“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:

google search for Buddha "life is suffering"

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…

9 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.
    Metta

  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.

  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 life 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 🙂

  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.

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