Why We Suffer

This past weekend sucked. It didn’t suck in any new or particularly shocking way. It just sucked in the same old way that we keep going around with. People being shitty, people dying needlessly, and people pointing fingers every direction they can find in hopes of finding comfort. Every time it happens, I think about it, and I usually don’t say much. This time, I want to say something.


In Buddhism, the First Noble Truth is called dukkha – loosely translated as “suffering.” It’s the backbone of the Buddhist principle that life is suffering. We certainly got a good enough dose of that Friday and Sunday. Suffering takes on many forms, and it affects us all directly throughout our day to day lives in small and large ways. It affects the families of the victims of Orlando. It affects the family and friends of Christina Grimmie. It affects the families of the murderers. It affected the murderers. But it also affects those that feel close to the causes. It affects fans. It affects colleagues. It affects detractors and antagonists and opportunists.

Victims will deal with physical suffering. Kin will succumb to mental suffering. We will waver. We will struggle with all of the questions. We will argue in frustration and cry in despair. Every time tragedy strikes, the same questions come up. Why? Why did it happen? How? How do we prevent it? We suffer as we struggle to answer questions which ultimately have no answers. Dukkha is a stark reminder that day to day happiness is ultimately temporary. Happiness requires energy to be sustained, and it can be taken away in an instant.

Being trapped within this first phase of the cycle of suffering is also symptomatic of the people that cause tragedy. They are confined and defined by their suffering, finding no escape, and feel no alternative but to project that suffering out on to the world. An inability to identify dukkha damages a person and prevents them from growing and moving forward. It damages them to a point that becomes difficult to recover from. They often suffer in silence. In some cases, they may not appear to be suffering to the outside world, or to their allies that believe as they do, but at the root of it all it is dukkha – pain and suffering – that drives them to cause terrible things to happen.


When you learn the First Noble Truth and you understand that life is a cycle of suffering, the door opens to understanding the Second Noble Truth. Samudaya is the understanding of the causes of suffering. Suffering does not happen in a vacuum, and is linked to several base actions which cause them. At the root of these causes is blindness and ignorance. We devote energy to understanding this Truth, because by understanding dukkha we move a step closer to controlling it, rather than it controlling us.

Ignorance is a key component of what grows into many of the things which cause our suffering, whether out of greed, envy, rage, misunderstanding, or arrogance. Ignorance is what keeps religious radicals from maintaining peace. It’s what causes people to drive two hours to shoot a performer. But it’s also what causes us to fight. It’s what causes us to fear. It’s what leads us to argue over gun laws and to stress over how to solve unsolvable problems. It’s what whips people into a frenzy to shut people out, or bomb them into annihilation.

Ignorance leads to greed and selfishness. Regardless of what our Constitutional rights may define, there is a selfishness that underlies the suffering attached to the threat of guns being regulated or taken away, just as there is suffering attached to the pursuit of “happiness” and the American Dream. Chasing money, and a home, a car, and a family with two and a half kids (I’m a fan of the right half). That fear is the result of an inability to realize that a desire for a physical object is overriding one’s ability to address the underlying cause of dukkha. I don’t say that to imply the defense is right or wrong, or to use the term “selfish” disparagingly. It simply is. It is a cause of suffering as much as the desire to have guns eliminated. These desires, while politically opposed, run parallel within the storyline of samudaya. I say all this to underline the principle that there is no single point of solution to the troubles we face as a society. We throw around words like rights, and freedom, and liberty – and these are important words. But they are also words that trap us in a cage of protecting what we believe is ours. And in that moment we have succeeded in creating a scenario that puts us against them.

I suspect many people will read this and misunderstand my point. To you, I am sorry, and I wish I could explain it better. But I can’t. In my failing, I encourage you to seek out those that can put into words what I cannot.

And So It Is

There are two more Noble Truths, but they are not for this article. Every tragedy turns the wheel of suffering for us. Moving forward isn’t about a question of gun control. It isn’t a matter of attacking a religion. It isn’t an issue of politics or laws. Moving forward and growing requires us to understand that life itself is a cycle of suffering. And that isn’t something to fret over. In fact, learning that and understanding that it’s not a statement of hopelessness opens an entire world of opportunity, and starts you on a path to being an incredible human being.

Dukkha ends. We have the power to transcend it. There is a path to a place where suffering no longer holds power over us. It’s not easy to get there, and it may take us many lifetimes, but the basics are easy for anyone to understand. The Path begins by simply being the best human being you can be to each other. You can never be faulted for committing yourself to being decent to those around you, whether they love you or hate you. These are principles that exist and bind virtually all religions together, and they are the principles that so many of them ultimately get wrong. They are the cornerstones of belief that are perverted first by men suffering for power, not principle.

Your strength, and your character are best defined when you can stand up and just be good, while everyone around you isn’t. People will criticize you. People will call you weak or spineless. These people are the worst kind of wrong, because in that moment you are the best kind of strong.

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