“Life is suffering.”

It’s taken me a long time to get around to tackling this old chestnut.

What prompts to me write today is a discussion on Google+ where this supposed quote cropped up. In this discussion, someone of a Taoist persuasion referred to the Buddha having said that life is suffering. He referred to Benjamin Hoff’s “The Tao of Pooh,” in which there is a story about Confucius, the Buddha, and Lao Zi, tasting vinegar—which represents, we are told, “the essence of life.” Confucius has a sour look on his face because the heavens and earth are out of balance, the Buddha wears a bitter expression because “life on earth was bitter, filled with attachments and desires that led to suffering,” but the Lao Zi is smiling because he accepts that sourness is a part of life.

The story doesn’t actually quote the Buddha as saying “Life is suffering,” although the person quoting it did. And so do plenty of other people, as you can see from the results of this Google search:

The most ironic one of these is the BuddhaNet article on “Common Buddhist Misunderstandings,” which tries to prevent people misinterpreting the Buddha’s supposed statement that “Life is suffering” by pointing out that it “should not be generalised to “all life is suffering.” But the true “common misunderstanding” is that “life is suffering” is not something that the Buddha ever said. And yet you’ll find this statement everywhere.

One of the people in the Google Plus conversation said:

I have been to many Buddha mediation/lecture sessions where it is readily stated that ‘life is suffering.’ Perhaps that because it’s a more dramatic thing to proclaim than simply life includes suffering, which could easily inspire the response, “What? Life includes suffering? That’s all? But I know that. Everyone knows that! I want my money back!!!!”

Indeed! The Buddha never said that “life is suffering,” just that there is suffering in life. His teaching is about accepting inevitable suffering (the vinegar) with grace and with a peaceful mind, while allowing joy to arise naturally when conditions allow.

“Life is suffering” is often quoted as being the Buddha’s first Noble Truth. And yet the scriptural version of this does not say that life is suffering:

Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.

So there are a lot of things here that are pointed to as being sources of suffering—in life. But life itself is not one of them, and it’s pointed to as necessarily involving suffering. And nowhere—not in that scripture or in any other—does the Buddha said that life is suffering or that everything is suffering.

The Buddha seems to have believed (although he didn’t say it directly) that some kind of pain was inevitable in life, and that the thing was to learn to accept it gracefully. The teaching of the Two Arrows is on that very theme. It illustrates the difference between how the “untaught worldling” and the “well-taught noble disciple” respond to pain. The first grieves and laments, or tries to escape suffering through the pursuit of happiness, and in doing so merely causes themselves more suffering. The latter accepts suffering without reacting: that is, without lamenting or trying to escape.

The Buddha not only didn’t see life as suffering, but he saw life, well-lived, as a source of great joy. Pleasure and happiness are important components of the path to awakening. They are part of the process of meditation, arising naturally as distractions fall away from the mind.

One problem is that usually by the time people start reading the Buddhist scriptures, they have read dozens of books on Buddhism. Those books say that the Buddha said “Life is suffering” (and a whole bunch more false ideas besides) and those ideas take root in the mind to such an extent that often by the time people encounter the scriptures their pre-existing ideas become a powerful filter through which they interpret everything they read. They can’t see what is actually there, and their preconceptions remain unchallenged.

And then when you tell them that the Buddha never said “Life is suffering” they argue with you or send you hate mail, illustrating the Buddha’s second Noble Truth, which is that suffering arises from clinging…

31 thoughts on ““Life is suffering.””

  1. Thanks for good article Bodhipaksa. Another good subject in the same vein, worth considering in my opinion, is whether the Tathagata exists after death (or doesn’t, or both, or neither). And why he refused to engage when asked the same question, but people today chose to ignore his stand.

    1. “Life is suffering” is exactly what Buddha meant. Suffering = Life and Life = Suffering. They are interchangeable. You cannot have one without the other. Suffering is the experience of unsatisfied needs. All life is a;ways in need of sustenance and safety. It is the nature of life. The only way to end suffering is to end life or end desire.

      1. We can argue that the Buddha meant to say that life is suffering, Ed. But he never actually did, and I think it would be odd if something was central to his teaching, but he never actually said it in all his decades of teaching. That fact should perhaps give us pause to reflect and see if perhaps we’re trying to reframe his teachings in terms he would have found alien.

