Did you hear someone say that the First Noble Truth of Buddhism states that life is suffering?
Quite a pessimistic point of view, if you ask me.
But are you sure it’s the correct interpretation of Buddha’s teaching?
We tend to oversimplify things sometimes, and this is the case where most people get Buddhism completely wrong.
I’m guilty of this myself. Before my interest in meditation and eastern philosophy, I knew very little about Buddhism in general.
The only thing I heard about it is that life is suffering. Well, I thought that was pretty grim, so I didn’t even try to learn something new about it.
But after seeing incredible benefits that meditation brought to my life, I started reading more and more about Buddhism.
Most of what I learned was a complete opposite of my previous assumptions. So today, I would like to clarify three common misconceptions about Dukkha, the First Noble Truth of Buddhism.
#1. Buddhism doesn’t say that life is suffering (only)
The first point of confusion in understanding Dukkha is the translation.
In the ordinary sense, the Pali word “dukkha” can indeed be translated as “suffering.”1
But the most important aspect to remember here is the Buddhist life philosophy as a whole.
If we look from that point of view, then dukkha doesn’t necessarily mean only suffering, it can also mean imperfection, impermanence, emptiness, insubstantiality.2
I don’t know about you, but I see a lot of differences between suffering and, let’s say imperfection.
But you may also wonder, how they are linked. How does dukkha link suffering and imperfection?
This brings us to the next important point in understanding dukkha — interpretation.
#2. Buddhism doesn’t imply a pessimistic worldview
Before going deeply into the interpretation, I would like to ask you one question.
Are you the person who tries to see the positive side of things even when facing difficulties?
Or are you someone who is cautious and always assumes the worst case scenarios?
In other words, are you a pessimist or an optimist? Take a few minutes to reflect on this before reading on; it will help you to understand the following information.
I asked you that question because Buddhism is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, even though the whole “life is suffering” thing might tell you otherwise. And here’s why.
Buddhism views life from a realistic point of view. It reflects the objective quality of all things (imperfection/impermanence) and diagnoses the human condition (suffering due to attachment to impermanent things).
So does that relates to happiness?
#3. Buddhism Doesn’t Deny Happiness
All this talk about suffering, impermanence, imperfection, insubstantiality is enough to make you say, “Sorry, I didn’t sign up for this.”
And it’s completely understandable if this Buddhist principle might not sound so appealing.
But before pack your things and go, you need to hear one more thing: Buddhism doesn’t deny happiness. In fact, according to Buddhist scriptures, you can be a Buddhist and a very happy person at the same time.
For example, in Aṅguttara-nikāya, there is a list of states of happiness: the happiness of family life and the happiness of a recluse life, the happiness of sense pleasures and the happiness of renunciation, the happiness of attachment and happiness of detachment, physical happiness and mental happiness, etc.3
Yes, you can be happy, but being a Buddhist, you know that these states are impermanent and included in Dukkha.
This gives you the freedom and power to enjoy things while they last and not be distressed when they come to an end.
As you can see, there are many sides to the First Noble Truth of Buddhism than meets the eye.
I think the biggest misconception out there is that Buddhist teaching is concentrated on the suffering and pessimism as predominant themes.
As you’ve learned from this article, Dukkha doesn’t mean that life is only suffering. It’s objective and allows for some happiness without attachment and disappointment.
What other misconceptions about Buddhism did you hear or read about?
- Due to this popular and limited translation some authors prefer not to translate the word Dukkha into English.↑
- Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. Grove/Atlantic, Inc. Kindle Edition. Locations 501-502.↑
- Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. Grove/Atlantic, Inc. Kindle Edition. Locations 507-509.↑