A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering

A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering

suffering 1

In western culture, suffering is generally defined as the experience of either somatic or psychological pain. Therefore, in the absence of such pain and whilst experiencing favourable socio-environmental conditions, individuals are generally not categorised as ‘suffering’ or ‘ill’ according to western medical conventions (e.g., as defined by the World Health Organization). However, within Buddhism, the term ‘suffering’ takes on a much more encompassing meaning. Irrespective of whether a sentient being is currently experiencing psychological or somatic pain, and irrespective of whether a sentient being considers itself to be suffering, Buddhism asserts that the very fact an unenlightened being exists means it suffers.

As we discussed in our recent post on Having Fun with the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha declared that ‘suffering exists’. In addition to representing the Buddha’s experiential understanding of the truth, these words were intended to represent a statement of fact. They were never meant to be ambiguous. ‘Suffering exists’ does not just mean that there is the potential for suffering to exist, it means that with the exception of those beings that have realised the third noble truth (i.e., the cessation of suffering), all beings suffer. Likewise, the noble truth of suffering does not mean that sentient beings suffer at certain times but not at other times, it means that sentient beings that have not transcended to liberation are continuously immersed in suffering.

This type of enduring latent suffering referred to above is known in Buddhism as ‘all-pervasive suffering’. In essence, it is the suffering that arises due to an individual’s ignorance as to the ultimate nature of self and reality. Since – as discussed in our post on Deconstructing the Self – unenlightened beings have a distorted perception of reality, Buddhism asserts that they are deluded. Accordingly, within Buddhism and to a certain extent, the words suffering, deluded and ignorant can all be used interchangeably.

One means of conceptualising the Buddhist interpretation of suffering as a form of delusion (or ignorance) is by drawing parallels between the two conditions of  ‘mindlessness’ and ‘hallucination’. Mindlessness refers to a lack of present moment awareness whereby the mind is preoccupied with future (i.e., fantasized) conjectures or past (i.e., bygone) occurrences. Therefore, an individual afflicted by mindlessness might be said to be engaging in the ‘non-perceiving of that which is’. Hallucination, on the other hand, can be described as being ‘the perceiving of that which is not’. Thus, given that both states involve an erroneous perception of the ‘here and now’, it could be argued that mindlessness is actually a form of ‘inverted hallucination’.

According to Buddhist thought, the population en masse is effectively deemed to be delusional (i.e., suffering) and in a permanent inverted-hallucinatory state. However, as the 12th century Tibetan Buddhist saint Gampopa aptly points out, although all unenlightened beings (human or otherwise) experience all-pervasive suffering, they are generally ignorant of this fact:

Ordinary people will not feel the all-pervasive suffering as, for example, when one is stricken with a serious plague and a small pain in the ears and so forth is not noticeable. But the saintly beings – the noble ones beyond samsara such as the stream enterers and so forth – will see the all-pervasive suffering as suffering …

In addition to all-pervasive suffering which might be described as a more subtle form of suffering, Buddhism recognises two other primary forms of suffering that are much more tangible. The first is known as the ‘suffering of change’ and refers to the fact that whatever temporary happiness there might be, it simply cannot endure. The Buddha stated that birth leads to the suffering of sickness and old age, and sickness and old age lead to suffering of death. Likewise, being in love leads to the suffering of separation, and having possessions (e.g., wealth, health, reputation, family, friends, etc.) leads to suffering when one is ultimately separated from such favourable circumstances. In short, suffering is ubiquitous to the human condition and the principle of impermanence means that just as with all phenomena, favourable circumstances are transient and are subject to dissolution.

The third primary form of suffering recognised in the Buddhist teachings is the ‘suffering of suffering’. This is the most palpable form of suffering and is typified by experiences such as somatic pain, psychological distress, hunger or starvation, thirst or dehydration, being too hot, and being too cold. Buddhism asserts that the human being comprises five aggregates (1. form, 2. feelings, 3. perceptions, 4. mental formations, and 5. consciousness; Sanskrit: skandhas; Pali: khandhas) and that each individual aggregate is likewise composite. For example, the first aggregate of form or the body in-turn comprises the five elements of water, wind (i.e., air), earth (i.e., food), sun (i.e., heat/energy), and space (i.e., in the bodily cavities and between molecules, etc.). Due to the fact the human body exists in reliance upon a delicate balance of innumerable causes, components and conditions, Buddhism asserts that even a slight imbalance in these elements and components results in both the suffering of suffering (e.g., pain and discomfort) and ultimately, the suffering of change (e.g., illness and death).

There is quite a lot more we could write about the Buddhist take on suffering, but the above provides a brief introduction to how Buddhism distinguishes between different types of suffering and why the Buddha stated that suffering exits. It is only by first recognising and coming to terms with the suffering within ourselves – including in all of its different guises – that we can fully appreciate the potency of the Buddha’s teachings and the need to earnestly apply ourselves towards spiritual development.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Bodhi, B. (1994). The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.


Dalai Lama. (1995). The Path to Enlightenment. New York: Snow Lion.


Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of meditation: training the mind for wisdom. London: Rider.


Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.


Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-127.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

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