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the suffering of change

June 27, 2007

Much like the Greek philospher Heraclitus, who we are told in Plato’s dialogue Cratylus believed that all things flow and nothing stands (401d), the Buddha observed the characteristic of impermanence that is inherent to all conditional things as well. In Buddhist philosophy, all things that are conditional, or in other words all things that arise from causes and conditions, are seen with wisdom to be impermanent, subject to cessation, to dissolution. In the discourses of the Buddha that are preserved in the Pali Canon, this idea is presented in numerous ways, with the basic formula being, “Whatever is subject to arising is all subject to cessation” (SN 56.11). Everything in this world is in a state of flux, nothing in this world remains unchanged, and it is precisely because of this characteristic of existence that attachment gives rise to suffering.

To begin with, what is attachment? Attachment involves clinging to some object of sensory contact (forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, or ideas) due to of some degree of gratification and pleasure derived from that object. When pleasant feelings arise, our initial reaction is to grasp at that pleasure and cling to whatever it is that happens to give rise to such pleasant feelings. Therefore, with the presence of attachment, the object of contact along with the corresponding feeling associated with that contact becomes essential to our experience of happiness.

How, then, does attachment give rise to suffering? The Pali word dukkha, often translated as “suffering,” is philosophically complex. The Buddha detailed three types of suffering, one of which is called viparinama-dukkha—the suffering that results from change. Suffering of this kind arises when either the object of contact or the pleasant feelings that arise changes in some way, whereby the gratification and happiness that is dependent upon those conditions ceases, thus giving rise to unhappiness. Hence, separation from that which makes us happy is suffering.

This particular form of suffering is not as obvious as the suffering experienced in the form of pyhsical pain, but it is a sense of sorrow that one experiences when the moments of happiness, moments of sensual gratification and pleasure, fail to last. Therefore, unlike the unhappiness that arises when we experience something unpleasant, the suffering that results from change arises because a particular form of gratification and pleasure that we have become attached to, or in other words accustomed to producing an emotional state of happiness, fades away. I think that the human organism is a complex assortment of mental and physical processes, and since one of the underlying motivations behind our actions is the desire to be happy, it is no wonder that the ever-changing circumstances in life are sometimes so hard for us to bear.

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