Understanding and alleviating suffering (dukkha)

December 2, 2021

One of the Buddha’s principal aims was to alleviate unnecessary suffering – that is, suffering caused by three factors: one, anger and ‘negative’ emotions; two, greed, craving and attachment; and, three, delusion – that is, having a misguided view or misunderstanding of how things are, the true nature of reality. Some kinds of suffering are an inevitable aspect of life. Aging, illness, injury and death affect us all, and seeing how these processes affect those we love is also hard to bear. Although we can’t avoid these aspects of life, we can learn how to negotiate them and how to lessen the impact they have on us. By changing our relationship with these experiences, we can be less affected by them.

Yet, the causes of suffering are not just found in each individual. We suffer not only because we have the tendency to be angry, greedy, and deluded, but because social, political, and economic structures foster these tendencies and amplify their impact. Thus, in addition to practices like meditation which alleviate anger, greed, and delusion, we need to create a society which promotes their opposites: non-violence, friendship and kinship; non-attachment and relief from craving; and a clear understanding of the impermanent and interdependent nature of reality.

How is individual suffering to be alleviated?

So how do we reduce suffering? The Buddha proposes three actions that will help. First, to come to a clear and balanced view of how things are – dharma – the realisation that existence has two primary characteristics: one, impermanence and change, and, two, interdependence and causality. All things are in process – they come and go – whether slow or fast all things are subject to change – things are actually events. Also, everything in the universe is related to, and dependent upon, everything else – there is no entity that exists in isolation, separate from the rest of existence. This includes us and all beings. We are interconnected and interdependent, and any action we take has consequences. The principle of cause and effect is always at work, everywhere in the universe.

The second way we can reduce suffering is by learning how to let go of our attachments and cravings. To some extent this is also helped by understanding that attachments and greed are self-propelling and insatiable – one craving leads to another, gaining one reward or possession only leads us to want more – a cycle that repeats itself endlessly. We may want a new car, a delicious meal, more money, more entertainment, more knowledge, more power, more friends, new ideas, a more satisfying way of life, peace of mind or even enlightenment – whatever it may be, it will almost certainly prove to be insufficient, replaceable by yet another craving or attachment. To understand this cyclical and insatiable process is, according to the Buddha, vital, if we are to learn to accept what is, and to learn to let go and reduce the power of our attachments to things that are always changing and slipping through our fingers.

The third way to reduce suffering is to be aware of, and to accept and understand, the negative emotions that arise when we feel ourselves to be separate from the rest of existence. Anger, fear, conflict, hatred, envy and other ‘negative’ emotions are, in some way, the product of feelings of isolation, separateness, division, disconnection and alienation. Again, this arises from a misconception about the nature of existence. These emotions and attitudes arise when we can no longer see and feel the interconnectedness of everything and everyone, when we lose sight of the unity of everything and everyone, and can see only enemies, strangers, foreigners and competitors – to be vanquished or feared, beaten or despised – rather than as relatives, friends and fellow beings.

Zazen, and other forms of mindful meditation, are simple and effective methods of understanding and alleviating suffering by learning how to achieve a clear, balanced, wise view of how things are – and by lessening the impact of anger, greed and delusion in our lives. By sitting quietly and calmly, observing the embodied mind without commentary and judgment, letting go of passing thoughts, feelings and sensations, we learn to develop understanding, composure and wellbeing. We can reorientate our minds to a more holistic, less egocentric, perspective from which to see ourselves and the world. A form of benign compassionate disinterest can be practiced – a holistic awareness of all that comes and goes. In this way we can lessen the many forms of suffering that can affect us and, hopefully, enable us to experience more fully the wonder and joy of just being alive, conscious and connected to all of existence.

Developing a society that aims to alleviate unnecessary suffering

Needless to say, our social, political and economic structures are not conducive to the aim of alleviating suffering – indeed they seem to be based on the very factors that cause unnecessary suffering. So, what would a society look like that took the alleviation of avoidable suffering as its underlying purpose or goal?

Back in 1973, Fritz Schumacher, wrote a book titled, Small is Beautiful. It became a best-seller. Its sub-title was, ‘A study of economics as if people mattered’ and it included a chapter on ‘Buddhist economics.’ If he were writing now, his sub-title might be: ‘a study of economics as if all beings mattered.’ If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to take a look at Schumacher’s book as there is still so much we can learn from it. I would also recommend Sulak Sivaraksa’s book, Seeds of peace: a Buddhist vision for renewing society.’

In the meantime, here are a few thoughts on these matters.

If a society is to have ‘alleviation of unnecessary suffering’ as its guiding principle, all social, political and economic structures will need to foster three aims: one, to minimise anger and ‘negative emotions; two, to minimise greed, craving and attachment; and, three, to minimise delusion or misunderstanding about the nature of things.

Non-violence, non-attachment and clear understanding

To express this in more positive terms, our social, political and economic structures will need to encapsulate and encourage: one, non-violence, friendship and kinship; two, non-attachment and relief from craving; and, three, a clear understanding that impermanence, change, interdependence and causality are key features of the world in which we live and that we need to live in harmony with these features, if we are to live well. These three attributes may constitute ‘wise livelihood’ in the Eightfold Path suggested by the Buddha.

