Reflections on Dukkha and Taking Refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha


Dukkha is an amazing word in Pali used by the Buddha to describe human experience of distraught, frustration, and state of perplexity, and sense of being inadequacy. Simply translated Dukkha is anything that is difficult to endure (dukkaren khamati iti dukkham). It is often translated as suffering in English, which does not capture the full meaning described by the Buddha. Some Pali scholars tried to translate it as “dis-ease”: absence of ease. This suits the formulaic presentation of the Buddha who modeled the Four Noble Truths (henceforth, FNTs) based on the medical model. There is “dis-ease”. This is the first of FNT. The Buddha described these truths as Noble Truth, implying that it is the state of human existence and that there is nothing wrong with it. It is noble. They are not the true statements, but the comments on how we feel when it arises. Dukkha is not the substance. It arises depending on certain conditions. And the Buddha teaches us that it arises out of ignorance.

The formulation taught by the Buddha describes the process as to how Dukkha starting with ignorance through the complex process that human mind goes through when it is colored (blinded) by the delusion, hatred, and obsessive passions. The Buddha also teaches us that there is a state of “ease”, and there is a way to create ease through the process of positive processes when the human mind is tuned with its real nature: the nature of change, the nature of the lack of essence, and the nature of interdependence.

The Buddha claimed that he taught only two things: Dukkha (dis-ease) and Dukkhanirodha (ease). This does not make the teachings of the Buddha pessimistic, but it is a statement on the state of human life and how we go through Dukkha (situations and experiences that are difficult to endure). The Buddha taught that there are three classifications of the Dukkha: Dukkhata Dukkha (suffering that is suffering), Viparinam Dukkha (Suffering because of everything changes), and Sankharic Dukkha (the suffering that arises due to nature of existence). We cannot do way with the suffering arises due to the common human condition of disease like a toothache, bodily malfunctions. As everything is bound to change, we cannot escape this suffering. However, suffering arising due to “not able to see the way it is” can be understood and done away with. The Buddha ennoble suffering in a sense that it can become fuel to set us on the path to understand it and eventually attain the state of peace. Unlike the religious systems of his time, the Buddha was not trying to purify the world. In the early Buddhist teachings, the Buddha did not discuss “purity”, but the possibilities of peace in the human mind and human societies.

Traditionally, the Buddha’s dissatisfaction with the world around him is attributed to the “Four Sights” Siddhartha witnessed: the diseased man, the old man, the dead, and finally the renunciate set off for understanding this misery and mystery. Babasaheb Ambedkar did not accept this traditional view. But his view on this is related to “conflict”. The Buddha, according to Babasaheb Ambedkar, left the world to understand and find way out of human “conflict”. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s formulation of Dukkha is threefold: personal suffering, social suffering, and suffering that arises due to nature of existence. He formulated way out of these three aspects of sufferings based on his study and understanding of Buddhism. It is a fresh interpretation of the Buddhism in the modern world. It is interesting formulation. With the schema of conflict and how it arises, the Buddha also tried to explain the cause of social suffering and social conflict in the great Suttas in Pali. There are many interesting Suttas scattered in the Pali canons that explain how social conflicts arise and how we can resolve them.

Babasaheb Ambedkar’s reading of the Buddha and his Dhamma is very fresh and interesting. We will look at the way Babasaheb Ambedkar formulated “conflicts” in the human societies. Social suffering arises out of “structures” which surround us. We get caught up in the “structures” and our mind get conditioned by the social structures. This is not to say that the human beings are at the mercy of the social, political, and economic structures that they find themselves in. Perhaps, it is not in our hands to be born in such structures, but it is in our hands not to die in those structures. In this context, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s statement: I was in the Hindu social structure, but I will not die into the one, offers the possibilities of the transformation and path of responsibility and choice. This is a liberating schema realizing that we are born into something which was not our choice, but we can choose how we live and die. When we are dealing with the social suffering, in a paradoxical way, we cannot hold the individuals responsible for their poverty, social degradation, and exploitation by the inhuman structures such as the caste system, but at the same time, they are responsible for the change that they can seek through their efforts to come out of it.

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Can individuals escape structural suffering and the conflicts? It is an important question when so many children are pushed into wars and conflicts without their consent and conscious choice. The caste system pushed millions into the life of degradation and life of the inhuman treatment. What is the Buddhist response to it? We can only guess, but guess we must, for on it depends on the response of the Buddhists in the modern world. There are conflicts all over the world and an individual cannot respond to all of them. It will be the case of idiotic compassion. We have to cultivate an attitude of universal compassion and be sensitive to the suffering that arises out of conflicts and structures. In case of India’s structure of exploitation based on the caste system, the possible choice will be for those who are committed to live and die in the new society must become the members of the new society by their conscious choice of associating with others not on the basis of their “castes” or “class”, or any limiting “structure”, such as gender, but on the basis of their common aspiration of the to create new society, the new community for all. Martin Luther King called it “the beloved community” and the Buddha called it “Sangha”: the new evolving society within the old rotten society and when that community arises, it challenges the old and shatters it and causes it irreparable damages.

When we think of the suffering due to “social structures”, the only remedy is to create a new universal community which can include all and one. The society that is open, compassionate, human in its being and practice. It is a tall order, but it is possible and it is the only way out. And the quality of the relationship that is expected here is Kalyanmitrata, when human beings associate and commit with each other for the sake of realizing that beloved community between them and between others. And this is the reason why the “practice” of the Sangha is the highest practice which does not only liberate individual humans, but also the societies which practice it. Perhaps, this is what Babasaheb meant when he said that if India is to become a true democracy (an idealized Sangha), Indians needs to chant the greatest mantra:

Buddham Saranam Gachhami (taking refuge in the possibility of what an individual can be and aspire to be)

Dhamma Saranam Gacchami (taking refuge in the possibility of positive human relationships)

Sangham Saranam Gacchami (taking refuge in the possibility of new society based on metta, karuna, Mudita, and Uppekha)

Three refuges are the only ways out of the structural suffering and commitment to them is the beginning of the individual and social revolution!

Author – Mangesh Dahiwale, Human Rights Activist

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