        People often like to talk in terms of absolutes, but the Buddha rarely talked that way. When talking about human nature, for example, he discussed how we have both unskillful and skillful tendencies. He didn’t talk about human nature being essentially good or essentially bad.

        Similarly, he didn’t talk about human life being essentially a state of suffering nor (of course, since it’s so obvious) a state of joy. Instead he pointed out that there are many instances of suffering in life, that many of those were caused by our own actions, that ultimately they arise from clinging, and that since clinging can be ended, so too can suffering — in this life. The statement “life is suffering” does not strike me as being aligned with the way the Buddha thought (or at least with how he expressed himself).

        Also, I think we have to be careful with how we understand dukkha. It may have been Thanissaro who wrote:

        No single English word adequately captures the full depth, range, and subtlety of the crucial Pali term dukkha. Over the years, many translations of the word have been used (“stress,” “unsatisfactoriness,” “suffering,” etc.). Each has its own merits in a given context. There is value in not letting oneself get too comfortable with any one particular translation of the word, since the entire thrust of Buddhist practice is the broadening and deepening of one’s understanding of dukkha until its roots are finally exposed and eradicated once and for all. One helpful rule of thumb: as soon as you think you’ve found the single best translation for the word, think again: for no matter how you describe dukkha, it’s always deeper, subtler, and more unsatisfactory than that.

        What dukkha means depends on context. It certainly doesn’t always mean “suffering.”

  2. I don’t know if it’s because most of the Buddhist books I’ve read were written by monks but I’ve always understood the first noble truth as merely acknowledging the existence of Dukkha (“suffering” seems such a restrictive translation of the concept) and not that the whole of our life’s experience is to suffer. This is probably why many seem to view Buddhism as a nihilistic practice, which is a shame.

    1. You’re fortunate to have bypassed this one. There are still a lot of writers who pass this one on!

      Gunaratana paraphrases the first noble truth this way in the first chapter of “Mindfulness in Plain English,” so monks aren’t entirely immune. But I’d hope that most of them would have a more accurate understanding.

      It would be an interesting research project to find who first interpreted Buddhism as “Life is suffering.” Did it arise in Asia or the West? It’s certainly been around in European interpretations of Buddhism since at least the 1800’s.

        1. As it happens what’s a point I’ve made many times on this site, Ricardo. But that’s hardly relevant here. There is no Buddhist scripture (that I know of) where the Buddha is quoted as having said “Life is suffering” and what he is quoted as having said contradicts that statement. So there is no basis for claiming “Life is suffering” as something the Buddha said.

  3. I have Mindfulness in Plain English but it wasn’t the first book I read so I guess it never made a big impression on me. I also prefer to listen to Dhamma talks rather than read books so that might explain things.

    (And apologies for the odd words in my first comment, auto correct is what it is and I don’t always notice its failings)

    1. I use swiping to type on my phone and get some very peculiar results sometimes! Anyway, I tried to fix the typos in your previous comment. Let me know if I got anything wrong.

  4. Hello there,

    I do not agree with your assessment. Although the Buddha might never have said literally that “all life is suffering” he certainly never said that he “saw life, well-lived, as a source of great joy”. It would be nice if you could give a canonical quote on which you based this statement.

    In fact the first Noble Truth means, that ALL life is suffering. As you quoted correctly yourself it says for example in the famous sutta M28 – The Greater Simile on the Elephants footprint: “…in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.”

    And what are these five categories of clinging objects? They are Rūpa – internal and external material form (including the physical body), Vedanā – feelings (pleasant, unpleasant and neither pleasant nor unpleasant), Saññā – perceptions, Saṅkhāra – formations (or activities) and Viññāṇa – conciousness. So everything that makes up a being falls under this category. In the light of this passage I cannot see how one still could assert that the Buddha didn’t teach that all life is, indeed, suffering.

    I generally like this website because there are many fake Buddha quotes that you discover thoroughly. But you are undermining your credibility by rejecting this essential first Noble Truth as something the Buddha never said or at least meant. If you are a Buddhist and believe in the law of kamma you should be more careful by making statements about the Buddha that are factually not true. You harm yourself and those who believe you.

    1. We’re both in the territory of “the Buddha didn’t exactly say this, but here is what he meant…”

      So did the Buddha not say that “life is suffering” but that’s what he meant, or did he mean to say that a life, well-lived, can be a source of great joy, but didn’t quite spell it out? Well, I naturally think my paraphrase is closer to what he meant than yours is, and in fact I think he spelled it out pretty clearly.

