Is All Life Suffering?


“All Life Is Suffering” is NOT the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, that’s just a popular misquotation. Let’s have a look at this misunderstanding and discuss one question: Could it be true nonetheless?

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Thank you for your attention, yours truly, Mr. Wunderlich

Read the transcript

I am not a Buddhist. I am not a missionary for any religion. Spirituality does not need religion; religion needs spirituality.

You can listen to this being a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, an Hinduist, a Jew, a Wiccan or a believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster – you will not be offended.

I learned meditation in a Zen tradition and feel more connected to Zen as to any other Buddhist tradition. But I was raised here, in Europe, with the heritage and legacy of Christianity. Not a free choice, just a matter of fact. Christian symbols are much easier to understand for me as Buddhist ones.

One example: As Buddhism developed, it got complicated – happens to every religion. In some traditions there are multiple heavens and hells, too. Demons live there.

I was raised with Christian symbols. When I hear “heaven” or “hell” my understanding is influenced by the images I’ve seen all my life! In texts, pictures and in countless churches I visited.

The same phenomenon applies to the word “demon”. The Buddhist demons have nothing in common with Christian ones, but I can’t help myself: I think of little devils! That’s what is planted into my own subconscious mind through tradition.

I am very thankful to Buddhism. I do believe that Buddhist wisdom has a lot to tell about the way we perceive the world. Its observations are more thorough than anything I could find in modern psychology.

And Buddhism preserved meditation for centuries. It’s not like Christianity hasn’t got its own mystical traditions, but we almost forgot how important religious practice is. We were convinced that it’s possible to make religious experiences through intellectual effort.

Though I feel I can not change my religious background and suddenly be a Buddhist or a Muslim or a Shaman, I respect each religion and everyone who comes to different conclusions in life.

Buddhism has had so much influence in all these modern spiritualities! It was used as a supermarket for spiritual concepts. I’ve had very spooky conversations with people that described their Buddhism to me.

One example: Buddhist practice is NOT just mindfulness! “Mindfulness” is a concept we made in the West. And we created it, because it is easier to understand than Buddhism.

“Mindfulness” is – and pay attention to the next three words – in some cases just a kind of meditation that’s completely compatible with consumerism, shallowness, vanity and your credit card. You don’t have to change anything, simply inhale and exhale mindful!
If I were a Buddhist, that would drive me crazy!
So, with that disclaimer, let’s start!

As I began to study theology I visited the “Proseminar Buddhism”. We had to buy the pali canon and jumped right into analysing this text.

The professor told us that this is the oldest source of Buddhism, though it was written down at least five hundred years after Buddha died. If he was a historical person at all.

And the heart piece of this pali canon, were the four noble truths. In Buddhist tradition this teaching was the first one Buddha taught after his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.

Analysing texts is the way we handle other religions. It’s what we made with our own Bible for centuries. That’s fine with me. So, that’s what we did with the pali canon and the four noble truths. And we immediately got stuck on the first one.

I’ll read it to you. But please keep in mind that this is a translation of my version of the pali canon, which is a translation from Sanskrit into German.

“But what is the Noble Truth of Suffering? Birth is suffering, sickness is suffering, old age is suffering, death is suffering; pain, grief, sorrow, lamentation, and despair are suffering. Association with what is unpleasant is suffering, disassociation from what is pleasant is suffering. In short, the five states of perception are suffering.”

Well. That’s one important source for the first noble truth. Shortened to “Life is Suffering” all around the West. And the Professor as well as most of the students were sure: This means that Buddhism is based on a pessimistic view on life. And Christianity is just the opposite: We expect to experience a life without suffering in Christ.

This is more or less the most important criticism of Buddhism in the West, even today.

And, to be honest: Dear Buddhists, that’s really bad marketing! That’s not a way to start a world religion! Don’t give the masses the whip, give them cake!

I was not convinced by the arguments of my fellow students or the professor. Is Buddha really saying here: “Life is really, really bad, my monks! Shit happens all the time. It’s everything only about suffering!”

I dug a little deeper.

