Suffering—we are all familiar with this term, and if we have lived for more than a few short months, we are also familiar with this feeling. The idea of suffering is one of the main principles in Buddhist philosophy; it is at the core of its truth and path. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha taught about suffering and freedom from suffering. Most practitioners know about the Truth of Suffering, yet sadly, want to skip past it. We repeat the familiar mantra of, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Four Noble Truths, I’ve got it, give me an initiation or a mantra to use.”
This rush to move past the core of the Buddha’s teaching—the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path—is largely what keeps us locked inside the nihilist feeling of the First Noble Truth, that “all there is, is suffering.” This giddy push to move forward supersedes the need to understand the Buddha’s first teaching fully. Truthfully, we could spend a lifetime learning and understanding the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
We casually throw out the teaching on suffering as if we already understand it, yet we actually spend very little time truly coming to grips with it. How can we move past the notion of suffering if we don’t genuinely acknowledge the Second Noble Truth, the cause of our suffering?
While we seem to have a basic understanding of what we refer to as the suffering of suffering, the obvious unchangeable aspects of life—old age, sickness, and death, and the overall impermanence of things—we comment on these matters and move on flippantly, as if the Buddha mentioned them in passing. Instead, we focus most of our attention on initiations and ritual. We glorify and ritualize the culture we have borrowed Buddhism from and place our focus there. This becomes yet another distraction that helps us avoid the insecurity of sitting with our own suffering and our own doubts. We purchase wall hangings, expensive cultural items, pictures, incense, even robes, and think that this fantasizing is our practice. This is yet another form of escapism, however, and is in fact an abandonment of our practice.
It is important to consider also the Third Noble Truth—the end of suffering. This requires more than a superficial understanding and constant evasion of the notion of suffering, and an understanding that a continual desire for distraction is in itself a cause of suffering. On the Buddhist path we are not looking to run away, to escape, to hide in denial and nihilism. The Buddha was talking about freedom—deep, resonant, life-changing freedom.
The full extent of the Truth of Suffering is beyond the scope of a simple essay, but it is safe to say that all suffering stems from ignorance. Ignorance is the father of doubt, fear, hate, anger, insecurity, and greed, and we hold on to each of these feelings like they are a right instead of a self-created burden.
In my own case, ignorance led to fear. Fear became the controlling factor of my life. It led to codependent relationships, marriages, divorces, self-hatred, anxiety, and depression. Clinging to these emotions at the time felt safe, like a blanket I could hide under, but soon became a liquid that I was drowning in. I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t escape. I struggled to run, to deny, to seek yet another relationship, hobby, facade, anything that would give me a new identity, that would give me something to hold on to and project as “mine.”
Throughout all this, what I failed to see was the suffering I was causing myself and those around me. My children suffered. My exes suffered. My parents and their parents suffered, and because I couldn’t see it, I ran, I hid. I lived in perpetual denial of what was right in front of me: suffering and the cause of suffering.
Eventually I found myself lying in a hospital bed with the reality of mortality knocking on my door. Fear rushed in to answer, and I withdrew. I was afraid to move, afraid to talk to people, afraid to do anything that was outside of my false idea of being in absolute control. Then the truth came up again—suffering.
My initial reaction after seeing the truth of my suffering was, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that, now give me something to cling to.” I was unwilling to sit with suffering. It is big and terrifying, and remains so until we can sit with it, until we are prepared to face the shaking ground of uncertainty and accept the flux of impermanence. Buddhist practice begins and ends with suffering. This truth means we need to be able to face and understand the whole of what suffering is.
How am I a cause of my own suffering? Asking this question gave me the beginnings of my freedom. It was a heartbreaking relief to see myself that way: both running from my suffering and a creator of it. How desperately we cling to our beliefs, our rigid set of ideals and opinions and these icons of argument! We set limits on both our experience and our ability to understand and defend these limits with reckless abandon, all the while blind to it adding to our suffering. The answer slowly starts to dawn on us, as it did me—blame. We suffer in large part because we blame some person or something outside ourselves. We see suffering, our suffering, as always something’s or somebody else’s fault. We refuse to see the truth of ourselves as willing participants in our own turmoil.
One reason we blame is to cope with our own hurt, and yes, people can do awful things; and so can we. Blaming, however, keeps us tied to the idea that everything is outside ourselves. It causes us to develop facades and insecurities.
So how do we find freedom from that suffering? We stop blaming. We stop pointing a finger outward and we take that critical focus within. But in times of self-pity, I still find myself blaming.
Because of my own experiences, I now teach about suffering and freedom from suffering; about our fixed notions of self and the facades that we create in order to protect our hurt instead of engaging with it. After years of creating an image of myself and hoping that it was something others would fear and respect, I learned that I was instead only grasping my own suffering. I was living in the middle of it and carrying it with me.
Now when I address prisoners, teens in detention homes, and even friends and those that simply need help, I am able to show them how their search and struggle for security, without a true understanding of their suffering, has indeed only created more suffering for them.
This is not the final, end-all discussion of suffering and freedom, but it is a core thread I have seen in my life and in the lives of my Dharma students. When the concept of self-change—of taking responsibility—comes into play, we no longer need to defend ourselves. We no longer need to cling to the set notions that keep us safe from those things we fear and doubt and scold within ourselves. Suffering is shared by everyone else out there. We all seek freedom and happiness, and that freedom is the realization that you alone are responsible for how you react and how you choose to engage.
When we take down our defenses and open up, blame becomes a thing of the past, and we wonder why we ever clung to it in the first place. Freedom is there already, which we come to see when we take the first step: understanding and making friends with suffering. We only have to take this step to start to find suffering’s end.
Ty Phillips is a former bouncer turned pacifist and Buddhist, the co-founder of The Tattooed Buddha, and a freelance author who writes for The Good Men Project, Lion’s Roar, Elephant Journal, Rebelle, BeliefNet, Patheos, and The Petoskey News Review. He is a long-term Buddhist and a lineage holder, as well as a father to three amazing girls and a tiny dog named Fuzz.