The Importance of How We Translate: The End of Suffering

| December 11, 2015 | 22 Comments

 

sm end of suffering

 

How readers understand Buddhism depends a great deal on how it is presented to us. This should be obvious. Though Buddhism teaches us to see for ourselves whether what we learn applies to our lives, how we practice, and what we look for when we practice is going to be affected by how we are told to practice, and what we are told to look for. Ironically, this is largely the point of what the Buddha taught: that our perceptions affect what we believe about what we have seen first-hand. This makes for a practical conundrum, a conceptual Catch-22.

One of the biggest factors in how we understand Buddhism is the language used to describe it. This is why I decided, years ago, to follow the commonly-heard advice to apply myself to learning to translate the texts that are the oldest sources used to figure out what the Buddha was actually saying. And, as it turns out, the words used to translate the Pali language in those ancient texts are slanted toward a particular understanding of what the texts are thought to mean, which is why, when we read English translations, it seems so clear that the Buddha was championing a certain view of the cosmic order that includes a justice system run, not by God or any deities, but one that just ticks along by itself: karma and rebirth.

The general outline of this system, as seen from the point of view of the Four Noble Truths, is that the life we lead is full of suffering (dukkha) — that’s Truth Number One. Further, suffering has something that causes it to arise (samudaya) — Truth Number Two. But suffering can cease (nirodha) — Truth Number Three. It can cease because there are things we can do to bring about that cessation, things that are described as a path (magga) — Truth Number Four.

There is, of course, much more to it than the above, but those are the introductory basics. These four truths actually come in two sets, and each set begins at the end of a process because that is how not just the practice of Buddhism works, but how our lives work. In order to understand what’s going on, we first see results, and then we look back in time to try to figure out what brought the situation about.

The pairs, then, are, first, the experience of dukkha, and then the recognition that something made the pain we feel happen. This is often — accurately — described as being very like why we visit a doctor: first there’s the ouch! and then the doctor looks for what caused it. The second pair represents a cure for dukkha (its cessation), followed by a description of the course of practice — the treatment — that brings about relief, and health. In both cases, we discuss the results first, and what brought on the results second.

All of this is quite logical, and karma and rebirth don’t really need to come into it at all at such a simple level. However, each of these four truths require understanding much more in order to be effective. For example, just being told that there is a cause that brings about dukkha leaves us no information about what that cause is. And being told there is a path of practice doesn’t give us any detail, either. And it is once we get into what the cause is, and what the details of the practice are that we need to begin to care about the meaning of the words being used.

What is dukkha, after all? And what does it mean for it to cease? It is not just the second and fourth truths that need more explanation, but the first and third as well.

In the most literal, traditional understanding dukkha is all forms of suffering, both mental and physical. In this view, dukkha happens because of things done in the past, and every immoral or moral act we commit will have a karmic result. All experiences of pain and pleasure are the result of karma, and if we do something in the last moments of our lives that requires such a result, it has to be punished or rewarded, so there will be a next life. In this traditional view, the point of becoming a practicing Buddhist is to escape from the endless rounds of samsara — the woeful cycles of life. First, we learn to stop producing bad karma so that we use up all the accumulated bad results without making more, meanwhile learning how to generate good karma through meritorious acts (like generosity to monastics). This is the Buddhist practice that will lead to good future rebirths, which lead us toward the possibility that we can get to the point where we do not produce karma that is either bad or good, but only the karma-that-ends-karma. In the last lifetime, the one in which liberation is reached, all old karma is resolved so that when we die, we will have escaped from all forms of suffering.

This view explains why the fully awakened Buddha still had backaches and illnesses and experienced death, though he had reached a state known as “the deathless” and though he says he has experienced “the end of suffering” (dukkha-nirodha). There was still a bit of unresolved karma from his path that would work itself out in his post-awakening life, so there was still some ouch! left.

It also explains why we find it so hard, in our secular practice, to imagine how there could be an end of suffering. It’s not only that we are certain that, however enlightened we might be, we will still experience the dukkha-of-physical pain – accidents and illnesses – but we find it hard to conceive of how life would be without any emotional pain either. Is that even possible? Would it be a good way to live one’s life, so detached from everything that we never feel the loss of a loved-one? This is because (in the traditional way of looking at it) we are still caught up in samsara.

