is the image of the axle centered in the wheel’s hole. Our ride through life is smoother and ‘true.’ I love that mechanics talk about aligning a wheel as ‘truing’ it!

      frank jude

      • Andrew says:

        Thanks Frank,

        Your etymology highlights the irregular, or discordant aspect of the word, as in the misaligned ups and downs of life. It’s another step to the emotional quality of pain, heartache, suffering, mental anguish, etc.. I wonder if the Buddhists elaborated upon the original meaning, or whether the word always had the heavy emotional connotation.

        Truing the wheel is a great metaphor, indeed.


  5. frank jude says:

    Ted and Mark,

    Ted, I know you know about my blog and I believe you may have read my piece on a “Zen Naturalist Re-Valuation of the Four Noble Truths” but if not, you may be interested:


    It seems to be what you are hearing Stephen Batchelor share this week. As Mark mentions, the tradition “medical model” posits 1. a disease is present; 2. a cause (craving) is found; 3. the prognosis is that the disease can be ended; 4. the therapy or prescription for ending it. This means that we end up with #2 leading to #1, and #4 leading to #3.

    David Brazier is the first I know of to question this. He points out that everywhere else, the Buddha offers his teaching as a linear sequence (as in Dependent Origination). So he offers (in his “The Feeling Buddha,” a really great book, I think) what I call a “Process-Oriented Model:” 1. affliction (duhkha) leads to 2. reactivity (craving to hold on to the pleasant or craving to eliminate the unpleasant) but such reactivity leads a practitioner to practice 3. containment, which I believe is a better translation of ‘nirodha’ which then leads to 4. which becomes a description of a ‘noble’ life led when we do not fall into our conditioned reactivity.

    The beauty of this is that it avoids completely any metaphysical belief in rebirth. As Mark points out, the traditional model almost requires ‘literal rebirth’ to make sense of how my craving can lead to my birth. In fact, when you look at what the Buddha included as ‘duhkha,’ things like getting what you do not want, the parking ticket I got the other day has to be seen as caused by my craving to be born, so that now I face such unpleasant life situations! This means, the best thing I can do with my life is practice in such a way that I no longer am reborn: getting off the wheel of life becomes the whole point of practice!

    I invite you to read my post and please offer any comments you may have.

    frank jude

    • mknick says:

      Frank, thanks for your comments. I read your post last night and found it very interesting, especially the discussion re: nirhoda, a term I am unfamiliar with.

      In the end, of course, meaning doesn’t come from words, but from usage, so we can make words mean what we want them to, especially when we’re translating technical terms in ancient languages. I think that reading dukkha as being the nature of the world as we experience it has the advantage of supporting a more realistic notion of practice. There isn’t any amount of skillfulness, I think, that will make my knee stop hurting if I wrench it, or make me not feel grief if my wife or child were to die. What is possible is for me not to react to that pain by engaging in some kind of behavior that isn’t good for me or the people around me. It’s possible for me to bear that pain with equanimity and experience it as impermanent and not me. This is the freedom that dharma practice offers, and I think the version of dukkha Batchelor is advocating is a more useful support for that practice.

      • frank jude says:

        That’s David Brazier’s and my take on dukkha, exactly, as you must have seen in my post. Nirodha is the Third Noble Truth, and traditionalists translate it as “cessation,” meaning the cessation of dukkha. And again, for traditionalists, this ultimately means never having to be reborn again!

        I think translating it as ‘containment,’ which is arguably actually more accurate, goes along with your thoughts that it is something we do; we contain our reactivity to dukkha, and thus find the freedom to respond creatively.

        thanks for reading my post!

        frank jude

    • Andrew says:


      Thanks for your feedback. Your points were helpful, particularly about the contradiction in the Pali canon about whether dukkha is inherent in phenomena.

      The following is a bit of an aside, but wanted to bring it up if anybody cared to comment:

      The Buddhist metaphysical belief in rebirth points to a belief in the soul journey, some kind of rarefied atman that transmigrates, but can at some point extinguish itself (nirvana). This seems similar to the Brahman view, which also posits the atman and the goal of merging with the absolute (Brahma). As I understand it, the Buddha taught in opposition to the Brahman worldview in this very regard.

      What gives here? I’ve never been able to wrap my head around this issue – wondering how the Buddha’s teachings on non-self, the doctrine of emptiness, and all the other essentialist denials, jives with the idea of reincarnation. It seems none of the schools have ever considered dumping the idea of reincarnation. If they did, it would take care of this endless parsing of the idea of some kind of subtle atman that everybody needs to keep around to tie back into the doctrine of rebirth.

      I flash back to Stephen Batchelor’s book when he encountered the leap of faith in having to accept reincarnation, and wouldn’t take it.

      Aloha, Andrew

      • frank jude says:

        Andrew, before I respond, I want to be clear that I do not accept the belief in any ‘literal’ rebirth.

        The Hindu idea of the atman is that it is the ‘transcendental core of one’s being,’ which is identical with the transcendent core of Being itself. “Atman is Brahman” is a commonly recurring formula throughout the Upanishads. The thing to keep in mind is that atman is not ‘personal.’ The Hindu Yoga tradition posits a jiva which is more akin to the western notion of ‘soul’ and it is this which ‘carries’ one’s karma and continues to reincarnate.

        The Bhagavad Gita describes re-incarnation as just what the word sounds like: re-taking up meat! In one passage, Krishna compares it to a man who takes off one set of clothing and puts on another.

        And you are correct in your understanding that this kind of ‘transmigration’ of some ‘substance,’ no matter how subtle, from one body to another is just what the Buddha rejected.

        However, apparently, he did accept another form of ‘rebirth.’ The Buddhist tradition talks about rebirth as not the persistence of some core essence, but of the persistence of a dynamic process. Often, teachers use the image of a candle flame.

        We speak about a candle flame as if it were a thing, yet when we really analyze it, we see that it is constantly changing; the flame we see now is not the same flame that was burning five minutes ago. YET, we cannot say it is completely different! There is some sense of continuity between the ‘two flames.’ This is what is going on with each of us even now. The Andrew reading this sentence is not exactly the same Andrew that started reading this comment. This actually is evidence for the Buddha’s “Not-self” teaching.

        However, if we light another candle with the flame we have, then immediately blow out the ‘original’ flame, is the flame of the second candle the same or different? The tradition states it is the same situation as with the original flame over time: it is not the same, but not completely different. This is how they explain ‘rebirth’ without a ‘thing’ that continues.

        Of course, this belief DOES require a belief in the possibility that some form of consciousness (they call it a ‘gandharbha’) can exist independently of a living brain. As a secularist, and naturalist, this is something I do not find any convincing evidence for, thus my rejection of ‘literal rebirth.’

        I hope this helps.

        frank jude

        • ernie says:

          Frank, that’s a really useful description of the beliefs prevalent at the time of the Buddha, and which he explicitly rejected.

          I’m with you in drawing the distinction between a core essence and a dynamic process in trying to understand what the Buddha is offering instead. The image of the candle flame is one I have heard; another is the image of a tuning fork vibrating in response to a nearby sound at the appropriate pitch.

          But candle flames and tuning forks are simply an illustration of (very simple) dynamic processes and do nothing towards helping me gain greater insight into what the Buddha meant.

          A further point perplexes me even more. According to the suttas, The Buddha speaks of recollections of past lives. And there is clearly a sense through the teachings that the Buddha was building up momentum towards his awakening throughout a long series of previous lives.

          So the dynamic process we are looking for needs to somehow carry forward memories as well as some personal qualities. Oh, and it also needs to mesh with the position increasingly supported by neuroscience that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of neural activity in the brain.

          I fully empathise with everybody who simply walks away from this paradox or treats it as metaphor. Call me stubborn, but I’m not ready to do either. What I am hoping for is a flash of inspiration that will help to unlock the riddle.

          Any suggestions would be very welcome.

          • Mark Knickelbine says:

            Ernie, please share the scientific evidence that consciousness is an epiphenomenon. The science I am aware of suggests that all conscious processes are correlated with neural events; along with the longstanding evidence of the correlation between consciousness and the physical functioning of the central nervous system, the simplest and most supportable position is that consciousness is a function of the central nervous system and does not exist outside or even along side it.

            Re: Gotama’s recollection of past lives, the suttas also speak of him fighting with nagas, talking with deities and flying through the air. Clearly much of what we read in the suttas is myth. Furthermore, textual evidence suggests that much of the nikaya materials was probably written later than Gotama’s time. Finally, the Gotama of the canon tells us not to rely on scriptures or doctrines, but to test everything in our own experience. Since I can’t, by definition, have any experience of past or future lives, such concepts are, at minimum, irrelevant to my practice.

  6. umeboshiatama says:

    Too many here have killed the concept by over rationalization… more of an ego & Id fest… keep walking… there lays a long road(path) ahead, or perhaps you are standing in the right spot this moment it is just that the over utilization of explanation prohibits the subsidence of pursuit.

  7. earl says:

    Thanks Mark, that does clarify it. Certainly if we are going to define dukkha as an essentially metaphysical construct, that is a characteristic of “the world” rather than of the central nervous system, then it is definitely not suffering. Although, I might not tend to find the construct as useful or interesting to the extent that it is not referring to central nervous system responses. Maybe it is such a complex term, because it really does refer to psychological states quite frequently and then when it is being used to buttress or make more coherent Buddhist ideological heuristics not. As a near-materialist, I would tend to be interested in the construct as it relates to human emotional responses, so tend to cherry pick (apologetically) Buddhist concepts and methods as they relate meaningfully to a secular and scientific perspective, which the definition you are talking about here, might not do, as I am understanding it. But then I may well not be understanding it still.

    • frank jude says:

      Hi Earl,

      As an unapologetic naturalist and materialist, I think you may find the Process-Oriented approach to the Four Noble Truths more in line with your ‘near-materialist’ and ‘secular and scientific perspective.’

      I first hear it from David Brazier, but it’s my preferred way to frame the Four Noble Truths as it doesn’t require any transcendental leap of faith:


      If you choose to read it, I would love to hear any thoughts you have.

      frank jude

    • mknick says:

      Earl, remember we’re talking about the phenomenal world, the world we experience. That’s why I put “inside” and “outside” in scare quotes — I’m not refering to some Truth that’s inherent in The World, but the nature of things as they arise and pass away in our experience. Having said that, when Gotama tells us that the aggregates are dukkha, I think he’s making it clear that there is no escape from dukkha because the nature of the aggregates is to be impermanent, empty, and conducive of pain and dissapointment. The bottom line here is that “the Eightfold Path leads to the cessation of suffering” is an inadequate guide to practice, partially because it limits itself (in the Western understanding, anyway) to a purely psychological understanding of suffering, and Gotama means much more than that by dukkha.

  8. Andrew says:

    Wow Frank,

    Great job on “The Meaning of Duhkha for Zen Naturalism: A Revaluation of the Four Noble Truths” – your article of July 2009. It’s a classic.

    No need to rewrite that one. There are many insightful and helpful passages for how to go forward with a new interpretation – perhaps it’s not new – it may be the original understanding just obscured by time and other agendas. Thanks for your innovative thought process and shedding light on all-important core issues. I feel like it’s a foundation, some kind of bedrock understanding that offers a wholly different Buddhist panorama than the one promulgated by the tradition today. I feel a fresh wind blowing…


  9. Andrew says:

    “The salvation of humankind will be found in the practice of a noble response to existential reality. That is enlightenment.” – David Brazier

  10. Andrew says:

    See David Brazier (Dharmavidya) in an interesting video podcast recorded soon after he attended the Garrison conference earlier this month. He talks about his further reflections on the Four Noble Truths:


    • frank jude says:

      Thanks for posting this, Andrew! I really appreciate how Brazier continues to investigate and question the teachings, not — as he points out — to find ‘the one true point,’ but to add ever more skillful ways to enter into the Dharma.

  11. Andrew says:

    Dear Frank,

    I want to express a bit more appreciation for your ‘urgency’ throughout this blog post, in regards to a re-visioning of the Four Noble Truths, per your article mentioned in my comment above, and David Brazier’s book, “The Feeling Buddha.” It has been dawning on me for a few days now, the significance of this re-interpretation of a core Dharma teaching. I am feeling a bit incredulous, peering at something that has been hiding in plain sight. For some, I’m sure it’s old hat. For me, it is helping alleviate a misunderstanding that has been contributing to some degree of despair. Despite my full immersion in all-things Buddhist these past 36 years, this slight shift feels like it is forming into a big sea change for me.

    The main shift is realizing that dukkha is never going to go away, and if I persist in thinking it will, I will forever measure myself coming up short in the quest for enlightenment. That is the road to despair – how come I’m not getting anywhere despite being a good Buddhist– I’m still encountering significant obstacles!?

    Trying to obliterate dukkha is a fool’s errand. Instead, I need to recognize it as integral to the human experience and stop beating myself up for not having eliminated more of it. Dukkha is fuel to light the fire that is to be contained in the service of my awakening. How I handle dukkha is the practice, not in finding ways to avoid its rising by shutting off from it.

    There are many more related insights, but just wanted to share this bit. I feel like I have something to ponder, chew on and write about that will keep me busy for some days and months.

    I also have this feeling that this one inquiry – the traditional explanation of the Four Noble Truths, as compared to the one that you, David Brazier, Stephen Batchelor and others are articulating – helps crystallize the fault line between a metaphysical based Buddhism and one without. How fresh it feels to have a non-metaphysical interpretation that is so humanly accessible and without any dogma! We don’t even have to corral it and put a label of secular Buddhism on it. Brazier and his Amida focus, for one, is leading it elsewhere.

    I suppose we don’t have to establish that one interpretation of the Noble Truths is more correct than another. We just need to show the fault line and the consequences for each of the roads thus taken. Have your metaphysical Buddhism if you want, but for those of us that don’t need it; we can avoid a lot of unnecessary baggage. And in the end, this new approach will be much more appealing to modernists, and it will help the Dharma be more accessible. And guess what? We may in this process be getting back to what the Buddha originally taught, but which got re-interpreted and polluted over the years by the Indian and traditional Asian propensity for escapism and all its metaphysical justification. This is good news…

    Aloha, Andrew

    • mknick says:

      Andrew —

      I’m very happy you’re experiencing this insight as a liberating one. One of the perennial discussion topics among Secular Buddhist regulars is what awakening is. Buddhist tradition presents it as some grand endpoint at which suffering and even consciousness is extinguished. Reenvisioning the Four Truths as a process of confronting dukkha, rather than a prescription for achieving the end of rebirth or arrival at some static blissful state, makes it clear that awakening is something we do every day, that it grows out of our practice and in fact it is our practice. It presents a realistic goal that we can achieve in everyday life, rather than an impossibly remote one that only monastics can approach.

  12. MikeT says:

    Great article. Coming from a 12 step background I see it similar but different. To me pain and suffering are completely different things. Pain is what happens to us, totally outside our control. Being sick, getting injured, getting old, all of that falls into the category of pain.

    Suffering is what we do to ourselves. The constant reliving of past events and how we could have done them better, worrying about a future and things that probably aren’t going to happen anyway, does he/she love/like me, what can I do to make this better, why didn’t i do that to make it better. We love jumping into the Hamster wheel in our heads and running and running. It’s like the story the Buddha told of the man shot with the poison arrow. The poison arrow was pain but his need to know what kind of arrow, who shot it, what kind of bow and so on is what caused his suffering.