      But we need those scriptural quotations you asked for…

      For a person free from remorse, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May joy arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse.

      “For a joyful person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May rapture arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that rapture arises in a joyful person.

      For a rapturous person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my body be serene.’ It is in the nature of things that a rapturous person grows serene in body.

      That’s from the Cetana Sutta.

      So the Buddha is saying here that if you live life well (i.e. in a way that doesn’t generate remorse) then you’ll experience joy. Living ethically brings happiness.

      And that’s just the start: the joy that arises from living ethically leads to deeper levels of peace and contentment, especially if you meditate. There’s of course a lot of emphasis on joy (sukha) and upekkha (which is beyond joy, but is still sukha) in teachings on meditation:

      Now, if someone were to say: ‘This is the highest pleasure and joy that can be experienced,’ I would not concede that. And why not? Because there is another kind of pleasure which surpasses that pleasure and is more sublime. And what is this pleasure? Here, quite secluded from sensual desires, secluded from unwholesome states of mind, a monk enters upon and abides in the first meditative absorption (jhana), which is accompanied by thought conception and discursive thinking and has in it joy and pleasure born of seclusion. This is the other kind of pleasure which surpasses that (sense) pleasure and is more sublime.

      “If someone were to say: ‘This is the highest pleasure that can be experienced,’ I would not concede that. And why not? Because there is another kind of pleasure which surpasses that pleasure and is more sublime. And what is that pleasure? Here, with the stilling of thought conception and discursive thinking [and so on, through the jhanas]

      That’s from the Bahuvedaniya Sutta.

      And the entire point of Dharma practice is to bring an end to suffering, right here and now, in this very life. If we say “life is suffering” then we deny the entire purpose of the Buddhadharma:

      …by abandoning ignorance and arousing true knowledge he here and now makes an end of suffering.

      [Sammaditthi Sutta]

      You quoted a passage on the skandhas. Let me do the same:

      He doesn’t run around or circle around that very form… that very feeling… that very perception… those very fabrications… that very consciousness. He is set loose from form, set loose from feeling… from perception… from fabrications… set loose from consciousness. He is set loose from birth, aging, & death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is set loose, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

      [Gaddula Sutta]

      It’s not the fact of having a form, feelings, etc., that is the cause of suffering. If that were the case, then life would indeed be suffering and enlightenment in this life would be impossible. But it’s not the fact of having a form, feelings, and so on that is the source of suffering, but clinging to them as self. Stop clinging to the skandhas (“circling around” them, in the passage just quoted), and you’ll be free from suffering.

      You said, “If you are a Buddhist and believe in the law of kamma you should be more careful by making statements about the Buddha that are factually not true. You harm yourself and those who believe you.” We’re all (I hope) doing our best to understand a deep and subtle teaching. We’re not going to get it “right” until we’re enlightened. Until then I’d suggest not “threatening” people with the specter of karmic punishment unless you have direct evidence of harm being caused. And I’m fairly sure that telling people that they can be free of suffering in this very life is not going to harm them 🙂

      1. Thank you, very well said.
        If not for the quest of secession from suffering, and worldly attachment, why would anyone seek enlightment ?
        If Our lives goal is liberation.
        Then from what are we seeking libetation. ?

  5. Hey Bodhipaksa,

    thank you for your elaborated response.

    In case there was a misunderstanding: The first Noble Truth is the ultimate truth about the nature of existence which is suffering. That does not mean however that the Buddha didn’t acknowledge that there are pleasant and agreeable feelings one can experience. In numerous suttas he elaborates on the exclusive and elusive bliss and joy celestial beings find themselves in (i.e. M37, M49). In the human realm this is especially true for the four deep meditative states (jhanas) you quoted, which correspond with different celestial realms (mainly with the Brahma world). The Buddha strongly recommended the jhanas as the only non-sensual and therefore blameless bliss a monk should strive for (M25), in order to develop serenity and insight and escape Maras realm of sensuality. Interestingly enough he strongly criticized those ascetics (like Magandiya – M75) who regarded physical health as the highest bliss, namely Nibbana. In M13 – the Greater Discourse on the Mass of Suffering – the Buddha expounds on the gratification, danger and escape in the case of sensual pleasures. Nowhere in the suttas happiness and joy experienced through sensuality is described as something good in which indulging in helps to end the rounds of rebirth.

