What is Suffering?

The Buddha gave a very clear mission statement, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” (— SN 22.86)

The Four Noble Truths, the oble Eightfold Path, the Law of Karma, etc.: Everything that the Buddha taught was done with one clear purpose: to end suffering.

But what does he mean by suffering? How does that translate into happiness?


The first thing we need to understand is what we mean by the definition of suffering. In the original Buddhist Pali language, the word is dukkha. There is no single perfect translation for this word. While “to suffer” is the common definition, a better understanding of the word can be found in its etymology. Dukkha is made up of two words meaning “unbalanced” and “wheel.” Just as a cart may be perfect in every other aspect, if there is just one wheel that is not perfectly balanced, rounded, and crafted, the entire ride will not be perfect. There is something unsatisfactory and unbalanced about life, which Buddhists translate into English as “suffering.”

In a Buddhist context there are three major types of suffering: physical and mental pain; mental fabrication and change. In each of these areas we see discontentment. Living means experiencing unpleasant sensations. Living means experiencing sickness. Living means experiencing dying. Living means not getting what we want and being given what we don’t want. Living means getting what we want and still finding more wanting. These are all aspects of suffering.


“Now what, friends, is the noble truth of stress (aka suffering)? Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful; separation from the loved is stressful; not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

“And what is the stress of not getting what is wanted? In beings subject to birth, the wish arises, ‘O, may we not be subject to birth, and may birth not come to us.’ But this is not to be achieved by wanting. This is the stress of not getting what is wanted. In beings subject to aging… illness… death… sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair, the wish arises, ‘O, may we not be subject to aging… illness… death… sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair, and may aging… illness… death… sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair not come to us.’ But this is not to be achieved by wanting. This is the stress of not getting what is wanted.

MN 141


The First Noble Truth in Buddhism is that there is suffering in the world. We have defined it in broad terms, but hopefully we can all understand what we mean on some level. But what is the cause of this suffering?

As we see in the end of Sariputta’s abridged discourse, this suffering/stress is an unhealthy desire, attachment and craving to the world around us. Unfortunately we suffering cognitive dissonance between what is and isn’t wholesome and unwholesome in our engagement with the world.


Cognitive dissonance is that conflict of holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously: the awareness of fact often mitigated by acceptance of a contradictory belief.  A good example is smokers, who know that cigarettes are unhealthy. Smokers want a long and healthy life, but continue to smoke by either ignoring the health risk, denying the health risk, or rationalizing the quality of living (“something is going to kill you, so enjoy the smoke!”). Meanwhile, ask any smoker and they will tell you honestly that they believe that they are good decision makers.

We see this cognitive dissonance in everyone; Eating bad foods, making bad career and relationship decisions, etc.: our lives are filled with contradictions between what is and what we wish it to be. In the Buddha’s day, he saw three forms of this cognitive dissonance that set him on his journey to understand our self-created delusions. These are the “three heavenly messengers”: aging, illness and death.

We know that we are aging, and yet we struggle so hard to appear youthful. We know that we will all get ill, but when someone is sick, we treat them like a leper as if it will only happen to others. While everyone understands death in theory, no one really lives their lives as if it is an impending certainty. Instead, we mitigate our desires to with these things NOT to happen with layers of delusion and illusion. We avoid unpleasantness and real truth in favor for objects and desires that are ultimately meaningless.

A widow was asked by her neighbors if her husband left anything after his death. The widow looked curiously at the neighbors and replied, “Of course he did. He left everything behind.


The origin of suffering is unwholesome attachment to the wrong things. These “thirsts,” cravings and clinging to temporary things are never satiated. Craving for food, will only leave us eventually hungry again. Craving for money, will only create more craving. Unwise clinging to relationships and life will lead to lamentation and sorrow when they eventually fade away. Thirsting for eternal life will create delusions of reality and faulty rationalizations.

We can understand suffering by understanding the relationships between experiencing life and how we engage with it. Many modern Buddhist thinkers have come up with a cute formula to explain the level of suffering.

Suffering = pain x resistance

According to these Dhamma-followers, all suffering should be measured by the amount of pain multiplied by our resistance to experiencing that pain. However; it is inaccurate to say pain, because it implies gross physical discomfort. It also implies that aversion is the only multiplier for suffering.  The common formula would say that suffering is based solely on unpleasant experience multiplied by our unwillingness to accept that pain.

For example: If you are sitting in meditation, and there is a pain in the knees. The initial reaction of the body is to move and avoid pain. For those who remain in the painful posture would note that the pain would immediately increases until there is a moment of physical and mental anguish where they will would break and the body would move. However, if a meditator was able to “be” with the pain as an observer (without judgment), they could see that much of the pain was not physical but mental. Liberated from the the mental resistance to experiencing pain we liberate ourselves from levels of pain and suffering is reduced.

The measure of suffering should be more appropriately measured to the level of feeling we have in our sensation of an experience multiplied by the amount of variance we have to that experience (based on clinging or aversion).

Suffering = Feeling x Variance

The feeling of pain and resistance (aversion) to pain would still apply, but so would many more situations.

For example: A young girl has a craving for ice cream. The cravings for the pleasurable feelings of ice cream increase as she daydreams about the flavors and experiences of eating the icy dessert. In this case the feelings were pleasurable and variation from the present moment’s reality wasn’t measured how much pain, but in how much craving the person experienced. In this case Feeling x Variance = Pleasure x Craving and the suffering is still experienced by the same degree.

In this formula we can also see the measure of happiness as well as suffering. We see that being totally “present” (i.e. without craving or clinging) brings our feelings about experience multiplied by “0”, which brings our suffering to zero as well.


If we can understand suffering and if we can measure it (crudely), then how to we make it go away? Didn’t the Buddha say he teaches the end of suffering?

There is an end to suffering, which we call enlightenment (or “being awake”). It can be achieved through development of our mind to be focused and alert; developing our bodies to be still and skillful; and developing our awareness to be open, accepting and compassionate. These are fundamental to the practice of Buddhism.

Understanding is not enough. It is not enough to read a book or take a class on fixing cars: you must put in the effort and build the experience to really understand what makes a car operate. After which, you must then learn how to drive that car, and navigate the world.

What most people forget is that Buddhism is a faith where the Buddha gave us the tools, be we must find our own way. He may have taught the understanding of suffering, but only we can make the end of our suffering happen.

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Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Ethics, Four Noble Truths, Kharma, Lifestyle, Mahayana, Marriage, Meditation, New Age, Noble Eightfold Path, Philosophy, Relationships, Theravada, Tibet, Virajana


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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