The traditional view has its own, quite consistent, internal logic that seems to make perfect sense. At least it does until those of us who aren’t believers in rebirth and the cosmic justice system of karma try applying that view to our own lives.

But the Buddha is justifiably famous for redefining terms in common use in his day, giving them a new slant that makes them fit his own unique system. He did this with karma — which means “action” and was previously used primarily to mean the sort of action performed during rituals that would bring about an effect on one’s future. Then the Buddha redefined it as “intention” and thereby fit it neatly into a moral system unheard of before. In his way of seeing karma, it was not about how good one’s knowledge of the old texts was and how well one performed the rituals, but it was about how we treated each other. It was about not killing, not taking what has not been freely given, about the qualities of our speech, and our livelihoods. His karma was all about actions that would bring future results, yes, but the results came largely through social interactions. This made his karma similar to the original meaning — it was about actions that would bring results — but it totally redefined the basis for understanding not only what actions were of concern, but why they were important: because the intention behind the action was critical. Karma “action” was no longer tied purely to actions!

What if he also redefined dukkha, not as all forms of suffering, but limited it to the things we feel, that we would rather not feel, that are the results of our own behavior, things that are visible to us right here and now? And what if the cessation he speaks about is not complete cessation at all? What if — as turns out to be the case — the word nirodha doesn’t actually mean “cessation”?

A look at the Pali, and recent discussions on the internet, even by trained monastics1, shows that it may not mean “cessation” in the way we take it. The ni– means “without” or “the end of an action” and the rodha means “obstruction” or “a dam, a bank”. From our modern point of view, this might suggest that we are going to stop obstructing dukkha and let it run amok, without confining it — it could wash right over us, and that would be a bad thing. This doesn’t make sense in terms of our aims for or experience of practice, so what else might it mean?

Fortunately, our modern way of looking at the situation is quite different from the way folks saw things in the Buddha’s day. In order to understand what nirodha actually means, we need to understand their point of view.

We can see this by looking at the verb related to nirodha: rundhati can mean “prevents; obstructs; besieges; imprisons”. What would it mean for dukkha to be “without obstruction, without imprisonment”? This gives dukkha a relationship to an individual similar to the Vedic understanding of the relationship of fuel to fire: they cling to each other — they are both trapped, bound together2. Dukkha that has experienced nirodha is dukkha that is no longer bound to us. This doesn’t mean that dukkha no longer exists, no, because in the Vedic worldview it still does — it is just freed. I would suggest that what this means is that dukkha is no longer bound to “the self” (or, as the Buddha put it, to “a being”). The dukkha may still be there, and it could get stuck to us if we let it, but we don’t — we set it free. It is unbound, and so are we.

You may well ask what difference this makes. For me, it makes a significant difference to my practice. I am not reaching for a goal in which I expect that I will never see any kind of suffering again — no physical pain, no sorrow over a loss, and no regrets over stupid things I’ve done in the past. I no longer hear the Buddha setting such an unrealistic goal, the one we secular Buddhists are so fond of debating as impossible anyway. As I see it, an end to all suffering is not what the carefully-chosen word the Buddha used represents.

As I understand the Buddha’s message, my job is only to practice in a way that lets me notice dukkha when it arises, and look for its causes. If those causes are things beyond my control — if it is a physical pain that I cannot find a viable cure for — I will not cling to that pain in ways that make it something bigger than it is. If it is an emotional pain over the loss of “the dear” (the Buddha’s term) I will decide whether I find the pleasures of the dear worth the pain of those loses or not before I attach myself that way again. That choice is one each of us gets to make for ourselves. But either way, I’ll deal with the pain I am feeling in a way that doesn’t make it last longer than it needs to, in ways that don’t cause harm to others (for example, blaming them for my pain).

When dukkha comes my way, I will set it free by not attaching myself to it, and that way, over and over again, I can become free.