    The Cetana Sutta you quoted is a very good example why joy and rapture are only means to an end but no end on their own. The typical triplet of Sīla, Samadhi, Pañña as well as Dependent Origination can be found in the structure of this sutta. In short: It is virtue (Sīla) that ends remorse and makes you joyful. With that joy and rapture you are able to concentrate and enter the jhanas (Samadhi) and through insight by concentration you gain the final wisdom (Pañña) which leads to dispassion and disenchantment (Nibbana). So yes, there is joy, but firstly it is only the meditative joy and the joy that arises through virtue that the Buddha recommends. And secondly it is only for helping to develop deep concentration (jhanas) which lead to insight. Virtue and joy for their own sake have no meaning at all (see also M29 and M30).

    In M59, you quoted, the Buddha elaborates on these high forms of bliss namely the four jhanas and the following four formless meditative absorptions (Arupas). All of which are non-sensual and only to be attained by those who have overcome ordinary sense pleasures and attained higher wisdom. In M26 we can read how the Buddha, while he was still only an unenlightened bodhisatta, mastered all of these highest forms of bliss but finally rejected them as inferior because they are conditioned phenomena and therefore, you guessed it, not the true goal.

    You said that life cannot be suffering because then noone could be enlightened (Nibbana here and now). Well, it is true, of course, that an enlightened being has made an end of suffering because “there is no more coming to any state of being”. Not being subject to rebirth anymore is here the meaning of having made an end of suffering. But even an Arahant, although he or she does not cling to anything in the world anymore, has still a body and experiences physical pain (suffering). He or she just does not cling to it. Otherwise the Ven. Channo (M144), who was enlightened and very sick, would not have committed suicide seeing no sense in continuing his meaningless pain.

    The most problematic point in your response, how I see it, is this:

    But it’s not the fact of having a form, feelings, and so on that is the source of suffering, but clinging to them as self. Stop clinging to the skandhas (“circling around” them, in the passage just quoted), and you’ll be free from suffering.
    Actually you are repeating an argument the Bhikkhu Arittha made in M22, The Simile of the Snake. He stated that

    “those things that are called obstructions by the Blessed One are not able to obstruct one who engages in them”

    The commentary says what Arittha meant was:

    “You can indulge in sensual pleasures without clinging to them”

    If you know this sutta then you know that Arittha was summoned before the Buddha and was verbally destroyed by him for holding that wrong view. The Buddha also strongly suggested that Arittha would be reborn in a lower realm because of distorting the Dhamma in that way.

    But if all those passages haven’t convinced you yet, perhaps this famous guided short meditation might do. This was often the prominent ending of many suttas (M22, M35, M109, M146, M147) and many people got enlightened while listening to it: I take the variant that refers to the five khandas discussed above.

    Buddha: Is material form permanent or impermanent?
    Monks: Impermanent
    Buddha: Is what is impermanent happiness or suffering?
    Monks: Suffering
    Buddha: Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: This is mine, this I am, this is myself?
    Monks: No, Venerable Sir.

    Now put instead of material form the words “feeling”, “perception”, “formations”, and “consciousness” and we arive at the argument I made in my first commentary. The five khandas comprise everything that exists (that means everything that is experienced) and they are the Buddhas ultimate summarized definition of suffering.

    1. Unfortunately your engagement with this topic is proliferating to a degree that makes it hard to respond, so I’ll just touch on a few key points.

      “The first Noble Truth is the ultimate truth about the nature of existence.” The first noble truth is not about “the nature of existence.” It’s about the fact that suffering exists. “Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.”

      Do you see any mention there of “nature of existence” or of “ultimate truth”? He’s stating simple facts about the existence of suffering in our lives. Think of the “truths” as “facts” instead. Apparently the word “truth” comes with a lot of baggage. The Buddha points out four facts that are “ariyan” — related to awakening.

      “That does not mean however that the Buddha didn’t acknowledge that there are pleasant and agreeable feelings one can experience.”

      So life is not all suffering! Good! The Buddha’s teaching constantly reminds us that there is joy in life, and that we experience more joy as a result of practice. His teaching was optimistic.

      You really do see to be clinging to this idea that the Buddha taught that “life is suffering,” even though he never said it, even though what he said contradicts that, and even though what you wrote contradicts that. There is more to life than suffering. To say that “life is suffering” is reductionist, untrue, and unhelpful.

      Lastly, there’s the part that you thought was “most problematic.”