    Suffering is self inflicted. It is something I have control over. I do not have to jump into the hamster wheel in my head, if I do I can choose to jump off at any time. I can choose not to have expectations, accept reality as it is and be content with what is. My practice is my primary tool that I use not to choose suffering and reactive living. My practice lets me choose my response and to live sanely.

  13. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Mike, thanks for your comments. The distinction between pain and suffering you make is certainly a valid one, and it is reflected in Gotama’s teaching, for instance in the parable of the Second Dart. Unfortunately, this common observation helps to obscure the way Gotama used the term “dukkha” in his first sermon.

    There is a class of suffering that one could argue “I’m doing to myself” that escapes this pain/suffering distinction. That is when I suffer in sympathy with others who are in physical or emotional pain. If I allow myself to open fully to my sympathetic suffering, I will be feeling real physical pain, and this pain is necessary in order for my heart to respond with compassion and for me to recognize that the border between self an other is largely illusory. I don’t want this kind of pain and suffering to go away, because if I observe it carefully, I will recognize the love and connection that is at the root of it, and this very suffering will be transmuted into joy. This is why I think Gotama defines dukkha the way he does, and to think in terms of eliminating it distracts us from the real goal of practice, which is the total opening to and acceptance of our life as it is.

    • MikeT says:

      Interesting, to me what you are defining as suffering I see as a mix of compassion and empathy. I know that you are suffering, I understand your suffering because I have suffered as well but I don’t have to embrace it and make it mine.

      I have a tendency towards codependency and tend to take others suffering as my own which leads to bad things like a not having boundaries and loosing myself in the lives of others to the detriment of my own life. Thanks to a 12 step program and my practice I can see the distinction between being empathetic and drowning in someone else’s suffering. This is truly suffering that I have inflicted on myself and to be honest can lead to an empathy and compassion burn out.

    • Linda says:

      I agree with the distinction that it seems to me MikeT is trying to make.

      The problem is with defining dukkha as something we do to ourselves — and therefore including in it all forms of suffering that we do to ourselves. I believe this draws the line in the wrong place, even though it *is* clearly what we do to ourselves, it is a little narrower than that.

      Here is another way to draw the line: healthy feelings, vs unhealthy feelings that results from unhealthy ways of thinking about our experiences. The experience of grief is not one any of us want to experience, but we nevertheless “do it to ourselves” when we choose to risk it for the sake of love and connection. Experiencing the grief of loss is healthy; it’s human; it’s healing in a way that lets us move on. But there are unhealthy things you can do with that grief: blame yourself, blame others, cling to it, feed it, let it prevent you from moving on — that’s dukkha.

      Mark knows I disagree with his assessment of that first sermon, and all the places where “dukkha” is defined as “birth, aging, sickness and death” but for Mike’s sake let me say it again: The Buddha — and Sariputta, who also uses the same phrasing — are describing the “where” not the “what” of dukkha. Birth, aging, sickness and death (i.e. impermanence) are the field in which dukkha happens, they are not dukkha themselves. Without impermanence dukkha would not happen, without birth, aging, sickness and death it could not occur. When we look for dukkha, it is to birth, aging, sickness and death we look to see it — it is where it happens, not what it is.

      The reason the “where” came to be taken as a literal description of “what” dukkha is, is because that supports the idea that what it’s all about being escaping *life* (aka samsara). The Buddha defines dukkha as something we can leave behind *here and now* — he says he has experienced this freedom from dukkha — yet he lives, ages, and dies. So he is clearly not being literal.

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        So are you saying “Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha” is a mistranslation? I see where your “field” interpretation makes sense in the 12-nidana Dependent Arising, but unless this is wildly mistranslated it seems pretty straightforward that he is defining dukkha -as- these aspects of our lives.

        • Linda says:

          No, I am not saying it is a mis*translation*. I am saying that to take what Gotama says as all surface is to mis*understand* him. I am saying that the 12-nidanas aren’t separate from the set of four truths; they are constructed to be equivalents of each other (as positive and negative), so if the field makes sense in Dependent Arising, it makes the same sense in the truths. I’m saying that people understood him, in his day, to be talking about *where* something happens and not defining *what*.

          I am saying that he tells us repeatedly that dukkha is escapable, that he has already succeeded in doing so himself, that numerous others live dukkha-free due to having understood his teaching, and none of that is possible if dukkha is inescapable. Dukkha isn’t an inherent part of things (if it were, there would be no escape, and he says there *is* an escape) — he is telling us *nothing* has an inherent and fixed nature so how can dukkha *be* aging and aging be dukkha?

          As always in our discussions, Mark, I agree with the points I see you making as applied to life, but I find that the path you use to get to the conclusions you make, makes a potentially confusing mash of what the Buddha said. He said we *can* escape dukkha, you say we *can’t* escape dukkha (this from your comment below): “Craving and suffering can be ended (or at least eased to a wonderful extent), but not until we begin to see that dukkha cannot.” It’s the other way around: craving and unpleasant experiences cannot be ended (because craving is in our nature and will keep arising; because there is impermanence and we will therefore lose that which we love, and we ourselves will age and die) but dukkha (the clinging that follows the arising of craving; the extra layers of suffering we add to the experience of impermanence) can end because dukkha is the part that is within our control; it is the unhealthy emotion that is totally unnecessary and even harmful. The Buddha says we can escape from dukkha, he says he has escaped from it, so dukkha cannot be something that (as you say in the comment) we can’t escape from. To say this is in direct contradiction to what the Buddha says over and over.*

          As far as I can see, you are perfectly accurate when you say that the way we solve the problem is by squarely and kindly facing the (necessary, healthy) emotions related to impermanence (which is the one thing that *is* inescapable: impermanence). But that experience of unpleasant emotions *isn’t dukkha* because dukkha isn’t the healthy, necessary feelings. Dukkha is all the effects of those false assumptions you mention in the comment below about how things *should* be (different from the way they are; without the experience of impermanence).

          * Now I realize that this comes down to which you want to see as (something like) metaphorical in the Buddha’s way of speaking. You can, as you do, see “escape from dukkha” as metaphorical and rebirth as literal, or you can, as I do, see “escape from dukkha” as literal, and rebirth as metaphorical. I have shown evidence in my paper on DA that rebirth is used metaphorically; where is there evidence that “I teach dukkha, the origin of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the path to that cessation” is metaphorical? How would he be calling them “the truths” when they’re metaphorical? They are the thing he labels as truths — he is being at his most straight-up and literal in speaking truths. I’m just going to continue to point out that the only reason to accept “birth is dukkha, aging sickness and death is dukkha” as literal is because it supports “the Buddha taught rebirth as the true cosmic order” — it makes the *only* escape from dukkha through post-liberative DEATH (the final escape from samsara) but this does not allow for liberation in this lifetime, and so somehow the Buddha would have to have been being metaphorical (or lying) when he said there was freedom here and now, in this very life.

    • Mariehtp says:

      Hi Mark and Mike, et al. I am tiptoeing into the conversation and I feel like a freshman intruding upon a doctoral seminar. I am totally new to this, but fascinated. I spent the day reading and mulling over Mark’s articles on the Four Noble Truths, and Dukkha, as well as dozens of beautifully articulated comments.
      My “background” is MBSR, and JKZ also mentions the distinction between pain and suffering as Mike describes it. Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is, when one follows the Path. With that in mind, here is my question: what ever Dukkha is, how can it equally qualify birth and death? Or how can birth and death equally define Dukkha? If Dukkha is understood as pain, it makes sense to me. Childbirth is painful. But does it cause suffering the way death causes suffering?

      So I understand the idea of embracing pain where there is really no other choice, but why embrace suffering? You say:”Instead of freeing ourselves from suffering, the First Sermon advises us to embrace it, to know it fully.”
      But is “knowing” embracing? Accepting? Could it mean: Be “aware” of suffering. Recognize it for what it is. And it is not you. It is not pain. Granted JKZ is not the Buddha, Dhamma is the source of his version of Mindfulness.
      I am sorry if I sound naive. But please keep in mind that my only knowledge of Buddhism is the PBS movie The Buddha. Thank you.

      • Linda says:


        Mark’s answer to your post is spot-on (and quite eloquent) right up to the point where he defines dukkha as the inescapable bits, at which point I see it as going off the rails.

        If we define “craving” as the desire for our experience of the world to be smooth and pleasant (for there to be no impermanence, for that which we love — including ourselves — to stick around, remain perfect) and “clinging” we define as how hard we work to make the world conform to what we are craving, then dukkha is all that we experience as a result of our desires for the world to be other than it is.

        It is only through accurately seeing how the world actually is (that there is aging, sickness, death — change, impermanence) and accepting that sometimes we will feel things we (in our ignorance) would rather not have to feel as a result of those inevitable features of life, only that way can we get free of the dukkha that is the result of all the inaccurate ways we see the world and try to make it into the image we see in our minds — all that craving and clinging.

        When seen that way, you’re right: if the inevitable losses = pain, and the unnecessary add-ons = suffering/dukkha, then “why embrace suffering”? Embrace the pain of loss, because it is the emotion one experiences when one has had a healthy relationship full of caring and loving, when one has recognized from the beginning that to live and love will be to experience loss — pain is simply a part of that. But what we’re doing with dukkha isn’t embracing it so much as studying it; we have to turn in toward it, sit with it, look at it, in order to come to understand how it comes into existence. It’s only through understanding how it actually comes to be that we can learn how to short-circuit the process and prevent its arising. We need to study it so that we can see that dukkha is something we create, not something to blame on the outside world; it is not caused by impermanence — impermanence is only the field in which dukkha grows — we plant the seeds/craving for dukkha in the field of impermanence, and water it with clinging. So with dukkha we’re not “embracing” it, we’re experiencing it in order to study it.

  14. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Marie, welcome to the discussion! I’m very glad we share the MBSR background because I think Batchelor’s understanding of dukkha is especially germane to it. As you know, the heart of the practice is learning to be fully present with our experience in the moment. That’s easy to do when our experience is pleasant — the trick is to learn to turn into our unpleasant experiences, to bring our awareness right into the seat of the difficulty without judgement, to explore it with kind curiosity. As we do that, we often recognize that its our preconceptions that create much of the unpleasantness we fear and try to avoid. So certainly the distinction between “pain” and “suffering” is something we can observe mindfully. However, the reason we usually retreat into distraction and aversion to begin with is our deep-seated desire for life to be different than it is. We feel it’s wrong to be in sickness and in pain, to grow old and to die, or to have to watch other people do these things. Nonjudgemental present moment awareness requires that we accept our experience as it really is right now, and I believe that is what Gotama means when he talks about “fully knowing dukkha.” If dukkha is “suffering,” which is different from pain, then of course we will expect to be able to do away with it, and fully knowing it seems perverse. But the key to releasing the craving for life to be different is to recognize how the craving reactions we have to the necessarily painful and unsatisfactory nature of our lives (i.e., dukkha) causes us to crave and cling, which in turn makes us suffer. Craving and suffering can be ended (or at least eased to a wonderful extent), but not until we begin to see that dukkha cannot.

    • Mariehtp says:

      Thank you both for your respective answers.
      Truth be told, I had read Linda’s post, about her disagreement with Mark re. Dukkha, and had been convinced by her statement that in the First Sermon, Gotama proclaims the WHERE of the Dukkha, rather than the WHAT.
      Reading your divergent responses to my post, I once again feel drawn to Linda’s interpretation of Dukkha as being the “add ons”. It is not even that I disagree with you Mark. It is more that I don’t understand your thinking process. I don’t understand the way you relate craving/attachment to Dukkha.
      Nor do I understand how your approach of Dukkha fits with MBSR. My knowledge of MBSR is strictly through JKZ’s eight-week program and although I have heard Stephen Bachelor’s SBA podcast–one that made me literally dance and vocalize in the street– I not familiar with his take on MBSR. So that might be where my problem lies in trying to understand you.

      My understanding of MBSR is that if the pain from an injury, a health condition or a loss is met with maladaptive behavior, suffering ensues. The pain is real (that cancer is here). The loss is real (that spouse died). But it is our rejection of that reality, wishing the world were different from what it is, wishing the cancer were not here, wishing the beloved spouse were not dead, that eventually causes suffering, often aka depression. Practice helps make the difference between the loss and the fear and the agony of the loss. Helps not clinging to that incessant poisonous rumination. It helps look at it. Observe it. Know it. Identify it as thoughts. Not reality. Well, that’s how I understood MBSR. And I thought all along that it came from the Buddha.

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        Marie, sorry if I’m not being clear. You make my point for me beautifully in the following statement:

        “But it is our rejection of that reality, wishing the world were different from what it is, wishing the cancer were not here, wishing the beloved spouse were not dead, that eventually causes suffering, often aka depression.”

        This is the central insight of MBSR, and it is also the way I understand the meaning of the First Sermon. We react to the painful, unsatisfactory nature of life — which is how Gotama defines dukkha — by craving for life to be different, and acting out of that craving in ways that cut us off from the reality of life. Craving and the clinging it produces do create suffering, but dukkha is what produces the craving and clinging in the first instance. That is why in the First Sermon Gotama frames freedom, not as the cessation of dukkha, but as the cessation of craving. In this, he and JKZ are in agreement.

        • Mariehtp says:

          Mark, please don’t feel that you are not clear because I don’t understand. I am clearly lacking a neuropathway or two, but I put my trust in neuroplasticity so I am not totally without hope that one day I will understand.:)

          In the meanwhile, it seems that there are a few semantic issues in the discussion. The simple fact that we are talking of a concept represented by a word “Dukkha” in a foreign language that I don’t understand doesn’t help. I read many times that Dukkha was not translatable. Okay. It still doesn’t help. I tend to follow Linda when she says that the Buddha can say that Birth is Dukkha and Death is Dukkha because he doesn’t define WHAT Dukkha is but WHERE it is. In Birth and in Death. But that only tells us WHERE it is, and not WHAT it is. And what it means. And that is only the first part of what I am confused about.

          The other semantic problem is around the interpretation of “it can be known, and has been fully known”. Granted English is not my native language, I am reasonably sure that there is quite a distance between knowing and embracing. To know is to hold in awareness, to use a MBSR term. To hold in awareness doesn’t mean to embrace. Even if we want to go deeper into the knowing in order to become aware that the true origin of our suffering comes from our thoughts and not from reality. It still is not embracing. And not being judgmental, just like a scientist observes a phenomenon without judgement, is still not embracing.

          Then there is what I consider a crucial difference between pain and suffering. MBSR heavily relies on that difference. You on the other hand, seem to use both words interchangeably. Embracing pain is one thing. Embracing suffering is another. MBSR doesn’t ask us the embrace suffering. It asks us to embrace reality and the moment. Accepting the moment and reality without judgement, and with self compassion is what leads to the cessation of suffering.

          Then, there is precisely what Linda and you don’t agree upon (Please see her July 8 post, in response to mine.) When I read her post, I recognize what i learned in MBSR. Could you please tell me what in her post doesn’t fit with what you think. Compare and contrast. That is my learning style. I was thinking of drawing it. In the form a diagram: what you say vs what she says. I may end up doing that actually.

          The reason I am bringing Linda’s post in is because I thought I was saying the same thing as Linda, but Linda disagrees with you, and yet you seem to agree with me. It doesn’t add up.

          If I still don’t understand your response to this post, I will let go for a while. Maybe a little non-striving will help things along. I get all my best ideas in the morning, while making breakfast, walking my dog, or on the mat (I know that’s not kosher, but I can’t help it.)

          And I need to move on to the Eightfold path already.

