The Three Kinds of Suffering

How do you get from the claim that all is suffering to the buoyancy and lightness of Buddhist experience? The first way to start to answer this question is to note that the ancient tradition of Buddhist teaching interprets the phrase “all is suffering” in three separate ways. Everything is suffering in one or more of three ways.

The Types of Suffering

The first of these types of suffering is called Dukkha-dukkha. Suffering-suffering. The obvious suffering in situations where things cause you physical or mental pain.

The second kind of suffering is called Viparinama-dukkha. Suffering due to transformation or change. This means that even the most pleasurable things can cause you suffering when they begin to change and pass away.

The third kind of suffering is Sankhara-dukkha. Suffering due to conditioned states. This category of dukkha is associated with pleasurable things that can cause pain even in the midst of the pleasure, if that pleasure is based in an illusion about the nature of the object, or even about the nature of the self.

A Contemporary Parable

When I’m speaking about these three kinds of suffering, I try to illustrate them by constructing a parable that may sound contemporary, but I think is related to Buddhist examples that are often used to explain the nature of suffering.

This is a parable about an automobile. I try to imagine scenarios in which the car might cause some kind of suffering. First of all, you got a guy in the automobile driving down the street, he sees his girlfriend on the sidewalk, he waves to her and runs into the back of a bus.

There is a huge crash and what he feels is Dukkha-dukkha. The palpable physical suffering of an automobile accident. That’s easy to understand.

The second kind of suffering comes if you are attached to that car. Many people relate to this, they have automobiles that they love. They don’t have a very good time during the winter. The winter is cruel. There is a lot of ice. People vandalize automobiles. Rust creeps into parts of the vehicle, the front end becomes unbalanced.

As you see, the car begins to disintegrate. It causes you suffering in relation to the pleasure, to the attachment that you have invested in that object, as it begins to slip away from you.

That also is pretty clear. Viparinama-dukkha, the suffering that comes from change is a pretty easy concept to grasp.

Are we Really Happy?

The third concept is a bit more difficult. And I’m not so sure much of the time that I’m really able to convey it with this example. The way I do it is to imagine person in the car, fully invested, with all of his ego in this powerful object. Roaring up and down the avenue, feeling the pleasure and energy from being in this powerful embodiment of his manhood.

And ask yourself wether at that moment he is really happy. If you ask him if he is happy, of course he is going to say yes. The pleasure of that experience is extremely satisfying. That can’t be denied. That’s a physical and emotional sensation that grants reality in his own right. But is it real happiness?

I think we know enough about situations like that in our world to begin to question wether that’s the place where satisfaction really comes from. In part because it is based on a certain kind of illusion about the nature of the object, and an illusion about the nature of the self, and how your own ego can become invested in a physical object like that, that will arise and pass away.

Sometimes in some situations, perhaps in many situations, we are suffering in ways that we are not aware of, because of illusions that we have about the nature of our self or about the nature of the objects that populate our world.

That seems to me to be what lies behind this third concept, this third type of suffering, the suffering that is due to conditioned states. We’ll study more deeply this concept in the next article.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha's Teachings

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