OUR REACTIONS TO DUKKHA
Dr. Elizabeth Ashby
Bodhi Leaves No. B 26
Reprinted from //Sangha//, July 1959.
Copyright 1965, 1995 Buddhist Publication Society
BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY
KANDY SRI LANKA
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DharmaNet Edition 1995
Transcription: Eileen Santer
Proofreading: Jane Yudelman
Formatting: John Bullitt
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"Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth about Ill. Birth is Ill,
Aging is Ill, Sickness is Ill, Death is Ill, likewise Sorrow
and Grief, Woe, Lamentation and Despair. To be conjoined with
things we dislike, to be separated from things which we
like -- that also is Ill. Not to get what one wants, that also
is Ill, In a word, this Body, this fivefold mass which is based
on grasping, that is Ill."
-- Samy. Nik. V,
Here, bleak and uncompromising, is the First Noble Truth. To
understand it "according to reality" is the hard-won privilege of the
Stream Winner, the result of earnest contemplation. But it seems
possible that we can condition our minds intellectually in such a way
that, when the right time comes, the Truth will reveal itself. The
more we know about Ill the more clearly shall we see the unsatisfactory
state of "being" in which we find ourselves, and the "dry method" of
approach will perhaps enable us to face up to Ill in all its myriad
There is no English word that will render all the meanings of the Pali
//dukkha//. "Ill" serves the purpose pretty well, so to a certain
extent do the terms "suffering" and "anguish." There remains a deeper,
more general meaning, given by Evola as "a state of agitation, of
restlessness or commotion rather than suffering...it is the antithesis
of unshakable calm."
There are three different angles from which we can consider the way
that //dukkha// impinges on the senses.
1. //Generalized dukkha//. The mass suffering due to war, famine and
pestilence that overwhelms large groups of humanity at the same time,
and the less appreciated concealed dukkha, common to all, dependent on
our underlying restlessness and discontent -- the rubs and frustrations
of everyday life, and the moods and emotions that interfere with the
inner life, which, for want to a better word, we call "spiritual." As
St. Paul put it: "We know that the whole creation groaneth and
travaileth together in pain until now."
2. //Adventitious dukkha//. By this is meant dukkha that comes under
our immediate observation, but which does not primarily involve
ourselves; street accidents, the sick neighbor, the live thrush caught
in a strawberry net.
3. //Dukkha that is Private and Personal//. This is the Ill that
affects each and all of us according to our kamma, and as such it is of
the first importance to our own poor little egos. It will be dealt
with more fully later on, but first let us consider some of the
reactions that are evoked by dukkha in general.
1. "//Blinkers//". Many people find the thought of suffering very
unpleasant, and they try to shut it out as far as possible. "I'm so
sensitive I can't //bear// to hear about it," or, more callously, "It's
not my funeral." Those who are "born lucky," or in fortunate
circumstances are prone to wear blinkers. These, when they first
contact Buddhism, are repelled by the idea that life is fundamentally
unsatisfactory; they think of their pleasures past, present and future,
and ignore the minor frustrations of everyday life. An extension of the
"blinkers" is that of the "rose-colored spectacles," the wearers of
which think that "all is for the best in the best of all possible
worlds." Voltaire's "Candide" is a bitter satire founded on this
2. //Blind Acceptance//. This is characteristic of animals and some
primitive races which accept the miseries of an uncomfortable
situation, or the hazards of existence, because such things are part
and parcel of their ordinary life.
3. //Prayer//. The reaction of the "faithful" is to look for
supernatural aid. This, performed in a somewhat perfunctory fashion,
may be a day set apart for nation-wide prayer in the advent of some
calamity, or the prayers of an individual in distress. From the
Buddhist standpoint this reaction is useless if there be no God, and a
gross impertinence if there is one. Psychologically the individual may
feel comforted by the thought that he has shifted his responsibility on
to a higher power.
