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The truth of not suffering: The Buddha’s teachings on happiness

balloonsThe Buddha’s teaching on suffering does not say that we have to accept all of our unhappy circumstances. For those living the lay life, his advice was to look after ourselves and seek abundant happiness.

Let’s say you’re in a job or a relationship that isn’t really working for you, but it’s not so horrible that you have to flee. It’s a comfortable routine and provides security, and you can name a whole bunch of reasons why it’s a perfectly good place to stay. But you’re dissatisfied. Feeling a bit stuck. Like you’re not going anywhere. Oh well, I hear you say. Life is suffering, right? We have to learn to accept what is.

Yes, that is the gist of the Buddha’s famous teaching on suffering in the Four Noble Truths. He said that it’s an inevitable part of human existence to encounter pain and disappointment, and we need to learn to accept that. Yes, these are very wise words, but do they really apply here? All too often I’ve seen people use this teaching to justify staying needlessly stuck in unhappiness, and therefore miss reaching their true potential.

So let’s take a look at another teaching from the Buddha that might shed a different light on the situation.

“If by renouncing a limited happiness one would see an abundant happiness, let the spiritually mature person, having regard to the abundant happiness, sacrifice the limited happiness.”1

 The Buddha’s teaching … is that we need to accept the things we can’t control, such as … aging and death. But for things we can affect, he advised that we change our conditions so that they’re more conducive to our happiness and spiritual growth.   

So this suggests that the Buddha might ask you to consider picking yourself up and going after a more “abundant happiness.” How does this square with the idea of accepting one’s suffering? Well let’s examine your situation more closely. Imagine for a moment that you’re in a new job or relationship, completely free of the things that are making you unhappy right now. Close your eyes and really put yourself in that scene so you get a good visceral sense of what it might be like. How does it make you feel? Free? Joyful? Energetic? And with all those positive feelings, how likely will you be to start something new, take on new challenges, and grow? And how likely will you be to share this positive energy with others?

The Buddha’s teaching on suffering is that we need to accept the things we can’t control, such as loss, sickness, aging, and death. But for things we can affect, he advised that we change our conditions so that they’re more conducive to our happiness and spiritual growth. So which seems like the better choice now? Staying with your current situation, or picking yourself up to go after a more “abundant happiness”?

At this point, I often hear another counterargument that casts doubt once again. Isn’t it selfish to go after my own happiness? Shouldn’t I be working for the good of others? Isn’t it better to stay in my job (or relationship) where I know I’m valued and would cause some harm if I left?

My reply to this question is to remind you of the Metta Bhavana meditation practice, and how the first stage is on cultivating loving-kindness for oneself. The implication I draw here is that if we’re not in a positive frame of mind, we are less likely to be at our best. We’re also less likely to be fully open-hearted, and make the contribution to others that we are fully capable of. So why settle for a lesser happiness for myself AND a lesser potential to help others? Helping others does not require us to sacrifice ourselves. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. There are plenty of ways in which we can help others AND ourselves at the same time. Doesn’t it seem worth the effort to look for them?

I’d like to bring in one more teaching from the Buddha here, one that reinforces the idea that it’s spiritually healthy to look after oneself. The scene is an intimate moment between King Pasenadi and his wife, Queen Mallika. The king asked his queen if there was anyone more dear to her than herself. She had to admit there wasn’t. And the King, when asked the same question in return, had to admit the same. Later on, the King relayed this conversation to the Buddha, who responded,

“Searching all directions
with one’s awareness,
one finds no one dearer
than oneself.
In the same way, others
are fiercely dear to themselves.
So one should not hurt others
if one loves oneself.”2

 …the Buddha consistently taught that it is wise to look after oneself and one’s own spiritual progress, as long as it causes no harm to others.  

So you’ll note that the Buddha, far from rebuking them for selfishness, took their realization and turned it into a spiritual teaching. By holding ourselves dear, we can more deeply understand why we shouldn’t hurt others. By loving ourselves, we can more fully appreciate how to relate compassionately to others. Throughout the scriptures, the Buddha consistently taught that it is wise to look after oneself and one’s own spiritual progress, as long as it causes no harm to others.

