The problem with life is that it ends. Time waits for no one, and what’s here today will be gone tomorrow. Everything in the world that we love will one day be dust. Our bodies will eventually, despite all our expensive efforts, wither, wane and wilt. All of the projects and dreams we had will fade as long-forgotten Apocrypha to an uncaring universe.
And it hurts. As things break and die, it causes anguish and unhappiness. The transience of life and suffering are interconnected, and they form a crucial element to Buddhism: dukkha.
For the Buddha, the first step on the journey to enlightenment comes in recognizing and accepting three hard-to-digest facts, called the “marks of existence”. These are universal truths that apply to everything in life. One of these is “dukkha”.
Dukkha is often translated as “suffering”, but this perhaps misleads as much as it reveals. Strictly speaking, dukkha is hard to understand without appreciating the impermanence of all things (known as “anicca”). We suffer because we, and all the world, will die.
As such, the Buddha believed there were 3 forms of dukkha.
Firstly, there’s suffering as we usually understand it –bodily and physical pain. It’s often associated with disease, old age, and, of course, death.
Secondly, dukkha comes from those who cannot accept the finitude and transience of things. They cling to wealth and health as if they’re forever. But, most agonizingly, they miss loved ones. We grieve over our dead mothers, sisters, and partners because we wrongly imagine they were ours for eternity.
Lastly, there is what existentialists label as angst. It’s dissatisfaction or even fury with how the universe is. Camus wrote a lot about how we struggle under the cold reality of an indifferent universe, and dukkha incorporates this – we suffer because we find no meaning in the universe.
The recognition of this is only the beginning of the Buddhist’s journey. When we accept anicca and that all things die, we can give up the unquenchable thirst for the pointless things in life. We can focus on what’s true and what really matters and not suffer under the weight of momentary distractions.