Monday, July 23, 2007

Dukkha is Not Merely Suffering

Recently Douglas Groothuis, on his blog The Constructive Curmudgeon, offered to email the outlines of his recent sermons on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam to anyone interested. As I have something of a vested interest in and am personally fascinated by Buddhism, I want to address a number of issues that I see in his outline (while I wait for the mp3 of the sermons themselves to become available). So, for those who have been interested in my thoughts on Buddhism, here's a start. I promise to intersperse these posts with phenomenological commentaries on various Buddhist concepts.

In order to properly grasp Buddhism one must understand its basic terms. This can be difficult as Buddhism teaches and close study reveals that every basic concept implies the others. This makes a brief account of Buddhism difficult as to talk about, say, suffering is to talk about the Five Aggregates which is to talk about the Twelve Links of Interdependent Coarising, both of which include the Path of liberation from suffering. But as we must all start somewhere, I will begin with the First Noble Truth, often quoted as "Life is suffering." While a common translation, this is also slightly misguided, as practically all 'common' understandings are. The Pali term dukkha can be translated as suffering, in the sense of pain, but it also extends beyond mere negatives. In fact, dukkha contains or, perhaps, enables joy and pleasure, but also neutrality, those experiences that are neither "good" nor "bad." Hence, if the common understanding were to merely be added on in order to make it more accurate, we would say, "Life is pain, pleasure, and neutrality." But even this is inadequate. A better translation would be "impermanence," "transitoriness," or "insubstantiality." Hence, "Life is transitory and impermanent."

Walpola Rahula (a Buddhist monk in the Theraveda/Hinayana tradition), in his work What the Buddha Taught, differentiates between three forms of dukkha: (1) as ordinary suffering, (2) as produced by change, and (3) as conditioned states. The first two, dukkha as suffering and as produced by change, constitute the common understanding. They consist of "birth, old age, sickness, death, association with unpleasant persons and conditions, separation from beloved ones and pleasant conditions, not getting what one desires, grief, lamentation, distress" (Ibid, 19). Left on its own, the first two meanings of dukkha can give the impression that Buddhism is inherently pessimistic, which is why the overarching, in my mind central, third meaning must be understood. But, as stated in the second paragraph above, this will require a foray into other concepts.

To be continued...



Blogger Douglas Groothuis said...

I recommend, On the Buddha in the Wadworth Philosophers Series for a short, but philosophical intro to Buddhism. It is written by a practicing Buddhist.

As a Christian philosopher, I don't agree with him, but it is a clear statement that is thoughtful.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...

For myself, I would suggest the Rahula text mentioned in my post. I would also include Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching and Chogyam Trungpa's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. The former approaches Buddhism from the Vajrayana tradition, as opposed to Rahula's (still valuable) Hinayana perspective. Trungpa's work is valuable as a look into Buddhist practice and what it means to be on the Path (I believe from the Vajrayana perspective). I have to thank both Hanh and Trungpa for clarifying some of my own misunderstandings of Buddhism, so I view them both as invaluable.

I will post on the different schools and their distinguishing features afer I have gone through the basic concepts, as only then can the differences be seen more clearly.

11:35 AM  

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