The title of today's post is a quote attributed to the Buddha who is said to have often repeated, "I teach only one thing: suffering and the end of suffering."
Some smarty-pants once said, "Isn't that two things?" But obviously, if you understand -- truly understand -- suffering, you understand its causes and thus its ending.
A friend wrote asking: "Help me here with this idea of the end of suffering being the goal. I have turned that around over and over and can't seem to grasp what that would mean. The human condition is so completely tied up with suffering and the idea of suffering. Bearing suffering well is a virtue in our culture. I can't imagine a being free from suffering. Can you? So it struck me this morning on the cushion reciting "May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be safe. May I be free from suffering." What am I saying? I look around and I think that really I don't suffer from much. Relatively, my sufferings are really nothing. But the conditions still exist for great suffering. I am not grieving the loss of a loved one. I have my health. I have a home. I have a job. But any of these things could change instantly and I would suffer. But I suppose that sort of suffering is temporary. It is certainly to be expected and to bear it well is the most that I can hope for. So is the freedom from suffering on some other level? Is it an attainable goal? Is it the "holy grail"?
So again - back to 'What would freedom of suffering be like'?"
Now, part of my response hinges on what exactly do you, we, or the tradition(s) mean by "suffering?" The word generally translated as "suffering," duhkha, literally means "wrong" or "bad space." Being old enough to have lived through the 60s, this always makes me think of a hippie having a bad day saying, "Hey man, I'm in a really bad space." While it has most often been translated into English as "suffering, others have tried to avoid the histrionic and dramatic sounding "suffering" by translating duhkha as "discontent," "dis-ease," "unease," "dis-satisfaction," "painful" and "stress." The Yoga Tradition -- including Buddhism -- asserts that life, the human condition is duhkha. And when we turn away from the 'over-the-top' sounding "suffering," and think of life as stressful, painful or unsatisfying, who can argue?
Now, with the earliest Buddhist understanding, it is accepted that a yogi can indeed transcend and end duhkha by completely eradicating the causes of duhkha: craving, aversion and ignorance. An arhat is a being who has 'gone all the way' and 'done what must be done' to purify his or her mind of these 'taints' and thus is free from duhkha. Traditionally, as birth itself is understood as duhkha, this was also taken to mean that the arhat would never be reborn into samsara again.
The mainstream traditional understanding seems to say that birth, aging and death are inherently duhkha. Thus, the practitioner wants to end having to be reborn again and again. Others, who reject the teaching of rebirth, offer that duhkha is only present when there is grasping in the mind. This is arguably a more modernist understanding, but it does have some support in the earliest texts that seem to assert that birth, aging, and death are only duhkha when the mind is grasping and resisting these experiences. If the mind is not grasping, then these phenomena are not duhkha.
Finally, there is a radical, naturalist understanding that says duhkha is inherent in life. All life is afflicted. As the Buddha defined duhkha, we age, we experience illness and pain, we lost what we love and get a whole shitload of dung and then we die. Duhkha is what happens to us! Thus duhkha can never end or be escaped from. It's "baked into" this world. However, how we relate to it will determine whether we live a more free, creative, skillful, joyful, unbound life or if we merely 'suffer' through life's unavoidable challenges.
This is a short, perhaps simplistic response. If you are interested in a more developed review of the concept of duhkha and some various interpretations, please check out my essay on duhkha and the Four Noble Truths at my other blog: Zen Naturalism.