 

1“The Island: An Anthology of the Buddha’s Teachings on Nibbana” Ajahns Pasanno and Amaro (2009) p. 135. http://www.dhammatalks.net/Books9/Ajahn_Passano_Amaro_The_Island.pdf

2“…fire, when burning, is in a state of agitation, dependence, attachment, & entrapment — both clinging & being stuck to its sustenance.” “The Mind like Fire Unbound” Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2010) see p. 36-38 http://www.dhammatalks.org/Archive/Writings/TheMindLikeFireUnbound2010Edition.pdf

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Linda

About the Author ()

After 20-odd years of trying to figure out what Buddhism was about, Linda Blanchard founded the Skeptical Buddhists’ Sangha in Second Life in 2007 to get her questions answered, and there discovered friends and community, along with a better understanding of the dharma. She is -- very slowly -- learning Pali, the language of the oldest Buddhist literature. As a result, she's written a few papers (on Dependent Arising) for the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Links to these can be found on the About page of her blog.

Comments (22)

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  1. Kevin K. says:

    Thank you very much Ms. Blanchard for this excellent post!

    I just finished an online course at Barre Institute for Buddhist Studies in which Bhikkhu Anālayo shared views on this topic that very much echo yours. He prefers “unsatisfactoriness” as the main translation of dukkha (I suspect he’d have no objection to Thanissaro’s “stress” as well), and points out that since the Buddha said that even pleasant vedanā and even material objects are dukkha suffering cannot be the correct translation.

    Here’s a quote from the course material:

    “Bhikkhu Anālayo voices disagreement with the pervasive translation of dukkha as “suffering” noting that this misunderstanding is what makes it possible for some of us to miss the message of the four noble truths. It is not that all is suffering (as some translations suggest); rather it is about seeing how we contribute to dukkha through craving. It is about seeing that there is the potential for this to be otherwise, and that it is possible to develop the mind such that we do not react with craving. In other words, the suffering caused by attachment and craving can be overcome. For an arahant the unsatisfactory nature of all conditioned phenomena is no longer capable of causing suffering.”

    I so appreciate your writing Ms. Blanchard. Your book on dependent origination is one of the most brilliant and original things I’ve read in many years, and your insistence on really looking at the Buddha’s teaching both in his own cultural context and in ways that work in ours is very inspiring.

    • Linda Linda says:

      You’re very kind to say so, thanks Kevin.

      I’m a great admirer of Anālayo’s, even when I disagree with his conclusions, his scholarship is astounding, and he is always thought-provoking. And I disagree with his reasoning about “pleasant vedanā” being dukkha (and I give the reasons why on my own blog, here: http://justalittledust.com/blog/?p=1155#BBx2) but I don’t disagree with the conclusion he draws from it. Funny how often that’s the case, that I agree with the conclusion but not the basis for it (Mark K and I often reason differently to the same conclusion, too). I suspect it’s because those of us who practice all have to end up at more or less the same place if the Buddha was trying to describe “truths” or “a reality” we can all see for ourselves using meditation.

  2. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Linda, I’d like to make some clever & learned comment but I can’t really think of anything that would improve on what you’ve written.

    In The Sound of Silence, Ajahn Sumedho wrote that “This is the first noble truth – there is suffering. . . . And then the second aspect, this dukkha should be understood. The third aspect, this dukkha, this suffering, has been understood.” Well, I think you have.

    (Least your ego-self get too much encouragement 🙂 , I’ll add that I presume that, like the rest of us, you’re still working on acting on your understanding :), which I think is an unending challenge)

    Regards

    • Linda Linda says:

      Oh, yes, the work of applying the theoretical understanding! Endless as the tears we humans have shed… (badly paraphrasing The Buddha). If dukkha were as simple to define as those who tell us the Buddha meant quite literally that “life is suffering” say, then there would be no need for saying that what it is about dukkha is that we need to understand it, right? It is a big, big job, and left up to each of us because how it manifests, and how it comes into existence in our lives can be described by an overarching theory, but the details are different for each of us.

  3. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Linda —

    I’m so grateful, to whatever one is grateful to, that you do all this work. You always teach us something important.

    Batchelor notes that sometimes Mara is referred to as “Namuchi”, the spirit that holds back the monsoon. He interprets this to mean that the impulse to react to dukkha with craving and aversion is an obstruction to life. This has the happy coincidence of supporting the notion that letting go and allowing life to be as it is is what dharma practice is about.

    • Linda Linda says:

      Yes, dharma without drama.

      And whatever it is, I’m grateful, too, for the opportunity to do the work I do. Seeing how beautifully the pieces fit together is its own reward, and so are the results of how it gets applied in my life.