  15. MikeT says:

    I’m not sure I would embrace ’embrace the suffering’. 🙂 For me it is more along the lines of accepting the reality of the situation without attaching to it. If it is something I have control over I can take appropriate steps, I can look into my attitude and the root cause of what is the source of the suffering and let it go (easier said than done). If it is pain I can take a couple of pills or do some sort of meditation to bring it back to a reasonable level. If it is something I have no control over then I can recognize that as well and realize this too shall pass. Impermanence has it’s pluses as well as minuses.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Amen to that! But what is “accepting the reality of the situation?” Is it merely tolerating it? Is it simply a matter of the attitude with which we maintain mental barriers — trying to be less grumpy about it? Or is it approaching our experience with tender compassion for ourselves? Can we really accept without opening ourselves fully to the depths of whatever we’re going through? Allowing anything whatever to be touched by and held within awareness? Yes, if you have a pain you can resolve in a healthy and skillful way, compassion dictates that you do no less for yourself then you would for anyone else. But while you wait for the aspirin to kick in? And what about all those situations in which there is no pill that will help? It seems to me that being able to open fully to life just as it is is the nature of dharma practice — and if “just as it is” weren’t an ongoing challenge, we wouldn’t need to practice anyway.

  16. MikeT says:

    Mark, I have been thinking about this all day and I believe there is quit a bit of overlap between the way I use acceptance and the way you use embrace. One of the hardest things I ever had to learn was to have compassion for myself. To me acceptance is being in the moment as it is knowing that at that moment I am exactly where I am meant to be and who I am supposed to be. That was rather hard to articulate. As you said not an easy thing to do but when I pay attention it is there.

  17. David S says:

    Generally the understanding of dukkha comes clearly into focus with obvious emotional suffering. I get this. But the stories of the Buddha appear to have his insights coming from meditation techniques.

    In higher jhana all sense data drops out of consciousness and there comes a refined sort of peace. This seems to be what he was referring to when talking of the ending of dukkha.

    It is interesting how in reference to jhanaic states consciousness itself is experienced as dukkha. In fact the conscious processes themselves are seen as creating such dukkha. I’m not surprised he comes up with Dependent Origination to map out his idea of these processes which create dukkha.

    In D.O. there appears to be no final escape from dukkha of this nature until one dies. His goal as he laid it out was just this in fact, the end of birth, and therefore the end of this intrinsic suffering he called dukkha.

    How he proclaims he did such a thing while conscious as well I do not know first hand. It makes sense that in his life he didn’t further the arising of dukkha past its initial cycling. Here is where we enter into our discussions. Although, I think his vision went further than this because of his experiences during meditation and the interpretation he came away with, such as D.O..

    • Linda says:

      Well, yeah but… no. Especially if I’m understanding you correctly, that you are saying “the end of dukkha” only happens when in jhana. To borrow a criticism oft-played against me on traditional forums: “If that’s the case, he’d be lying when he says…”

      “For a monk practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, what accords with the Dhamma is this: that he keep cultivating disenchantment with regard to form […feeling …perception …fabrications …consciousness]. As he keeps cultivating disenchantment with [these] he comprehends form… feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness. As he comprehends [these] he is totally released from [these]. He is totally released from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is totally released, I tell you, from suffering & stress.”

      He is released from not just consciousness, but the rest of the aggregates — even form (how can *that* be?)! And he is (present tense) released from (Thanissaro’s word: “stress”) dukkha. What’s being discussed there isn’t limited to the quieting of consciousness in a moment in jhana. What’s prescribed is to cultivate disenchantment with these things, and then comprehend them — really really understand them. And it is that, not jhana, that brings about the end of dukkha in the present. It is recognizing what these five things are as defined by the Buddha (largely in dependent origination), and exactly how they cause dukkha, and that leads to the disenchantment and comprehension. It’s not just a moment in jhana.

      After all, he learned the jhanas before he was awakened, and, even having experienced the highest states, he rejected them as not the answer, not leading to liberation. They were, he noted, just temporary states (and constructed ones at that, impermanent, like everything but nibbana — which isn’t impermanent because it’s a negative state, a lack of, not a positive one, and so, being an absence, it is not “constructed”).

      The conundrum you find with ending consciousness is one of the ones that set me researching dependent origination. The answer I came up with explains how it is that the Buddha could walk and talk and take in new information without DO’s “consciousness”. If you’d like, the paper published at Oxford on it is finally available for free download here:


      or you could read the series of posts I did on this site. The former is just a little on the academic-sounding side; the latter is as accessible to everyone as I could make it, and they cover different angles. But seeing DO this way does explain not just how consciousness can end while one goes on living, but how one can be totally released from the body *in the present* too. (If the answer isn’t obvious after reading the above — and it might not be since I don’t think I took that on directly but it’s been a while since I read them — you can always ask me.)

      • David S says:

        Hi Linda.

        I get what you are saying about dukkha’s release within consciousness and it makes sense to me. I haven’t read the paper just yet. But all you have said above I recognize as part of the Buddhist teachings such as cultivating detachment,etc….

        I wanted to say that I think the structure of D.O. was built upon the insights from jhana, even though maybe the goals of living were not based upon jhana. I say this because to me jhana makes it clear how every perception has added aggregate qualities, which in jhana are stripped away revealing the structure they contributed to. In this way jhana is fundamental and is talked of as contributing to Buddhist goals. They are mentioned numerous times in the suttas as part of the learning and understanding. To me it looks like jhanas are instructive in how stripped down consciousness can become and thus revealing consciousness’ structure.

        How one continues integrating this back into daily life is interesting and you are right in pointing this out in how Buddhism aims to do so.

        I understand the end of dukkha as being informed by jhana which has an extreme experiential release from aspects of consciousness, which in themself perpetuate distress and agitation, thus dukkha.

        • Linda says:

          I would suggest that DO is at least as much a lesson on what we should be examining while in meditative states as being inspired by meditative states. It is clear from the suttas that when the Buddha had his moment of awakening, he had been through all the levels and then went one step beyond, and as a result, he saw and understood DO. So in that sense, I’m sure you’re right about DO being built from jhanic insights.

          When I say that the Buddha learned jhana and recognized it as not being the answer, this isn’t the same as saying he was telling us it was “no part of the answer”. It just wasn’t THE Answer. Clearly, it is one of the tools in the toolbox.

          But the suttas also contain stories of arahants getting there by “dry insight” — without going through the jhanas. And there are suttas in which the Buddha is asked what method of liberation is best and his answer is generally “all of them”. Jhana is, I believe, a very powerful tool that supports insight. I tell people that meditation is “the engine of change” — the better we get at it the better we are at being able to 1) slow down 2) see 3) think about our options 4) pick the best. Jhana gives us 1) and 2) and then 3) and 4) can follow.

      • David S says:

        Some more thoughts…

        Yes, I get that jhana is temporary. Yet if jhanas weren’t important then why are they mentioned in the suttas numerous times? Monks are said to be reaching ‘this’ jhana and ‘that’ jhana over and over again. Isn’t it also part of the story that the Buddha went through the jhanas during that mythical night of ‘enlightenment’? Why would this be part of the story?

        Linda all your points are regarding a living mental posture that minimizes dukkha. And yes, the jhanas are not the living answer (one can’t stay in jhana forever and continue to feed oneself, etc.), not that they weren’t insightful regarding the experience of consciousness and dukkha. If they weren’t insightful they would not be part of the buddha’s practice and they clearly were that night.

        Just reading the listing of jhannic qualities is interesting. They are listed as how ‘this’ then ‘that’ quality drops away, up until passing the state of ‘neither perception nor non-perception’. These states are ones of a growing ‘lack of’ qualities of consciousness. This directly relates to the notion of nibbana, which has been described as being ‘not this’ and ‘not that’. This clearly is in line with these ‘higher’ jhannic states. I’d go as far as guessing that this is probably where the notion of nibbana as such a state came from.

        Also, this notion that jhanas are conditioned/created is equally true of ALL CONSCIOUSNESS, so this doesn’t negate their importance at all. Although it is important to understand that not everyone experiences them, and this is probably a reason they are not understood by many people and not included as insightful, and in the end the goals of living necessitate a differing set of goals for a sustaining mental posture.

        Having experienced jhanas I understand D.O. organization (although not its interpretation). But I do not understand from my experience how far one could develop disenchantment as Buddhism describes within one’s lived experience. So yes I can see why jhana in itself does not transform oneself. But the experience of them can become part of knowing how they are present at all times no matter the content of one’s present experience. In this way they can have a lasting effect.

        Some aside thoughts…

        I find Buddhist claims to be all over the place in the stories with aspects not being internally cohesive. For instance, the buddha claimed to have become ‘enlightened’ and there is said to be compassion within this state, yet he didn’t upon reaching this goal then return to take care of his own child! Says much about his ideal for his life doesn’t it?

        And taken to an end goal, in all the suttas it is clearly stated that to enter upon taking up this goal one must give up all sexual activity. So lets take this as stated. Imagine all humanity doing such a thing. In one generation all living humans would become extinct!

        But this is part of the end game with nibbana being without consciousness itself and rebirth ended. This doesn’t sound like a ‘living’ mental posture to me. So there are two layers to these stories, the living development of qualities and a vision of an ultimate absolute end in the ‘deathless’.

        • Linda says:

          “Some more thoughts…”
          Happy to be chatting with you here!

          My comments above can serve as a reply to your first paragraphs here.

          I definitely didn’t mean to denigrate jhana in any way because it is conditioned — all our experiences are conditioned; every aspect of life is and I love life! so I love the conditioned! — it’s just important to recognize that jhana can’t be nibbana because jhana comes from conditions, and nibbana is unconditioned.

          My favorite sutta that shows this is the second one on Sariputta’s enlightenment (he had two kinds of awakenings: dry insight and through jhana):


          You said, “I find Buddhist claims to be all over the place in the stories with aspects not being internally cohesive.”

          I believe the reason they are not internally cohesive is because we’ve misunderstood what the Buddha was saying, largely because he lived in a time and place that had very different assumptions — conditions! — than those that we have now, actually different than those that came even a short while later, right up to now. To put it a different way: we have lost too much of the context. He was speaking in ways that utilized the approaches and background assumptions of the people of his times, some of which we have in common with them but a great many of which are different enough that when we frame what he is saying in terms of the way we understand the world, we get misunderstandings (small or large).

          When we try to judge him by our standards, he falls short because we are not really able to recognize all the factors that went into the choices he made, including his choices about how to teach. And including: “he didn’t upon reaching this goal then return to take care of his own child”. Do we really know enough about his society, and the options he had, and how things would have gone had he stayed — the eventual course for his child, and for the world — to be able to judge that choice accurately, do you think?

          “…in all the suttas it is clearly stated that to enter upon taking up this goal one must give up all sexual activity. So lets take this as stated…”

          How sure of that are you? Can you find a sutta for me in which it is clearly stated? I think this may also be a case of misunderstanding the context, and the style of statements being made.

          “But this is part of the end game with nibbana being without consciousness itself and rebirth ended. This doesn’t sound like a ‘living’ mental posture to me. So there are two layers to these stories, the living development of qualities and a vision of an ultimate absolute end in the ‘deathless’.”

          Yes, well, I will agree that there are two layers. And I fully understand why, pretty much, every Buddhist in the world believes that the Buddha was talking about literal rebirth and dukkha only ending “at the breakup of the body, after death” after a last life that included liberation — just about every Buddhist, even those who don’t believe in rebirth *themselves* believe the Buddha taught this.

          But what I see — reading the suttas while being informed by “what everyone believes” he said but not necessarily believing their take to be perfectly correct (all those internal inconsistencies prevent me believing they got it right, I’m afraid) — is that, given the context of his times, and the way people spoke, he very carefully, with considered intention, wrote those suttas to be read on two levels. (I’m working on a paper I will submit to the Oxford Centre that goes over this in detail, but in the meantime:)

          I will try to explain briefly what I see.

          1) One of the most fundamental aspects of the Buddha’s teaching is that it is *believing* things without adequate evidence and then, taking that further, to being dogmatically convinced that we have a corner on the truth that is a fundamental flaw in our behavior/nature that leads to dukkha. The divisiveness that flows from this is key.

          2) His teachings (and his life) are a vivid example of how to live in a way that avoids #1 above. He set up his teachings in a way that meant that he didn’t need to go around telling people that what they believed was wrong. When he talks about Wrong View he doesn’t say that it is wrong because he has a corner on the truth and knows that what they believe isn’t the way it works — if you look at the suttas carefully you’ll notice he says wrong view is wrong because of *where it leads* (it’s the behavior deriving from the views that is the problem, not the views themselves) and in most cases you’ll also notice that “wrong views” aren’t positive statements of the way the cosmos works but are *negations* of what others believe. (If you’re interested, read Paul Fuller’s wonderful book on Ditthi in which he argues this case at Doctoral Thesis length.)

          3) In order to be able to live in a way that exemplifies his own teachings, he worked out a wickedly clever structure (I’m going to switch to “DA” from “DO” because I believe it’s a better translation) — dependent arising — that used the language of beliefs of his times about the cosmic order, about sacrificial rituals, and about rebirth, to describe what is *really* going on. It is a beautifully worked out, many-layered, precise-as-clockwork construction that uses “what everybody knows” — about who we are, and how we come into the world, and what our rituals are for, and where they lead — to describe how the problem is *our beliefs* about “who we are, how we come into the world, why we do what we do, and where our actions should lead” that is actually the fundamental problem. (This is what my paper “Burning Yourself” is about.)

          4) So, when he speaks about rebirth he is a) pointing to DA and what it really means, not to the “what everybody knows” structure that we’ve mistaken as The Lesson and b) allowing himself to be completely consistent in everything he says, if only we understand that deeper structure, all that in a way that c) never requires that he tell anyone that what they believe is wrong. It allows everyone to approach his teachings from wherever they are in their own beliefs, and benefit from it. And if they manage to gain insight into that deeper teaching (which, I believe, deep practice of meditation should lead them to) then suddenly the whole world of his lessons will open up and become clear and consistent and, really, obvious.

          5) For me, the beautiful irony in all this is that while he uses the language of “what everyone knows” (about rebirth — in DA in such a generic form that it covers all the main belief systems) to teach his lessons, what he’s really saying, all along, is that it is “what everyone knows” that is the problem: it’s that *knowing* rather than the content of the knowledge. (The paper I am working on is called “What Everyone Knows” and shows that he uses this rhetorical device not just in DA but in many other structures, including the lines Mark quoted above: “This is dukkha: birth is painful, aging is painful, sickness is painful, death is painful..” which I believe is meant to be understood on that deep level as a case of “what everyone knows and believes is this” and not meant to be taken as literally as we do.)

          Egads, I talk too much.

  18. David S says:

    Hi Linda.

    Glad to have your thoughts, and in detail!

    OK we are on the same page it looks like regarding jhana as having a ‘seat at the table’. Yes, I know of dry insight and other stories giving credit to differing approaches/methods. And that good ol ‘enlightenment’ has been said to be beyond jhanas too. Some people poo-poo jhana as just a trance state and seem to ignore their place within the stories.

    As far as not knowing all about the factors of his decision to abandon his child, I’m not sure if I am solely judging these stories with my values. I think that within the story of his abandoning his family to venture towards his goal says much about the values he held. I don’t need to agree with them. It says to me that the disenchantment he talks of came from the condition of leaving much of his human relationships in the dust. He valued something else which required an internal disengagement through an external disengagement. This was a precondition of his venture and became part of the monk’s code as well.