To close, I’d like to say that each person’s situation is unique, and has its unique challenges and rewards. So I don’t mean to imply that everyone in all cases should jump for the supposedly greater and more abundant happiness. There could be many valid reasons to stay where you are, and sorting all that out is the work of mindful inquiry. My main intent in writing here is to help you avoid staying in an unhappy situation for the wrong reasons.

So I leave you with a question. What’s really keeping you where you are? Is there some objective reason (like needing the income) that rightfully keeps you there? Or is it fear of change? I’d like to challenge you to find out the real issues underneath it all.


1. The Dhammapada, verse 290 (chapter 21, verse 1). Translation by Sangharakshita, available for free download at www.sangharakshita.org.

2. Udana 5.1. Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, available at Access to Insight.


Sunada
Sunada not only teaches the online meditation courses at Wildmind, she runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, that helps people get out of stuck places and find a more abundant happiness.

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Comment from david
Time: August 22, 2008, 6:41 pm

hi
need some advice here guys…why am i drinkin more alcohol the more i meditate…what is it that draggin me back ….i suspect this is nornal and part of the process… i have been blessed with an addictive personality disorder…i want to change but its so hard…i would appreciate some help but i already know the ansewer…how weird… wired is that…can i drink and still respect meditation…is this the key..? or is my lock jammed…help me i sendin out an SOS…

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Comment from Sunada
Time: August 25, 2008, 8:09 pm

Hi David,

I know it’s really hard to try and quit an addiction, but I encourage you to keep trying. Of course, you could choose to keep drinking and meditating, but I think you already know that it isn’t the way to your true happiness. You say you already know the answer. Mindfulness can help us to see through our thoughts when cravings arise. But if you feel unable to manage this process on your own, I’d like to encourage you to seek professional help. Mindfulness and meditation are very useful tools, but they by themselves can’t provide the answer.

Wishing you the courage and wisdom to persevere,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from kavitha
Time: November 16, 2011, 5:28 am

hi Sunada,
im married and have two children ( around 10 years old ).My husband has had some psychiatric problems and was treated before our marriage, which i came to know only after marriage. For the past 12 years i had lived in continuous harassment and torture. i cant leave him for my kids sake, and secondly its against my tradition ( im an indian ). i knew that i have to accept this suffering and had been concentrating on spiritualism for the past 5 years. If possible please pray for my kids, my husband and for me . many thanks.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: November 18, 2011, 9:32 am

Kavitha,
I am at a loss for words. I can hear all the pain in your story. I offer my metta prayers to you, in the hopes that it might be of some help. Whether or not it will, I don’t know. I can just hope your faith helps bring you some comfort and peace.

With kindness,
Sunada

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Comment from Divya
Time: February 15, 2012, 3:58 am

Hi sunada,
Like your name even your words are Sunada itself. I recently had to let go my relationship for the Truth, for that “Abundant happiness”. Thanks for the article, it really was very helpful. Since 2 years am in the path of spirituality. But now am into the path of the Buddha. Please keep writing such articles to inspire people like us.
Warm Regards,
Divya

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Comment from Sunada
Time: February 15, 2012, 9:33 am

Thank you, Divya!

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Comment from hopeless.wanderer
Time: November 15, 2012, 9:17 pm

I stumbled upon this article, but I am glad that I did. I struggle with accepting things I cannot change, specifically I was raped nearly three years ago; I desperately want to overcome this, but I feel like I keep falling into the same hole of depression and irritability. I am seeking inner peace, but the more I seek the more I feel it fading away. I feel like my life has been ruined, and for it I am a more angry, sarcastic, sad person.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: November 18, 2012, 1:06 pm

Dear hopeless.wanderer,

How horrible to have to live with having been raped. I can understand that something like that is extremely difficult to shake off. It sounds like the experience was so big and overwhelming, it’s taken over your life. But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless and you’re stuck this way forever. If you haven’t already done so, I strongly urge you to get professional help. That’s one thing you could do to change your conditions and take a step toward happiness. You aren’t destined to suffer for the rest of your life. Please find someone to help pull you out.

