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The First Great Truth: Things Suck

Remember that Gautama, when he first launched himself willy-nilly on the Path of The Great Liberation, didn’t know he was becoming the Great Liberator; this wasn’t a career path. It was more like some rich hippie kid (remember hippies?) “dropping out.” After growing up sheltered, sequestered, he happened to see old people, sick people, corpses for the first time, or as if it were the first time.

He saw them, realized what was in store for him as he grew older. “Wow,” he said, “this sucks.” So he set out to figure a way to make it not suck. But first, he had to understand why it seemed things sucked so, and when he understood it, people wanted to know the answer, so he explained it.

It made sense that he wanted to start explaining it from the same place as he started examining it. When all else fails, start at the beginning, go to the end, and then stop. The beginning of this story is Gautama’s recognition that things really sucked, and the word in Sanskrit for “sucks” is dukkha. Sure, it’s often translated as “suffering”, but that’s one of those Orientalist translations that gets in the way of understanding now.[1] Here’s how the awakened Gautama puts it in the Dharma Chakra Sutra:

“The great truth of dukkha is this: birth is dukkha, death is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, unhappy feelings are dukkha, happy feelings are dukkha, grief and despair are dukkha, being around people you don’t like is dukkha, not being around people you love is dukkha, not getting what you want is dukkha.”

In short, dukkha is the feeling of “unsatisfactoriness” you get from everything unsatisfactory in life. When I had the idea for these pieces, I started thinking that maybe I wanted the Yiddish word tsooris. Annoyances. I suggested this to my friend David Gottlieb, who is after all both knowledgeable about Buddhism and a Jew, and he objected, saying that tsooris is petty annoyances and he thinks dukkha is Big Stuff. But with all due respect to David, I think he’s wrong: Gautama meant to include everything, including petty annoyances and Big Stuff, as part of dukkha, and honestly I think he meant them all to be included as petty annoyances. [Corrected, and David comments/replies here.]

All these examples, and the dukkha that we sense from them, are not real in some sense — although, even then, we’re going to run into another one of these bad translations. People also say Buddhism says the world is maya, “illusion”, but the illusion isn’t what we think it is either. In any case, Gautama intends to teach us how to understand the Universe so that we see dukkha, no matter what it seems like to us in our drowsy day to day state, is not real.


[1] Maybe it didn’t for the Victorian Orientalist, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But I suspect that a lot of the people who were reading these texts at the time wanted to be weird, and obscure, and by this demonstrate they were Deep. I’ll write about that at greater length sometime.

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  1. […] written about before, he “saw through” the whole problem he’d set out to solve: why do things suck so? Why is everyday life so unsatisfactory? Technically, why is there […]

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