Don’t Buddhists Think that All Life is Suffering? Isn’t that Pessimistic?
This is a common misconception, which is at odds with the other stereotype of Buddhists always being an extremely happy-go-lucky type of people (although I’m sure that people usually perceive Buddhists this way because, admittedly, practicing Buddhism has made me a much happier person – but I digress). In my last post, I briefly explained dukkha as one of the three seals, or three marks of all conditioned phenomena. It is also the First Noble Truth in Buddhism, however, “life is suffering” has been an unfortunate interpretation and paraphrasing. It could more accurately be summed up as “life contains suffering/stress/unease/etc”.
In more detail, the First Noble Truth is as follows: “Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha.” Therefore, Buddhism is not necessarily pessimistic but it is realistic.
In Buddhism, there are hardly ever one-word translations as Pali and Sanskrit contains a lot of polysemous words. The word “dukkha” has often been translated as suffering, stress, lack of peace, unease, anguish, unsatisfactoriness, etc. It is obvious that “dukkha” has some very unpleasant connotations. However, Buddha never said that all of life was necessarily dukkha – but that it was an obvious factor of life. The Buddha taught that life was a lot of things. However, central to his teachings was dukkha and the path leading to the cessation or ending of that same dukkha. In fact, in the Anuradha Sutta, Buddha is quoted as saying, “Both formerly and now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.” To contrast, there is of course “sukha” (happiness, joy, bliss, peace, etc.) in life, as well – the highest of which is Nibbana (which in Sanskrit is “Nirvana”).