  4. Kevin K. says:

    A friend and mentor of mine who some of you may be familiar with, Frank Jude Boccio, shared this post of his on working with dukkha from a secular Buddhist perspective and I thought it dovetailed really nicely with LInda’s post:

    http://www.zennaturalism.blogspot.mx/2009/07/meaning-of-duhkha-for-zen-naturalism.html?m=1

  5. JamesT says:

    Thanks Linda. I am with you on a lot of this, but would put it slighty differently.

    I would say that the best way to understand dhukka is not as part 1 of the 4 noble truths, but within the 3 characteristics of phenomena.

    To translate dhukka as suffering is to psychologise it. However dhukka is a characteristic of all phenomena and is more a matter of epistemology, although that is not satisfactory either because the dhamma is if anything a holistic view of the mind.

    I think that dhukka means our perception that all phenomena are in some way fixed, and therefore we attach to them and build a mental life around them, including an emotional life, which is constantly undermined. It is undermined because nothing is fixed in the way that we perceive it. The process of change constantly threatens the world view that we construct and believe is real.

    Therefore whilst dhukka is the root of suffering, it is wrong to think of it “as” suffering. Suffering is a psychic state with which we are all too familiar. I am not sure it really needs this kind of treatment.

    The problem with translating dhukka and hence the first noble truth as suffering, is that the 4 noble truths then become about overcoming suffering. Few in the west are going to believe in that possibility.

    But in my view, it would be a mischaracterisation of a secular dhamma to describe the goal as liberation from suffering, because it is not going to liberate us from much physical and emotional pain. At least I don’t believe so.

    Certainly reading some of the Pali canon gives the impression that physical suffering is overcome by avoiding rebirth – and that is a neat way of tying off some of the loose strands.

    But to follow Camus, for a secular buddhist who sees no evidence for kamma driven rebirth, suicide is an equally effective method of ending suffering and as Camus asked, so why not?

    To me the great insight of the dhamma here is that so much negativity in human life is driven by the building of a mental and emotional life around matters that are evanescent and indeed that rate of change of anything that we attach to varies and in our modern world, is quite possibly in general greatly accelerated by our huge use of energy. Our psychological life is confused and threatened by this and we have a tendency to react aggressively in an attempt to negate the change and its agents, which is of course futile.

    My mother suffers from knee pain. She adopts a stoic sort of approach. I tell her to take ibuprofen.

    In the buddha’s time I am sure that the dhamma did help relieve the anxiety and despair caused by physical pain and mindfulness can help make some physical pain more bearable.

    However to use a much more conventional western terminlogy, I think essentially the dhamma is looking at the problem of what WE might describe as evildoing but its approach is not to accept any such binary categorisation as good an evil.

    I have next to no knowledge of Pali so in much of what you say must defer to you there.But I prefer an approach to the dhamma which involves developing a coherent scheme that works in practice, even if involves some depart from historic interpretations. There is enough left to us in the buddhist tradition to piece together a coherent path that is relevant to people benefiting from a secular/scientific education living in developed economies.

    Thanks again.

    • Linda Linda says:

      Hello James.

      I’m not sure we disagree on the definition of dukkha, but at any rate, in this post I’m not writing about the definition of dukkha, but the definition of *nirodha* as meaning “the end of”.

      In your final sentence above you seem to imply that — as you prefer an approach to practice which is coherent and works, rather than sticking to historic interpretations — that I am not offering an explanation that is coherent and works? But I am. You point out that one historical approach to dukkha leads to the conclusion that, for a Secular Buddhist, suicide is a viable solution to ending dukkha, but what I am pointing out here is that a more accurate historical reading of what’s being said isn’t that what’s being taught is *an end* to dukkha at all, but simply an end to clinging to it. (And I would point out that to let dukkha be while actively choosing to not cling to it, one still has to be alive!)

      The real problem I have with suicide as a solution is one of what I define as “fields”. There is a large field of something — let’s take “thoughts and ideas” as an example — and we know that thoughts and ideas cause problems in our lives. Here’s the solution! Let’s do away with all thoughts and ideas. Well, sure, that works, but it’s overkill. It affects more than just the problem we’re focusing on. What we need is the most effective solution, a narrower solution. We need to recognize *exactly what kinds* of thoughts and ideas cause the problems we’re working on, and target just those.