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Comment from Satisfied
Time: November 27, 2012, 2:20 pm

Hi
I really found this article amazing. It inspires people to do things with there life. I think that the Buddha has said something about inspiration.( I’m studying a project on Buddhism).

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Comment from Joseph
Time: February 10, 2013, 6:41 pm

I struggle with issues from my past like abuse addiction and rape. I try to avoid dealing with all this suffering and struggles Ive been through and try to stay…on the Path. It is hard though because in the halls of memory…are such volumes of suffering and pain that…im just now starting to face and deal with but I have no guide to show me how to fix these things. What should I do. I wish to be a clean soul and not harm anyone. My humanity seems to get in the way though HELP. Sincerely, Joseph Simon

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Comment from Sunada
Time: February 11, 2013, 11:40 am

Dear Joseph,
I’m so sorry to hear of your struggles. Please know that what you’re describing is a very different situation from what I write about in the article. You’ve come through a very difficult past, and it’s completely understandable that it continues to haunt you. If you have not yet found a professional who can help you through this, I strongly urge you to do so. An exchange like this is so inadequate for what you’re asking for.

In any case, please know that your humanity is not getting in your way. It is entirely normal for difficult thoughts and emotions to continue to arise. You say you wish to be a clean soul and not harm anyone. I ask you to start by having compassion and forgiveness for yourself — as you are now. You, like all of us, are an imperfect being in the process of moving forward. You’ve set your intention, and that’s a huge first step. Now, please forgive yourself as you take wobbly steps toward a new future. And please go seek out someone who can help you get through this difficult time.

Best wishes,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from Sok Saravuth
Time: April 21, 2013, 11:22 pm

Dear Sunada,
I found this article is ideal and useful altough I don’t know how it going to help me or how am i going to use it but at least I found something that I feel comfortable and coml while reading it.

I probably just confuse or totally lost in a completely happiness environment because of my unsatisfactory/unacceptable of with what my society is prouding of and struggling to live. I am basically just not happy with my life and the happiness in which my society is defined and practiced. How can that happen? And what to do? With a men who is having the highest degree, the best job, a good wife with lovely 2 children, and who is also wealthy.

I know by feeling that i need and looking for True Happiness which i am unable to defined and describe. Most people especially doctors including my wife believe, which I am sure I am not, that I need stress release medication. However, I do believe that I need a True Happiness in which I need my society to change and individual to strictly practice my 3 Buddha teachings version of NO KILL, NO STEAL, AND NO LIE.

What do you think? Am I having problem or those doctors including my society having problem? Of course I should continue my meditation but it only help me one in a while and even I’ve been thinking to become a month but with today environment it is almost hopeless to help our society.

So it is not just changing my job or my life isn’t it? It is about changing each individual in the whole society. However, I do need your advice on whether I should start changing my job and life first?

Saravuth

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Comment from hopeless.wanderer
Time: April 22, 2013, 12:34 pm

Thank you for the kind words Sunada, little by little I am finding myself again… I have changed, but my eyes have been opened to see this pain in others that I would not have been able to see before. I only hope to make good come from the pain I have suffered.

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Comment from Dreamer
Time: April 28, 2013, 7:44 am

I am a 65 year old Christian man with good Theological background but I find Buddhist teachings more practical and realistic approach to life.

In spite of all the trials and tribulations as early as 11 years old, I was able to succeed in life in most things. Coming from a poor family, I finished schooling as a working student, been a breadwinner of a big family from age 16, achieved high academic qualifications, had an excellent career for past 50 years. Along the way, I was able to help many people aside from my relatives, either financially, emotionally and spiritually.

My first marriage ended in divorce after 10 years and I became single parent for nearly the same period for 2 kids. Both are now successful in their own career, I remarried 15 years ago, now with an equally successful stepson.

