When we try to look up any information about Buddhism very often what we find is the statement that life is suffering. From the outside, this looks like a very pessimistic world view but are we sure it’s the correct interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching? We tend to oversimplify things and this is the case where many of us misunderstand Buddhism. After seeing the incredible benefits that meditation brought to my life I started reading more and more about Buddhist philosophy and in this post, I would like to share some of the common misconceptions about Buddhism, specifically about its teaching on suffering (Pali: Dukkha) or the First Noble Truth.
#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
For me there is a difference between suffering and, let’s say, imperfection. But we 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 discussing the interpretation of the Pali term “dukkha” we need to consider our own attitude toward life. Do we tend to see the positive side of things when facing difficulties? Or do we always practice extreme caution because we always tend to assume worst-case scenarios? In other words, where do assign ourselves on the optimism-pessimism spectrum? We need to take a few moments to reflect on this because it will help us understand the teaching on suffering in Buddhism better.
Buddhism is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, even though the popular “life is suffering” assumption might tell us otherwise. Buddhism views life from a realistic point of view. It reflects the objective qualities of all things (imperfection/impermanence) and diagnoses the human condition (suffering due to attachment to impermanent things). This brings us to the next point – happiness in Buddhism.
#3. Buddhism Doesn’t Deny Happiness
Some of the most popular Buddhist principles indeed focus on such things as impermanence, suffering, and non-self. This may not seem appealing to many of us but before we give up completely, we need to understand that Buddhism doesn’t deny happiness. According to the Buddhist scriptures, one can be a Buddhist and a very happy person at the same time.
For example, in Angutara-nikaya, 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.3
So Buddhists can be happy but they also know that these states and all associated things are impermanent and included in Dukkha. This gives them the freedom and power to enjoy things while they last and not be distressed when they come to an end.
As we can see, there are many sides to the First Noble Truth of Buddhism that meets the eye. I think the biggest misconception out there is that Buddhist teaching is concentrated on suffering and pessimism as predominant themes. But dukkha doesn’t mean that life is only suffering. It’s objective and allows for some happiness without attachment and disappointment.
- 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.↑