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Buddhist Perspective on Suffering

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“The end of suffering is now” – Ajahn Sumedho 1


A mixture of joy and sadness

In the middle of running a retreat in December 2010 I got a text from Mum to say that my Gran was in hospital with hypothermia and a failing kidney - not a good sign. After meditating for a while I decided to continue with the weekend retreat dedicating the evening chanting to my Gran. As the retreat ended, I phoned my mum to ask how my Gran was doing. She said “You better get to the hospital.” When I arrived at the hospital, my Gran, with an oxygen mask on, was in bed laughing and making jokes as well as asking how we were and if had we eaten. The doctor had tried to perform a minor operation to help her but it had been too much for her body. The doctors called us to the bed. It was time for Gran to move on. Holding my Gran’s hand and stroking her head, with her family around her Gran slipped away like a fading rose. In my understanding suffering is like this: it's a mixture of joy and sadness, of likes and dislikes.

Suffering is central

Suffering is central to Theravada Buddhism. ‘The Four Noble Truths’ was the second talk the historical Buddha Gotama gave to his friends 2 (his first reassurance failed). The Four Noble Truths is based on a medical diagnosis: what is the cause of the problem? What are the symptoms and the solutions?

The Buddha took the most common of problem humans have: suffering. Who does not suffer? He elevated this to a Noble Truth, something that is worth looking at. The cause of suffering, said the Buddha, was birth, ageing, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair. The symptoms are that we either want, or don’t want, something. The Buddha then noticed by reflecting on his own suffering that if you let things cease, then suffering also ceases. If you observe, rather then get entangled in suffering, then life gets a lot easier. Finally the Buddha pointed to the Eightfold Path, which is a collection of strategies to help people realise this.3

In order for the medicine of the Four Noble Truths (sometime called ‘enabling truths’) to work, you need to investigate current experience. The term ‘mindfulness’ 4 has now become synonymous with investigating what is happening and so relieving suffering. Mindfulness means paying attention, in a non-judgemental way, to what is happening in the present moment.5

When my Gran died, I felt all my emotions, the joy, the sadness, the ups and downs, the likes and dislikes and allowed them to be what they are. I neither tried to get away from them nor tried to make more of them. I noticed that this is the way I felt. In the following days grief-like feelings arose in the body, and hence the emotions (the labels we give to physical feelings) came and went. The body is set up to grieve, when we listen to it and accept what is happening. I cried with tears of sadness and relief for a ninety-four-year-old woman, my Gran.


In Buddhism we use the breath to calm down and centre ourselves in the present moment. We notice whether it is long or short, hot or cold. We can notice this by watching the rise and fall of our belly or the passage of air through our nose. As we do this, what we also notice is change - that things arise and pass away. The more that we notice this, the more we can notice this in the world we see around us, including in our own body. Ask yourself, if your body is the same as when you were born. Do the trees stay the same shape, the same colour? The Buddha said there were three characteristics of human existences, change (or impermanence) suffering and that things are not what you think they are.

The Pali word (that is the language of our scripture) for suffering is Dukkha 6. Because it is difficult to translate this word into English, most Buddhists use the word Dukkha rather than suffering. Dukkha literally means hard to bear, unsatisfactory or lacking. So both joy and sadness are Dukkha because they don't last, they change. Real happiness, real peace is not dependent on anything, this is why the end of suffering is now.

Freedom from suffering

When we stay in the present moment and pay attention to what is, by being fully alive with all our emotions, we are free from suffering. We are following the middle ground between dislike and like. As we centre ourselves in our body, our intuitive wisdom arises which allows us to get a perspective on who we are. All it takes is to start witnessing our breathing and paying attention, or listening internally in a non-judgemental way.

You might ask why more people aren’t doing this. More people would be happy and there would be less wars. It is because it takes time, patience and acceptance to do this. Nevertheless more and more people are finding that a bit of meditation can go a long way to being more peaceful. There are also many other skilful means that go with meditation including an ethical approach to life and understanding the ego.

In Buddhism we finish some meditation session with a practice called loving kindness, or unconditional love, so I finish with the words we use:

‘May I be free from suffering. May you be free from suffering. May all beings be free from suffering.’

As I heard from many different teachers: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.




1 title of a talk in mp3 format

in written format


3 The Four Noble Truths By Ajahn Sumedho


5 based on Jon Kabat-Zinn defintion