In my life journey, I followed the dictate & expectations of my culture & society not necessarily what I wanted. I am satisfied for all my deeds and the way I followed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: ‘To know that one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded….’

I currently work as Business Manager (probably for another decade) of a non profit & charitable organization helping disadvantage people, which I find very fulfilling.

With this background, all people (friends, relatives & the community) were very generous in their praises & accolades but deep inside I suffered for not allowing myself to express who I am and what I really wanted.

When I was 30 years, I feel in love with another man of same age and had a very good relationships for 5 years. We didn’t go beyond hugging each other because we both came from conservative family and society. Knowing that we would hurt many along the way, we opted to discontinue our friendship and has not seen each other for past 30 years, though we live in the same city. Like me, he had been married twice, also with grown up children.

What hurt me most is the fact that he’s the only person I ever loved and probably will love until I die. Up until now, I still dream of the years that we had been together and wonder, what if?

Outwardly, I am happy but suffering inside, because now at age 65, there’s no turning back. In this world, only us knew about it… Could you offer me a compassionate advise to ease my pain.

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Comment from Sunada Takagi
Time: April 29, 2013, 12:54 pm

Dear Dreamer,

Thank you for sharing your story. I can hear how deeply it grieves you to be separated from the one person you truly love! What I’m hearing most clearly in your words is your inner struggle between A) the part of you that wants to be a good father/husband/member of society and B) the part that yearns for your heart connection with your true love. There is no right answer here — only different paths, each with its own consequences. And until you firmly choose, in your own mind, which path to walk down, it’s probably going to continue to cause you heartache.

I know it’s terribly difficult to choose, but it seems to me that you’re at a fork in the road, facing that difficult decision — A or B. And what I mean here is not the external appearances, but your inner choice — choosing one in your mind and letting the other go for once and for all. Actually there’s also a 3rd choice C: NOT choosing either, as you are currently doing, which means more suffering for you. While firmly choosing A or B may be very painful in the short run, my guess is that it will lead ultimately to a place of more peace. Can you muster the courage to do that?

So, do you choose A, and perhaps find someone who can help you to grieve and let go of the loss? Or do you choose B, go find this man again, restart the relationship (if he’s even willing) and face the very complicated consequences of redefining your life and relationships? Would you want to try contacting him again, to see if it’s even a possibility?

Or do you choose C, and in your mind continue to straddle these two worlds — which seems to be eating you up inside.

What is ultimately most important to you? Your family and position in society, or your heart-love? How long can you continue to tread water in this limbo? You’re the only one who can make this decision. I would urge you to begin making steps to help you decide, for once and for all.

If you’d like some support in working through this process, I may be able to assist through my coaching services. Please let me know if you’d like to talk further about that.

I wish you all the best through this difficult journey,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from Sunada Takagi
Time: April 29, 2013, 1:34 pm

Dear Saravuth,

My heart goes out to you in all your pain and suffering. You said that in order to be happy, you need society to change. Do you see how that’s an impossible wish? We can’t expect the world to change in order to make us happy. (Well, I suppose we can hold that expectation, but as you can see, all it does is make us unhappy because the world will never cooperate!)

You say you don’t know what will make you happy. Please remember that nobody or no situation external to you can create happiness for you. You need to begin that difficult task of finding what happiness means within yourself. Do you enjoy spending time with your wife, family, and friends? Do certain activities bring you pleasure, like dancing or hearing music? Start exploring with small everyday things — what sorts of things lift you out of your difficult moods? It may not feel like much, but it’s the first small step of the journey.

And if you honestly cannot think of anything that feels positive, then would you consider taking some medication? Yes it’s true that it won’t change your life situation. But if it shifts your mood just enough so that you’re able to lift yourself up a little and start doing small things to enjoy yourself again, it can be a good thing. It might be just enough of a small step up to help you out of your distress. In other words, it can put your in a better frame of mind so that you can begin the work of changing your life situation.