A society that takes non-violence and friendship as one of its founding principles, would need to minimise its dependence on military forces, employing such forces only for defence and, perhaps, to contribute to an international peace-keeping force that could be used to prevent or resolve conflicts around the world. The production of arms would only be for these forces and there would be no arms trade as such, or so-called ‘defence industries,’ which only sell weaponry that fuels violence elsewhere. Money saved from military expenditure would be invested in an education, health and social-care system that was equally available to everyone.

Non-violence, anger-management and understanding of how to recognise and deal with ‘negative emotions’ would be an integral part of education at all levels from primary school to university and tertiary levels. Courtesy, respect for oneself and others, and tolerance, would also be important parts of any curriculum. Private schools would not have charitable status. Money saved through a more efficient and sustainable economy would be used to provide free education for everyone, regardless of status or wealth. Non-violence and mutual respect would be enshrined within the legal system and restitution, reconciliation and reformation would be the main purpose of justice – rather than vengeance and retribution. Conciliation, victim-support and transparency would be central to the legal system.

Democracy would be enhanced through a fairer system of proportional representation, with political power devolved, as far as possible, to local councils and citizens assemblies. A taxation system would be devised that ensured a fair and balanced distribution of income for everyone. Funds from taxation would be spent in ways that maximised the wellbeing of everyone in society.

Health, creative development and sustainability – rather than profit

A society predicated on non-attachment and freedom from craving would need to be radically different from our current consumerist culture and economy. Profit would no longer be the main purpose of commerce and industry – well-being, health, creative development and sustainability would become the driving impetus for the economy. The economy would be ecological in substance and operation. Care of people, other beings and the planet, would be of primary importance rather than profit and exploitation. Economic ‘growth’ would be replaced by ‘personal growth and social well-being’ as the measure of a successful economy. ‘Getting the most from the least’ would be a guiding motto for how resources are used. Things would be made to last, to be repairable and recyclable – reliability and make-do-and-mend would be virtues. Instead of advertising newness, changing fashion or unnecessary consumption, advertising would focus on quality of manufacture, dependability, sustainability and ingenuity in making the most of limited resources.

Work, trade and retailing would be governed by clear ethical guidelines based on sustainability, care of workers and customers. All commercial enterprises would be partnerships involving everyone who contributed to the company, all of whom shared in the commonwealth that accrued to the organisation. Equality of opportunity and reward for all, would be fundamental principles and any profit generated, over and above what was considered fair for the wellbeing of each partner, would be cycled back into the organisation, or into a wellbeing fund held by the society at large. Minimising consumption, increasing sustainability, and caring for all beings and our planet, would be central to the education system – which would be a lifelong process aimed at developing the creative, spiritual and caring potential of every citizen. A person who consumes less would be considered more successful than a person who consumes more – unlike in our society where the opposite is usually the case. How to enable everyone to live well and enjoy a good life - making creative use of minimal resources - and caring for each other and for all beings, would be the guiding aspirations of all political, social, economic and cultural organisations. Parenthood would be a valued and rewarded occupation.

Conserving, caring and sharing

Learning about impermanence, interdependence and causality would be at the core of a comprehensive education system. Learning the importance of taking responsibility for our thoughts, words and actions – and of compassion, awareness and kindness - would be key elements in a curriculum that emphasised critical thinking as well as: developing creative imagination, awareness and respect for all cultures; learning from history; and learning how all beings are interconnected. All centres of education would aim to develop in their students a holistic awareness of the interrelationships that bind all beings and natural forces together, and a realisation that all actions have consequences that may cause or alleviate suffering.  Learning that the earth’s resources are finite and need to be conserved, and that biodiversity is essential to the health of us all, would be crucial – as would developing new ways of ensuring the well-being of all the peoples of the earth. Cultural diversity would be viewed as a sign of a flourishing planet. The natural world would be cared for as the home of all living beings – to be valued and cared for as we value and care for our own home.

These may be seen as pie-in-the-sky aspirations at present, but any action any of us can take, however small, which moves us in this direction, is a step towards a better future. Of course, clinging to notions of a future utopia may be one more attachment to be let go of. But, following an ethical path that might someday lead to a sustainable, fair and healthy society is surely something that each of us can do – it is a way of extending our meditation practice, and the understanding that comes from it, into our everyday lives. Making the world a better place depends on each of us, here and now, acting with imagination, kindness and compassionate clear-sighted awareness.

References & links

E.F. Schumacher. 1974. Small is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered. London: Abacus.

Sulak Sivaraksa. 1992. Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist vision for renewing society. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

New Economics Foundation – an organisation aimed at developing an economic system that has parallels with ‘Buddhist economics’: https://neweconomics.org/

Five Ways to Wellbeing – CLANG – Connect, keep Learning, be Active, take Notice, Give  – information can be downloaded here: https://library.recoverydevon.co.uk/document/five-ways-to-wellbeing-a-snapshot/

Gross National Happiness index – information about Bhutan’s approach to happiness can be found here: http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/

Doughnut Economics Model for sustainable development – another approach to sustainable economics: https://doughnuteconomics.org/about-doughnut-economics



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