a little problem with suffering

January 24th, 2011

Sometimes I get a little pushback on the topic of Buddhism, particularly the subject of suffering. People say something like, “Gosh, all that talk about suffering! Aren’t you guys a bit over the top with all the suffering? That’s so negative.”

Yes, it’s true, the foundation of Buddha’s teaching is the Four Noble Truths, which usually are stated like this:

Life contains suffering
The origin of suffering is attachment
The cessation of suffering is attainable
There’s an Eightfold Path to freedom

Let me be clear. Buddhism doesn’t elevate, emphasize or worship suffering. Buddhism says, “Let’s just face the facts, people.” Despite our earnest attempts to conjure optimism, hope, abundance, luck, gratitude, aptitude, cleverness, perfect SATs, and triumphant superiority, there is nothing more universally human than having a problem.

To prove it, let’s take the word “suffering.” You might have a problem with it. Suffering sounds so big – Haitian earthquake, Tucson rampage, global warming big – when the kind of suffering most of us encounter every day is so embarrassingly trivial we might not even recognize it as suffering. More like WHO ATE THE REST OF MY MINT CHOCOLATE CHIP.

There’s all the other kinds of suffering too – like old age, sickness, death, Jersey Shore, and taxes – but we can’t really do much about those, can we? So the kind of suffering we start with is the kind that actually causes us and everyone around us the most problems AS FOR INSTANCE WHEN SOMEONE WHO SHALL REMAIN NAMELESS (YOU) ATE THE REST OF MY MINT CHOCOLATE CHIP.

So I like to state the Four Noble Truths this way:

Life is full of problems.
It always seems like my problem starts with you but it really starts with me.
It always seems like you should fix my problem but in the end it’s up to me.
I’m going to the store, want anything?

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  1. Thank you! My day had lots of suffering: woke up with a sore neck; accidentally washed a dirty diaper with the darks; had to clean spilled apple juice from the sofa; and forgot to shave my legs. To fix it, took my family to a new coffee shop and ate a giant serving of baklava. Day started with suffering and ended with baklava (a second piece that I’d picked up on the way out to the car after I ate the first piece)! I hope the store had more mint chocolate chip for you!

    Comment by Dale — January 24, 2011 @ 2:29 am

  2. SMILE ^_^
    I like YOUR version of the 4 noble truths!
    thank you!

    Comment by greenkat — January 24, 2011 @ 2:52 am

  3. cute.

    I can testify that suffering comes from attachment. 100%.

    I was attached to my home – therefore, it hurt to lose it.

    I was attached to all of my ‘things’ in life, – therefore, losing all of my valuable, temporal possessions, hurt.

    I am attached to the idea of having a baby – therefore, it hurts to struggle with infertility.

    And the cessation of suffering IS, indeed, attainable, as I have moments of it, more and more, the more “enlightened” I become. But this “enlightenment” only came through losing everything.

    I would not trade the “enlightenment” back for the things.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

    Comment by Angela DiGiovanni | Living Out Loud — January 24, 2011 @ 3:20 am

  4. 🙂

    Comment by Kaishu — January 24, 2011 @ 4:22 am

  5. i love this. needed this. well, always need this. perhaps i can create a postcard with your remix of the four noble truths. thank you for sharing your experiences, beauty and wisdom. deeply grateful.

    Comment by melissa — January 24, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

  6. What a fun way to look at this. My yoga teacher uses “dissatisfaction” in the place of suffering, which also helped me get my head around all of this.

    Comment by Samantha — January 24, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

  7. Samantha, the literal translation of the sanskrit, I’m told, is “unfulfillment,” so dissatisfaction works nicely.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — January 24, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

  8. Buddhism says, “Let’s just face the facts, people.”

    Hehe. No matter how good our intentions may be, life finds a way to throw a pie (or two) in our faces, and some pies taste better than others.

    I like how you have restated the Noble Truths, especially the bit about: “It always seems like my problem starts with you but it really starts with me. It always seems like you should fix my problem but in the end it’s up to me.” Got to remember that more often.

    Comment by Grace (Graceful Simplicity) — January 24, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

  9. Mint Chocolate Chip!

    Comment by Mama Zen — January 24, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

  10. My husband read someone (don’t remember who) who suggested a better English translation of suffering would be dissatisfaction. Suffering sounds big and like a real downer, but we can all realize that we’re quite often dissatisfied.

    Great blog. I’m a new follower.

    Comment by Robyn — January 24, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

  11. Hi, Karen- Been awhile since I’ve left a comment but how I’ve had to clarify this for myself is to think of it this way: yes, there will be pain but I don’t have to add suffering to it with my thoughts & emotions.

    Mint Chocolate Chip sounds divine 🙂

    Comment by shannon esposito — January 24, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

  12. Yes, there is always the pain of impermanence. But what we add to that in the form of blame, shame, regret, anger and greed only perpetuates pain.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — January 24, 2011 @ 9:09 pm

  13. Thanks for the “remix”! I love it.

    In my KM Parenting Group (KM == Dharma Friends), we’ve been working with how we experience the Four Noble Truths in our day-to-day lives.

    Mint chocolate chip.
    Not putting your shoes on.
    Complaining about being on a walk.
    Toilet learning.

    So many opportunities to practice.


    Comment by Stacy (Mama-Om) — January 25, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

  14. I love your four noble truths. You always do such a good job speaking from the heart.

    Comment by Byron Major — January 26, 2011 @ 2:32 am

  15. Great post!

    Comment by Edith — January 26, 2011 @ 10:48 am

  16. Someone (who shall remain nameless) left the WHOLE container of ice cream on the kitchen counter last night. This morning: a big, expensive, sticky puddle. Suffering, clearly, is unavoidable. But laughter is always an option, as you continue to remind me. Love this post!

    Comment by Katrina Kenison — January 26, 2011 @ 4:00 pm

  17. ha! Jersey Shore is definitely a form of torture. 🙂
    I think life as a mom is full of different types of torture, as we learn to stop controlling kids and help them become their own people. I struggle with this and my boys all the time. But I’m learning that although the process of parenting isn’t easy, the result is so great — both my kids and I turn out better than we ever could have on our own.

    Comment by Melissa | 2x2Momma — January 26, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

  18. Can’t get no satisfaction.
    Keith Richards = Buddha.

    Comment by Chris — January 26, 2011 @ 9:13 pm

  19. Brilliantly said — the Four Noble Truths via Baskin Robbins. And it is, in the end, always my problem and my work to find resolution. Mint chocolate chip (my favorite too) makes the work sweeter sometimes. Thank you —

    Comment by Laura M. — January 30, 2011 @ 1:43 am

  20. I just wrote a post following my reading of Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ beginning with Rilke’s words “How much suffering there is to get through!”
    It’s funny how we think of life as divided on the scales between suffering and happiness. Frankl writes that happiness must happen, as a result of not caring about it, or focusing on it. I quite like that. And I particularly like how you state the Four Noble Truths at the end! Yes, I am going to the store – would you like anything?!

    Comment by Shaista — February 6, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

  21. Actually wishing there was mint chocolate chip for someone to eat. I know how to deal with that form of suffering.

    Thank you for this post.

    Comment by Alex T — March 28, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

  22. its been a long time! jersery shore. oh i almost spit out my coffee. that was funny. in fact i giggled or smiled through this whole thing. ive struggled with this concept too. taking the sentiment all too seriously. and i really find your rewritten noble truths just perfect and so clarifying.

    Comment by latisha — November 11, 2011 @ 7:49 am

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