Friday, 9 July 2010

The Root, The All

I'm interested in dukkha (suffering) in its broadest sense. In particular, I'm interested in the Buddha's claim that all phenomena are marked by dukkha.

Glenn Wallis, in Basic Teachings of the Buddha, cites the following passage from the Sabba Sutta in the Samyuttanikaya:
This was spoken by the Buddha at Savatthi. I will teach you the all. Listen to what I say.
What is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and scents, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and thoughts. This is called the all. (27)
Here, the "all" is said to consist of the six senses (or six foci of consciousness) together with their correlative objects. What does this description of the "all" have to do with the universality of dukkha?

In its broadest sense, dukkha is a constitutive feature of every sensation. Every time contact is made between a sense and its sense object, this contact will entail suffering. This is true whether the sensation is pleasant or unpleasant. And it is true whether the receiver is enlightened or not.

All sensory contact entails "suffering" because all such sensory contact unavoidably involves our passive reception of whatever object is given. (This is literally the meaning of the Greek term for suffering, pathos, that belongs to a whole constellation of related words like passive, passionate, patient, pathetic, etc.) The given object will affect us, shape us, and in-form us. We, of course, contribute in complex ways to how the object is received but, however it is received, we must suffer its imposition.

In short, sensation is suffering. Sensation takes place only when a sense is affected, stimulated, irritated, perturbed, or pressed upon. We see only when light perturbs the eye, we hear only when sound perturbs the ear, we think only when thoughts perturb the mind.

It is in light of the constant, relentless pressure of sensation in all its modalities that life is suffering.

Another way to say this: all phenomena (i.e., "all" that arises in experience via sensation) bear the mark of the "three characteristics":
1. annica, impermanence
2. dukkha, suffering
3. anatta, no-self/no-substance
Why do all phenomena bear all three characteristics? One reason is that these three characteristics make sensation (i.e., the "all") possible. Or, in more philosophical language, they are collectively the condition of possibility for sensation.

If sensation didn't constantly fluxuate, then our senses would never register any information about the objects at hand. Information in this sense depends on the constant production of difference and variation.

If sensation did not press and perturb, then no connection would be made.

If our senses weren't open, conditioned, and interdependent systems, then they would not be available for sensation.

Here, dukkha, in its broadest sense, is the condition of possibility for experience itself. It cannot be expunged.

Waking up depends not on expunging this kind of dukkha but on no longer producing all the smoke and friction that result from our baseline resistance to the passing, pressing, and impersonal character of all experience.

Waking up depends on our welcome and willing reception of all three marks of existence as the condition of possibility for life itself.

In this sense, the Buddha was right to say that "birth is suffering."


  1. It seems to me that you are basically on the right track but slightly overstep the mark in this essay when you state

    "And it is true whether the receiver is enlightened or not."

    Not true according to the salla sutta (SN 36.6). Here there is a difference between how painful sensations are perceived by the enlightened and the unenlightened. The enlightened feel the physical pain, but do not become distressed by it - they feel pain, but do not suffer! The corollary is that pleasant sensations do not cause the enlightened to suffer either.

    The suffering comes from mis-perceiving the sensation as something which can be owned, or that can satisfy, when it cannot. Suffering is related only to the idea that experience is permanent, satisfying, and substantial. If one does not misperceive a pleasant sensation, if one simply sees it as it is (in the seen only the seen etc), and there is no grasping at it, then where is the suffering? Suffering does not arise under those conditions, hence the Buddha can teach a path of dukkhanirodha - the cessation of dukkha.

    You say that passively receiving a sensation must be unpleasant which I do not understand. If it is the case then how do you explain 'attraction' - surely if every sensation is inherently unwanted and unpleasant then we would only ever experience repulsion - or are you saying that this is the nature of unenlightened experience? And are you therefore saying that the enlightened are similarly confused because you include them in your scheme?

    When you say "Here, dukkha, in its broadest sense, is the condition of possibility for experience itself. It cannot be expunged." you eliminate Buddhism as the path of the cessation of dukkha. Given that the most frequent way the Buddha describes his path is as the end of dukkha, and given that many people, including the Buddha, are portrayed as having reached that goal in their own lifetimes, while still embodied, how do you square your assertion with the textual tradition?

    You begin by citing the Sabba Sutta - so I presume you accept Pāli texts as authoritative. But you read it rather literally - and if you look at what Glenn Wallis is saying about it, both in that section, and in many references in the sections leading up to it, that is not how he interprets it at all. I believe he refers to the "proper range (visaya?)" for Buddhists, the working ground, rather than the more absolute sense you give it. (I won't go into the Vedic resonances, and why this sutta is a response to a particular Vedic/Upaniṣadic world view because that would be distracting, but the Sabba Sutta must be seen in context to be fully appreciated!)

    It's a bold essay, and confident and I like that. But I cannot agree with your conclusion because it contradicts the four noble truths: dukkha, dukkha-samudaya, dukkha-nirodha, dukkha-nirodha-magga. Your confidence cannot over-ride the fact that the Buddha is very frequently portrayed teaching precisely what you say he did not: a way to expunge dukkha.

