While he was teaching the Buddha would often be asked metaphysical or theological questions speculating on the nature of reality or the ultimate destiny of man and the universe. He refused to answer these questions directly and would often say, “I teach one thing and one thing only: Suffering and the end of suffering.” To understand why he focused so much on the issue of suffering we need to understand what is meant by the term suffering.
The Pali word from which the word suffering is translated is the word dukkha which has no singular meaning in English. Some alternative translations might be stress, unhappiness, anxiety or dissatisfaction. I prefer to name it the human condition.
However we describe it, everyone knows what it is; it is the inherent dissatisfaction at the core of human existence; the endless desire and restlessness that lies deep inside each of us. It sometimes appears in that internal voice that says: “Is this all there is?”
When we acknowledge this as a universal human condition and stop pretending otherwise it helps us to focus on the primary condition itself rather than seeking to escape that condition through materialistic or egocentric means, as our conditioning would dictate. The spiritual teacher GI Gurdjieff would often say, “To escape from prison you must first acknowledge that you are in prison, otherwise escape is impossible.”
Focusing on the human condition we can then explore the Second and Third Noble Truths: There is a cause for dukkha and dukkha can be dissolved by removing its causes.
The Buddha taught “Suffering and the end of suffering.” He learned and taught that it is possible to transcend the human condition--not by escaping it but by acknowledging it and then eradicating the causes. The causes are craving, aversion and delusion. Our primary delusion is that the cause and the cure of dukkha (dissatisfaction) lie outside of our self.
The primary way to dissolve the cause of dukkha is by clearly seeing craving, aversion or delusion as it arises within the psyche and by not resisting it or acting it out. We practice awareness and equanimity with every experience that arises. This is the practice of vipassana or Insight Meditation.
Insight Meditation focuses the attention inward to the internal processes of body and mind. We see craving and aversion arising, but rather than trying to escape it in some way we look directly at it with no craving and aversion. Sustaining such a practice will weaken and eventually dissolves the mental forces behind these impulses.
The term nirvana refers to the state beyond suffering: Transcendence of the human condition. When asked questions about this state of being the Buddha simply refused to respond and admonished his disciples to simply engage in the practice so they could discover this state for themselves. The term nirvana simply means to extinguish, which refers to extinguishing the causes of dukkha.
Nirvana does not refer to the content of our awareness or life conditions but rather to the context. In nirvana, the content of our life may change very little but we live our life in a radically different context.. This is reflected in the Zen proverb “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”
Some folks mistakenly think of nirvana as being flat, grey and devoid of any passion or excitement; but this is not so. We discover that we can fully experience desire and pleasure without becoming addicted or attached.
Because we are no longer driven by craving or aversion we will experience true freedom of choice. We can live creatively in the deepest sense of that word because we are not bound by a limited sense of self or a fixed sense of reality. We live originally, which is to live from the source of creation itself.