Nature of Suffering

When Buddha turned the Wheel of Dharma, the first thing he taught was the truth of suffering—the suffering of all sentient beings. What is the meaning of meditating on the suffering of all sentient beings? What is the use of it?  

We all have fear of suffering, but we do not know exactly what it is. We do not find anyone who understands suffering, unless they understand the very nature of suffering.  

Everyone in our society is afraid of suffering. People who look very powerful outwardly are as afraid of suffering as we are. It does not matter whether you are poor or rich, powerful or weak, we all have this fear of suffering.  

Ironically, when we comprehend our life’s activities, we discover that there is this secret activity going on—that we are trying to escape from suffering. We never have the chance to understand what suffering is because we are always avoiding it.  

But what is suffering? Does it truly exist or not? In our mind, we have this entrenched belief system that suffering truly exists in the form of outer circumstances, such as loss and sickness. This belief, in turn, creates the false idea that there is also happiness (which is the opposite of suffering) that can be acquired through favorable circumstances, such as being powerful or having lots of money. This deeply rooted belief system is our habitual cage, one that we have willfully imprisoned ourselves in for many lifetimes. We experience the suffering of suffering because we avoid it.

Meditation on Suffering 

What is suffering? Buddha’s way to gain freedom from suffering is to not avoid it. In reality, there is nothing to avoid, because suffering does not exist as a physical or material entity.  

The way to liberate ourselves from suffering is to be willing to completely experience the suffering that we think exists within ourselves. We have to journey down so to speak, to venture into this unknown and undisclosed area of ourselves. Then we will understand freedom from suffering by understanding its nature. When we meditate on suffering, there is no longer fear and resistance in our heart. The suffering dissolves into its true nature, which is ironically love and compassion.  

If we really meditate on the suffering of another person, not just intellectually, but when we allow ourselves to experience someone’s pain and confusion, our experience becomes love, compassion, and genuine caring born of understanding. This is because we have completely understood ourselves, and there is no separation to cause limitless confusion.  

When we are having a bad day, what do we do? There are lots of things we can do. Some of them are brilliant and some of them are not so brilliant. Sometimes they have a mysterious cause, being triggered by certain events, circumstances, or personalities. But the seeds of those sufferings are already in each of us.  

When we experience suffering through emotion or a physical or mental state, our old habit is to run away by distracting our minds—by watching television, listening to music, or entertaining our minds by talking with people on the phone, and so forth. Perhaps we take intoxicating substances. We employ many old tricks to run away from our suffering.

By contrast, the following is the Mahayana and also the Dzogchen way to understand suffering. Meditation on suffering is new to us. We have not done it. We may think we do not have to do it, because we think we’ve experienced so much suffering. But we have never truly allowed suffering to touch us before.

In general, all of you are already on the path and have done many practices, but still this is very new for us to try to experience suffering. At the same time, all of us have many memories of what we have experienced through countless challenges in our lives—loss, sickness, and misfortune. We may think we have had enough education on suffering. But if we think back, how have we actually encountered those circumstances?  

When we encounter fear, hope, and anxiety, there is always struggle in each of us. We always try to push away the reality we are going to encounter. We may experience suffering, but we experience it with a barrier, with conflict.  

What we are doing now is to encounter every circumstance that is happening in our lives, and experience everything that arises in our mind. We do this whether the experience is one of pain or hope or fear. It does not matter, and we are letting go of all our resistance; our distrust of death, of sickness, of loss, and distrust of our own emotional experience of pain and misery. We are going to touch them, feel them, and meditate on their true nature. When we do this, we begin to clearly see the reality that our resistance has been concealing. We begin to see what the true nature of suffering actually is. We see that suffering is no longer caused by outer circumstances.  

The moment we recognize that suffering is a mental state, we no longer have to try to get rid of it. Suffering becomes a source of love, kindness, compassion, joy, and bliss as well. Perhaps you have heard of turning suffering into bliss. There is no suffering to be rejected, or from which we have to escape. Understanding the nature of suffering is already freedom from suffering. We cannot find freedom from suffering in future circumstances, nor in Buddha heavens. The only time we can find freedom from suffering is in the present moment, right in the suffering itself. This is an important view we will have to talk about again.  

Many people think Buddhism is pessimistic because it focuses so much on suffering. But the Buddhist way to acquire freedom from suffering is in understanding its nature and cause. Understanding the nature of suffering is going to bring us absolute happiness as well. This whole Mahayana practice is focusing on the simple discipline of feeling suffering.  

Sometimes it is very difficult to feel suffering. We have been so resistant to pain, crisis, and misery, it is very difficult to open one’s heart to one’s own suffering and the suffering of all beings. Sometimes we do not want to see that other people are suffering. It is not a beautiful image to see other people suffering. One powerful way to do practice, a most heartfelt way, is to reach your hand into someone’s heart; to extend your heart into someone’s life. Sometimes it is good to talk to beings who are suffering, to listen to beings who are suffering, to be in the space of those who are suffering.

In the sutras, Bodhisattvas always make promises to come back to samsara and guide sentient beings who are lost. We have to practice these same Bodhisattva vows—to work tirelessly for the welfare of others. We must follow in the footsteps of Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara if we are to truly understand and live with genuine compassion. The footsteps of those great Bodhisattvas, and for ourselves, since we are also great Bodhisattvas, is to always come back to samsara without running away from the situations that challenge us, that bring fear and pain into our lives.  

The main philosophy of Bodhisattvas is to face phenomena that we are afraid of. This is a big shift in our belief system and spiritual practice. It seems that all we are ever doing is running away from samsara, from the sufferings of sickness, old age, and death. But the Bodhisattva way is to run into the landfill, into the garbage place, where the stench is consuming, where our senses are completely affronted. We have to run into the place that most people are afraid of facing. This is a reverse process. We are going where everyone is running away from, the place that everyone is pretending does not exist. We are diving headlong into this resistance, into authentic living and its flames of aversion and razors of guilt. We are marching into this cosmic landfill with ultimate courage, which is devotion to our Buddha nature, that sees Buddha nature in all things, in every being. It is there, in here, the cosmic landfill, that we shall face and find ourselves directly. This is the unmistakable path of compassion, the way of the Bodhisattva.  

What we are working on is ourselves, transcending the dualism of our own fear, aversion, and guilt. We cannot really find anything outside ourselves that is the actual cause of suffering, aversion, and pain. By facing and encountering all these unwanted circumstances this will give us a very challenging and risky encounter on the spiritual path. We understand that all of the suffering, aversion, and guilt we are trying to get rid of, does not exist outside of ourselves. Then there is an immediate unveiling of freedom. There is immediate relief, because we realize that all of the sufferings are our own creation. We experience relief from the torment of suffering and exhaustion because we no longer rely on outer conditions to satisfy us or give meaning to our lives. We find total satisfaction and meaning within ourselves, just as we are.

Source: Used with permission from