      But it’s not the fact of having a form, feelings, and so on that is the source of suffering, but clinging to them as self. Stop clinging to the skandhas (“circling around” them, in the passage just quoted), and you’ll be free from suffering.

      Actually you are repeating an argument the Bhikkhu Arittha made in M22, The Simile of the Snake. He stated that

      “those things that are called obstructions by the Blessed One are not able to obstruct one who engages in them”

      The commentary says what Arittha meant was:

      “You can indulge in sensual pleasures without clinging to them”

      No, I’m not saying anything about “indulging in sensual pleasures without clinging to them.” You’re seeing things that aren’t there.

      If you go back and read what I actually wrote, I’m just reiterating that the Buddha’s teaching was that it’s identifying with and clinging to the skandhas that’s the cause of suffering. The last passage you quotes merely reiterates exactly the same point. In that passage the Buddha is saying “Don’t cling to the skandhas as being yourself.” Let go of that clinging and you’ll be free from suffering. Form, feeling, etc., will still be there. You’ll still be alive. But you’ll be free from suffering.

      The Buddha saying that the skandhas are suffering is not saying “life is suffering.” It’s just saying that clinging is suffering.

      Your main problem seems to be that you think the Buddha taught ontology (“ultimate truths” about “the nature of existence”). He wasn’t interested in ontology. He taught psychology. Once you realize that you’re liberated from a lot of baggage that diverts energy and attention away from actual Dharma practice.

        1. I don’t think of it as exactly “abstaining from sensual pleasure.” After all, pleasant experiences are inevitable in life. Nice food tastes nice. The warmth of the sun is pleasant on an aching body. But he did teach the practice of abstaining from sensual desires. For example, here’s something from the Sutta Nipata’s Atthakavagga, which is probably one of the earliest teachings that the Buddha gave:

          If one, longing for sensual pleasure,
          achieves it, yes,
          he’s enraptured at heart.
          The mortal gets what he wants.
          But if for that person
          — longing, desiring —
          the pleasures diminish,
          he’s shattered,
          as if shot with an arrow.

          Whoever avoids sensual desires
          — as he would, with his foot,
          the head of a snake —
          goes beyond, mindful,
          this attachment in the world.

          The proper relationship with pleasant experiences (or simply, “pleasure”) is to experience them mindfully, without craving to intensify or prolong them, and without rejecting or having aversion to them. It’s the longing that’s the problem, not the pleasure itself.

          At the same time, the path of jhanic meditation leads us into experiencing intense pleasure and joy. But for that to happen we have to let go of craving for pleasure and joy. Those experiences arise from letting go and from being at peace with ourselves.

          1. Was Buddhism supposed to be so complicated? I mean, I’m just a regular agnostic person looking for meaning in my life and know only some tenets. I understand “life is suffering” to mean that pain, illness, tragedy and death are part of what makes us human, and that there isn’t a life out there that won’t experience them. Suffering can never be eradicated. Earlier someone said “no one knows what the Buddha said”. I’m with them. You seem to think that’s extremely important and have gone to great lengths to research and argue and quip and escalate. You’re not showing me the Buddhism I want. I mean, I have learned some things about Buddhism reading this whole exchange and I’m interested, but the tone is getting more sarcastic and nitpicky, not serene. The phrase “life is suffering” has helped me as an agnostic person, partially because of its simplicity. It’s 3 words. Look how many words you have used and how hard you have fought. You look like you can’t accept it. Keep it simple. You will win this argument if you can accept that it doesn’t matter. People will still be attracted to Buddhism through this phrase. I will be interested to see how long your response is.

          2. I don’t know how much you’ve read of the Buddhist scriptures, but a lot of it is very complicated indeed. I may not be giving you the Buddhism you want, but it’s quite possible that the Buddha wouldn’t have either. 🙂

            Of course some of the principles are very straightforward, like the fact that there is inevitably suffering in life. As you point out, it’s a helpful thing to be aware of.

            My aim here is principally to explain, to the best of my ability, whether quotes attributed to the Buddha are actually from the Buddhist scriptures. If people want to ask questions or raise objections, I’ll respond to those (also the best of my ability and as time allows). I guess I use as many or as few words as I think necessary. People are free to read those words or not, as they prefer.

  6. Dear Bodhipaksa,

    you are a tough nut to crack, I grant you that. But first things first.