4. //Lamentation//. This is very usual when a valued treasure has
been lost, or in the case of bereavement ("Where are you, little only
son? where are you, little only son?" Majjh. Nik.87). A frequent form
of lamentation in the West is "Why should this happen to ME?" When
shouldn't it? Have we never heard of Kamma?
5. //Grumbling//. A useless proceeding; moreover it is likely to
create fresh dukkha. The confirmed grumbler is disliked, and is
consequently avoided by his acquaintances who leave him "to stew in his
6. //Worry and Flurry (Agitation)//. This one of the Five Hindrances,
is destructive of Calm. Work is badly performed, and the unfortunate
sufferer may in time wear himself to a shadow. "We worry because we
want to do so." This is a hard saying, but worth some wise reflection.
7. //To Look for a Quick Remedy//. "I've got a headache. Where's the
8. //Drink and Drugs//. "He drowned his sorrows in drink, and got the
helluva hangover!" "She's taken to chain-smoking, and it ain't 'alf
done 'er cough good!" The Welfare State has had sad repercussions in
the way of addiction to "Tranquilizers" and "Pep Pills," and the
smuggling of cocaine and heroin. "Drugging" may take a mental or
intellectual form, such as the incessant use of radio and television.
The constant reading of sensational literature, space-fiction or
who-dun-its, is another example. This sort of thing, especially when
read in the small hours, is likely to exacerbate rather than relieve
9. //Hate and Ill-Will//. Another Hindrance, and very liable to crop
up when one has suffered a real, or supposed, injury by somebody else.
A common example is the "slanging match" that ensues when two motor
cars have been in collision. The injured party lets off at the other
fool, who immediately retaliates, and so, probably because both are
suffering from shock, they increase each other's dukkha. On a lesser
scale is the ill-will that is engendered when one encounters a rude
shop-assistant, or is pushed about in a queue. The tendency is to
shove back, or be sarcastic, and these minor frets linger in the memory
for a long time afterwards.
//Revenge// is a deadly extension of the Hate reaction. "An eye for an
eye, and a tooth for a tooth." The worst results are individual
murders, and the age-old blood feud, or vendetta. For the Buddha's
advice on this subject see "The Parable of the Saw," Majjh. Nik. 21.
10. //Envy//. "I've been ploughed in my 'finals," but that blighter
X. has pulled off an honors degree!" And so on, in every walk of life.
There is one form of envy which we' as Dhamma farers, must be
especially careful to avoid. This arises when our own practice is
going badly, and we hear of someone else who has "made gains." If we
are not careful we fret, and lose heart, with disastrous results. Does
somebody whisper "Mudita -- sympathetic joy?" That ought to be the
11. //Hysterical Outbursts//. This type of reaction is very
interesting. Floods of tears, outbursts of profanity, and the smashing
of crockery are frowned upon by society, but in actual fact they have a
cathartic effect: a vast accumulation of emotion is worked off in a
very short time, and when the sufferers come to their senses they feel
much better for having given way.
12. //Enjoyment of Suffering//. The worst manifestation is sadism,
which is fortunately rare. There is, however, a delight in spectacles
that involve suffering to others, such as the gladiatorial combats in
ancient Rome, the Spanish bullfights, and sports that frequently
involve serious accidents. These things provide thrills for the
spectators who thereby satisfy their craving for sensation. The Tragic
Drama of ancient Greece was designed for a different purpose, that of
arousing Pity and Terror in the audience. The effect was intended to
be cathartic: by witnessing dukkha on an Olympian scale the spectators
gained a sense of proportion, and were purged of their own emotions.
The effect can be quite terrifying; on one occasion a translation of
"The Trojan Women" of Euripides, acted on an English stage, reduced the
whole audience to tears. The reaction was a strange mixture of pain
In a more subtle form there is enjoyment of one's personal dukkha --
the sensation of being a martyr. And it is possible to feel that
because one is capable of great suffering this faculty raises one above
the insensitive herd. This appears to be a superiority conceit.
