Oakville Zen Meditation

#150 Suffering: definition, causes and cessation

Suffering:  Definition, causes and cessation

During his 50 years of public speaking, the Buddha (aka the awakened one) said many times that his is 2 main teachings are about human suffering and impermanence of people and things.

The word suffering is a very restrictive translation of the Sanskrit word “Dukkha” founded in Zen Buddhism literature. Beside its usual physical component, Dukkha has a far psychological and even philosophical meaning.

One may define it as a mental state created by negative feelings such as worries, doubt, anger, etc. Dukkha also means that life is challenging, difficult, flawed and imperfect.

In other words: when we feel not OK for whatever reason or when we don’t get what we want or when we are getting what we don’t want, this is Dukkha, this is “suffering “ in its broader sense.

Causes of suffering:

Negative feelings causing Dukkha or suffering are endless in numbers and vary from one person to the next one, from one moment to the next one.

External / Non self-generated causes of suffering are the less frequent ones:

Accident, illness, loss of a love one, loss of job, financial problems, relational issues, stress/stressors, etc. Non expected external causes are affecting our emotional mind by inducing negative feelings such as anger, anxiety, grief, fear, anger and many more. Contrary to self-generated causes of suffering, the external ones cannot, unfortunately, be prevented.

Internal / Self-generated causes of suffering are, by the most frequent :

They are generated mostly by our ego-driven mind responsible for our endless desires, hatred, negative emotions, attachments, illusion, delusion, wrong perceptions, expectations, preconceived ideas and judgment.

As we can see, causes of suffering are either self-induced or external and we cannot prevent them from occurring.

So, physical and mental ups and downs are part of our life that we like it or nor.

However, and this is a key question: by dealing with our mind can we manage, if not, end suffering?

End of suffering:

Because the Buddha says that life is Dukkha (First Noble Truth), many critics are claiming that Zen Buddhism sees life very bleak and its philosophy fatalistic, based on pessimism, doom and gloom.

This is a very restricted interpretation. In fact, Zen Buddhism teaching is, above all very pragmatic and down to earth. It does not judge. Life is what it is, with its good and bad stuff. Good stuff brings positive feelings and bad ones the opposite. They come and go endlessly.

Both will happen all the time and there is nothing we can do about it about their occurrences nor how to prevent them. However, Zen teaching is telling us something very important:

If suffering and its causes cannot be prevented, they can be minimized if not stopped. How?

1) By applying the so called 4th Noble True which is a list of moral and ethical physical, social and mental behavior

2) By learning to pay attention, train and control our emotional mind thru ongoing practice of mindfulness and meditation. This “mind workout process” involves the following 3 steps:

  • 1) Paying attention to our negative emotions and deceptive illusions  then,.2) Accepting them w/o resistance.
  • Then controlling them by letting go. Accepting what we don’t like or don’t want rather then fighting against which is an ego-based defense is critical to reduce our suffering. It is counterintuitive but there is no other way around.

 Here are some of our most common mind-made delusions and illusions.

1 Being in control of our life, of getting what we want and not getting what we don’t want: are we?

2 Past and future are real & authentic. They do exist but are immaterial.                                             Past you and Future you  do not exist. Only the present moment exist and is real. We are alive only now.

3 That each of us is a permanent, unique, independent, separated, self- entity with a self- intrinsic existence.On the contrary, we are all interconnected and interdependent with our environment.

4 That our thoughts and emotions are real & concrete. Like past and future, they do exist but they remain virtual and immaterial.

5 That we have to believe in our thoughts because we create them. We should not.

6 That our mind is a friend. Human mind is a wonderful instrument but also a deceptive friend.


Suffering and its causes will always happen but how to deal positively and effectively with suffering is up to us. Extinction of suffering is called Nirvana meaning extinction of the flame of the candle where the flame is suffering and the candle source of suffering. This is state of serenity and surely not one of total bliss, paradise and euphoria.