Going back to this article, remember that a key point was to take care of yourself, and take responsibility for your own happiness. Rather than being upset about how the world is not the way you want, look within and find what makes YOU feel well and peaceful inside. There really is no other way to get to the place you’re looking for.

I wish you strength and courage on this difficult journey,
Sunada

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Comment from Sunada Takagi
Time: April 29, 2013, 9:15 pm

Dear Hopeless.wanderer,
I’m so glad to hear you’re doing better. Thanks for checking back in!

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Comment from Dreamer
Time: April 30, 2013, 3:17 am

Hi Sunada,

I am extremely grateful to all your comments.

It was very difficult, but I took option A . His immediate family was his main concern, while I had the heavier load of maintaining a respectable standing. I was very popular at work, school and the community at large. My relatives put me on a pedestal above everyone and was seen by many and my whole clan as a model son/brother/friend/father/cousins/nephew/husband/adviser, etc.

The comments I made was intended for my own satisfaction, in knowing that I can release to another person, the hurt kept in me. In this world, only me and him knew about it, and now there are 3 of us.

Two years ago, I searched for his whereabouts, and contacted him through email and letter on his birthday. He didn’t have a chance to respond because his wife questioned the person who gave me his addresses. She was aware how close we were, but not the depth of our friendship though.

Both of us were down at one stage, in realizing that we’re heading nowhere, so I broke our relation without explanation. . After nearly 30 years, I thought of contacting him for ‘closure’ because what I did haunt me for number of years.

I accepted our fate and I have no intention to choosing option ‘B’ knowing that it was not feasible then, and even impractical now at age 65. I never stop loving him though and dreamt of him all the time, which to most is not healthy but I am taking it as my only consolation. I don’t want to see him in his current condition – I want to remember ourselves when we were young and happy.

I am at peace with myself and it doesn’t affect my relation to others which I intend to keep that way, till death. ‘Better to loved and lost, rather than not to love at all’….

There’s one Korean TV series in 2010 that enjoyed watching over and over again, ‘Life is Beautiful’… story of Tae Sub and Kyung Soo. Unlike ours, it had a very good ending. Ironically, it becomes my therapy in reminiscing the past.

Again, thank you very much for listening and for your advise.

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Comment from Confused
Time: June 16, 2013, 11:42 am

I think buddhism is a great style of living. It changed my life dramatically over how i think an act these past few months. I hope to change my religion to buddhism soon
I ‘m confused about the rebirth and enlightenment because the buddha says that we must get rid of all desires and attachments to become spritually free and end suffering. I have a few questions
1. Should i give up all of my hobbies and things i am doing so that i can focus on becoming enlightenend? For example the body is a temporary place for our souls so it is not as important as growing our minds . Actually i enjoy long distance runnning and working out in the gym but does that hinder me from attaining enlightenment? Because in the end i have to give all this up right? Including studies in school?
2. What happens after we attain englihtenement e.g what happenede to the buddha after he passed away
I actually have a back problem as well and i always have to keep it conciously straight to prevent problems but it always keeps me occupied and all these i am afraid hinders me to achieve and attainment in te mind. But then again i woukd look crippled and dumb if i throw away the desire to do this

Thanks…

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 17, 2013, 10:07 am

Hi, Confused.

No, you don’t need to give up all desires, or give up your hobbies and exercising.

There are desires that are healthy because they promote our wellbeing. Exercising is something that promotes our well-being, and so it’s not a problem to desire to exercise. Meditation is another thing that promotes our well-being, and the Buddha never advised anyone to give up their desire to meditate.

Your running, working out, and other hobbies can even be an opportunity to practice letting go of craving and aversion. When you’re running for example, and you’re not enjoying it, the mind can resist the experience and you find yourself mentally grumbling and wishing (craving) it was over. That aversion and desire cause suffering.

If your desire to exercise becomes a problem — for example when you want to exercise to the point that you’re damaging your body or the amount of exercise you’re doing is interfering with your life, then the desire has turned into a problem.

