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