There is suffering in our world. There is racial animosity, famine and disease, wars, and many other sources for
discontent. But, is this “Suffering” in the context the Buddha spoke when he taught the “Four Nobel Truths?” I don’t
My father, Samuel, was born poor. He and his brother, Herman, sold used socks and gloves on the streets of New
York for a decade. Life wasn’t easy. They suffered cold and hunger as siblings of Eastern European immigrants trying
to make their way. But, through their own ingenuity and frugality they purchased a small used car dealership in New
York and worked their way to substantial wealth. By the time they were forty they had moved to the West Coast and
owned shopping centers and land. My father retired when he was forty-five years old.
When I was twenty my father was concerned about my over involvement with Buddhism and saw my interest to
become a monk as no more than “monkey-business.” He tried to dissuade me and offered to make me a fifty-percent
partner in all his businesses. I declined and went on to become a monk. His constant refrain was “why are you
While I was “punishing” myself, my father was enjoying women and beach life, sunshine and exercise, on Santa
Monica, California and Hawaiian beaches. He didn’t smoke or drink. I completed ten years of strict monastic life almost
in seclusion, having only left my monastery a handful of times. I ate once a day, and vowed never to lie down (“ribs
never touch the mat”) the entire time and kept both vows. Afterwards, I moved to Nepal to continued my path as a
Decades later, while I was caring for my father in his old age, he said to me that he realized I had no need of wealth
and all it buys and that I had made a correct decision to reject his wealth and go my own way. Despite the austerity of
my monk life I was happy, he said, and he saw my happiness was unshakable, unlike his own as old age had firmly set
The state of “Suffering” spoken of in the Four Nobel Truths is not the domain of only those who are disadvantaged,
stressed, depressed, emotionally unstable, poor, oppressed, physically weak, diseased, and so forth, but also applies
to those of us who are on top of our game, living the good life of abundance, healthy, handsome, strong, respected,
and so forth. “Suffering” is not bias or prejudice. When the Buddha spoke of Suffering in the Four Nobel Truths, he
was speaking of the human condition as suffering, regardless of all appearances otherwise.
My father was realizing that the suffering he was experiencing in his old age, was really the other side of the
happiness-coin he had now flipped. Had he realized this earlier, he might have seen the superficiality of his earlier
happiness and sought a deeper source not dependent on external conditions.
A rich person, comfortable in every way, might visit Nepal and see children bare-assed in a tee shirt playing in a filthy
gutter and lament the unfortunate circumstance of that child and the mother who begs on the street. And, the mother
who sees the rich person drive by might envy the security and freedom of that rich person. And while we may be right
to assess the view of the beggar in rags and the rich person as reflecting favorable and unfavorable conditions, we go
astray if we think that “Suffering” in the Buddhist context does not pertain to both equally.
Suffering is the human condition and we all are pretty much equally immersed in it, regardless of our disguises.
Beneath what appears fortunate or unfortunate, happy or sad, rich or poor, and so forth is a commonality we all
share, and that is a lack of awareness of our enlightened nature. If both the so called privileged and underprivileged
were to take up meditation, and suddenly attain enlightenment, what would they think of their previous state of mind?
It doesn’t matter much where we are coming from, once enlightened all that went before is going to seem like
suffering. Why? Because all experience prior to awakening is conditioned experience, dependent on circumstances,
and binds us fast to those conditions and circumstances. But, by definition, enlightenment is unconditioned, free,
unbounded, peace, and stillness. It is clear bright knowing awareness. Old age and poverty cannot touch it.
I cringe whenever I read essays about suffering in the world and in the same breath mention of the Four Nobel Truths,
Suffering, its Origin, its End, and the Path to its end, as if their worldly misfortune, ill health, financial ruin, or whatever,
demonstrate the truth of the Buddha’s word. There is no relationship whatever, at least in the context of the Four
We suffer because of what we are unaware of, not what we are aware of. The root of suffering according to the
Buddha is Fundamental Ignorance, and Fundamental Ignorance does not play favorites. The, so called, “blessed” and
“cursed” in this life are equally its prey. It is a level playing field here. Ignorance affects all of us unenlightened beings
equally, and to a Buddha, who has cut off Ignorance, and realized true peace and purity, we are all to be pitied.
If we soar high above our cities in a plane everyone looks pretty much the same from our vantage point, and so do all
of us to a Buddha from the vantage point of his realization. It should be encouraging to all of us that the potential to
end Ignorance and attain bliss is available to each of us regardless of our social status, health or lack thereof,
financial condition, age, appearance, color, cleverness, or any attribute that would distinguish us for better or worse in
this diverse world of ours.
It is extremely helpful to abolish from our consciousness any connection with suffering as we know it as a relativistic
condition, and suffering that is caused by Ignorance. As long as the notion is entertained that Suffering in the
Buddhist sense is conditioned by circumstances rather than Fundamental Ignorance, we will find it an insurmountable
obstacle to understanding and abolishing it.
If everything is going well in our life, we must learn to understand our life is permeated by Ignorance and Suffering,
and If our life is not going well, we must understand the same. Exploring Suffering as in the “Truths” is a bigger topic
than our personal suffering, and those of us on the path of self-discovery should take care not to conflate the two.