    I additionally noted that the precondition of abstaining from sexual relations is part this disengagement. Besides the monk’s code of conduct restricting sexual intercourse I found a more poignant reference for you,
    AN 9.7, PTS: A iv 369, Sutava Sutta: To Sutavan, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “[1] It is impossible for a monk whose mental fermentations are ended to intentionally deprive a living being of life. [2] It is impossible for a monk whose mental fermentations are ended to take, in the manner of stealing, what is not given. [3] It is impossible for a monk whose mental fermentations are ended to engage in sexual intercourse. …” So this states that to attain the ‘highest goal’ sexual intercourse will not be possible. I just take such statements and extrapolate them into where this would take us, whereby if every human on earth accomplishes this ending of fermentations humanity would go extinct in one generation. This conclusion is inherently part of the Buddhist story’s ideal as far as I am concerned.

    Additionally, I see in the stories that the buddha didn’t actually reach the ultimate goal until after his death. In this too I see Buddhism’s absolutist end game in death (although the story negates this by naming it the ‘deathless’, which to me is the equivalent to having the cake while eating it too). And with such a goal in mind abandoning one’s child is nothing really.

    Linda I really appreciate your refined interpretations of the stories and how you keep everything in context of the times and what was being said by the buddha. This is very valuable contribution you continue to make for me. I think what you are saying about views having results which can be divisive is spot on and well thought out. I especially liked how you talk of the buddha’s approach being such that differing people with differing views can approach and learn from his view.

    In one way ‘where it leads’ comes back to human’s innate capacity for mirroring each others’ minds and our empathetic response within us. With more responses coming from one of unity there is a biological peacefulness feeling, further calming our minds and this is fundamental to the goals within Buddhism. In another way the release of a defensive survival mode of relating to our experience also results in a more peaceful biological response. So the suffering within our conditioned responses eases in this life.

    • Linda says:

      Yes, we agree on jhana.

      On sex, when you said “And taken to an end goal, in all the suttas it is clearly stated that to enter upon taking up this goal one must give up all sexual activity,” I understood you to be saying that if any person engaged in sexual activity that would block awakening, (if sex then no enlightenment) rather than the reverse (if enlightenment then no sex). The sutta you quoted makes the second statement *about monastics*. It doesn’t make that statement about anyone else. The reason might be more complicated than you’d think, for example, it could be because they took a vow, and then broke it. The part of the sutta that says, one “who is released through right gnosis, cannot possibly transgress these nine principles.”

      There are also issues, there, with translation. The word that gets translated as “impossible” is “abhabba” which can also mean “not likely” and “not proficient”. We must always keep in mind that our translators will translate a passage in a way that makes it support what they believe is being said (which is, after all, a normal part of the translator’s job).

      But I don’t disagree that the Buddha counseled strongly against sex, and that he believed it to be a hindrance when it came to awakening. I do disagree with your conclusion, though, which seems to be that ultimately that would end the human race. I don’t find anywhere that he says he believes it is possible for all humans to become enlightened, so I don’t see that he envisioned the death of the human race.

      So I disagree when you say, “This conclusion is inherently part of the Buddhist story’s ideal as far as I am concerned.” The awakening of all beings is part of the Mahayana ideal, but I do not find it in the oldest texts we have.

      When you say “I see in the stories that the buddha didn’t actually reach the ultimate goal until after his death” do you find anywhere where *he* says he will not attain the ultimate goal until after he dies? I believe this interpretation comes from (incorrect) extrapolation, not from anything he actually says. What he repeatedly says is that he is talking about liberation *in this life* and I have never found him saying anything at all about what happens after he, or any completely liberated person, dies.

      As for “the deathless”, two things. 1) This was a term for “liberation” before he came on the scene, so in one sense he is just borrowing a popular word and (a) allowing folks to interpret it in their usual ways while (b) redefining it within his own system. And (2) which is also (b) “the deathless” refers to DA’s last step. When he describes the things we believe and do as leading, not to bliss like everyone thinks, but to aging and death (implied and redefined is “of the created self, the bit of us that does all the suffering”) it is then quite appropriate to think that when we understand the lesson and break the cycle and no longer create that self that experiences death-as-dukkha, our existence will then be “deathless”. It’s just another word for nibbana. I say “just” but I find it more impressive than “just” indicates — I find it to be part of the wickedly clever, clockwork precision he put into his deep lesson. All the pieces fit in, in ways that made it possible for him to teach without divisiveness.

      Wonderful last paragraph there, David S — I’ve never thought of it that way, but it’s so true that the practice creates a little feedback loop that should move us all into a more peaceful existence — together!

  19. Mark Knickelbine says:

    “In one way ‘where it leads’ comes back to human’s innate capacity for mirroring each others’ minds and our empathetic response within us. With more responses coming from one of unity there is a biological peacefulness feeling, further calming our minds and this is fundamental to the goals within Buddhism. In another way the release of a defensive survival mode of relating to our experience also results in a more peaceful biological response. So the suffering within our conditioned responses eases in this life.”

    In fact, I would argue that this is what practice is all about. The various meditative practices are designed to engage what Dan Siegel calls the “resonance circuit” that in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The resonance circuit evolved to enable us to attune to the emotions and intentions of others; meditation (and other similar practices) are a kind of technology that allows us to engage those neural circuits to attune to our own experience. Regardless of what may be in the Pali or Mahayana scriptures, mindfulness is always a social act, and we always practice with and for others.

  20. David S says:

    Linda. Well the way I read the Sutava sutta, is that this sexless quality is part and parcel of the process at the end stages. Yes he refers to a monk but I regard this as who the buddha sees as being capable of such perfect ‘enlightenment’. It runs up and down in the suttas how he thinks of the monk’s life and seclusion as being key to development, he himself followed this route. I read the inability to transgress the 9 principles as being an inherent quality of this state, not the on-going result of retaining vows. This is a momentous transitional quality whereby what where once vows to be adhered to becomes a fixed quality. Somewhere I’ve read or heard others say this as well but I have no references to quote.

    Just because the buddha didn’t say the end goal was the extinction of the human race doesn’t mean it isn’t the result. Of course there would be all kinds of reasoning with which to argue that this wouldn’t happen given all the variety of people and their abilities. This is not really relevant though to seeing where the ‘path’ is headed to. Just fast forward the process in an idealized way with the stated goals and results. And there is no need to differentiate between mahayana and earlier texts because it is implicit that the buddha thinks his understanding is the best for all. Given this lets have everyone attain it and see where it leads.

    The Parinibbana sutta has the buddha attaining a total unbinding upon his death. This hadn’t happened previously because he was alive and was still operating within consciousness, part of DA. Only after his death could the complete attainment of his goal be achieved. Your point of him not having said such a thing himself could hold ground here though. But this sutta’s claim fits within the whole DA structure that such a quality of the flame going out would be unsurpassed only in death.

    The nibbana/deathless state is a step past the 8 levels of jhana. The irony here is that the buddha thinks that this state is eternal. It solves his desire to escape death, sickness, and old age. I know Linda that you don’t read those goals as literal, but I do.

    Mark thanks for that additional piece. I also think that Buddhist meditation relativizes our experience through seeing the interacting processes of our senses and conceptualizations. This has the effect of regaining a balance and synchronicity between them. Thus enhancing our understanding and perceptions. As well, the whole dropping of views is simply the turning down of the conceptualization process which is a necessary step towards entering jhana and probably part of that final push towards ‘enlightenment’.

    EDIT 2-4-14: I’d like to add that I am here talking of the STORIES not necessarily that I believe in them. But since I do not know what ‘enlightenment’ is supposed to be the stories remain as stories to reflect back upon from differing vantage points.

    • jos says:

      I like to make a small comment on the transgressions.
      These take four out of the five lay precepts, eating something not given the same day and 4 which deal with mind states.

      The intentional killing cannot be broken because the monk will not see the world better off or worse off without the creature killed. Stealing deals with posession and sexual intercource and the ‘consuming’ deal with returning to lay life. It’s based on the assumption that lay life is better than monastic life (hence craving). Lieing assumes that the world is better of by deviating from reality (affirming delusion). They all come from the mindstates desire, aversion/fear and indifference.

      To put it a bit shameless, if I put my finger in my ear or nose the kind of desire is not the same as when I put my ‘eleventh finger’ in some hole. It leads to all kind of unwanted things when not restrained. For lay people this means no adultery, for monastics celebacy. Don’t like that, disrobe and return to lay life. In Theravada it is taken granted that ‘sense desire’ stops at the level of ‘non-return’, making this a nonexistent problem.
      This is a fundamental change in mindset with regard to sensual pleasure, for example food will still have the same taste, yet the mental heat stops. If I have to eat just plain bread or rice at Christmas it’s fine (or even no food at all), even if the entire country eats the most delicious food available.

      About (non)eternal deathless. There is a lot of confusion because of the ‘total unbinding’ thing. It’s translation confusion, in reality the Buddha let go of body and mind 40/45 years before his body collapsed. This is beyond normal understanding, hence the various (unanswered) questions that relate to this. Some scholars move towards ‘eternal’, others to ‘there was never a Buddha in the first place -> it’s the end’. And they blame each other with ‘eternalist/annihilation’ points of view. No need to go in there, there no fame to attain…

    • Linda says:

      David S, let me ask you this: Is the end of consciousness what you are aiming for? Do you want to seek a cure for dukkha that ends the use of the senses, and the contact that results from it? Do you want to stop all feeling, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neither? Do you think the extinction of the human race, through the process you’ve been describing is something worth working towards? I’m not asking you what the Buddha thought, or what other Buddhists think, but do you, personally. Is the life you have been experiencing such that, if this is the sort of thing you’ll be getting better and better at as you strive along the Buddhist path over a course of rebirths, you are anxious to end that cycle? Does your desire to end those potential rebirths make you want to practice like your hair is on fire (as the sutta describes)?

      • David S says:

        No Linda this is not an aim of mine. It may be as simple as a fact of life and is stated within buddhism. Most of your questions are fair to ask. Though I differ with the one about whether aiming towards extinction is worth working towards. It seems off base. We are all going to die no matter what we do. It is not something one works towards.

        My raising of such aspects in the story of buddhism is seeing what is there. I am looking at how the story that is being told in buddhism is laid out, what it is saying. It has a man abandoning his wife and child as an act of this great man. After enlightenment he does not return to raise his child. There are no enlightened persons going on to have children. One of the highest attainments is spoken of as resulting in a sexless quality. I don’t quietly ignore such aspects of the tale as it is told. I look at where this would lead if all humankind achieved the goal as it is laid out in the stories. I am not invested in this outcome.

        I find it interesting that this is the direction it is going in. I also find it interesting that this is not talked about either.

        Linda. How do you re-tell this tale in regards to this? I am not asking to engage in an argument here. I respect your sense of sifting through the tales to find a cohesiveness which you can make sense of. Do you discount the dying buddha sutta’s tale because it is not one he could have spoken of? If so, that’s a valid point. Do you discount the tale of ‘stream enterers’ dropping sexual desire and intercourse because it is only spoken of monks doing this? If so, then I don’t understand what tales of monk’s you do keep and why?

        I thought of asking you these questions a day or two ago, but then I thought, ‘oh no one wants to go there’. So I just said ‘eh’, and dropped it.

        Last night I watched a documentary on Burma and of course much was noted of the county’s buddhist majority. In it many people expressed their thoughts on reincarnation having a part in why their lives were so difficult. This makes me think that for us to simply discount reincarnation doesn’t change that this is how the majority of people understand buddhism in their lives. With such people other approaches to the stories are needed to discuss such matters with them. Why aren’t their spiritual leaders doing so? Is it because this is what they too believe?

        I went numerous times to a Thai forest monastery in northern California. I saw the western abbot counseling Thai lay people (who donated the majority of items and money during Katina) and wondered if he encouraged the belief in reincarnation. I also wondered if he believed in such a thing. And if he didn’t, are such central issues not spoken of because it is in the interests of the monks to keep quiet because they want to keep the money and food flowing? Would this be feeding on delusion? These stories have power dynamics built into them. I think such things should be spoken of.

        People will not be in agreement on the stories. I have my own interests outside of buddhism which alter how I interpret the stories. I have some limited experience with meditation that has given me a view into buddhist doctrines. It has affected how I see the stories. Traditionally one’s experience is supposed to reinforce one’s understanding and that is where I am working.

        Stories have unspoken power over the imagination. I read the stories within buddhism with an understanding of my own. Some I utilize in my life, while others I find are mostly ignored or quietly shunned.

        A personal aside…

        I went over the story of the buddha’s death and read that he went up and down through the 8 jhanas and it was said after rising back up from the 1st to the 4th is from where he entered into ‘enlightenment’. It wasn’t as I stated above being ‘beyond’ the 8th level. Huh, mmm. That intrigues me as to what took place in that process. I don’t know really what that is about (nor even what ‘enlightenment’ is).

        I also understand your questions though are asking what I use in the stories. Well, I began in a painful place and found buddhist meditation to be helpful. I was also interested in what buddhism says about consciousness and the metaphysical aspects. I was told it was all verifiable with my own experience. I am seeing how this is (and isn’t). Along the way I see other stories implicit within the stated goals. Since I am not invested in making buddhism perfect I see no problem with pointing out the problematic aspects in the stories.

        • David S says:

          Another question for you Linda.

          I am very interested in how people practice and what they experience in meditation, more than what has been written. How do you practice and what/how is meditation for you?

        • jos says:


          On the death of the Buddha, to fully understand you would need to have experience with jhana. On every level of jhana and even in cessation there is ‘something’ that is sustaining the level. The name ‘cessation of perception and feeling’ already gives a hint on this. And every level is ‘unstable’, it has to change as long as this ‘something’ is present. The difference between jhana 4 and 5 is the focus. Up to 4 the primary focus is on a mental object, from 5 to 7 focus is on mental aspects (perceptions) of consciousness. Then there is a state that has no ‘external’ object of awareness and awareness is only aware of itself and after this there is the ‘cessation’ state where the mental note about the awareness (the last perception) also stops.

          The significance is in both the sequence as the last words of the Buddha:
          All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.

          Even the cessation state is a fabrication, something unstable. ‘We’ cannot stay there, though the state does exist. It’s the same with death, death exist though ‘I’ cannot enter death. ‘I’ have to end before death is present (just as an example, cessation and death are very different).
          The entire chain shows that release is not found in the chain, not even in cessation.
          The suttas are clear on this, cessation leads to non-return, only right knowledge leads to total release.
          You can read up in Majjhima Nikaya 74 and 111 on two viewpoints of the cessation attainment by the same person. The list in 111 is quite long and seems to take a long time, 74 indicates that it was a brief moment.

          Release is found in the chain between the fourth and fifth jhana, the point where object percention stops and subject perception (I) does not yet find ground. When we can let go of ‘objects’ and do not enter the ‘subject’ there is no stress.
          When we experience a feeling we know it as something that is changing. And we leave at that, we don’t add an ‘I feel’ to it. The feeling will drop quick, it has to change by nature. Only when we add an ‘I feel’ it can stay for a long time. This is why the the aggregates we call Buddha ‘stopped’ after bringing the mind back from the fourth jhana. There was nothing to hang on to anymore, everything went it’s own natural way.

          About ‘dropping sexual desire’, there is no agreement between various Theravada streams. Some take stream entry as the stop point, others take non-return. To keep it on ‘lay’ side: for what I know stream entry will deminish the desire, making it (almost) impossible to commit adultery. Complete destruction of the desire will be at non-return when it is clearly seen how sense desires come into play. Enough of this, just practice and in time you might understand what I say here.

