There’s a common belief that one of the core tenets of Buddhism is “All Life is Suffering”. It’s believed by many that buddhists in general go around believing that we’re just suffering all the time, that only by following the teaching of Buddha we can end suffering and escape the eternal torment that is life. Some even go a step further and think that it isn’t life itself that is suffering, but greed or desire. It’s closer to the truth, but it’s a very simplified perspective on Buddhism, and still very far from the truth. Life is not suffering. Not even desire is suffering. Not in and of itself.
It’s the inability for humanity to grasp impermanence that is suffering.
Buddha taught us that life is suffering because of this simple fact – life is impermanent and humans in general have a hard time accepting that fact. A healthy body inevitably grows weak and feeble. A rich person can lose all of his money. A famous person can become a social pariah after just a single mistake. A happy relationship can end for any one of a thousand reasons. People die, jobs are lost, things happen. It is inevitable, and it’s because we refuse to accept that these things are impermanent that we suffer.
As human beings, it’s very difficult for us not to create images in our heads of how we want our future to look. We hope for wealth, health, happy relationships, sex, a beautiful apartment and lots of other things. We struggle to get these things, and – in some ways – we already believe we have them. We can imagine them, so they can happen, right?
But very often they don’t.
The person you were crushing on finds somebody else. The apartment you wanted is sold to somebody else. The sex you were hoping for never happens. And we’re disappointed. Even though we never had any of these things, we’re disappointed for not getting them. Or maybe we do get them and they turn out to be different from what we were expecting. Disappointment again. All because we had expectations that failed to materialize. All because we expected other people in our lives to act in a way that they chose not to act. All because we expected random chance to reward you in one way when it instead decided to punish you in another.
“Life is suffering”, the Buddha said. What he meant is that because we find it so difficult to live in the moment, we form expectations of what the future will look like – either that it will change for the better or that it won’t change at all. But it always changes. It never stays the same. And that’s why we’re disappointed. We’re disappointed because we’ve developed pictures of how we want things to be – and they’re not that way. We have desires, hopes, dreams and beliefs of how the future should be, so that when the future isn’t that way, we’re lost in a world that’s somehow unlike what we wanted it to be. We’ve failed to strive towards living in the present and have fallen into the trap of hoping for the future.
A practicing Buddhist who has understood what “All Life is Suffering” means should remember not to just to strive to be in the present when things are difficult in their lives. We should always be striving towards improving our lives and becoming better at living in the moment, no matter what. That’s the only way to avoid suffering – to truly live in the moment and simply do the best you can in every situation without hoping for future results that are in any way outside of your control.
It’s not an easy thing to do, living in the moment. But when you manage to do it – even for just a few minutes – so many of your anxieties, worries and troubles simply slip away.
Life, lived elsewhere than in the present, is often the reason for suffering. It’s not as elegant a phrase as “all life is suffering”, but it’s far closer to the truth.