13. //Capitalization of misfortune//, as in the case of midgets,
"armless wonders" and Siamese twins who earn their living by exposing
their deformities to the public gaze. A degrading example of gain from
another's misfortune is the case of the Spanish beggar who displays the
distorted legs of his own little boy. A minor example of this is the
desire to make the most of one's own affliction as when a blind man or
a cripple hurls himself into a stream of traffic because he knows that
everything will give way to him. And have not many of us been tempted
to prolong a period of convalescence?
14. //Relapse into Dullness (Moha)//. Sometimes it seems that the ego
can no longer contend with life; it throws up the sponge, so to speak,
and the sufferer becomes mentally deranged. Any form of mental
disorder may occur; and the patient has the doubtful blessing of being
freed from his responsibilities. Another type of this reaction occurs
in people who, tired out with the hardships and monotony of life,
refuse to get out of bed after an illness. There they will lie, year
after year, content to spend the rest of their lives as social
15. //Physical//. Dukkha, which is always associated with some kind of
emotion, shows out physically in a number of ways. Sudden bad news has
the effect of a blow in the stomach, and in times of stress there is a
general feeling of weight in the abdomen; continued worry frequently
produces gastric troubles of an organic nature. Shock can turn the
hair white in the course of a few hours, and fear, now, as in the
Buddha's time, can make the hair stand on end (Dig. Nik. I.2.).
Sweating is another phenomenon associated with fear and nervousness, so
is palpitation. "My heart went into my boots!" is a common expression
signifying a state of alarm. When anger arises as a result of some
unpleasant happening circulatory changes are very common: the red, or
even purple, face, and there is a "white anger" that is still more
16. //Suicide//: the last resort of the anguished. In the eyes of the
Western Church it is a "mortal sin"; the law regards it as a crime, and
the public believes that it is due to either cowardice or lunacy. The
Stoics thought otherwise: "Remember that the door stands open. Be not
more fearful than children; but as they, when weary of the game, cry 'I
will play no more.' Even so, when thou art in like case, cry 'I will
play no more' and depart. But if thou stayest, make no lamentation"
(Epictetus). For the Buddhist suicide is a grievous mistake because it
is a kamma-producing act, and on account of its violence will produce
some violent form of kamma in a future life. The only exception is the
Arahant, a perfected one whose kamma is no longer operative; he may end
his life how and when he will.
This is a formidable list, though incomplete; the most obvious reaction
has been left out. Can readers supply it for themselves? On looking
through this unedifying catalogue the writer was horrified to find how
many of our reactions to dukkha stem from the Three Roots of Evil,
Greed, Hate and Delusion. There remain, however, several reactions
that are, in the main, healthy.
1. //Endurance//. "The Lord gave and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be
the Lord." That is the endurance of the "faithful," and it is
dangerously near blind acceptance. In Buddhism endurance is a positive
virtue which eliminates some of the cankers (asavas). Uncomfortable
physical conditions, minor pains and injuries "irritating talk" are
things to be taken in one's stride, without complaint and without
ill-will, and without even the wish for a more comfortable situation
(Majjh. Nik. 2.).
2. //The Heroic//. "Curse God and Die!" That is defiance of Fate in
the person of Omnipotence,
"Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed."
Pride, "stinking pride," but there is nothing craven in it. A very
different heroism is that with which the blind and the disabled fight
their way back again into a useful existence and the unrecognized
courage of the women who cope with the //res angusta domi// -- the
littleness and bitterness that domestic life so often involves. It can
be said that the heroic reaction is needful to all of us; only those
disciples who possess the Ariyan, or heroic spirit will be able to
3. //The Philosophic//. "There are worse things happen at sea!" "It'll
be all the same in a hundred years." On a somewhat higher level Lady
Mary Wortley Montague wrote to Pope: "Let us then, which is the only
true philosophy, be contended with our chance of being born in this
vile planet, where we shall find however, God be thanked, much to laugh
at, though little to approve." For "chance" read kamma, but let us keep
the laughter (it is one of the "selling points" of Zen). Humor, because
it is aware of the incongruities of existence, is in reality a sense of
proportion. It ought to be possible to see oneself as of less
importance in the general scheme of things than is a solitary louse,
crawling down Piccadilly, compared with the rest of London.