      Meditation and mindfulness teach us to look at the field with a strong enough focus to come to notice for ourselves which things growing in the field (in our example, of thoughts and ideas) are the weeds that choke every good thing, and differentiate those weeds from anything else worth cultivating.

      I mention this because I believe it is central to the confusion we get from reading the suttas. Just about every link in dependent arising describes “a field” of some sort for us to pay attention to, and — despite traditional readings — it is not that we want to end the whole field, it is that we need to pay attention, we need to *see for ourselves* what it is within that field that causes problems, and *fix that*. Not burn the whole field down. So when the Buddha points to “consciousness” he’s not suggesting that we want to end consciousness, and when he points to feelings, he’s not saying we should stop feeling. It’s only certain aspects of consciousness, certain categories of feeling that are at issue.

      So if (as discussed at the wonderful link given in the comment by Kevin K just above yours) we read the first noble truth as meaning “Life is suffering” then burning down that field — wiping out life — makes sense. But I’m pretty sure that the Buddha didn’t mean (and a large number of his students understood that he didn’t mean) Every Aspect of Life Will Always Cause You To Suffer. But rather, that we have to do the work ourselves, looking at our own lives, to see what does and what doesn’t cause us problems that are within our control to change if we but apply ourselves to making the change. “Life” (birth, aging, sickness, death) is the field in which dukkha takes place, but not all of life is dukkha.

      • Linda Linda says:

        To clarify why I brought up fields in regards to suicide as “the end of suffering” (or even as a way to not cling to suffering) it is not a solution because it burns down the whole field of Life taking the good out with the bad. And there is a narrower solution: to get at the reasons for suffering, to do away with the dukkha we can do away with, and enjoy a higher percentage of happiness in life, instead.

  6. Linda Linda says:

    It occurs to me that I’m going to need a better word than “end” to translate “nirodha”. How about “release” (as in “from prison” or releasing the waters of the dam). So the third noble truth is not about the end of dukkha, but about releasing it?

  7. JamesT says:

    Linda

    Thanks for your reply.

    I think the understanding of what it is that is being ended is important for undertsanding the nature of that ending.

    My own reading of the texts, such as it is, is that dhukka and its ending has a more global meaning than you suggest.

    So the dhammapadda at paragraphs 277-279 recites the 3 characteristics of phenomena and in relation to dhukka refers to all conditioned things as being dhukka, not some of them.

    We have an apparatus of sense and perception which constructs our reality and we have an apparatus of survival that seeks routine and repetition as a method of survival. It is the fact that this construct is illusory, at odds with some underlying universe that always remains mysterious and potentially threatening, that creates our distress and causes us to act badly towards others. It is that whole process that is dhukka – in my view.

    To end dhukka would be quite an achievement in any circumstances. However I suspect there might be a trade off between our engagement with the world so constructed and its impact upon us so that the more we are engaged, the harder it is to escape it – something like gravity, the nearer you are to planet suffering, the more you are ensnared in its orbit.

    My decision on the extent to which I remain engaged with that world has an ethical dimension and I believe the ethical conflict between attaining greater liberation and abandoning the world is difficult to resolve. Is it really ethical to abandon others to their fate? I think that is the issue from which the bodhisattva ideal, (to delay the extinguishment of one’s engagement with the constructed world until everyone else gets there) is derived.

    As a soteriology, this is a pretty difficult idea and I don’t think that to date anyone has resolved it. However I confess to not having read Stephen Batchenlor’s new book yet!

    • Linda Linda says:

      Yes but James, once again, what’s important in the article is central to your argumenet about the issue of how “to end dukkha”. I think it’s important to recognize that trying to build an understanding of what the Buddha means while mistranslating the words is going to lead us in mistaken directions. He’s not talking about ending dukkha; as you say, ending dukkha “would be quite an achievement”. He’s talking about letting it pass by us without hindrance. Or, as Michael so aptly puts it in the comment just below, how we can “escape suffering”.

