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Religion Library: Buddhism

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Written by: Julia Hardy

The first sermon that the Buddha preached after his enlightenment concerned the Four Noble Truths. This is the most well known of Buddhist doctrines in the west, and there are some fairly standard English translations ("Life is suffering. The cause of suffering is desire," and so forth), but the standard translations are somewhat misleading. First, these are not truths that are noble, but truths that have been realized by the (spiritually) noble. They might more accurately be called four realities of life known to those who are spiritually aware. These four realities are: the truth of suffering, the truth of arising, the truth of cessation, and the truth of the path.

Suffering: The word often translated as suffering has no English equivalent. The meaning of the phrase is not that "life is miserable," as the English translation might seem to indicate, but that some pain is inevitable in life. Birth is painful, sickness is painful, aging is painful, death is painful. It is painful to experience unhappiness and displeasure; it is painful to want something and not be able to have it; it is painful to have something and lose it; it is painful when a pleasurable experience ends.

What the Buddha had been seeking when he became enlightened was a way out of samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth. The Hindu texts, the Upanishads, which were written at around the same time, had argued that the way out of the endless cycle of death and rebirth was to realize that one's individual self or soul (atman) is a part of the world soul (Brahman).

Some scholars argue that the Buddha's solution to end this cycle was to realize that there is no self, no atman. If there is no self, there is nothing to reincarnate, nothing to endure this endless cycle. Others scholars argue that Buddha refused to answer questions about the self, and that to deny the existence of the self is just as much of an obstacle as is the self.

According to textual accounts of his first sermon, written long after his death, what the Buddha said was that the forms of suffering he listed (birth, sickness, aging, loss, etc.) are examples of "the five aggregates subject to clinging." These five aggregates, or skandhas, are what makes up the self: form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. Each of these constituents is constantly changing, constantly in flux; therefore the "self" is also constantly changing. Thus while there may be an experience of selfhood, there is no permanent, unchanging self.

Arising: Humans tend to long for what they do not have, or to wish for their lives to be different than they are; they often fail to fully appreciate what they do have. This longing (craving, desire) gives rise to, or causes, a new cycle of life and death.