In the ancient texts of the Pali Canon the Buddha is frequently quoted as saying “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” To some this teaching may appear rather pessimistic. Many wonder why he focused so single-mindedly on the topic of suffering. It can be helpful to look at the Pali word from which the English word suffering is translated. That word is dukkha. It has several possible translations besides the word suffering. Some of these are: dissatisfaction, anxiety, or stress. Some authors simply call it the human condition. By whatever name we use, we are all familiar with it. It’s that chronic sense of dissatisfaction and that existential angst that exists at the core of every human ego.
Sometimes we can divert our attention away from this experience. Often we feel partially satisfied, and sometimes we may be completely satisfied; but that soon disappears and the familiar question, “Is this all there is?” will arise. Sit quietly doing nothing at all for a short while and you will see this ever-present dissatisfaction at work! This is the energy that drives the endless quest for satisfaction that’s a way of life in our culture.
Dukkha (aka the human condition) is not personal; it is not your fault--and no one else is to blame! Once we see this and accept it, it may become more bearable. When we refuse to acknowledge it, it will dominate our life. Accepting the fact that human life is inherently difficult can relieve us of the pressure of trying to hide from it or run away from it. This allows us to live our life more authentically and opens us to more compassion for ourself and for others.
The Buddha’s message is not at all pessimistic; in fact it is incredibly optimistic. He tells us that it is possible to transcend (trance-end) the human condition and to be unconditionally satisfied at all times.
One of the many apocryphal stories about his life tells us of a time when he was walking along a road and a passerby noticed his extraordinary countenance. He approached the Buddha: “Pardon me sir, Are you a man?” The Buddha replied, “No.” “Then, are you a god?” “No.” “Are you a diva or an angel?” “No.” “Then what are you?” The Buddha’s response was, “I am awake.”
He demonstrated in his own life that it is possible to become more than human; it is possible to become awake. (“Buddha” means The Awakened One).
And how do we do this? Every one of his teachings is a response to that question. These teachings are epitomized in the Four Noble Truths. This teaching tells us that to become free from suffering it is essential to see the causes of suffering. He taught that suffering is caused by clinging to that which is impermanent; this includes all objects, concepts, relationships, conditions and experiences. He taught that suffering is caused by clinging to the concept of a separate self which is inherently empty of existence. He taught that suffering is caused by clinging to existence itself.
The human mind cries “My God, what else is there?” He never gave us the answer in words, for that would not be possible. But he did give an answer in his life itself. He demonstrated that it is possible to awaken from the human condition and to discover the reality of Being Itself, which is the only thing that will bring true and lasting satisfaction.