And you certainly shouldn’t give up your studies in school! Even if you want to become a Buddhist monk, you don’t know for sure whether that’s a path that will suit you, and so you should have something to fall back on. And in any event, the Buddha praised people for developing skill in their work, and studying is how you gain skill.

No one knows what happened to the Buddha after he passed away. He pointed out that that question can’t actually be answered. He said “you can’t pin down the Tathagata [Buddha] as a truth or reality even in the present life” and therefore you can’t say that the Buddha exists after death, does not exist after death, both does and does not exist after death, or neither exists nor does not exist after death. The mind wants to grasp after an answer — it craves an answer — but letting go of that craving is an important part of practice, because it is a source of suffering when we cling to certainties about things we don’t and can’t know.

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Comment from Dipti
Time: July 19, 2013, 4:05 am

Hi. I am married , 28 & currently pregnant. My inlaws are money minded , they fight with everyone (friends, relatives, neighbours,). They are laid back & dirty (my house smells like a dustbin). My Husband is rude to me & my parents & is a mama’s boy , despite being an IT engineer. He has no freinds & works from home.
I am working & contribute half my salary towards household expenses . Yet my household is in bad situation becuase they waste all money on junk food & sweets . They dont spend wisely.
Due to their bad behaviour, no maid/cook wants to work at my home. I am sick of cleaning & cooking. How can I apply buddhist teachings to bring change in these people ? My Friends & family ask me to divorce him but i dont want to break the family .

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Comment from Sunada Takagi
Time: July 25, 2013, 9:40 am

Dear Dipti,

Your situation does sound difficult indeed. I have to say though, it’s not possible to make other people change, no matter how objectionable their behavior may seem to us. We can only be responsible for ourselves. I agree with your family and friends. You have the choice to either leave him or stay wit him and put up with the situation. This is the one area where YOU are in complete control. It seems for now you have chosen to stay, so then it’s up to you to figure out how to make things work. But trying to make other people change to your preferences is asking for trouble.

Best wishes,
Sunada

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Time: August 25, 2013, 12:59 am

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Comment from lasay askapajar
Time: October 10, 2014, 7:56 pm

Hello. I’ve been having a really tough time recently. For about a month I’ve been feeling very depressed. I am 15 years old and in grade 10. I am from a fairly poor family and live in a small apartment while my friends are rich and wealthy. My parents believe I am smart, and people tell me that too, but I don’t think so. I have never succeeded in anything in life. I fail in everything I do. My parents have very high expectations for me, thinking I can become very successful in life and get into this very difficult medical program. I don’t think I can. I keep doing poorly on tests, always getting something wrong even though I know everything, or at least think I do. Other students have 5 times as much fun as me. They go out, play sports, watch movies, listen to music and still do well in school, while I, work extremely hard everyday but for nothing. I’ve been feeling very depressed and wish that I could simply die and that my life is going to be horrible anyway. I am buddhist and know that it is a great sin and most likely won’t do anything but I still feel horrible. My whole life is just terrible as terrible as can be. False hopes, ugly, barely athletic, poor and I just don’t know what to do. How can I focus more on school. This is affecting me greatly and I don’t know how to solve this problem. Its not fair. I wish I was stupid. I wish people didn’t think I was smart, expect me to do well and think that I can, while I think I can’t. I don’t know what to do. Please help me. Sorry for writing so much. I just want to let it all out. I just want to be happy.

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Comment from Sunada Takagi
Time: October 12, 2014, 11:30 am

Dear lasay,
I’m so sorry things are feeling so difficult for you. As much as I’d like to be of help, there are far better places for you to go than this online forum. I urge you to talk to someone in person, and as soon as possible. At your school, is there a teacher, nurse, or guidance counselor that you trust and can reach out to? Or maybe a family member who would understand how you’re feeling and not pressure you? I’m sure there are many people around you who care very much about you, and want you to be happy. If you tell them exactly what you just wrote here, I’m sure they will want to help you right away. There is so much for you to live for and be hopeful about. Please find someone who can help you get back on your feet, and do it soon.

With much metta to you,
Sunada

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