          • David S says:

            Thank you very much jos. I appreciate this explanation. I agree that more experience is needed for me to understand what this is about. I am far from this, and I find it most important to base my understandings on experience. Ha… enough of this!

      • Linda says:

        I will try to get to answer your new questions later today, David, but for now I want to work on finishing the conversation I started with my questions.

        As you surmised, I asked them for a reason but it might not have been the reason you assumed. I guessed that you and I are enough alike that we both would have answered similarly, that, “No, those are not things I work towards.” In which case, I’d say that, since it’s not that you want to stop consciousness, the senses, contact, feeling, and if you’re not in a hurry to end life — because you, like me, actually find some value in it? — then either what the Buddha taught (if all that is what he taught) isn’t for you, or all that isn’t what he taught.

        He says we can see it for ourselves, and nowhere does he say that it will seem wrong when we see it. In each argument he puts forward, he calls forth answers which seem right to us.

        I maintain that if a healthy person — who is, by my definition a reasonably moral person — thinks they understand what the Buddha is saying, and it goes against what they feel is right, then they have not yet understood what’s being said.

        You argue that because you can extrapolate out “in an idealized way” what you think the Buddha is saying about the end of dukkha and death coming with the end of rebirth, that means that is actually what he was trying to teach us to do. But that “idealized way” is just a red herring. Neither you* nor I have any good evidence that that outcome is even possible. And the Buddha doesn’t base his understanding on how things might be “in an idealized way” — in fact he argues (very strongly) against doing anything of the sort: he doesn’t work from the theoretical but from the visible. So when you say, “This is not really relevant though to seeing where the ‘path’ is headed to…” it’s true that the Buddha not talking about it is irrelevant to the mental experiment of seeing where that path would lead, but it has every relevance to what we’re actually talking about: evidence that this is what the Buddha *meant*. That idealized theory is not evidence that in any way supports it being what the Buddha was thinking about. We need to not confuse the idealized, theoretical possibility with what actually matters, and that is what we can actually see.

        This is what I am trying to say: The Buddha spoke of things on two different levels, as you, too, observe. One is the lived experience and practice. But the other is not “a vision of an ultimate absolute end in the ‘deathless’…” or at least, if it is that, that is not *his* vision. The two levels he uses consist of the popular conception of what is going on, versus what he says is going on — *his* view being that visible, lived experience, not theory. Over the course of time, we have come to mistake the former for the latter — we take his discussions of what would lead to the extinction of consciousness and feeling and life as “what he wanted us to believe in” when what it is, is what he is pointing out that is the mistake we make: thinking that way. This confusion is all his fault (I blame the Buddha!): he usurped the popular language, he redefined all the terms — it is a masterful piece of work, I admit it! — but it was too easy to misunderstand. He defines “the deathless” as freedom from dukkha in this very life by equating “death” to “impermanence” to “dukkha” so naturally freedom from dukkha is freedom from death (and impermanence too). And it is, because we are no longer caught up in any of it: we are unconcerned by death, and by impermanence, so we don’t experience dukkha — we’re free of it! We’re free of death!

        The popular view is what describes the system you see as ending in ultimate destruction. It has strong (but not perfect) internal consistency. You are absolutely right about how consistent it is. But it doesn’t have perfect consistency within the Buddha’s talks *because it is not supposed to*, and it is not actually consistent with the goals of healthy human beings (to not feel, not be conscious, not live). The inconsistencies are there because that way of looking at life isn’t his, and he wants us to find the flaws and gnaw on them until we chew through the mistakes and find the truth: that it’s not all feeling that we need to get rid of, but just that which leads to dukkha; not all consciousness, but (ditto); not all sense information, not all contact, not all birth, or aging, or even death. It is only thinking about these things in a certain way that is the problem — it is that kind of thinking that we need to get rid of (that style of thinking, those particular sorts of thoughts) not all of it.

        In the end, your answer tells me you’re a good one to follow the Buddha because you are listening to your own sense of what’s the best course, and what the best direction would be. You are keeping with what I say is the Buddha’s message: that ending all desire, all feeling, all consciousness is not the answer — that believing such things, when there is no evidence to show that they help, is part of the problem, not the solution.

        * “Of course there would be all kinds of reasoning with which to argue that this wouldn’t happen given all the variety of people and their abilities.”

        • David S says:

          Regarding the conversation…

          “…because you, like me, actually find some value in it?”

          Yes some of it has value.

          “…then either what the Buddha taught (if all that is what he taught) isn’t for you, or all that isn’t what he taught.”

          I don’t know Linda about having it “all” be for me or not for me, nor is figuring out “all” what he really taught. It doesn’t seem to me that this is necessary. What is in the stories varies much as to its value to me. It isn’t an either take it all or leave it all situation.

          “He says we can see it for ourselves, and nowhere does he say that it will seem wrong when we see it.”

          Of course he doesn’t say that because he believes in his superiority of his view and nobody will ever surpass his view in his mind. I don’t have to agree with this at all. It isn’t necessary. You may.

          “I maintain that if a healthy person — who is, by my definition a reasonably moral person — thinks they understand what the Buddha is saying, and it goes against what they feel is right, then they have not yet understood what’s being said.”

          I keep him off the pedestal until I agree…or not. I don’t need to make him perfect. You try. To each as they do.

          “You argue that because you can extrapolate out “in an idealized way” what you think the Buddha is saying about the end of dukkha and death coming with the end of rebirth, that means that is actually what he was trying to teach us to do.”

          No, I do not assert that this is what he was teaching “us to do”. I assert this is the outcome of what his goal is. The outcome is within the stories themselves.

          “But that “idealized way” is just a red herring. Neither you* nor I have any good evidence that that outcome is even possible.”

          The evidence is within the stories themselves. You are ignoring this. As far as being possible, well isn’t enlightenment possible according to the stories? And doesn’t the Buddha proclaim his enlightenment to be the “ideal”? …perfection? Etc? Now I ask what would be the outcome if everyone attained this goal? The answer is in the stories which don’t include babies. Which enlightened person had a child afterward?

          “And the Buddha doesn’t base his understanding on how things might be “in an idealized way””

          Again you are not recognizing the stories as my source. The “ideal” I am talking of is if his ‘path’ is good for all then lets imagine everyone attaining this goal. I am not creating idealizations out of some goal of mine. Don’t confuse this fact. I find you are still discounting the stories as you see fit. I don’t need to make this claim of authority and make him perfect. I read the stories and see their arch towards extinction if everyone attained the goal as it has been described in the stories.

          “That idealized theory is not evidence that in any way supports it being what the Buddha was thinking about. “

          Again his goals speak for him as well as his actions and the outcome which can remain unspoken. How do you ignore the dissonance between the image of his perfect compassion and abandoning his child? I don’t have to excuse him one minute. He is not a sound man in his action. He is not perfect. He was selfish. You seem to ignore this. I don’t need to because I am not trying to make him perfect.

          “…*his* view being that visible, lived experience, not theory.”

          Not theory… exactly. I don’t view him under the theory he was perfect. I see what is in the stories, how he lived his life, and what it would result in if everyone did the same.

          “He defines “the deathless” as freedom from dukkha in this very life by equating “death” to “impermanence” to “dukkha” so naturally freedom from dukkha is freedom from death (and impermanence too). And it is, because we are no longer caught up in any of it: we are unconcerned by death, and by impermanence, so we don’t experience dukkha — we’re free of it! We’re free of death!”

          I like that you are framing the stories in a way that makes sense for you.

          Consciousness was a part of D.O. and thus part of dukka as well. Interesting considering that in my absorption when my consciousness had little content, no self, no thinking, no body, etc. that this was experienced as lacking disturbance/dukka. The conception of dukka includes consciousness itself within the D.O.. You may not have experienced this sort of state and so your interpretations lack this view. We differ in our experiences and our views.

          “The popular view is what describes the system you see as ending in ultimate destruction.”

          Within the stories, what is called the dhamma includes anything which is “the way things are” and that would include death. It doesn’t need to be seen as a despairing denial of an end. You may view it that way, but I don’t.

          “…it’s not all feeling that we need to get rid of, but just that which leads to dukkha; not all consciousness, but (ditto); not all sense information, not all contact, not all birth, or aging, or even death.”

          Yes these sorts of relating to one’s experience are helpful in living one’s life. But death is part of life as well. If his view would not include death it would be seen to be half-formed. He wanted to encompass all of life and would naturally include death. It really is not such a big problem to talk of it, nor to see this within the stories of Buddhism.

          • Linda says:

            Reading your answers to me in the above, it seems to me that I have utterly failed to convey to you anything that I’m saying. For the most part, your answers fly right past what I’m saying, without even touching on the points I’ve made — clearly I’m not doing a very good job of communicating. I’m saying something about 90 degrees out from what you’re hearing me say. And you get the impression I’m not understanding you very well either — again, my failure, for which I apologize. So for me, the better part of wisdom requires that I get back to work on my research. It has been good talking to you though; I’ve gotten more out of it than this short farewell might indicate.

          • jos says:

            “Now I ask what would be the outcome if everyone attained this goal? The answer is in the stories which don’t include babies. Which enlightened person had a child afterward?”

            Last weekend my wife and I were driving home after going out for the day. Our talk was about the kids (she has several from previous relations) and how while they give both pleasure and stress it’s better not to have kids. With this we do not ignore our love and care for them or wish them not to be there. It’s just an acknowledgement that children are a burden. And from talks with much older people I know this can last at least till the kids are in their thirties or fourties. And maybe even after that…

            I would not worry too much about everyone attaining the goal. The vast majority of the world is busy making babies, not trying to end suffering. It’s the same as asking what would happen if everyone became a monk or nun. Nice for conceptual thought, in reality it will happen when pigs fly.

  21. David S says:

    Linda I hear your arguments and I see you continually making claims on keeping to what the buddha meant, or what you think he meant. In order to do this you have to throw out suttas and ignore them. You also ignore the content of other suttas and reconfigure their meaning to fit.

    I am pointing out that the story of his actions speak as well. You only look at his spoken intentions. Abandoning his child says much about the intentions of his ultimate goal as anything he spoke of. The lack of enlightened ones having families afterward says much about that quality as well. You choose not to look at this, or will find a rationalization to discount it.

    You approach the subject with only eyes on a perfect man. I don’t need any of it to be confined into that idealization.

    You take what I am doing as speculation when I take the example of the buddha and have everyone attain it. But this was his goal when he took to teaching it. What would happen shows itself in the example of his life. It is in the content of the stories. You ignore this too.

    I get your whole non-speculation argument, but it doesn’t apply here. If it did then everything you say could also be said to be just speculation. All books could be said to be speculation. All words just speculation. Silly isn’t it?

    We differ in our approach, experiences and interpretations.

    • Linda says:

      You are not hearing my arguments, David S, you’re filtering them through your own expectations, or you wouldn’t be able to suggest that I am throwing out suttas or ignoring them. On a much larger scale than your objection to his leaving his child at home, I find his actions support what I am trying to show you. I understand your point-of-view quite well, as it aligns with the traditional takes on why the Buddha says things the way he says them, a take which (as I pointed out) has strong internal consistency.

      You also assume — though I have not said — that I think the Buddha was a perfect man. You build up your perception of what I am saying, and argue against *that* instead of actually listening to what I am saying, which is not what you think I am saying.

      If “what would happen shows itself in the example of his life” then show me where in the suttas where we see not speculation about the possibility, but the actual extinction of the human race.

      There is evidence in philology; there is evidence in how an argument hangs together consistently, and how it doesn’t hang together as well because it is full of holes. I’m sorry if you don’t see that, and to you it is all just speculation, and silly.

      Your conclusion is quite correct though, our approaches are different. I wish you well in your practice.

      • David S says:

        Contrary to what you think Linda I have heard and understood your points. You seem to think that I would naturally come to agree with all you say if only I understood. That is an arrogant stance.

        You have said yourself that you disregard some suttas in other discussions because they appear that they are not of the buddha’s voice. We all interpret in varying ways, because of this I was mistaken to include that in my statement above. But I was not wrong about you doing this.

        You continue to speak as if your interpretations are correct. I think your thoughts are well structured and I don’t disagree with many of your points. However, the stories can be read from other perspectives than the one you take. What I speak of is not delineated in the terms you focus upon. I don’t disagree with many of your points. I am adding additional ones that lay outside your focus.

        This exchange began here from statements I made which you chose to counter. There is no need for me to bow to the singleness of your view. These are first and foremost stories. As such there can be multiple views. I find your take to be fine, except you ignore aspects which I do not.

        In the end you have not even come close to looking at, nor engaging with what I am saying. Your approach is to speak for the buddha and only look at what he says not his actions. Your silly request for me to quote the suttas referring to extinction is stupid. I have stated quite clearly my thoughts and yet you refuse to engage them. You never answered one of my questions while I did yours. So much for an equal exchange.

        • Linda says:

          But see, David, you’re making assumptions about my thinking that are unwarranted. The assumptions you make, make it easier for you dismiss what I’m saying, to find fault, to find me “wrong”. So, for example, you say:

          “You have said yourself that you disregard some suttas in other discussions because they appear that they are not of the buddha’s voice.”

          What did I say this in regard to? Was I saying that this is what I do in regard to the particular thesis I’m defending here? No sir, I said it while giving a suggestion to those trying to get a grip on what suttas will give them the most help in their practice. That comment said nothing about what I count as in or out with regard to what the Buddha taught.

          You say you understand me, and yet you then say, “I am adding additional ones that lay outside your focus.”

          Do you understand that the view you have of the Buddha’s path leading to annihilation of the human race, and seeing dukkha as lasting until after death-post-awakening is incorporated into what I am saying? That it does not lay outside it? The above quote suggests to me that you haven’t understood that.

          My point about quoting extinction in the suttas is this: the extinction of the human race through this practice *is speculative* unless you can prove it will happen. Does the evidence you see around you give you any kind of a solid basis for believing that enough humans — I guess that would have to end up being *all humans* — will come to a point where they are all liberated? I am trying to get you to recognize the difference between what is speculative, and what is visible.

          I don’t expect that, if you understood me, you’d agree, but I do think that, if you understood me, you’d be able to find fault with what I’m actually saying — which would be constructive for me — rather than just what you think I’m saying. I want good, solid criticism and discussion. I think you are fully capable of being that sort of accurately critical. That’s why I’m still here.

          • David S says:

            Yes I do Linda. I’m also saying the buddha’s enlightenment was shallow in terms of human compassion towards raising his own son. This is outside your terms.

            You continue to ignore what I have said in regards to annihilation. Your augments are dull.

            Answer for question below: What did he do AFTER his enlightenment? He had nothing to do with raising his son right? I find this revealing. It probably relates to what enlightenment is and is not. I think of Trungpa and others who claim some level of enlightenment and continue to under perform the notion of what it entails. It may not be such a perfect state after all.

            This sort of analysis is outside of your interest. It is critical.

            I am sorry for the “dull” bit above. I am tired of this disagreement. I do understand your points I just refuse to engage on that level because my thoughts are not from looking solely from his explicit message. It is a meta-level read on my part.

          • Linda says:

            I’m not sure I understand your argument there, David, since he left his son before he was enlightened. How does what he did before he awakened reflect on his understanding post-awakening?

          • Linda says:

            “What did he do AFTER his enlightenment? He had nothing to do with raising his son right?”

            Ah, this perhaps explains it. No, that’s not what happened. The first time he went back home, he left and took his son with him. There are many suttas in which he teaches Rahula the dhamma — Rahula became a monk.