    I really appreciate that you put so much effort and time in your replies. It is through this kind of discussion and exchange about the Dhamma that a common understanding and even wisdom might be achieved, although I have my doubts that we will arrive at the same conclusion;). But let’s stick to our topic:

    I don’t think that you addressed my most important argument properly, which is that the Five Khandhas are the Buddha’s summarized definition of the First Noble Truth (Dukkha). If you understand what the khandhas are and know how the Buddha defined them, then you must come to the conclusion that they entail everything that makes up life. There is nothing you, I, or any sentient being could experience that is not included in material form, feeling, perception, formations, or consciousness. If you could tell me that there is life possible outside theses five aggregates then go ahead. But I think you might find that rather difficult.

    You made the point that the problem is not suffering but clinging (to the khandas), which causes us to suffer. Well, this is true in so far, that if you are a fully enlightened being then you do not cling to anything in the world and are no longer subject to rebirth. You can still feel painful and pleasant feelings but they do not disturb your mind anymore since you are totally detached and disenchanted.

    The thing is, this is a quite theoretical discussion for most people in the world who are not fully enlightened (perhaps 12 who live today). As long as we delight in anything (even mind-objects) we suffer because delight is the root of suffering as the Buddha tells us in the famous first sutta of the Pali canon (M1 – The Root of All Things). It is a very powerful statement if you read the title of this sutta word by word. The Buddha basically says that everything that exists (ALL Things) does so because there is delight (delight = clinging to feelings by the way (M38)). And to end this suffering you must end delighting. (Funfact: The monks who listened to this sutta did not delight in the Buddha’s words).

    But what is delight other than joy and pleasure that arise from conditioned phenomena? Even the highest bliss we can experience, namely the Jhanas, should only be cultivated to gain insight and wisdom in the reality of existence. Not to enjoy ourselves and delight in them. In M111 we find an impressive report how the Ven. Sariputta (the Buddha’s disciple foremost in wisdom) analysed each of the four Jhanas and four Arupas one by one as they occurred.

    “Regarding those states (the Jhanas), unattracted, unrepelled, independent, detached, free, dissociated, with a mind rid of barriers. He understood: “There is an escape beyond” (M111).

    So we see that the Ven. Sariputta did not delight in these highest attainments but, to the contrary, understood their flaw, namely their conditioned and impermanent nature. By quoting the Buddha in my last commentary it should be clear by now, that everything that exists is impermanent and therefore suffering. The escape, of course, is Nibbana which is the end of suffering through not-clinging. And that is the optimistic thing about the Buddha’s teaching. Not that life can be a great source of happiness and joy but that there is an escape from this whole mass of suffering – Nibbana.

    Here are a few questions for you. Answer them or not as you see fit.

    Why do you think did the Buddha teach Nibbana, the end of rebirths, if he saw life as such a good thing full of joy and not as suffering?

    Why did he even urge those individuals to make an effort to attain full enlightenment who were already Sotapannas and had only seven more lives to go (at max.)? That does not make much sense to me if he saw rebirth and living a happy and joyful life as something meaningful and something one should aspire to.

    Right now we live very comfortable lives and have not much to fear but old age and sickness. We can satisfy most of our material needs. From this perspective it is quite easy to say that live can be a source of great joy. But most people in the world – not to mention all the animals, ghosts, and hell beings – suffer in ways unimaginable to us privileged westeners. The thing is, when we die we will be reborn. And if we have not made a ton of good karma then the descend into lower realms of existence is almost certain.

    Most readers might be exhausted by now but let me conclude my comment with the Buddha himself. Here is a condensed simile from the Samyutta Nikaya (S56, 102-107) in which he taught the monks about the probability to be reborn in the human realm:

    Buddha: “Monks, what do you think, which is more: the little bit of soil that I have taken up in my fingernail or the great earth?”

    Monks: “Venerable sir, the great earth is more. The little bit of soil that the Blessed One has taken up in his fingernail is trifling. Compared to the great earth, it is not calculable, does not bear comparison, does not amount even to a fraction.”

    Buddha: So too, monks, those beings are few who are reborn among human beings/among devas. But those beings are more numerous who, when they pass away as human beings/devas, are reborn in hell/animal realm/in the domain of ghosts. For what reason? Because they have not seen the Four Noble Truths. (…) Therefore, monks, an exertion should be made to understand: “This is suffering”,…, “This is the origin of suffering”,…, “This is the cessation of suffering,…, this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.”