      Admittedly, the language he uses is tricky for us to understand, which is why it becomes so important to not take the English translations we have as a solid basis for understanding what’s being said. Because those translations are written largely by those who are certain that the Buddha was championing rebirth as literally true and necessary to an accurate understanding of reality, all the ambiguous words that can be translated to support that understanding are. Which misleads us.

      So for example the “all conditioned things are dukkha” you mention. The sankhara translated as “conditioned” doesn’t mean that. The word literally would mean things “driven into existence” in general but what the Buddha is saying is a specific reference to dependent arising’s things “driven into existence by the underlying tendency to have and therefore create and nurture a self”. So Michael, below, is spot on in pointing out that what’s being talked about is mind-made “things” or, effectively, experience.

      • Linda Linda says:

        And, anyway, as it is often taken, that “dukkha is inherent in all created things” (and everything we experience is built up of components and causes, nothing is an inherent unit of existence) a paradox is created because that leaves no escape from dukkha. And escape from dukkha is what he is teaching. So, logically, dukkha being inherent in all things *cannot* be what he means.

  8. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    James, you wrote: “My own reading of the texts, such as it is, is that dhukka and its ending has a more global meaning than you suggest.

    “So the dhammapadda at paragraphs 277-279 recites the 3 characteristics of phenomena and in relation to dhukka refers to all conditioned things as being dhukka, not some of them.

    We have an apparatus of sense and perception which constructs our reality and we have an apparatus of survival that seeks routine and repetition as a method of survival. It is the fact that this construct is illusory, at odds with some underlying universe that always remains mysterious and potentially threatening, that creates our distress and causes us to act badly towards others. It is that whole process that is dhukka – in my view.”

    I don’t think I can agree with this, though the ethical implications you draw are pretty sound,IMO.

    While you don’t come to your view via the doctrine of original sin, it resembles the Christian view that this world is an unalloyed “veil of tears,” inherently flawed or evil. I mention this because the difference between the Christian and Buddhist conceptions of suffering has attracted considerable attention. I tend to agree with those who read the 4NT as locating the origin of suffering in the way we experience the world, relate to it. How can it be other if we can escape suffering by changing our view of things? Thus, in modern terminology, suffering (of the sort Gotama was mainly on about) is essentially a state of mind. The possibility of escaping suffering implies that it is not a inescapable property of the nature of things.

    Now, I’ll get all technical on you. The first verse of the Dhammapada reads

    Manopubbaṅgamā dhammā, manoseṭṭhā manomayā
    Manasā ce paduṭṭhena, bhāsati vā karoti vā
    Tato naṃ dukkhamanveti, cakkaṃ ’va vahato padaṃ.

    More or less literally:

    Mind is the forerunner of all evil states.
    Mind is chief; and they are mind-made.
    If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind,
    Suffering follows as the wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

    A bit less literal, “suffering is mind-made.”

    Verse 278, which you refer to, begins

    Sabbe sankhārā dukkhā
    all “things” [are] suffering

    But I put “things” in quotes because “sankhara” does not just mean physical entities. It has been translated in this context as “world of phenomena,” and “our life experiences.” I’d suggest “things as we experience them,” thus mental constructs of reality. It is the constructs that are dukkha, not, I submit, the “underlying universe.” In general, I’m inclined to regard Gotama as a phenomenologist who avoids ontology and tries to find insight into the human condition in experience, not metaphysics.

    It’s been said that sankhara is “one of the most difficult terms in Buddhist metaphysics, in which the blending of the subjective/ objective view of the world and of happening peculiar to the East, is so complete, that it is almost impossible for Occidental terminology to get at the root of its meaning in a translation.” I think this is a bit of an overstatement, but gives some idea of the trouble here.

    I’m not trying to overwhelm with erudite linguistic skill. I’m not a Pali scholar like Linda. Not at all. However, she has recommended the Pali Reader, a user-friendly translation tool with an annotated dictionary. Much of what I wrote about verse 278 comes from using this app, which can be downloaded free at http://sourceforge.net/projects/digitalpali/

  9. JamesT says:

    Thanks Michael

    I don’t think there is any disagreement on this. It’s just my lack of clarity.

    You say that:

    “all “things” [are] suffering

    But I put “things” in quotes because “sankhara” does not just mean physical entities. It has been translated in this context as “world of phenomena,” and “our life experiences.” I’d suggest “things as we experience them,” thus mental constructs of reality. It is the constructs that are dukkha, not, I submit, the “underlying universe.”

