The Problem of Dukkha, by John Aske

Dukkha is often translated as ‘suffering’, but the word is more precisely ‘bearing it’, and that gives a clue to the whole problem. We tend to think of suffering as ‘something I do’, rather than a problem I have to deal with. But apart from actual physical pain, Dukkha is essentially caused by grasping and entangling ourselves in something that causes us unhappiness.

​It doesn’t seem difficult dealing with things we like, but dealing with things we don’t like is a quite different matter. All sorts of hesitations and anxieties come up, and we put things off to another day or perhaps conveniently forget about them for the time being. But Dukkha doesn’t go away, no matter how much we try and avoid it. It hangs around like a bad smell, but unlike a bad smell, it can’t just be wiped away with Domestos. It’s like part of the family you don’t want to invite because they ‘cause trouble’. And it’s no good ignoring Dukkha, because – like a difficult child – ignoring it has very limited efficacy. At some stage, you are going to have to deal with it, and then as the Greek philosopher said: ‘Go forth and face it.’ This gives you an advantage, because it enables you to realise that Dukkha and you are separate, and that Dukkha is simply a condition and as such, it arises and can cease.

​Half the problem of Dukkha is the barriers we put up against it – the mind fighting the mind – which wears us down and generally achieves nothing. The Sufi Rumi wrote a wonderful poem called ‘The Guest House’ in which he said: ‘Invite them all in and something wonderful will follow.’ I hope he is right, but Ajahn Chah commented: ‘But make sure you occupy the only seat, and don’t let anyone else sit there.’ And that seems a wise precaution.

Pink Rose

The way we see ourselves – and the way others see us – also influences everything we do and how we think; and this is a big source of Dukkha. Small mistakes and accidents can lower our confidence in ourselves and the way we feel others see us, just as a success – however small – can raise us to the heights. Our egos – expert dramatists – exacerbate everything, good and bad, because this justifies their hold on us. Our egos are like the editors of scandal sheets (and the internet) that feed everything back to us, blown out of all proportion.

​​In a quiet moment, Ajahn Sumedho suggests we take the place of the editor, and propose something unlikely, like, ’I am going to a tropical island with no virus on it,’ and watch the ego arguing about it. But just before we made the proposition, there was just that quiet space, in which the intuitive understanding simply observes. With practice, you come to know this awareness more and more and you can see the ego’s games in advance, foresee how it will behave and this gives you great help in coping with the ups and downs of life as you come across them.

​This is not an evasion but an entering into a relationship with a problem in awareness. It is not an escape from life. Sometimes people shut themselves away, hoping that will solve the problem, but they take all their problems with them. We need to get on the raft the Buddha left for us and get sailing, because there will inevitably be choppy waters ahead and there is no way back.

As the poet Wislawa Szymborska says so beautifully about the uninhabited island:

‥faint footprints scattered on its beaches

turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave

and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

into unfathomable life.

‥faint footprints scattered on its beaches

turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave

and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

into unfathomable life.

You can read more articles by John Aske here.


Head of Buddha

Artwork: 5th–6th century, Afghanistan (probably Hadda),

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The well-preserved surface and traces of paint provide an idea of what this head looked like when it was being used in worship.
The abstracted treatment of the eyes and the intersecting plains defining forehead, eyebrows, and nose are stylistic features shared with imagery produced in north India during the Gupta period.

The fact that this north Indian way of presenting the Buddha had penetrated into Afghanistan suggests a shared Buddhist tradition.



Categories: Buddhism, Foundations, John Aske

Tags: , ,

2 replies

  1. I have found that the word “dissatisfaction” for Dukkha has helped me a lot! It can be applied to my iPhone, the washing machine, people, my arthritis, the weather etc. Recognising my dissatisfaction with any of these things triggers me to “calm down” and move on. Over time my dissatisfaction has decreased dramatically 🕉

  2. Wisdom 🙏🏻

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