    • Linda says:

      Since my approach actually ties the suttas together, leaving almost nothing out, yet you’re perceiving I’m ignoring them, I wonder if you may have the impression I’m “ignoring” suttas, or aspects of his life, because I haven’t answered your questions about them? This isn’t because I can’t or won’t, but because I’ve been trying to focus on one or two basic points and get understanding between us on those before trying to take on smaller issues.

      • David S says:

        Your words Linda…

        “Yes, there are suttas created in other times and places by other people, but these tend to stand out. Some tell stories from after the Buddha died — obviously not by the originator. You can also filter out stories about anyone other than the Buddha, Ananda (his long-time attendant), Sariputta (foremost male disciple), Dhammadina (foremost female disciple) and just a few others. This method will lose you a few good suttas (my favorite: SN 12.68 in which disciples sit around and one of them admits figuring things out but not yet being able to get to liberation) but nothing essential. Toss out any suttas that just brag.”

        Re: Addressing the suttas
        on: February 7, 2014, 13:40

        • Mark Knickelbine says:

          First off, I want to thank everyone for keeping the original article on the home page for so many days! I hope somebody has been reading it.

          David, I think you are right that most of the suttas show an obvious monastic chauvanism, and if everyone lived by the Theravadin monastic vows the race would die out. It is one of the many anti-human attitudes of Theravadin Buddhism, including an interpretation of Nibbana that does include the extinction of consciousness (as mentioned dozens of times in the DA Samuyutta, for instance. If this is a misinterpretation, you can’t blame them for reading what’s right under their noses). As Jos points out, however, never gonnna happen, and the case shows the limitations of using “what if everybody did that” to determine the moral valance of an action or teaching.

          And Linda, you know that I think your heuristic model has revealed tremendously useful insights from the suttas. It is, at this point, only a heuristic model and you are far from demonstrating that whoever composed the suttas was consciously aware of it. I trust you wrote the paragraph David quotes above in a moment of intellectual relaxation, because it is not worthy of your usual rigor. First off, are we supposed to throw out The Songs of the Nuns and the Songs of the Monks? I find them to be a much better indicator of what early monastics probably thought Gotama was teaching than anything in, say, MN, even though they don’t mention your Big Three. Secondly, what do we throw out in, say, the Kassapa Samyutta? The ones clearly depicting events after Gotama’s death? Or the ones claiming to relate Gotama’s words? And if we can throw any of them out, how do we know which of the other Samyuttas, which appear identical in many ways, we are safe to keep? And if you take any of the texts from the Sutta Nipatta and exchange it with any in MN, they will both stand out like sore thumbs in their new surroundings. The authorship and provenance of the Nikayas is much more problematic than you indicate here, as all but the most devout traditionalists will admit. This is why holding them too tightly is as much a mistake as discounting them. The suttas, too, are dukkha, and productive of both clinging and aversion.

          • Linda says:

            You’re welcome.

            But I’m sorry Mark, I’m not sure what paragraph you’re referring to. Are you meaning the out-of-context paragraph about filtering out suttas*? Or some other paragraph?

            You seem to have changed the discussion from “what the Buddha was aiming to teach” (originating in a discussion about dukkha) to “what his early practitioners thought he taught” which is not something we’ve been discussing here.

            I’m now thoroughly confused.

            * If so, please see my response to David S. that begins “But see, David, you’re making assumptions about my thinking that are unwarranted.”

          • Linda says:

            And, Mark, regarding this:

            “And Linda, you know that I think your heuristic model has revealed tremendously useful insights from the suttas. It is, at this point, only a heuristic model and you are far from demonstrating that whoever composed the suttas was consciously aware of it.”

            I have more. I’m about half-way through a paper that finds an even larger structure than I found in DA — it’s actually used in DA and elsewhere — and if after reading the argument, you actually recognized the structure and yet you thought that the structure was put there “unconsciously” I’d be very surprised, though no doubt in my own life, I use structures in arguments that I’m not aware I’m using.

    • David S says:

      I am re-posting the following (and adding to it) in case you didn’t reread an edited version of a post above Linda. (The REPLY tab was full.)

      Linda says:
      February 10, 2014 at 4:34 pm

      “I’m not sure I understand your argument there, David, since he left his son before he was enlightened. How does what he did before he awakened reflect on his understanding post-awakening?”

      What did he do AFTER his enlightenment? He had nothing to do with raising his son right? I find this revealing. It probably relates to what enlightenment is and is not. I think of Trungpa and others who claim some level of enlightenment and continue to under perform the notion of what it entails. It may not be such a perfect state after all. The buddha can be seen to still have been operating selfishly post enlightenment.

      It also brings to mind his mindset within enlightenment. What does this become?

      It also pertains to his conception of enlightenment itself. What kind of person rationalizes running from raising one’s own child? He did this. So this is an image at the base of his understanding.

      This sort of analysis is outside of your interest. It is critical.

      I am sorry for the “dull” bit above. I am tired of this disagreement. I do understand your points I just refuse to engage on that level because my thoughts are not from looking solely from his explicit message. It is a meta-level read on my part.

      • Linda says:

        No, I saw it. Let me repeat my answer for you:

        “What did he do AFTER his enlightenment? He had nothing to do with raising his son right?”

        Ah, this perhaps explains it. No, that’s not what happened. The first time he went back home, he left and took his son with him. There are many suttas in which he teaches Rahula the dhamma — Rahula became a monk.

        Adding to the above: I believe it was that event that resulted in a rule, in the Vinaya, that addressed the age at which a monk could physically join the sangha, and (if I recall correctly) requiring the permission of both parents. My understanding is that Rahula’s mother was not very happy with the situation.

        You see, I don’t see the Buddha as “perfect” — I see him as entirely human, and making choices I might well not have made, at least not from the perspective of my place and time. But I can’t see all the factors that went into the choices he made, so I try not to assume I know enough to know why he did what he did, or judge its rightness or wrongness.

        But clearly he made a place for family. He went back to see his father and experienced guilt over abandoning him. He started the nun’s division at the behest of his step-mother/aunt.

        • David S says:

          How many years later?
          I thought his wife and son approached him?

        • Linda says:

          I don’t know that there is any timeline that provides us with anything to go on there, other than the fact that Rahula had to be younger than would be acceptable for boys to join the wandering bhikkhus.

        • Linda says:

          Looking up the story in the Vinaya (something I hadn’t done before) I find that the visit is late enough in the Buddha’s career that he already had his cousin Ananda as attendant, Sariputta as a disciple, and he next wanders on to the park in Savatthi given to him by Anathapindika, so it has to be some years after his awakening — but his father, Suddhodana is still alive, so it isn’t very many years.

          As for his wife and son approaching him, the story is not that clear cut. In the version of the Vinaya I have by I.B. Horner, it has him going to Kapilavatthu for a visit:

          “Then the lady, Rahula’s mother, spoke thus to the boy Rahula: ‘This, Rahula, is your father, go and ask him for your inheritance.’

          “Then the boy Rahula approached the Lord; having approached… ‘Give me my inheritance, recluse, give me my inheritance, recluse.’ Then the Lord addressed the venerable Sariputta, saying: ‘Well then, do you, Sariputta, let the boy Rahula go forth.'”

          I don’t think that having her son leave with his father was Rahulamata’s intention. I agree with the usual interpretation, that she was being a bit sarcastic, and didn’t get the result she wanted.

          On the other hand, the notes on this sutta, where the Buddha talks to his son about lying, have the commentaries saying he was just seven when they had this talk:


          but I am more inclined to believe the Vinaya than the commentaries. But now I know where I got the impression that he was quite young from.

      • Linda says:

        Also — just FYI — when the reply button disappears, if you just use the one above where you expect it to be, it just makes a continuous-level thread below.

  22. David S says:

    Linda I see your statement to Mark and can see where a secondary digression began. It began Feb 1st with what I called “Some aside thoughts…”. This is when I spoke of “the stories with aspects not being internally cohesive”. So some of the disagreement started around that one. It didn’t relate to dukkha.

    Sorry for the digression.

    Thanks Mark for the statement about Theravadan views. This is something I am reacting within given my background in this view.

    • Linda says:

      I don’t see it as a digression. You are arguing, I believe correctly, that detachment from all things, including family, is part and parcel of the view of Buddhism that would, if all beings were fully awakened, lead to the extinction of the human race. This goes right along with the view that dukkha continues for beings until death post-awakening. So no apology is necessary.

      • David S says:


        Linda thank you for hanging in there! Looking back I can see where-why I misread you (buddha as perfect, disregarding suttas) and where a shift occurred in my line of thinking from making connections between my personal experience and the stories to being critical of the stories. A messy ride that seems to be over now. Thanks again.

        • Linda says:

          Thank you for hanging in there, David. Sorry it got a bit rough.

          • David S says:

            Yes it got rough. I’d like to apologize to you Linda for characterizing you while I was feeling angry and defensive. It would have been more clear if I had only stuck to my thoughts on the subject. It will serve as a reminder for me for the future to not go there, as I will undoubtedly be wrong, get the same in return, not build any understanding and trust, and burn by my tongue!

            With your post above I get the impression you are quick in understanding, flexible, agile, and extremely diligent in regards to your research. Hopefully any harm I may have caused you will not stand for long with those qualities to keep you feeling balanced and excited to learn.


          • Linda says:

            No apology is necessary, David, and no harm done.

  23. David S says:

    In my posts above I was really stumbling around so much in my thinking that I’d like to post a recap and try to pull together my messy thoughts on dukkha. I’ll leave out the digressions!

    Sorry keep going on and to not let these thoughts just go! …maybe tomorrow… ☺ The process of communicating helps me too. I’ll take another turn, another twist…

    Given all the points of view we have, talk of dukkha has many facets. In general, a common distinction can be made between statements regarding those that are relative, “in this life” view, and others which are absolute, an ultimate view. Clearly the Buddhist texts are aiming much of the material towards the “in this life” view.

    Like most here, I bring to Buddhism a skepticism towards its claims as well as a view that people really are experiencing something regarding what it claims. Looking into Buddhism I tend to look towards the meditative practice because I assume that meditation is where the Buddha got his material in the first place. I also assume that people have been experiencing something or some process in meditation all along. So I follow the breath….

    Since some time ago, after having had a couple of absorptions where in one I lost sense of a self, time, body, visual impressions, etc… and even emotional tones (a very odd experience) I figured that my brain had shifted in its functioning, and also thought that this is where the D.O. organization came from.

    I think D.O. can be viewed as having an ultimate view, which after all given its status as being an ultimate answer makes sense to me. It is particularly interesting that D.O.’s list includes consciousness. Why would that be? Well if one experiences an unusual peace through a “lack of” experience (lacking most or all aspects of normal consciousness) then one could make claims that “this whole mass of suffering” includes all the processes of consciousness itself, hence the list. This seems like an ultimate view and doesn’t really conflict with any practical “in this life” view of dukkha, this view just can’t be utilized like the “in this life” views can.

    I also found it interesting how in the Sutava Sutta it has a sexless quality as an inherent part of the process at the end stages and how this collides with the notion that the “in this life” view is solely an affirmation of our lives and that this is all that the Buddha was talking of. If this is part of the picture (assuming someone has had this experience and the interpretation is correct) then there could be an ultimate end within Buddhism’s structure that doesn’t ultimately include “in this life”.

    I don’t know.

    It is a strange thing to consider though isn’t it?

    • Linda says:

      (I have written three drafts in response to the above, trying to be as succinct as you are, but brief is just not my strong suit.)

      You’re right, it is strange, and worth considering. And I guess you could say that’s what I’ve spent most of the last decade doing, considering that very thing.

      When you say that you “bring to Buddhism a skepticism towards its claims,” well, that’s where I started from, and, really, it’s where I still am. It’s a good place to be, and I’m glad we’re both there.

      It seems to me that the skepticism comes from a disconnection between being told we can see the Buddha’s way for ourselves, and our inability to see what he says in its entirety. At least among us secular types, we read about the cosmic justice system of karma and rebirth, and about the miracles (seeing others’ past lives arising and passing, teleportation, etc) and we don’t see evidence for these being as described.

      The traditional take is that seeing all this comes with full awakening — this is the logical explanation, since the folks we know and trust sure aren’t seeing it in their everyday practice, and it fits with the Buddha’s story of awakening — yet the Buddha very frequently indicates that it is the accuracy of seeing that brings about enlightenment, not that it is the other way around.

      There are two most-likely explanations for this disconnection: (1) is that the traditions passed on what the Buddha said and that they interpret it the way he meant it with great accuracy, which would mean, for secularists, that the man who gained his reputation by teaching a way out of delusions was himself deluded and (2) the other is that the man taught the way out of delusions, putting together a system of teachings that was appropriate for his times but we have misunderstood some of it.

      (1) requires that the founder was deluded but 130 generations of monks passed on what he taught with excellent accuracy, not changing any essentials
      (2) requires that one person got something right and 130 generations of monks did what people do and changed things a little bit, bit by bit, that they misunderstood it a little, and passed the misunderstandings on without being aware they did so.

      I ask you: which is the more likely, that 130 generations got it right, or that one person did and some of those 130 made mistakes?

      Reading the suttas while keeping in mind the possibility of #2 being the more likely has made this evident to me: that when we practice what the Buddha tells us to practice (working on seeing things more and more clearly); when we trust that the answers lie, not outside us, but that we have within us the ability to recognize truth from delusion if we just keep paying keen attention; then when we feel skeptical, when we hit that disconnection, if we trust ourselves, and trust what we are being told about our abilities, then we will listen to our doubts and ask ourselves: why? Why does so much of what the Buddha teaches sound right, feel right, and work well in our lives, but this other half doesn’t?

      What I am suggesting to you is that he wanted you to ask those questions — that your skepticism was intended to arise — that the disconnect and the improbability and the lack of evidence for those certain portions of what he taught, when you look for evidence, are part of the lesson he constructed.

      I am saying that he recognized that the only way we are ever going to get where he wanted us to go is for us to see this for ourselves, for us to do this for ourselves. Someone just Telling Us The Facts doesn’t make it happen for us. Only if we can sort this out for ourselves are we able to understand what he is saying. When he says, as in the Kalama sutta, “… don’t go by … legends, by traditions, by scripture… or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ ” he is telling us not to believe even what he says, and he says this for a reason: because we aren’t meant to believe — and take literally — everything he says. We are meant to ask ourselves questions about it, and compare what we hear with what we see, and be able to recognize when we are being told a story, or when the lesson is framed in a way that is metaphorical, not literal.

      I submit this possibility to you: That he very consciously, very intentionally, set up a system that had the disconnect built into it so that we would run up against it, and be forced to question what we were hearing. That he made pronouncements which were, on the surface, restatements of things that Everyone Knew, and could be taken to mean almost exactly the same as what everyone was saying. “Life is suffering.” “Karma is the cosmic system.” “There is rebirth.” “Gods exist — I know, because I have talked to them.” At the same time he repeatedly told us that it was possible to experience blameless joy, and that there was nothing to be reborn, and to base our lives on what we can see for ourselves. He built a system that is designed to make us do the work of sorting fact from facsimile, and if we stop being skeptical, we’ve failed to get through the whole course.

      Trust your skepticism; it’s telling you something.

      • David S says:

        Linda I liked this, “What I am suggesting to you is that he wanted you to ask those questions — that your skepticism was intended to arise — that the disconnect and the improbability and the lack of evidence for those certain portions of what he taught, when you look for evidence, are part of the lesson he constructed.”

        Oh yes. I would say so regarding my inquiries into an Atheistic view, which he didn’t say anything about really. That is where I understand my view not included by the “in this life” middle road/path essentially.