    I agree that dhukka involves all these mental constructs. I believe that in the texts they are referred to as the 5 aggreggates.

    However I am not a complete idealist in the sense that I believe there is no universe other than the one that we construct.

    I think we can infer that there is a universe which has properties that are independent of our minds. This universe is inaccessible to us “directly” by which I mean it is always mediated by the senses. We can map it symbolically (ie mathematically) but again this is a mediated experience of it. It is the dissonance between our mind constructed universe and the underlying mystery that is dhukka.

    The point I would make in response to yours s that if the world is entirely mentally constructed and if dhukka is the constructs, then that suggests that dhukka is overcome by reconstructing it, ie replacing it with a different set of constructs. That must be the case if there are only the constructs and no externality. That is a fully idealist position.

    One could argue that but I would say this doesn’t fit with experimental evidence.

    As I have suggested, I think dhukka is the dissonance between a constructed mental framework and a mysterious externality. We have a mental configuration constructed for survival but it is illusory. Classically, enlightenment includes so to speak “seeing things as they really are” though that is of course just a figure of speech useful for conveying a sense of it rather than intended to be taken literally, again in my view.

    I think nibbana is a kind of radical acceptance of the existence and manifestations of that underlying universe, of its mysteriousness and the fact that despite our best efforts it always escapes our control.

    But before I disappear down a dark and mysterious plug hole, I would just return to this ethical point because I think its important in considering the original point of Linda’s article on the end of suffering.

    The question of whether we do in fact pursue nibbana, or how far, in my view resolves in a question about what it is to be human. It might be interesting exercise from an academic perspective, but the question arises as to why you would do it? Is suffering so bad that its necesssary to choose this path rather than do anything else?

    The answer to the question, what does it mean to be human, is going to be different between individuals to an extent and must of course allow for freedom of interpretation.

    But it is very common amongst buddhists to find that the progressive overcoming of the ego leads to a progressive development of compassion and this they find life affirming. This contrasts to the reputation for extreme pessimism that buddhism has attracted when one is overfocussed on these more epistemological issues.

    I would conclude that the development of compassion is the end point for many, as a matter of free choice. In my view this is what underlies the bodhisattva tradition.

    You make a point about similarities between buddhism and christianity. I rather think that depends on how you define christianity of course because if it is defined for example, by the nicene creed, then I wouldn’t say they have much in common.

    But there is of course the John Gospel version that “god is love” and this is really on the same ground as the compassion as an end point.

    I think the

    • Linda Linda says:

      I absolutely agree with you that dukkha is produced in the difference between what reality is, and what we think it to be. I often describe dukkha as the pain we feel when what we think is true crashes into what is actually true.

      I am confused, though, by your disagreeing with Michael saying that “the world is entirely mentally created” — and my confusion comes about because I never heard him say that. What I hear Michael saying is that it is in our inaccurate constructs that we will find the solution to the problem of dukkha. He isn’t saying the world is entirely mentally created, but he’s saying — in different words — the same thing you said that I agreed with at the start of this comment.

      Did I get that right, Michael, at least more-or-less?

  10. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Yes, Linda you got me right. In minimum terms: Our attitudes and biases (aka attachments?)colour our experience. The things experienced are real enough. Our experience is not pure illusion, but involves misunderstanding. Misunderstanding arises because we see things, not as they are, but in personal terms, as if reality was actually centred about my fears and anxieties. (This can be elaborated with an epistemology & ontology, be methinks the exercise is optional.)

    James, maybe instead of speaking about “mental contructs,” I should have said that our perceptions of the world are interpretations of the things we sense.

  11. Gregory Clement says:

    Very interesting article Linda. Thanks for all your work in producing it.

  12. JamesT says:

    Linda and Michael

    Thanks for your comments.

    These are such difficult ideas to express aren’t they and language struggles to capture it. So its no wonder that we end up wondering whether we agree or disagree. But I think for me certainly the dialogue helps me to clarify things, which is surely the purpose of blogging and I thank you for giving me that opportunity.

    I look forward to the next discussion.

  13. U Thukha says:

    Hi, giving without out expecting anything in return is pure love, anything else call it what you want is suffering

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