Although "suffering" is the usual translation for Dukkha, the term really has three aspects. First, it characterizes a world in which there is a great deal of unhappiness, ranging from abject pain, loneliness, anxiety, hunger, being with hateful people, and loss of those we love, to unpleasant states of feeling such as anger, disgust, tension, and boredom, to mild discomforts both chronic (e.g., "life is meaningless") and occasional (e.g., a headache). We see explosions of Dukkha in the Holocaust, wars, and natural disasters. But, we also see it flare up again and again in the daily commonplace of disappointments, frustrations, insults, and embarrassments.
Second, Dukkha includes the idea of change, perpetual flux, what the Buddha refers to as "transitoriness." Nothing in the world of Dukkha is permanent. Therefore, this implies that misery is always potential. When it is said that someone is "in the world of Dukkha," that person may not be suffering now. The potentiality for suffering, however, is always present. For example, suppose a man responded to the preceding paragraph by saying, "All this talk of suffering doesn't apply to me. I have a well-paying, interesting job, a happy marriage, and good health. I sleep soundly at night and wake up zestfully, raring to go."
The Buddhist thesis would be: All the good features the fellow just cited are subject to change. For example, the man's wife may one day stop loving him. Or he may wake up one morning realizing that he no longer loves her. And the loss of job, health, or stability is notoriously common. The conditions of our happiness are always subject to change. So long as we are in the world of Dukkha, there is no state that will permit us to "live happily ever after."
We see this sense of potentiality in the Buddha's own life. He was at the pinnacle of the princely life with all imaginable power and pleasure at his fingertips. But it wasn't good enough. The potential for misery was palpable.
Transitoriness and potentiality are also seen in a story told by the Greek historian, Herodotus, writing in the 5th century B.C. Herodotus describes the rise of the Persian Empire, its conquest of Asia, and its wars with the Greek city-states. In the course of this epic, he tells a tale about Croesus, an incredibly wealthy ruler of the kingdom of Lydia, in Asia Minor (Herodotus, 1942).1
Despite the enormous wealth and power of Croesus, his kingdom was successfully invaded and finally conquered by one of the Persian armies. Croesus himself was captured and was to be executed. The Persian commanding general decided to burn the king at the stake and to make a public spectacle of the execution. Croesus, brought in shackles, was tied to the stake. Straw was pushed around him in preparation for the fire. He looked heavenward and cried out woefully "Solon, Solon."
As it happened, the Persian general was a student of religions. Failing, however, to recognize this name, he asked his aides nearby "To what God is he crying out?" When no one could answer, he had Croesus untied and brought before him. He commanded, "Tell us about this
'I relate this and other tales here as a storyteller rather than as a scholar. The quotes, therefore, are for verisimilitude rather than for historical accuracy. See the Introduction for my justification of this style.
god, Solon, to whom you were just now calling out." Croesus replied that Solon was not a god but a man, an elder statesman from Athens, long respected in that land. Croesus then related the following experience.
"Many months ago when we were still at peace and the Persian trumpet was distant, Solon had visited me. I personally escorted him about my realm display ing its glories and the luxuries of my surroundings. Proudly, I said, 'Solon, you have lived a long life and have traveled widely. Who is the happiest man you've ever known?' In response, Solon described an Athenian who was prosperous and whose sons, by their prowess in battle, brought glory to his name. I asked' Well, then, who is the second happiest man you know?' Solon described another in a far off island. I now asked him directly 'What about me?' Solon replied 'Ah, your majesty. We in Athens have a saying: Never judge a man's happiness until he has died.'"
"At that time, I dismissed the remark as quaint, but I see now what Solon was trying to tell me."
The general was so touched by the wisdom of this tale that, according to Herodotus, he freed Croesus and enlisted him as an advisor.
Now let us respond to the fellow, who earlier objected to the emphasis on suffering, who gave evidence for his own happiness. The Buddhist answer is: "You are fortunate, indeed. Enjoy this good fortune. Savor and relish it. But be like the man who, while enjoying excellent health, immunizes himself against the chance of a future disease. Be like the man who, though the days are now sunny, builds his house to weather the storms. You are happy. That is wonderful. But don't drift in your happiness. There is work to be done." "What is the work?" you ask. Read on.
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