Is suffering necessary for human beings? I have been asked that question many times and have listened to several debates on that topic. It’s an interesting and important question if one goes beyond mere speculation and explores it experientially; doing that can lead to liberating insight. So let’s unpack this question. First we need to distinguish between pain and suffering. Let’s look first at the experience of pain. If one is a sentient being with nerve tissues then pain, as well as pleasure, is inevitable. Humans, and most all animal species, will experience both pain and pleasure; but suffering is another issue altogether. Pain is biological and impersonal, but suffering is psychological and requires a sense of self. Suffering requires a sufferer.
Suffering is the result of the mind’s response to pain. It’s been said that “pain is a given, but suffering is optional.” Suffering results from our conditioned response to pain. This conditioning is very deep, but it can be erased. It is possible to experience pain--even intense pain--without suffering; but how to do this?
How does one experience pain without suffering? The Buddha’s teaching of The Four Noble Truths outlines a program for experiencing both pain and pleasure without suffering. The Second Noble Truth tells us that the cause of suffering is craving (tanha in Sanskrit). The most familiar forms of craving are that of craving pleasure and craving the elimination of pain. Another way of stating this is “suffering is caused by the mind’s resistance to pain.” If there is great resistance then even a tiny amount of pain will cause much suffering. An example is when you have an itch that cannot be scratched. The pain itself is minute, but a great deal suffering can occur.
The Third Noble Truth says that suffering can be eliminated by eradicating its cause. Without craving or resistance there is no suffering. Pain without resistance is just another experience; suffering need not be present. The Fourth Noble Truth outlines a prescription for eradicating the cause of suffering; it is called the Eight-Fold Path.
But paradoxically, the First Noble Truth tells us that “Life is suffering.” This statement implies that suffering is inevitable, not optional. How to understand this apparent contradiction? One way to understand it is to say that “Suffering is not necessary; however, it usually takes a great deal of suffering to realize this!” In other words, suffering must be experienced-- and experienced in a certain way--in order to be eradicated.
We might compare it to an inoculation. To become immune to a certain disease you must experience a small dose of that which causes the disease. (As the poet Rumi puts it, “The antidote is in the venom.”) However, an inoculation requires little conscious awareness in order to work, whereas becoming immune to suffering requires a great deal of conscious awareness; it requires deep insight into the cause of suffering. This insight is called panna in Pali (prajna in Sanskrit). Vipassana (Insight) meditation is the practice of cultivating panna. In Vipassana meditation practice we look deeply into the nature of suffering in order to see clearly the cause and effect relationship between resistance and suffering. This insight does not necessarily make the pain disappear, but the pain is experienced simply as it is-- without the mind’s reaction to it. Pain experienced without resistance is just another transitory phenomenon; it’s just another sensation arising in the body. Pain is then no longer feared or hated. Like all phenomena, it is recognized as empty and impermanent.
Freedom from suffering results in freedom from attachment to the psychological sense of self. The experience of self--similar to the experience of pain and pleasure--is then seen as just another phenomenon which rises and falls with the changing conditions of life. And when you are no longer attached to the psychological self, you are free to be what you really are: a living embodiment of the Buddha nature.