4. //The Creative//. Poets, in company with artists and musicians,
often find that their best work is done when they are suffering from
some stress. Dukkha is then kept under control, and actually serves a
useful purpose. This reaction occurs in less exalted people who,
instead of moping, have the will to get up and do something. This is
the beginning, in a very modest form, of the virtue of Energy.
5. //Compassion/. This age is usually referred to as money-grubbing
and self-centered. But when obvious dukkha, of the adventitious order,
arises there is a quick response. A bad railway accident or a motor
smash brings out the fundamental decency of humanity; help is proffered
quite regardless of reward, or even of thanks. The infirm and the blind
are surprised by the number of helping hands held out to them. On the
contrary, the less obvious signs of ill are overlooked. Who has
compassion on the grumblers, the bores, and the poor fools whom we
imagine to be inferior to ourselves. These people, for whom we have an
aversion, are equally in need of compassion. We are under no
obligation to seek them out for the purpose of doing them good, but,
when they cross our path, we can at least deal gently with them.
Lastly, there are occasions when we should have compassion on
ourselves, particularly our body, //rupa-kkhandha//, "Brother Ass," who
has to carry the weight of all the other //khandhas//.
//Personal Dukkha//, "wherein the heart knoweth his own bitterness," is our
inescapable heritage. From earliest childhood we have been occupied
with "I-making and mine-making" until we have persuaded ourselves that
"I" am the pivot around which the whole universe, that is to say the
//samsara//, revolves: our sense of proportion is completely lost.
Does it matter to the beings on Mars, if any, that Miss A. has been
jilted? "But it matters to ME!" is the instant reply of poor Miss A.
And for practical purpose it does matter to Miss A.'s immediate
associates how the unfortunate girl will react. She might, for
instance, (a) drown herself, (b) go into a convent, (c) get on with her
job, and stop lamenting, or (d) take to writing poetry.
There are several aspects of personal "ill" that hit us all sooner or
later. The most conspicuous of these are:
1. //Pain and Illness//. "Not death or pain is to be feared, but the
//fear// of death and pain" (Epictetus). Pain itself is an
extraordinary problem. We know that in many cases it is a danger
signal indicating that some part of the body is out of order, and we
think that pain is felt at the site of the injury or disease. This is
not the case, for pain is an affair of consciousness, and is felt in
the //mind// where it produces an emotional reaction. This is so
deep-seated that we do not recognize its emotional nature, and
consequently do not label it. Personally I think it is a mixture of
self-pity, resentment and fear, all of which arise from //dosa//, the
Evil Root of Hate. Certainly we know from experience than an agonizing
pain produces a mental state of sheer, blind misery. A strong argument
that pain is emotional is to be found by watching the results of an
injection of morphia. The patient who has had a "shot" frequently
notices a queer phenomenon: the pain is //still there//, but he
doesn't care a tinker's curse about it! The morphia has acted on the
emotional center in the brain, and damped it down to such an extent
that the self-pity, resentment and fear have vanished.
This emotional element explains the very different way in which people
react to pain. An apparently trivial injury can lay out someone of the
emotional type, while those whose temperaments are phlegmatic or
philosophic merely yelp or swear. The intensity of the pain
experienced clearly depends upon the consciousness of each individual.
The perfected consciousness of the Arahant is above both pain and
pleasure, the emotional life is so controlled that he is aware of both
feelings, but does not "mind" either of them. This suggests that an
objective approach to our own pains will diminish our suffering. The
analysis of the whole thing from start to finish helps to draw off the
mind from the actual feeling, and thereby lessens the emotional
reactions. The odd idea of the soldier "biting on the bullet" is no
idle fancy, for if he concentrates on the bullet he cannot at the same
time concentrate on the pain. What probably happens is that his mind
flickers with incredible rapidity between the two ideas; the pain is
still there but may be reduced to bearable dimensions.
