Three forms of suffering, reinterpreted

From time to time one of the teachings from the Buddhist tradition will niggle at me for one reason or another. Often it’s because my mind, on some level, is dissatisfied with the traditional interpretation.

Even some of the most common teachings of Buddhism, like the four foundations of mindfulness or the twelve links of dependent origination have sometimes struck me as being a bit off, and I’ve ended up reinterpreting them in a way that makes more sense to me.

This recently happened with a teaching on “Three forms of suffering (dukkha)” The traditional interpretations struck me as being a bit random, and I could feel that niggle deep in the belly.

Here’s one interpretation of this teaching (edited for length):

Suffering or Pain (dukkha-dukkhatā). Ordinary suffering, as defined by the English word, is one form of dukkha. This includes physical, emotional and mental pain.

Impermanence or Change (vipariṇāma-dukkhatā). Anything that is not permanent, that is subject to change, is dukkha. Thus, happiness is dukkha, because it is not permanent.

Conditioned States (sankhāra-dukkhatā). To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. According to the teaching of dependent origination, all phenomena are conditioned. Everything affects everything else. This is the most difficult part of the teachings on dukkha to understand, but it is critical to understanding Buddhism.

The last form of suffering is often described as “the suffering of conditioned existence,” meaning that unenlightened life is inherently unsatisfactory.

I wasn’t sure at first what was bothering me about this teaching, but eventually I realized that it was repetitive. The third category of suffering encompasses the other two. Impermanence or change (this isn’t change as such but change in the sense of “reversal of fortune”) is just an example of “conditioned states.” So is ordinary suffering.

I dislike this untidiness.

Also adding to my unease is the fact that the author I’ve quoted above has done something that’s common when there’s some uncertainty about the meaning of a Buddhist formula; she’s changed the order of the terms. In the scriptures the order is always dukkha-dukkhatā (oridinary pain), sankhāra-dukkhatā (“conditioned states”), and then vipariṇāma-dukkhatā (the pain of reversal of fortune). The author has flipped the last two terms, presumably since “conditioned states” is the most general term, referring to some supposed “universal” kind of suffering.

As it happened, this teaching of three forms of suffering and another teaching on dukkha kind of collided one day in my mind. The Buddha talked about two “arrows” of suffering: our initial pain and the pain we give rise to in response to that by resisting, whining, and wishing things were otherwise.

As the Buddha put it:

When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.

The first of these forms of pain is unavoidable. The second is not. So as they say, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

But the same passage talks about how clinging to pleasure can be another response to the first arrow, and how this too leads to suffering:

…the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure. As he is delighting in sensual pleasure, any passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him. He does not discern, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling…

So it seems to me that we have here three forms of suffering.

  1. We have initial pain, the first arrow, which is dukkha-dukkhatā. This can be physical or mental. In the teaching of the two arrows, the first pain is physical, of course, but much of our pain is mental. For example when we have “hurt feelings” we feel physical pain, but it’s mediated by the mind. In other words we need to have interpreted some experience as being harmful to us before we can feel this hurt.
  2. Then we have constructed pain — the second arrow. This would be sankhāra-dukkhatā. Sankhāra can certainly mean “conditioned” but the most basic meaning of sankhāra is “that which has been put together.” Hence it can mean “fabricated” or “constructed.” So this is the suffering that we construct through our reactions to physical or mental pain. As the Buddha puts it, “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught.”
  3. Then we have a third form of pain, which is delayed. Someone experiences something painful, and then, “Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure.” So we avoid pain by pursuing pleasure, but there’s a “but” … the “but” being that the pleasure arising from clinging must come to an end. That in itself is painful, but we will almost certainly have to deal with the pain that we were initially running from. This is the pain of reversal — vipariṇāma-dukkhatā.

To give an example of these three forms of dukkha: I feel lonely right now because my wife and kids are away for the weekend on a family visit. The loneliness is “dukkha-dukkhatā.” It’s mental pain.

But then I find myself moping around, telling myself how sucky my life is, or perhaps telling myself I should be more “detached.” Either way I suffer again. This is fabricated suffering, or sankhāra-dukkhatā.

Alternatively, I might try to suppress my loneliness by eating too much potato salad (confession: this is exactly what I did!). And while I’m spooning the potato salad into my mouth, I experience pleasure. (It’s really delicious — flavored with shallots.) But the potato salad comes to an end, and I’m still feeling lonely. That’s the suffering that comes when our avoidance mechanisms reach the end of their course: vipariṇāma-dukkhatā.

These teachings in the parable of the two arrows and the three forms of suffering match up perfectly. The terms are in the same order in both teachings. The redundancy of having the pain of “conditioned states” as well as two specific kind of painful conditioned states is removed. And we are able to take sankhāra to have its very basic sense of “constructed” rather than taking it to refer to the entirety of the phenomenal universe, which makes the whole teaching more practical and down-to-earth.

I think this interpretation makes more sense than those commonly given, and in fact I suspect that the teaching of the two arrows and the teaching of the three forms of suffering were originally related. Perhaps the parable of the two arrows was given as a way of illustrating the teaching of three forms of suffering, or perhaps the three forms of suffering were a distillation and explication of the essence of the parable. But to my mind they are the same teaching, expressed in a different fashion.

It’s a minor realignment of the teachings rather than any kind of deep insight, but it’s good to get rid of these niggles.

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