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…