    1. Sorry for the delay, but your tendency to spiral off (prapañcize) into things like the chances of being reborn as a human, which really is completely irrelevant to the question of whether the Buddha did or did not teach that life is suffering, makes your posts rather long and (as you admit) exhausting. To be honest I didn’t read everything.

      Why did the Buddha teach the path to awakening? To help us escape the unnecessary suffering that we cause ourselves through clinging. Why else? Again, that has no relevance at all to whether the Buddha taught that life is suffering.

      I’ve really no idea why it’s important for you to cling to be belief that the Buddha taught something he did not teach. He taught that there was suffering in life, not that life itself was suffering. He taught that the khandhas were a source of joy as well as suffering:

      If feeling …

      perception … choices …

      consciousness were exclusively painful—soaked and steeped in pain and not steeped in pleasure—sentient beings wouldn’t lust after it. But because consciousness is pleasurable—soaked and steeped in pleasure and not steeped in pain—sentient beings do lust after it. Since they lust after it, they’re caught up in it, and so they become corrupted. [Source]

      He taught us that we can end suffering through awakening.

      And awakening is possible in this life.

        1. You might decide to get out of the ocean because there’s a great white shark in the water, but that doesn’t mean that everything in the ocean is a great white shark.

          1. I don’t study this, but personally, I agree with all life is suffering. Any joy felt is still suffering because I’m not released. The great white shark is good for me because he/she is just making me feel how attached I am. Until released from this reality, then everything experienced is prison, even if it gives what I think is greatest of joy, it is still suffering.

    1. Hi, Ko.

      Thanks for writing. I’m a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, which is an ecumenical organization. I regard the Buddha as my teacher, but I try to learn from every sincere practitioner I’m in contact with.

      All the best,

  7. This has all been very interesting to review, the article and the comments section 😁

    I am looking for a quote that would serve as practical advice for “how to deal with pain” and I am influenced by prominent speakers who have used this misquotation.

    Here are some quotes from your other website (www.realbuddhaquotes.com) that I might use:

    “The root of suffering is attachment.”
    “The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realized the nature of the world.”

    (excuse my below interpretation as I have not read much Buddhist scripture)

    From what I gather, misquoting Buddha as saying “Life is suffering” is short-hand for the suggestion that ‘life includes suffering’, and that perhaps all these causes (skandhas?) are relatively continuous aspects of our human existence.

    The declaration; “Life is suffering.” from my perspective is a statement of acceptance that experiencing pain, discomfort, and yearning are normal parts of life. With the intention of alleviating this “suffering” by accepting it, and thus allowing it to pass – not clinging or attaching to it. I believe this is what you are referring to near the end of your article.

    I think that’s why people argue over this, it’s more relatable to hear “life hurts” rather than something like “your experiential attachment to the characteristics of life hurts (more than the characteristic itself)”.

    It appears to me that the intention of your article, aside from the main aim of clarifying the misquotation, is to share the perspective that it doesn’t have to be grim and gloomy, and that happiness and pleasure are okay too! But now making assumptions. 😂

    Thank you for sharing this information online as it can be a challenge to find it elsewhere!

    If, by chance you would be able to suggest another verified quote that I could use I would be super grateful!

  8. Good article on the meaning of suffering and dukkah. More nuanced than I had thought. Caused me to consider my view on the subject because I mention “life is suffering” in my books and articles all the time. I think the essence of what Buddha was trying to say is that the human mind and its clinging to all things is what causes suffering. The flip side is that non-suffering = enlightenment and enlightenment = non-suffering. When illumination occurs the hypnotism of the vicissitudes of the human experience is broken and receeds as the attractiveness of True Awareness blossoms.

  9. Wait. Did someone actually record what Buddha actually has said!? Precise words and all.
    I understand the beauty of the oral traditions of singing/reciting verses especially with rhymes. But still…

    1. You ask a rhetorical question, but it’s not a relevant one. The only record we have of what the Buddha said is in the Buddhist scriptures, and so the only valid basis for attributing a quote to him is to cite the scriptures.

      Did anyone record Jesus? I mean, maybe Jesus said, “You are entitled to your own views, but you are not entitled to your own facts,” but it’s not in any of the Christian scriptures, and so we can dismiss that idea. The fact that the message and the language are incongruous with his other known teachings reinforces that we can’t validly ascribe it to Jesus, but the key thing is it’s not in the scriptures. So we can be sure that anyone who claims that Jesus sad “You are entitled to your own views, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” mistaken on lying.

      Do you see what I mean?

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