Four Sufferings, Eight Sufferings

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Photo by Mike on

With all the crazy stuff going on lately with COVID-19, I was thinking about a passage from the “first sermon” of the Buddha, the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta (SN 056.11).  In this sutra, reputedly just after the Buddha achieved Enlightenment, he preached the following to his former colleagues, the five ascetics:

“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.

translation by Ñanamoli Thera

The translation “stress” for the old Pāli word dukkha (दुःख) is not a modern translation.  Nowadays, translators use “stress” as a way of conveying the meaning more clearly.  Note that dukkha is the opposite of the Pāli word sukkhaSukkha was described at the time as a potter’s wheel that would turn smoothly, evenly, and easily.  Dukkha, being the opposite, was described as a potter’s wheel that is wobbly, grinds when it turns and so on.  Sure, it still turns, but it’s far from smooth.  It’s dukkha that the Buddha uses to describe the world, namely these milestones:

  • Birth – afterall, babies are suddenly thrust into a world they don’t understand, and are no longer in the comfort of the womb.
  • Aging – speaks for itself.  While there are certain positive aspects of getting older, the body does develop increasing healthy problems.
  • Sickness – also speaks for itself.
  • Death – duh.

These were collectivity called the Four Sufferings (or Four Stresses).  They cause anxiety and unease and even physical suffering.

However, the Buddha went further to explain four additional sources of stress, anxiety, suffering, etc:

  • Pain, grief, despair
  • Being associated with something or someone you don’t like
  • Being separated from something or someone you like
  • Not getting what one wants

Taken altogether, these are called the Eight Sufferings, and these were used to quantity our state of existence.  Inevitably, existence involves all eight of these sufferings/stresses/anxieties.  Like the crappy potter’s wheel, it will turn but it’s certainly not a smooth ride.  What the Buddha is saying, I believe, is that any belief to the contrary that “things will get better if I do X” is somewhat delusional because in the end you must still face disease, old age, death, and separation from things you like.

In other words, don’t expect to find lasting happiness.

This is a pretty grim assessment of things, but the Buddha wanted to set the baseline for how things are (denying that we get older, sick and die would indeed be delusional), and to point out that the usual pursuits of happiness will ultimately leave one frustrated.

This is not to deny that good times will come and go, but they don’t last, no matter how much you would like them to.  Hanging on only worsens the anxiety or suffering.

This isn’t so much about being stoic either, it’s more about taking a sobering look at life, and all its facets, and develop realistic expectations.

P.S.  Interesting cultural note: in Japanese, the Buddhist term “Four Sufferings, Eight Sufferings” is called shiku-hakku (四苦八苦) which is an example of yojijukugo.  In modern Japanese if you use this as a verb (四苦八苦する) it means you’re going through a hard time.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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