The same objective attitude applies to illness. As is also the case
with pain, illness impairs the mental functions. The practice of
Dhamma is hindered, and the sick man becomes dejected and ashamed.
"Wherefore, house-father, thus should you train yourself; 'Though my
body is sick, my mind shall not be sick.' Thus, house-father, must you
train yourself." (Some Sayings of the Buddha: p. 132). The right
reactions, therefore, to both pain and illness are Endurance and
Courage -- heroism.
2. //Attachments//. Though attachments to things can constitute a
menace, attachment to persons produces greater woe than all the rest of
our misfortunes put together. There is a very important sutta "On
'Born of the Affections'" (Majjh. Nik., Vol. II No. 87) that emphasizes
the dukkha due to personal relationships. We grow up believing that in
human love lies our greatest happiness. And for ordinary people it is
so. Then, why all this fuss about grief, sorrow, suffering,
lamentation and despair? The answer brings us up against one of the
basic facts of existence: //anicca//, impermanence. Love is a
conditioned thing -- because it arises it must also cease. It is hard
to realize that love, even in its most idealistic form, is in reality a
manifestation of //tanha//, craving. We grasp at it hoping for
security, for understanding, for fulfillment -- for the assuaging of
our "primordial anguish." And for a fraction of time we may experience
all these, and deludedly believe that the riddle of the Sphinx has been
answered. This is no so.
Two things are to be apprehended in respect of all attachments, the
first of which is Death. The sword of Yama sweeps away pets, children,
friends and lovers, and we are left -- left to grow old. That, in human
terms, is a tragedy, but it is a //clean// ending. Secondly,
Disillusion sets in when the glamour of the contact has worn off. We
notice "alteration and otherness" in the beloved object, and a blight
comes over the relationship. This may be so serious that the
attachment may be broken off, leaving in many instances heartache and
bitterness frequently accompanied by a sense of shame. In extreme
cases love turns to hate. This arises when the hater thinks he has
been cheated or deceived; he hates himself for being a fool, and it is
this self-hatred which is projected on to the erstwhile loved one.
Some form of "alteration and otherness" //must// occur in every case
because we ourselves are altering all the time. Enduring friendships
and life-long loves do occur because the partners consciously or
unconsciously adapt their behavior to the altering circumstances, and
by so doing alter themselves in the right direction.
The cynic will ask: Why love at all if the end-result is always
dukkha? Because, while we are unenlightened, we are impelled into it
by the driving force of our own kamma; it is a necessary experience. We
shall never understand what //metta// really is unless, in this or
former lives, we have lived through heights and depths of human love.
Metta, which is love on a self-transcending plane, irradiates the whole
world, whereas human love can only glorify two bundles of khandhas for
a limited period. "Whenever, wherever, whatever happiness if found it
belongs to happiness." (Majjh. Nik. Vol. II No 59.) The Buddha,
though he emphasized dukkha, never forbid nor denied happiness. His
teaching noted the happiness of the sensory world, and led on to the
happiness to be derived from the practice of Dhamma. Beyond this is a
happiness "that is more excellent and exquisite", known only in the
2. //Aging//. Strictly speaking aging begins at the very moment of
conception. A baby in the throes of teething experiences suffering due
to aging, and so too do teenagers at the time of puberty. But the ills
of old age are the most obvious. The bodily changes bear hardly on
those who were once good-looking, less hardly on the "homely" or the
ugly. There is an irksome slowing down of one's physical activities;
one can only move in second gear. There is the boredom of too much
leisure occupied by too few interests. These things arouse in many
people a wild rebellion -- "I hate old age!" This is a useless
reaction; it only intensifies the suffering.