    Best Wishes

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  3. Hi Adam,

    I agree with parts of what you've written. However, there is a danger of getting mixed up here.

    Unpleasant sensations, pain etc (Pali = Dukkha) are unavoidable. Subsequent aversion, angst etc (Pali = Dukkha again confusingly enough) is something that Buddha asserted again and again can be ended.

    If Dukkha in the latter sense really was universal this would contradict his teachings on the end of Dukkha. And it is an easy shorthand to think of the Three Characteristics as universal characteristics.

    However, Buddha does not say that everything is Impermanent, everything is Dukkha and everything is Nonself. He says that all CONDITIONED (by delusion, craving and aversion) things are Dukkha, all CONDITIONED things are Impermanent. Only Nonself applies to all things. Nibbana, the unconditioned is not Dukkha.


  4. Jayavara and Justin,

    Thanks for the insighful comments.

    As in the previous discussion, I certainly don't want to deny that it is possible to (largely) eliminate our engrained practice of throwing a "second dart" whenever a sensation arises.

    Tossing this second dart follows from our frustration with the fact that every experience, pleasant or unpleasant, will be both compulsory in some respect and inadequate.

    Enlightenment is learning to love, appreciate, and live with the compulsion and inadequacy of experience in a way that no longer receives it as compulsory or inadequate.

    But even when one wakes up enough to stop throwing (that multitude of!) unnecessary second darts, sensation itself will still arise . . . except, as Justin usefully points out, in the case of nibbana. But if experience has not itself ceased, then dukkha, as the press, irritation, and perturbation of experience itself will come with it. Waking up doesn't mean escaping it, it means seeing it.

    This is not to be lamented, though, because it is part and parcel of the gift that is experience itself.

    To love my wife and children is to welcome and freely receive the pressure, irritation, and perturbation that contact with them entails. To love someone else is, in a very real sense, to suffer them. To love someone else is to love something conditioned and freely receive the necessity of my being conditioned by them (and, thus, by the three marks that, as conditioned, the experience will inevitably bear).

    Wanting to escape from this, claiming that we can or ought to escape from this broader, first-dart sense of dukkha, is tantamount to wanting to escape from life itself.

    But such a wanting to escape is itself a second dart - or, at the very best, seems to me to make sense only in the context of a supernatural framework.

  5. Hi Adam. Great post and welcome to Progressive Buddhism. Like Jayarava and Justin (Shonin), I agree with much of what you say and appreciate your clarity and skill of presentation. But I think both make valid points about the Buddha's teaching being slightly different from your take on it.

    I would only add that it seems that you are equating contact (phassa) or feeling (vedana) with suffering (dukkha). In the teachings of dependent origination all of these are carefully set out as conditions leading to one another - in the presence of ignorance.

    To wake up, to eliminate ignorance, is to experience the dhamma of nibbana. There is still presumably phassa and vedana, but no tanha (thirsting/craving) immediately following the feeling. So while the feeling may be something that 'to us' would be unpleasant - a tooth being pulled, for instance - to an awakened one, it's just sensation. No suffering. Back ache: just sensation; no suffering. And so on.

    I think we can be modern thoughtful people about this (i.e. not be supernatural)and accept the Buddha's claim to have overcome suffering. But to do this we must not confuse experiences like a back ache or dysentery, which we would crave to get rid of and thus suffer, from suffering itself.

    I appreciate your writing and look forward to further thoughts.

  6. ps. also a Justin :) Justin w. if it helps differentiate me from the handsome British fellow with a remarkably similar haircut.

  7. Re the context of the Sabba Sutta you might like to compare it to Bṛhadāranyka Upaniṣad 1.4.10.

    "...If a man knows 'I am brahman' (ahaṃ brahmāsmi) in this way, he becomes this whole world (sa idaṃ sarvaṃ bhavati).

    It is in relation to such statements that the Sabba Sutta is best understood. As Wallis says it is about focussing in the proper domain (visaya).

    I won't say more about your comment as you have more or less repeated what's in the main article and I still disagree for the same reasons. Still, good to have some stimulating ideas around.

    Best Wishes

  8. Thanks, Justin/Buddhist-Philosopher. It's a genuine pleasure to be a part of the blog. I've admired the blog's work for a long time.

    Jayarava, Justin, and Justin: thanks for the additional comments. Let me acknowledge two things up front:

    1. It's certainly possible that I'm wrong! I've got always keep this on the front burner :)

    2. There's also a sense in which I'm purposefully experimenting with and stretching a variety of ideas (both Eastern and Western) here to see what kinds of fit are possible.

    I'll keep trying some additional things and we'll see which ones shake out as being more or less helpful.

    Thanks again for the engagement,

  9. "Waking up depends not on expunging this kind of dukkha but on no longer producing all the smoke and friction that result from our baseline resistance to the passing, pressing, and impersonal character of all experience."

    Ah, that resistance and friction makes up the majority of reality. Doesn't it?

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