Insufferable Suffering

Now there’s a headline bound to turn readers away, but don’t go. I don’t plan to wallow in it, or ask you to wallow. I want to explore the words.

At first glance you might think “Insufferable Suffering” is redundant, but no. Suffering is experiencing pain, illness, injury, anything unpleasant. It becomes insufferable when it’s too much to bear, when it’s intolerable.

So when does suffering become intolerable? How much can we take? At what point do we decide that life is shit and become zombies, or addicts, or sociopaths, or warriors, or victims, or executioners, or plain old crazies, or the remains of a suicide. Exploring that was what the Buddha was all about.

Terrorist-Hostage-000007743353_MediumI’m taking now about Siddhartha Gautama, the person we call the “historical Buddha.” He said that all of his teachings were about dukkha and the cessation of dukkha, but the translation of that word from Pali, a language close to what the Buddha spoke, to English has led to much confusion. The first of the Four Noble Truths is the existence of dukkha, and a week ago I re-blogged Peace Paul’s excellent post on the subject. I can’t improve on that piece, but today I began thinking of other ways to explain it.

Dukkha is usually translated as suffering, and so the Four Noble Truths go something like this: 1) We suffer. 2) Our suffering has a cause within us. 3) Since it has a cause within us, we can get rid of it. 4) The Eightfold Path is the way to get rid of it. The Eightfold Path deals with living ethically, meditating, and developing wisdom and compassion.

With the word “suffering” at their heart, the Four Noble Truths sound to many of us like nonsense. If I shut the car door on my little finger, I will feel pain and I will suffer, even if I have lived right, meditated daily and devoted my life to helping others. My pain may neurologically be in my head, but I didn’t put it there and I can’t take it away. (Maybe some yogis can rise above pain, but I’m not going there.)

As Peace Paul explained, unsatisfactoriness might be a better translation for dukkha. We can keep suffering from souring us on our lives by seeing things as they really are, by living right, meditating and developing wisdom and compassion. Put another way, we can keep our suffering from becoming insufferable.

In Season 2 of the Serial podcast, we learn about Bowe Bergdahl’s almost five years as a captive of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He spent most of it in a metal cage, often hungry, cold, blindfolded, and sometimes tortured. Of course he suffered, and many of us would have found that degree of suffering insufferable. We might flip out, to use a medical term.

That’s the part that exists in our minds. That’s the part that we can control. And that’s where some sort of spiritual practice, such as the Eightfold Path, can make a huge difference. So, with all due humility, I might recast the Four Noble Truths thus: 1) Everyone suffers. 2) Most of us have such little faith in ourselves that we fear suffering and let it endanger our well-being. 3) We can change our attitude and prevent that from happening. 4) Buddhism’s Eightfold Path is a way to accomplish #3.

— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)

Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine


7 Comments Add yours

  1. vellissima says:

    Thank you. That is a clear and useful explanation. I can use it today!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      Thank you for your kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Peace Paul says:

    Very nice reflection on the 4 noble truths. You might want check out the book, “The Feeling Buddha” by David Brazier. It is a rather unorthodox view of the Four Noble truths but one that is worth examining.

    I really like Lama Surya Das, I am glad that you have connected with him and the Dzogchen lineage. Peace, Paul

    Liked by 1 person

  3. melhpine says:

    I was able to read some of that chapter of the Brazier book online. Interesting how many translations there are of “dukkha.” For him, it starts with “affliction.” I’ll have to get hold of the book for the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

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