A Pain in the Earth

Run a Google search on the Pali word dukkha, and you’ll come up with a lot of insightful sites.  Lately my reading habits have been a bit desultory, although I am most of the way through an excellent book by John Banville entitled “The Infinities,” which I strongly recommend, flexing the muscles around my vocal cords in a macho and intimidating display.  That is to say, I’ll get half way through an article on “dukkha,” then get sidetracked, like a fish who’s been hooked by two different fishermen at once and is being ripped apart by these possessive piscine executioners (I realize that’s not really an appropriate modifier, but I like the way it sounds so I’ll keep it in there, at least for the time being).

In case you don’t know, “dukkha” is the word the Buddha used to describe life.  His big message is normally translated as “Life is suffering,” but what he really meant was “Life is dukkha.”  Not to be confused with “dookie.”  For an eloquent dissection of this term, please turn to Barbara O’Brien, who has written quite a bit on Buddhism for the site http://www.about.com.  She points out that dukkha encompasses a wide range of ailments and malaises that the word “suffering” simply does not do justice to.  Another site (which I’ll track down for you later) points out the difference between “gross matter” and “subtle matter.”  (In case this is confusing to you, you’ll have to excuse me, as I’m in a bit of a rush right now and don’t have much time to write.  I just wanted to jot a few things down out of an abiding sense of duty.)

I’ll probably have to go back to the latter site in order to paraphrase for you in a more articulate fashion what those phrases refer to; for now, let’s focus on dukkha itself.  Beyond mere suffering, it refers to pain, both physical and mental, anguish, loneliness, jealousy, envy, rage, bitterness, disappointment, the feeling of rejection, a sense of inadequacy, fear, impatience, annoyance, and dissatisfaction.  Getting what you want is great at the time, but if you lose it, you feel even worse than you did before you gained what- or whomever it was you “won” in the first place.  Getting what you don’t want is an irksome reminder that the thing or person you wanted (or, probably, still want) is out of reach or unavailable (consider, for example, marrying the wrong person).

What Buddhism does, or can do if you put your mind to it through meditation and objective observation of your own thought patterns and habits of desire, is make you want what you have (although technically the word “want” always implies a lack, so the phrase understandably sounds contradictory as we get lost in the thicket of words and the sticky morass of semantics) instead of feeling that your life is incomplete because you obviously can never satisfy even a fraction of the ongoing stream of desires that flows from birth to death.

Happiness has to happen naturally; you can’t fake or force it (even though, as Dr. Andrew Weil points out, you can come pretty close if you engage in laughing yoga).

But one thing I have trouble getting my head around, as a long-time dabbler in Buddhism and tantalized dilettante, is this idea of letting go.  Buddhist teachers and writers always say, “All you need to do is let go”–of your desires, fears, judgments, etc.  That’s great advice.  Thanks a million.  But when you talk about letting go of insatiable cravings, isn’t that sort of like trying to let go of a boa constrictor?  You can let it go all you want, but that sucker’s still going to do everything in its power to squeeze your guts out and turn your spine to jelly.

Still, I’m just a beginner, so I can’t say that I even understand what “letting go” means yet–although I have a reasonably clear idea of what “dukkha” means.  I’m not out to convert anyone (that’s my wife’s department), but you could do worse than to learn a few things about Buddhism, if you haven’t already.

As they say in Massachusetts, “It’s wicked pissa.”

I’ll leave you with a quote from the metta or “lovingkindness” meditation chant:  “May all beings be happy.”


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