Let’s begin with the origins of this text. With the pali canon. It is in no way anything similar to the Bible in Christianity! And even if it would be: Texts are not as important in a religion who did emphasize practice for centuries. It’s not the same as the ten commandments.

The four noble truths are not as important in Buddhism as we believe they are. Neither is the eightfold path. Early Buddhist scripture is full of lists and nothing makes these two lists more important than many others.

Most Buddhist scholars believe that these four Noble Truths were not in the core of Buddhist teachings for centuries. Its far more likely that religious practice, dhyana, was the most important part of the teachings and not words. Buddha may have not discussed his insights at all – nothing was written down for more than five hundred years.

But let’s have another look at the text. There is the word “suffering” in it. Ten times. In my German version that is “Leid”, which is exactly the same as suffering, in the Pali original there is the word “dukkha”.

Does “dukkha” mean “Leid” or “suffering”? The short version: It does not. The long version: It somehow does. More or less. So let’s have a look at the etymology of that word.

It is made up of two parts. “Duh” simply means “Bad” and “Kka” stands for “hole” or “nothing”. So dukkha is bad hole. What? Life is a bad hole?

The most common interpretation of “bad hole” is that “dukkha” was a word used to describe the the axle hole in a wooden wheel. And if that hole was not exactly in the middle of the wheel it was a “bad hole”. Because you were up for a very unpleasant, bumpy ride in your vehicle, if your wheel had a “dukkha”.

Thus the word “dukkha” in the pali canon stands not only for suffering, but for something that is uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant or difficult. In this context “suffering” seems like the most drastic choice a translator could make. But is it? Let’s try:

“But what is the Noble Truth of being uncomfortable? Birth is uneasy, sickness is difficult, old age is unpleasant, death is sad; pain, grief, sorrow, lamentation, and despair are causing pain. Association with what is unpleasant is uncomfortable, disassociation from what is pleasant is difficult. In short, the five states of perception are uneasy.”

That seems to be easier to swallow, but on the other hand it is arbitrary, generic, powerless. If it was my choice, I would prefer “suffering” as a translation.

And even the hypothesis that dukkha derived from a badly engineered wheel is open for discussion, too. Etymology is not a science with measurable statistics in the background. Some linguists think that “dukkha” stems from “duh” and “stah”, the Sanskrit verb “to stand”. Somehow this shifted to “dukkha” which is a phonetical change that can happen, when languages evolve.

I don’t know and for this discussion this may even be irrelevant.

Fact is that the first Noble Truth is translated to “All life is suffering”.

That’s the version we have to deal with.

So, let’s deal with that!

“All Life is Suffering” is not what we found in the pali canon.

It was more like a list of things that are uneasy, difficult, unpleasant and suffering.

To shorten the noble truth to the statement “Life is suffering” is problematic by itself. But the version that is popular is even worse. Because “All life is suffering” is a generalization that clearly is not in this text at all.

The pali canon is not saying: Birth is only suffering, sickness is only suffering or old age is only suffering. It’s not saying that life is only suffering.

That really would be a pessimistic outlook on existence and my fellow students would have been completely right to find that unbearable and even irresponsible.

The pali canon in whole is not about dukkha alone. Suffering is a part of the teaching, but sukkha is, too. And sukkha – you may guess it – is the opposite of dukkha. It’s happiness or pleasantness or feeling at ease.

Let’s not dive into the discussion under which circumstances happiness is discussed, but let’s remember:

Buddhist teachings are not about suffering alone.

The quote “All life is suffering” is a very bad summarization of the first Noble Truth.

And let’s further remember: The Four Noble Truths are not as important to Buddhist spirituality as we assume.

Not only do they exist in many different versions, but the fact that it took more than five hundred years that Buddhas teachings were written down points to a religious system that was concentrated on its practice.

Good. As we worked out together: The Noble Truth number one is not stating that life is only suffering. It does not say: “All Life is Suffering”. Okay?

Fine. Now let’s talk about why all life IS suffering.

Because I think that’s true. Suffering is a part of being alive. No life without suffering.