Old age is a time of limitation, but it could be, indeed ought to be, a
time of opportunity. Late nights, motoring, continental journeys and
even gardening are gone forever. These, and similar pleasures, are
material things; they belong to //samsaric// existence. They must go,
but now we have the chance to let them go willingly, with knowledge,
but without repining. This is the time to break old habits, to realize
that living is just another habit and prepare ourselves to break with
that too. Furthermore, it is an opportunity to notice, and to break up
clinging, a time to stop accumulating, and to begin disposing of
4. //Death//. It is impossible while we are still alive to react to
death itself; we can only react to the thought of it. At the moment of
writing it is still a future event that may happen twenty years hence,
or it might occur within the next twenty minutes. One's thought leaps
to the other side of death: What happens afterwards? Here we
encounter ideas that vary according to our upbringing and our later
"Rest after toil,
Port after stormy seas,
Death after life
Do greatly please."
Very pretty; very pretty indeed, but probably wrong. As long as "I"
want to be //I// (and a long time after), "I" shall plunge back into
the samsara, the essentially restless state in which "I" am now living.
An animal birth? A birth in one of the purgatories, or in a deva
world? We do not know. Nor do we know how long it will be, according
to time-as-we-know it, before that rebirth takes place. Can
consciousness, having provided itself with a mental body, or "body of
craving," still function in the interval between death and rebirth? The
Tibetan Book of the Dead has much to say about the Bardo, the
Intermediate State, but the Pali canon gives no hint of it; such
speculations were put aside as "wriggling, scuffling and speculative
views, the wilds of speculative views." The Buddha would have nothing
to do with views.
"Let be the future." Our concern is with the Here-Now. Death is Ill
because it puts an end to the opportunities we now have, as human
beings, for the study and practice of Dhamma. It behooves us,
therefore, to cultivate a sense of urgency with regard to death.
Paradoxically, at the age of seventy death seems as far away, or even
further, than it did at seventeen. The old have the habit of living so
strongly developed that they cannot conceive the idea of doing anything
else. They dislike being disturbed: death will not only disturb them,
but it will tear them away from their rightful background. They resent
this: the "I" without its conventional attire will feel so naked. The
Christian heaven has scant attraction for the average Christian because
it equates with the Unknown.
Many young people respond to the thought of death in an entirely
different fashion: "To die will be a great adventure'." That is the
Heroic Reaction of the young -- and the young in heart.
Erasmus, the greatest scholar that the Reformation produced, wrote a
treatise on The Art of Good Dying, or How to Achieve a Good Death. He
held that a deathbed repentance and the Rite of Holy Church availed
nothing. In order to die well a man must live well in the highest
sense of the word. That is sound doctrine. For us it means Morality,
Concentration, and Intuitive Wisdom coupled with the sense of urgency.
"Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth about the ceasing of Ill. Verily
it is this Noble Eightfold Path, that is: Right View...RIGHT
MINDFULNESS, Right Contemplation."
Students who are well-trained in Mindfulness cope with dukkha in a very
different fashion from the rest of us whose minds are still at the
"drunken monkey" stage. Our personal "Ills" sizzle around us like
virulent mosquitoes; if the suffering is severe our own Mindfulness is
completely overwhelmed by SELF-PITY, which is both a "muddy" and a
muddling reaction. Our sense of proportion is lost, and we make
matters worse for ourselves by imagining a host of unpleasant
developments that might arise in the future. If, when we are in this
state of woe, we will pause and sort out our reactions -- they are
usually mixed -- to the situation, naming each in turn, whether they
are healthy or otherwise, we shall be practicing Mindfulness with
regard to Mental States, a very important branch of right Mindfulness.
This is a very helpful practice because the mind is drawn away from the
dukkha itself, and is switched on to something that is really
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TITLE OF WORK: Our Reactions to Dukkha (Bodhi Leaves #B26)
AUTHOR: Dr. Elizabeth Ashby
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