        I just am confused as to how to separate out the intentions. That is where I appreciate what you are doing.

    • David S says:

      Or that the Sutava Sutta was talking of sexlessness due to old age arahants hormonal balance shifting in time! 🙂

      • Linda says:

        Hee hee. Yes, and it also occurred to me that any “arahants” that got the urge would probably disrobe (naked monks!) and go back to lay life. And I somehow doubt we would hear about them.

        Wasn’t that one of the foundations for a sangha split? The question: “Once an arahant, always an arahant? Or can one relapse?”

  24. David S says:

    [THIS IS A Transgression! …from this thread on Dukka 🙂
    (Should I start a new thread?)] I’m rambling off topic more…

    Hi Linda.
    Yes, I agree with your inclusion of skepticism entirely. I see that message of knowing for oneself too, and skepticism sits right there until one has understood for oneself. But understood what? And how? Through what experience?

    “There are two most-likely explanations for this disconnection:…”
    Let me add more layers by including the experiential side of the texts.

    In looking at people’s experiences in meditation in reference to Buddhism there are other questions I have. Are differing experiences coming out of differing practices? Does the jhana experience utilize the brain’s ability to shut off aspects of its functioning? While the moment to moment experience amplify aspects of functioning?

    One thing I use as a model for my speculation is that of a biological basis of consciousness, with consciousness being an epiphenomena. I also keep in mind that Buddhism’s meditation is a phenomenological exploration which would be limited by its biological functions, and limited in what it can know by how it knows, yet unlimited in its interpretations and experiences.

    I do not know (having not experienced) what various people seem to have experienced with the various practices in meditation, so all what I am going to say is of course speculation…

    Given my use of a biological model I remind myself that the brain is capable of both creating a synesthetic experience of the world at large and reconfiguring the same on its own. Luckily the world remains relatively stable and we have the ability to recognize the difference.

    In looking at jhanic experiences I see them as the ability one has to control the use of one’s brain so that aspects of its functioning flare up and others switch off, hence the increasing ‘lack of’ contact with the senses. This can be interpreted in many ways if solely looking from within the experience itself. Buddhism has its own interpretations.

    I hear of some meditation teachers talking as if jhana is not ‘IT’ (they seem to ignore that it has a central place within the Buddha’s own practice). I have heard other teachers speak of different experiences that they have had which are more important in their understanding.

    There are many images I have gotten about such experiences. I will not be able to address them all here. Some seem to include a sort of “falling apart” quality whereby their perceptions become scattered in reference to… ?(their meaning or ???). I do not know really. I haven’t had this type of experience. But here again I ask if this could be described in a biological model. It seems so. But this really isn’t central to my point here.

    Now I’ll jump to those grand enlightenment experiences of visioning the universe and past lives etc….(Which it seems the Buddha cautioned against having within earlier levels of jhana as not being important or difficult to manage.) Well if the brain can envision the world through our senses it can envision anything. Yet why would various people have supposedly similar experiences? Maybe the experiences share common biological traits which stimulate the brain in ways that it interprets the sensations similarly with vivid imaginative models. It may be that the mind is still trying to express itself with the information it has but of impressions beyond its capabilities to know. Like if it comes into contact with its own memories but in a way that it senses their variety but not their content specifically would it create an impression of past lives and spit out imagery to express this? Maybe. I’ll stop here with this line of speculation and not reference other aspects of these experiences.

    Finally, I wonder if this type of experience, with a view of expansiveness and vividness of content, contraposes those of ‘higher’ jhana with their ‘lack of’ quality simply because both utilize the brain with differing outcomes and thus differing interpretations. This would explain the opposing contradictions within Buddhism. Some people have utilized their brains towards expansive states while others towards ‘lack of’ states. One side ends up believing in reincarnation and the other in the temporal quality of existence.

    So could this utilization of meditation simply go in many directions inherently and encompass many interpretations? I’d say so, and this is where I see another explanation for the variety of belief within Buddhism and ultimately within humanity.

    For me, having my first experience in jhana involve an undeniable reverential ‘spiritual’ AFFECT (even given that I am an Atheist this is still how it felt, interesting in itself) gives me a possible view into where people come from in giving Buddhism and religion in general that same reverence. But in my second experience it lacked all emotional tone (so no reverential feeling and no emotional qualities as we think of them), and this is in the descriptions of jhana ‘higher up’, meaning the ‘lack of’ is being seen as more essential. This contrast leads me to see all of the content of one’s experience being a product of the mind, even the reverential quality then appears in this light to have been a ‘mind object’. So I come away with an understanding of life being a temporal experience with death as an end.

    To weave what I’ve said back towards what you’ve said Linda I guess what I am laying out is that in addition to analyzing texts we can look towards the experiences which underlay the texts. In doing so I am not entirely sure where to place the words of the Buddha in relation to what he really meant. It looks a bit like they can be interpreted many ways from the varied experiences one can have. Your way supports my view and I see it as very interesting.

    So many more possibilities than I can see with what I have experienced and understand at this time. I guess, for me it remains to be seen as I follow along as best as I can in practicing meditation to see for myself what I think.

    And where do the views all meet? In the center, and this where this speculation comes full circle, such that because there are divergent views then the place where we overlap one another is when working within the “in this life” aspect. (a personal …mmm… but 🙂 )

    So much for all this speculation. I am just the same! Just moving a few views in and out of the imagination. And my thinking just the result of being a son of an engineer and an artist! …? shifting…

    • jos says:


      You said:

      “This contrast leads me to see all of the content of one’s experience being a product of the mind, even the reverential quality then appears in this light to have been a ‘mind object’.”

      and this is absolutely right. To give a little more insight: if we look closely to experience we can distinguish the primary imput from the five senses. This is part of ‘reality’. If we see something we see form, if we touch something we experience either hard of soft. At the moment we experience sense impressions inside the mind awareness of this experience comes up. Not before this, not after this. With this awareness several mental features move along, amongst which a type of distinction (it’s hard, it’s soft) and a feeling. This is our direct experience of the world. Then there is the mind itself. The mind has many different features arising with the knowing. A touch might be pleasant at start and get annoying after a while. This is not a single knowing, it’s a fast movement between knowing, evaluating and thinking.
      To give an example of the process, assume a dog barking outside while trying to meditate. With every bark the mind gets drawn from the quiet to knowing the bark, moving between ‘stillness’ and ‘knowing barking’ time after time. At first this might be bearable, yet over time thinking sets in creating a mental image of the dog and the want to shut it up. We might even get in a rage and throw something at it or even kill it. This is all part of our mental reality, based on sense impressions together with mind objects. This does not mean the mental dog is real, the mental image of the dog is real. Buddhist practice learns to distinguish between the unreal mental dog and the real mental image of the dog.

      Now there are two specific ‘states of mind’ that can be distinguished besides this mental reality made of thinking and sense impressions. The first can be experienced the best in Jhanic stages when the mind calms down. It’s the mind which has a mind object as focus and is completely aware of this. This means there is no outside disturbance and no inward disturbance (creation). The mind is only aware of a ‘pure’ object without any additional mental imagination around it. The reason Jhana is important is because in this stage we are sure we deal with mind and mental objects only, sense impressions while also mental objects drag a lot of extra ‘features’ with them, difusing the mind.
      To come back to the mental dog, we know it’s a mental image and not reality.
      The second mindstate is what is called nibbana. It’s a mind state which does not arise based on an mental object yet it is present.
      It’s a direct experience, not a mental creation. Yet when coming out of meditation/path experience it can be used as a mental object to trigger a mental state. In this mental state there is no reference to either the mental dog or the mental image of the dog. It is empty of dog (and every other mental object/subject).

      Now I’m getting to the last line in your paragraph:
      “So I come away with an understanding of life being a temporal experience with death as an end.”
      The mental dog (or known image) was born into my mind based on direct sense experience (barking). The moment the actual dog stops barking this mental image will stop too unless the mind keeps feeding on it. The question is: do you see that the dog only exists in your mind and know that the direct experience is sound? If not, the dog can pop up any time again the moment there is a bark, whether you like it or not. I don’t believe in an afterlife yet I am not sure that when a mental image of ‘I’ still exists at physical death it doesn’t pop up somewhere unexpected because conditions are right.

    • Linda says:

      Hmmm, interesting speculation. I’m not sure whether this will help at all, but on the off chance it might, I’ll add to the meditative digression and tell you what I see going on in the light of Dependent Arising’s (DA’s) underlying structure being the Vedic perception of how we come into being, modify “self” through rituals, with the expectation that this will lead to a happy next life or afterlife.

      The first thing that I think is important to understand is that what’s described is a causal chain, and such chains narrow the field they draw on with each step. (See the NOTE under my post on sankhara for a detailed example: http://secularbuddhism.org/2012/05/23/a-secular-understanding-of-dependent-origination-2-sankhara/ )

      This is the main reason I will say that “the end of consciousness” isn’t describing the end of *all* consciousness, ditto for contact, ditto for feeling. The Buddha’s description of the structure (using rebirth as the model) makes it easy to think this is what he’s describing, but rebirth and “the cycle of samsara” is the vehicle for the lesson, it isn’t the lesson itself.

      For every step in DA, there is a replacement/cure in the eightfold path or the four noble truths. For ignorance, there is Right View. For sankhara there is Right Intention. For the set of experiences in the middle that I think of as “our rituals” there is the list often called “virtue” — replace the daily habits of the way we think (that leads to dukkha) with good behaviors. For the portion of consciousness that gives us trouble — the subset of consciousness that I say is the focus of DA — there is mindfulness, and for the way we define just damned everything (including ourselves) which is what name-and-form is describing, there is concentration — which empties the mind of all that.

      Basically, with DA, the Buddha has described what the problems are, and with the eightfold path and the four truths, he has described what we need to do to fix the problems: replace one set of behaviors with another.

      I don’t see what’s being described in DA as a need to end all consciousness, but just consciousness that has ignorance as its source, and sankhara’s “drive to exist” as its motive power. Consciousness that is not based in ignorance, by definition, isn’t a problem — that’s why we have right view, to replace that ignorance with knowledge.

      So I would say that whatever goes on in concentrative meditation, it is designed to teach skills that are necessary to slow and hopefully stop the processes that are described in DA as the source of our problems. (I don’t really believe that any one tool in the 8-fold toolbox is a one-for-one replacement for any one step in DA — they all work together as an integregated process — but it is easy enough to see how each one works on a particular part of DA.)

      • David S says:

        Thanks for continuing the conversation Linda (and jos).

        “…I will say that “the end of consciousness” isn’t describing the end of *all* consciousness…”
        “…rebirth and “the cycle of samsara” is the vehicle for the lesson, it isn’t the lesson itself.”

        Sure that makes sense and I agree. And on a basic level even the experience of consciousness-less would still be had while one was alive. Yes it isn’t ‘the end’ that is important here, it is the knowing/understanding of how consciousness is an aggregate experience (and as such impermanent, dukka, non-self).

        “For every step in DA, there is a replacement/cure in the eightfold path or the four noble truths”

        Yes there is the sickness and the cure sort of approach as the aim of the material as a whole. I heard that this was a common ‘spiritual’ metaphor at the time. All you point out is there and can be understood as you say.

        “I don’t see what’s being described in DA as a need to end all consciousness, but just consciousness that has ignorance as its source, and sankhara’s “drive to exist” as its motive power.”

        Yes I agree that there isn’t a need at all to end all consciousness. I just want to be clear that I am not talking of ‘needs’ when I talk of aspects of jhana. My understanding how consciousness itself is a form of dukkha doesn’t mean we can eliminate it directly, nor that this is a goal. We seem to agree here. Maybe I can see the point you are making, because the goal has been said to have been met in the life of the Buddha. Yes, this may be just where what I currently understand comes up short by not understanding how he could say he ended dukkha in this life. This is not something I understand. There are hints though.

        Let us also look at what the Buddha was doing, well, he was going up and down the experience of the jhanas during the most important part of the story. So this means he was going into states of less consciousness and back down into blissful ones. Why did he practice going into such extreme states if his goal was all about an “in this life” approach? It wouldn’t make sense to me that it would be part of the story.

        From what I have heard from Theravadan meditation teachers they talk of meditation as building a skill to experience/be aware of smaller and smaller aspects of one’s experience. This is about the microscopic more than the “in this life” scale of events. What exactly are they trying to develop in this manner that couldn’t have been achieved in reflection alone?

        In one sense it seems to me that the Buddha had learned by going into jhanas to gain skills of mind, which are needed to enter the various jhanas at will, and to gain experiential understanding from within them, and to then utilize both the mind skills and the understanding towards shaping his mind state, as well as the actions of his mind (jos talks of this). Partially such change could also come from both the impact of such mental abilities and the impact of the experiences themselves upon the mind. In effect creating a new assumption of the mind from which to begin. An essential ingredient would then be the experience itself. It appears to me that this was not an average mind state he was developing. I also say this because he was said to be perplexed after ‘enlightenment’ as to how to ever teach anyone else such a quality of mind. If it was just an average “in this life” state then teaching that wouldn’t pose such difficulty it seems to me.

        So Linda this leads me to ask you what do you make of the levels of jhana’s descriptions and their lessoning aspect of perception? Why would such states be practiced and talked of so integrally within the framework? What place in the framework would you say they hold? How do they relate to the framework? And what would their development create?

        An aside: I will read your post on sankharas later today.
        […and Yet Another Story… if you ever go on a Goenka retreat (theravadan, but uniquely specific to him and his teacher) you will hear all about sankharas! In his story/technique these come up as little disturbances in the mind/body, which can erupt in bodily convulsions, and this is a matter of fact according to his technique and understanding. What do you make of that? I don’t know. Technique and belief creating differing results.]

        • jos says:

          If you want more insight in DA then the Upanisa Sutta is a very good one to read. It has the normal ‘ignorance -> stress’ inside yet from that proceeds to ‘faith -> knowledge of release’.

          From this sutta we can learn that the opposite of ‘ignorance’ is ‘knowledge and vision of things as they really are’. This means viewing every sense impression and thought as impermanent and because of that stressful and not-self. The feeling, perception, thinking and consciousness that arise at the same time fall under the same conditions. This last one is the form of consciousness the suttas refer to when talking about the end of consciousness.

          I’m going to give a limited example on this.

          What we have is a mental ‘formation’ based on ignorance, for example the dog in my previous example. The mind takes something real (the sound) and something from memory (the dog) and puts them together. We then become aware/conscious of the (mental) dog instead of the sound. Now our mind and ears start to tune to the dog which is constantly barking (so we forget that there is bark, silence, bark, silence…) and we become mentally irritated. We don’t want this feeling and because of that we seek a (mental) way to stop the annoyance. This is where the irritation becomes an ‘I am irritated’ and we experience fullblown stress.

          Now we go the other way around, the second part of the sutta. We are irritated and remember the teachings of the Buddha. Focus the mind on the breath (or other object). When we are able to do this and we notice this we get a pleasant feeling (see, I can concentrate even with the barking dog!). This leads to calming the mind which gives an even more pleasant feeling. Because of this we are able to focus and understand that there is only barking (on, off, on, off) and no real dog inside our head. The animal is somewhere outside, not our business. There is no need to remove it, why bother? When we do this we understand we are free from the barking dog even though it’s still making it’s noice. We can continue doing whatever we were doing without the irritation.