The Noble Truth is right: Women may be told that giving birth to a baby is the most fulfilling experience they can make. The birth of my daughter took 16 hours and it was not only a blood bath on behalf of my wife, it was a lot of suffering. For her, for my daughter, even for me being more or less a powerless part of that process.

Old age comes with suffering, there’s no question about that. My knee is bad, my back is bad, when I make my yoga every joint is squeaking and there is no way to deny that death is much nearer than birth.

Everyone I know who is as old as I am has his or her fair share of scars. On their bodies and on their souls. And most of them would be already dead had they lived some hundred years in the past. Most of them would have no teeth any more and couldn’t read any more, because with age comes farsightedness.

Death is suffering, too. You may think that your dying process will be peaceful and quiet. That you will say goodbye from your loved ones in full possession of your mental abilities, but the statistics tell a different story. So I hope that you will leave this way, more than 90% of us will not.

Well, we will not have to argue about pain, grief, sorrow, lamentation, and despair – these are a part of the definition of suffering.

We may discuss about “disassociation from what is pleasant”. If you are into ice cream, as I am, eating ice cream is one of the most pleasant things your senses can turn to. I did not try out yet, but I believe I can eat two pounds of chocolate ice cream without feeling sick!

But every bowl of ice cream has to end and I am not really willing to test my own theory regarding chocolate ice cream.

So I am always a little disappointed when my date with ice cream comes to an end.

That means that even in the most pleasant things a human being can do, like eating ice cream, there is suffering built into it.

I sat at the dining table many summers ago and looked out of the window. There was a vase with some flowers standing right in the middle of the table, half in the summer sun. A fly was peacefully sunbathing on it.

In the garden there was the hedge we had trimmed some days ago and we left enough room for the nest that our amseln had built. Amseln are German blackbirds. The mother was feeding the newly hatched amsel babies.

A scenery full of tranquility and serenity and full of life, you may think. And it was.

And because of that it was full of suffering, too.

The flowers in the vase were dying in that moment. Cut flowers are dying parts of a plant that are kept alive for our pleasure.

Inside the vase billions of single cell organisms were trying to get in the shadowy part of the water, because the sunny part was getting too hot for them.

The tired fly sitting on the vase may just be seconds away from the point its body collapses.

And the newly hatched bird babies feel pain, too. Because they are starving, because their little bodies shout for food – as they themselves do, too.

The nice summer picture is full of life and it is full of suffering.

Ask the antelope from the last episode what she thinks about being the dinner for the tiger!

Suffering is a part of being alive. Pain is what made our species survive so far. Without suffering, without pain there is no drive to do anything.

Every living creature, plants and animals, are constantly busy moving away from unpleasant conditions into more pleasant ones.

It’s perfectly normal to suffer. It comes with being alive.

You may think that’s not a fair deal. No one asked you if you want to suffer. But no one asked you if you wanted to be alive either. Though, under normal conditions, everyone prefers to be alive over being dead. That’s built into us, too.

To accept the fact that life is suffering is an important part of the human experience.

And it has some important consequences.

Because that means everyone is suffering.

Not only the old ones, the children, too.

Not only the poor ones, the rich, too.

Not only the sick ones, the healthy, too.

Not only the women, but the men, too.

Not only the ones without ice cream, but the ones with ice cream, too. Well, that may be the one exception to the rule. Just kidding!

That means that every person you will ever meet is suffering.

Suffering like you do, too. All living things are sharing the experience of suffering.

And it is not really on us to measure suffering in any way. It’s not a race, it’s not a competition. Pain tolerance is very different as is the tolerance for suffering.

You may think that your path through life was especially filled with suffering, but you do not know and you will never know, if the person you are talking to doesn’t even suffer more than you did – do not compare suffering!

There is no path through life that will leave you unharmed. There is no possibility to be alive without suffering. And that’s the case for every person you will ever meet. He or she may even be more suffering than you right now. All living things are brothers and sisters in suffering.

So, somehow, even if this is not what the First Noble Truth is saying, even if this is probably not anything that Buddha has ever said, it’s true.

All life is suffering!

It is not only suffering, there is ice cream, too – but suffering is a natural part of being alive. In the end suffering is life. It’s a part of being alive.

It’s life itself!