A recent exchange with Fiona (see comments) made me look more closely at dukkha, that key term in Buddhism’s First Noble Truth. Stemming from Pali and Sanskrit, the word is variously translated as affliction, pain, unsatisfactoriness, and, most commonly, as suffering: in short, the things we encounter in the course of a life which contains serious unhappiness.
“This noble truth, “the Buddha is said to have said, “is this: birth, old age, sickness, death, grief, lamentation, pain, depression … [all] associated with what you do not like, being separated from what you do like, and not being able to get what you want (from his Deer Park talk “Setting in motion the wheel of the dharma“).
Till now I’d assumed that suffering is about mental and emotional anguish and that my job as a good Zen student was to let go of likes and dislikes, of clinging to a fantasy of how life should be; that suffering is psychological and therefore something to be overcome with dedicated practice. Not so! Sickness, grief, illness, old age, and death — all dukkha, all beyond my doing. The Buddha’s fundamental truth is unequivocal.
I’m grateful for David Brazier’s commentary:
When the Buddha says that affliction is truth, I do not think that he is saying that is something that can be escaped. Quite the contrary. He is pointing out that it cannot be escaped. Dukkha is inescapable. To suffer affliction is authentic. It is real and makes life real. …
The Buddha, therefore, taught that suffering will always be part of our lives. After enlightenment we see and feel this more clearly, not less. This is the direct opposite of what is generally taught in Buddhist textbooks where enlightenment is conceptualized as an escape.
So here it is: Dukkha is natural. Dukkha is inescapable. Dukkha points to our authenticity. Fiona, is this what you mean when you write that “this is what is gradually, truly sinking in, not just as a concept or mental understanding, but as an embodied reality”?
source: Brazier, D. (1997, 2001). The feeling Buddha: a Buddhist psychology of character, adversity, and passion. London: Robinson, p. 8. image: “Buddha’s First Sermon,” ca. 3rd century Pakistan (ancient Gandhara), 28.6 x 32.4 cm; at http://buddhaarts.blogspot.com/.