          This example is based on something ‘outside’, yet the same applies to our mental world. When we experience a memory and don’t notice it’s a memory it becomes reality and drags everything along with it. The key to the ‘end of birth’ in this case is not pointed to rebirth, it is the birth of ‘I’ in this very life. This means we start to work with what is truely present (sense impressions, certain states of mind) and not with mental images. If there is pain for example we should not deny it, yet also not make it into either ‘I have pain’ or ‘the body has pain’. The notion of pain is sufficient and we can act on that, no need to add something extra to it.

          • Linda says:

            Nice example, jos. I think that, above, you described what I described, below.

          • David S says:


            Thanks for the sutta reference.
            Yes what you say I understand. What I don’t understand though regarding such mind processes is to what degree can one retain such a distance within one’s experience? It becomes very uncertain when people talk of ‘mindfulness’ as to the degree and the content of what they are purporting to be mindful. I am hesitant in regarding what they think they are doing. Especially given how such words are so open and people so varied!

            The mind is full at all times with content. I do not think one can have distance from everything because even the distance is an experience in the mind. Mindfulness is an endless regress.

            So it seems to me such ‘mindfulness’ can only be utilized if one lessons the scope and does not pretend to be aware of the mind as a whole.

          • jos says:

            David, since the number of ‘subs’ seems to be reached I have to reply this way. Hope it ends out all-right.

            I will try to explain the experience by what is going on.
            Assume I see a beautiful looking lady (my favorite one). This is one huge amount of assumptions and mental fabrications, yet it’s a single ‘WOW’ in many people.
            In mental reality it is a lot of different sense impressions (mainly visual) of different parts of the body. With all those sense impressions we drag at least two additional mental ones with them: ‘lady’ and a pleasant feeling. Because of this pleasant feeling we call her beautiful. Even corpses or plastic dolls can be beautiful as long as we have pleasant feeling arising.

            When viewed from this perspective you might understand that it’s not a matter of keeping distance from the experience, it’s making sure the mind does not start to live inside the experience based on false assumptions. This requires not even that much effort. Just keep an eye on the movement of the mind all the time. If it moves too far pull it back.

            And this brings me to another point. The mind is not full with content when you stop feeding it. Don’t allow it to move outside whereever you want. It will struggle, it wants to eat like it did every day before. This is a huge part of the practice. And if it starts to feed, let it know it’s feeding on thin air (the three marks of existence). There won’t be much left in the mind when you do this for a while. You want to think about the beatiful lady? Sure, let’s fast forward time about 80 years. Still beautiful? That won’t work? Let’s examine her more closely then… She has nice eyes almost like diamonds, perhaps I should get one and put it in a small container for me to keep? It’s soooooo beatiful!
            I have this nice pleasant feeling from looking at her. Let’s focus on this feeling for a couple of minutes with full attention. Why did the feeling change, why is it now so different? Still want to have that feeling?

            If you can practice like this and are committed I can assure you that the ‘full mind’ will become more and more empty. No, it’s not meditation alone that will get the job done.
            And one day you might even want to put a ‘vacancies, owner has left’ sign on it. Why? Because what’s the use of a mind that’s empty of everything except ‘self’.

            The mind is only full because it keeps dragging things inside. I want this, I want that, I like this, I love that. Want, want, want, keep, keep, keep.

          • David S says:

            Thanks again jos. I’m always interested in hearing what you have to say.

            I said the mind is always full because it is full of experience. Your commentary goes in the direction of one’s relation to the experience one has. I get what you are saying about not adding to it.

            Through our interactions on this site I come to see us in differing levels of integration. Your increased exposure to and skill in deeper meditative states probably remains in your daily life, as well as you bring your practice full on into your life, whereas my overall practice isn’t as strong in that direction (even though I have been going on and on about a couple of absorptions just to flesh out what the implications of them are for me).

            Just wanted to clarify and also respond in kind.

      • Linda says:

        You said: “Yes I agree that there isn’t a need at all to end all consciousness. I just want to be clear that I am not talking of ‘needs’ when I talk of aspects of jhana.”

        When I speak of “needs” I’m not speaking of personal needs (quite the opposite): I’m talking about what’s needed to end dukkha.

        “My understanding how consciousness itself is a form of dukkha doesn’t mean we can eliminate it directly, nor that this is a goal.”

        I don’t see that one can be wise without having any mental processing power. Would you agree that some kind of consciousness is needed to manifest wisdom?

        “Maybe I can see the point you are making, because the goal has been said to have been met in the life of the Buddha. Yes, this may be just where what I currently understand comes up short by not understanding how he could say he ended dukkha in this life. This is not something I understand. There are hints though.”

        This goes to my fundamental argument: If dukkha is defined as “inherent in life” — it is birth, it is aging, it is sickness, it is death — then it is inescapable in this life, and the Buddha lied when he said he taught the end of dukkha, and that we could experience it in this life. I maintain that when he used the pop phrases of his day about dukkha being birth, aging, sickness and death, he meant us to recognize the failing in seeing that the way everyone else saw it. He actually meant something quite different.

        My understanding of dukkha is that it is, by definition, something that can be ended in our lives, by the practices he describes, which are all about how we think about things. Dukkha is made up of how we think about things. We can change how we think about things. I experience very little dukkha in my life: it arises, I notice it, I notice where it came from, I let go of it — that’s the practice. I often catch it starting to arise, before it ever reaches what I’d call actual dukkha. It arises less and less. Will there ever be a point in which it never even begins to arise? I don’t know but the process does seem to be headed in that direction. On the other hand, when the Buddha says he teaches the end of dukkha — he being the unliteral fellow that he is — do we necessarily have to assume he meant “the end” in the sense of “never even starts up”? or might he have meant that he teaches us how to end dukkha every time it begins to raise its ugly head?

        “Let us also look at what the Buddha was doing, well, he was going up and down the experience of the jhanas during the most important part of the story. So this means he was going into states of less consciousness and back down into blissful ones. Why did he practice going into such extreme states if his goal was all about an “in this life” approach? It wouldn’t make sense to me that it would be part of the story.”

        My perception of this is because he found it a pleasant and wholesome past-time. Does he need any more reason than that he finds it to be a refuge from the cares of everyday life?

        “From what I have heard from Theravadan meditation teachers they talk of meditation as building a skill to experience/be aware of smaller and smaller aspects of one’s experience. This is about the microscopic more than the “in this life” scale of events. What exactly are they trying to develop in this manner that couldn’t have been achieved in reflection alone?”

        I see this as “different strokes for different folks”. I recognize that my strength lies in ‘reflection alone’. If I had my way, I’d be like Sariputta, spending most of my time studying and teaching. Meditation is hard for me and it is clear to me I would be very unlikely to have achieved the insights I have from meditation alone. But just as there are plenty of people like me, I am willing to bet you there are plenty of people who could study all the time and not gain the necessary insights to alleviate dukkha: for them, meditation might be the best path to insight. I don’t think people are so uniform that all paths are equal to all people.

        “I also say this because he was said to be perplexed after ‘enlightenment’ as to how to ever teach anyone else such a quality of mind.”

        Really? I have the impression he was perplexed as to how to teach people what he was trying to point out in dependent arising. Looking it up, I find in MN 26 (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation):

        19. “I considered: ‘This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, takes delight in attachment, rejoices in attachment. It is hard for such a generation to see this truth, namely, specific conditionality, dependent origination. And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna. [168] If I were to teach the Dhamma, others would not understand me, and that would be wearying and troublesome for me.’

        Aside from that, he had already proved himself to be a skilled enough teacher at the jhanas that both his teachers had invited him to share the guidance of their disciples with them. On the other hand, those were just the jhanas. You may well be right if what you’re suggesting is that he would perceive that it would be difficult to teach people how to get to that one step beyond.

        “So Linda this leads me to ask you what do you make of the levels of jhana’s descriptions and their lessoning aspect of perception? Why would such states be practiced and talked of so integrally within the framework? What place in the framework would you say they hold? How do they relate to the framework? And what would their development create?”

        This I think I’ve answered above. I would add to it in this way, though, drawing from my own experience. I recognize that I am not good at meditation, and that for me to gain insight, study and contemplation of how things play out in my life was key. But I also recognize that *because* I am not good at meditation, that’s what I need to work hardest on to continue to advance. And the gains I’ve made can be attributed just as well to what meditation I have done — it really does power the insights, power the change for me — I don’t think I would have moved ahead without both examination of the dhamma, and sitting.

        As for Goenka: my sister recently attended a retreat of theirs and landed at my house afterwards, so we talked a lot about it. It does seem to me that he has taken his experiences and tends to put them out there as The One And Only Way or The Correct Way. When I suspect there are lots of variants on the way.

        • Linda says:

          To be clearer, what I think the Buddha realized he’d have trouble teaching is “the depth of it” — and whether that is perceived as the mind-state achieved with the final escape from jhana into something like emptiness, or it is perceived as dependent arising — or is perceived as the ability to see one’s past lives and the arising and passing away of beings based on their actions (which is just another way of saying “dependent arising”) hardly matters. They are all just different ways of describing the same thing.

          • David S says:

            Hi Linda.

            I just reread your last comment above and understood what you were saying here. I see your point and it is a fine assessment, makes perfect sense to me.

            Paralleling that sentiment on the practice side, I too have wondered why all this talk of impermanence, dukkha, and non-self was focused upon in meditation when it was so apparent in life. Why all the intentional additional effort in meditation?

            Well maybe “the depth of it” also refers to “the extent of it”. Maybe many mind states are difficult to cultivate. And maybe the skills needed to intentionally achieve them required numerous experiences with them. And as such, was a quality of mind beyond the norm, and such a quality of mind was difficult to achieve and was the pinnacle of what he was talking of. So he hesitated because of this understanding. This would be my assumption given all the talk of meditation insights which change one’s view. What type of mind state has such a view?

            But having such a question it appears that the way to teach about the subject required a framework which could be said to be so essential that it could be understood and approached by all. This last part is the premise right?

            (So much for ending my commentary! Although I kept it short.)

            Late addition: As you said, “different strokes for different folks”.

        • David S says:

          Linda it is clear we have differing approaches to the material and yet we agree on what it is saying about dukkha “in this life”. I also will add that I do not have the extensive background in reading the texts as you have but I’ll try and drop another couple references here towards my understanding. Even though, I would guess we are not going to read them in the same light anyway given our differing approaches and experiences.

          You wrote…
          “My understanding of dukkha is that it is, by definition, something that can be ended in our lives, by the practices he describes, which are all about how we think about things.”

          I agree in the direction of your statement, but stop short on it just being about how we think. (In reading what I am about to say please don’t misunderstand me because what you are saying I think is true too). What is interesting to me is how in entering jhana the concentration needs to be such that the thinking subsides. I don’t suggest we stop thinking alone either! No not that. I think of it more as a skill in operating the mind.

          Here’s an attempt to refer to text. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/jootla/wheel414.html
          Regarding nine epithets of the Awakened One. There is the sattha devamanussanam: “teacher of gods and humans.”
          Here’s line from “Crossing The Flood”,
          “When I came to a standstill, friend, then I sank; but when I struggled, then I got swept away. It is in this way, friend, that by not standing still and by not struggling I crossed the flood.”

          This to me refers to a skill he had in operating his mind. Such a skillful balance of one’s mind is also necessary when entering jhanas. This skill isn’t a word based thought process, in fact such thinking will block access to jhana. So it is interesting to consider that he utilized such a skill in “crossing the flood” to go to “beyond samsara’s deluge”. In this way I see that what is being talked of goes beyond verbal mental knowledge.

          And as far as death goes…
          In the same piece above under the “Parinibbana” (the death of the Buddha) it says,
          “This event was not just the demise of a greatly revered being but it also represented the personal consummation of his teachings. It was the utter, permanent cessation of the aggregates of the one who discovered and taught the way to the end of suffering.”
          “After passing through the successive jhanas, the Buddha finally expired, attaining Parinibbana, the immutable cessation of rebirth.”

          Why would there even be such a designation in death with Parinibbana being another level of nibbana? It clearly doesn’t relate to the “in this life” teaching but death itself. It points to an absolute statement on nibbana in my opinion. Look at the phrase “the utter, permanent cessation of the aggregates” points out that the aggregates were previously present. So in death there is completion/extinction of this quality of life.

          I’ll stop here in bouncing the ball of interpretation back and forth. I have enjoyed this exchange whereby your understanding has helped shape mine and refine it. Quite a challenge for me given my accumulated unspoken assemblage! Hence all the long digressions and scattered bits confusing even me. It has been a release and learning adventure.

          Yet, in one way it is not helpful for me to go too far in my speculations. My experiential material I talk of is old and my real interest begins with where I am today. Not sure how much effort I have in me to proceed within Buddhism at this time either. I guess I will lesson my expositions for a while and see where I go. I tend to return to my daily sitting practice and am interested in practicing some variation of where this is now into my body/mind during the day as well.

          We do not need to agree on everything, do we, to agree on the usefulness of the “in this life” essentials. 🙂


          This site is really interesting with all the variety. It gives me a sense of how others are thinking and that helps shape mine. I may find it hard to not comment as often!

  25. Robert Schenck says:

    My experience over forty years of practice has been similar to Linda’s, though my saying so provoked my teacher to accuse me of lying. He himself was an unhappy man, divorced, alienated from his family, and often peeved, annoyed, angry, arrogant, a know-it-all, lacking exactly what he most prided himself on, self-knowledge. But it is also true that when I hear others, like Linda, speak as I once did, I now remember the warning of the Greek choruses in Sophocles and Aeschylus, “Let no man [or woman] count himself [or herself] happy until he [or she] is dead.” The Greeks understood that there are events so horrible, so terrible, so awful, that they ruin the life of even a man or woman who has lived ninety happy years. This is true. No need to specify, though both the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh offer meditations on such horrors as a bodhisattva practice. The truth of the Greeks is why both Jesus and Buddha demanded renunciation of their disciples. Few, very few, truly submit. I sadly smile at masters with wives or husbands and children. Good luck with that. I remember also the wonderful anecdote about the disciple who announced to his teacher, “I have transcended anger.” The teacher reached over and tweaked his disciple’s nose. Not that anyone will read it, but the contrast between agony and equanimity has never been expressed more wonderfully than in Andre Gide’s short story “Theseus,” unfortunately hard to find online. Like Linda, I just keep practicing, and it seems I suffer less. The horror, though, goes on. I read about it in the papers and watch it on TV.


    • jos says:

      You say: “I sadly smile at masters with wives or husbands and children”.
      I have thought/wondered of this many years before you posted this line. Wife and children are a true burden indeed, even if it’s just because they might die before you (and far worse things can happen indeed, I only have to look at the life of my wife to acknowledge this).
      Yet I can say the exact same thing of my body, there is not a single day without some ache arising and many days there is some form of pain present for most of the day. Does this mean I should give up this body right away?

      Don’t get me wrong, I think renunciation is something that lessens the burdens a lot. The way I always express this to my wife is: I love you for who you are. Not the person you were yesterday, not the person you can be tomorrow. You, this moment. Even when this moment is easily viewed by others as hell on earth. Just understand: whatever happens is not sure and it cannot last forever. I’ve given up my wife years ago and that’s why she is my wife today. If you can understand this you know that a sad smile is not always needed.

      • Robert Schenck says:

        Thanks, Jos, yes, it was the unhappiness, pain, and death of loved ones that I was thinking of when I wrote what I did about marriage and children. Kyoki Roberts tells a story of a time she met the widow of Zen icon Shunryu Suzuki. “It must have been amazing to be married to such a wonderful teacher,” Roberts told the woman. “Good teacher, bad husband,” the woman replied.


  26. Robert Schenck says:

    After years of reading about and practicing Buddhism, I think the best English translation of dukkha is unhappiness.


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