The 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
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
In the same way, others
are fiercely dear to themselves.
So one should not hurt others
if one loves oneself.”2
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.