July 7, 2021

Dukkha Is Not a Bad Thing

When we hear the word dukkha, what comes to mind? Probably not something good or preferable.

We can perceive dukkha as something that we want to get away or stay away from. If sukkha is sweet, then dukkha definitely must be bitter. Yet, the Buddha said that dukkha must be known, experienced, and understood.

Why would we want to experience dukkha? The answer is summed up in this famous quote from the Buddha, I teach one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the ending of dukkha. We see that the ending of dukkha, which is the aim of this practice and the inevitable outcome of cultivating the Noble Eightfold Path, is inextricably connected to knowing dukkha.

To know dukkha, we must be able to understand it. Unreliable, unsatisfactory, unstable, subject to change, vulnerable, and, yes, suffering, are all words that round out what this Pali word is pointing to. It’s not saying anything is wrong or bad. It’s just describing the nature of the realm that we’ve been born into. That is, everything is constantly changing, and doing so, almost entirely out of our control. Because of this, anything can happen at any time.

There is no inherent problem with this. It’s just the way it is. Gravity is part of the nature of the realm we live in. There’s nothing wrong with gravity if we understand it and live our lives in accordance with it.

It’s the same with dukkha. What’s different with dukkha though is that we don’t fully understand it and thereby don’t live our lives in accordance with this truth. This is where the problem lies. Can you imagine if we didn’t live by the laws of gravity? There would be chaos, pain, and suffering. This is the inevitable result when we move through life in a way that’s not in accordance with how this world is.

We expect things to always go our way, to only have gain and not loss, to only have pleasure and not pain. Look closely at your heart and mind and see, at least to some degree, if this is so.

My wife’s younger sister died suddenly in her sleep last month. The angst, sadness, and sorrow of that is a form of dukkha. Yet, even the fact that this could happen is dukkha. Remember, things constantly change and anything can happen at any time. To the degree that we really know this, is to the degree that when very challenging things come to pass, we won’t resist them. We do feel their impacts, deeply at times, but there’s no sense that anything is wrong or out of order. Simply the nature of our world manifesting.

We can experience dukkha on an individual level, and on a collective level as well. For white people, acknowledging, leaning into, and feeling the impacts of racism on both POC and white people, is necessary in order to heal and move beyond this particular form of suffering. Similarly for climate change. Feeling the experience of the suffering can, with proper attention, lead to its transformation.

Dukkha isn’t something to avoid or hide from. We want to lean into it, experience it, and understand it. In this way, we undercut one of the main causes of craving, which is ignorance of dukkha. Next time life unexpectedly throws up a difficulty, individually or collectively, see if you can frame the whole experience as a manifestation of the truth of dukkha. If you can, you’ll suffer a whole lot less.

  • Chas DiCapua, July 2021