Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On “Life is suffering”, Science and Religion


“Life is suffering” is how many people describe the main concept of Buddhism. It’s unfortunate that so much is lost in the translation. It turns out the word in Pāli, the language of the Theravāda Buddhist canon, dukkha, is more annoyance and unsatisfactoriness, of different degrees. At least for me, it makes it easier to understand the concepts of Buddhism to think of the phrase using the verb “offers” or “has” instead of “is”. It is not a burden because “life is suffering” but that it is a relief to know that “life has suffering”. Whatever you feel is justified and natural, reacting to this suffering.
It is also unfortunate that the epithet for Buddhism stops there, as if to say “life has annoyances… deal with it”. It offers a formulaic approach to conquer dukkha and to attain happiness summarized in 4 steps:

There is suffering (dukkha) in life

  1. Suffering has a cause
  2. Suffering can be eliminated
  3. There are ways to be happy and end suffering (through 8 practices)
    1. By having the right view
    2. action
    3. intention
    4. speech
    5. effort
    6. concentration
    7. mindfulness
    8. livelihood

I say formulaic approach, because the way it was originally expressed was using a variable for where dukkha was mentioned (referred to as 4 liberating insights):

  1. Seeing x
  2. Seeing the uprising of x
  3. Seeing the cessation of x
  4. Practice leading to cessation of x,

as well as the 8 practices nestled within the last point for dukkha.

The formulaic approach caught my interest because people’s practice of (at least Abrahamic) religions, often seems incompatible with principles of science (where given sufficient and repeatable empirical evidence, an old theory is replaced by a new one, vs. the original “word” being “the law” for eternity), and one seldom associates practice of religion with mathematics, the language of science.

That’s not all true, because it is only recently that we have developed this dichotomy between religion and science. Many religious figures also practiced science alongside philosophy in the Renaissance, and Galileo quoted Cardinal Baronius “That the intention of the holy ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.” where religion governed how one goes to heaven, and science governed how one understands the universe. Buddhism prizes empirical evidence and states that if the resulting theories conflict with the ancient texts, the newly confirmed theories overrule the ancient texts.

Scientific in approach or not, epithets help us focus our practice. “Life is suffering” doesn’t do much for me (so I use other phrases) but perhaps an alternative translation of “life has annoyances” can offer some sense of relief to some, in the same spirit “it is meant to be hard” as a response offers relief.

Photo: On Mauna Kea Hotel premises on the Hawaii Island


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This entry was posted on May 7, 2015 by in Buddhism, Quotes and tagged , , , , , .
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