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Dukkha is the First Noble Truth. Yet, it is something that is not well-understood among Buddhists. In Buddhism, there is a myth that people who are enlightened will no longer suffer. A related myth is that the enlightened ones live in a state of perpetual bliss. Both are misconceptions that smack of magical thinking.

One reason for misconceptions has to do with the poor translation of the Pali word “dukkha.” The translation of “dukkha” into the English word “suffering” is very misleading — it would suggest that the Arahants would no longer suffer. If true, this would mean that the enlightened ones would turn into “stone buddhas,” devoid of human emotions. Buddha’s own disciples certainly wept and cried when Buddha died. The proper understanding of the First Noble Truth depends critically on a proper and careful translation of the word “dukkha.” Thanissaro Bhikkhu translated “dukkha” into “stressfulness.” Contemporary researcher, Francis Story, used the words irritation, dejection, worry, despair, fear, dread, anguish, and anxiety to describe dukkha. I would translate “dukkha” into “anxiety.” It is conceivable that enlightenment and wisdom will lead to the ending of anxiety.

In order to understand how enlightenment would end anxiety, it helps to revisit the Buddhist parable of the Second Arrow, which is found in the Sallatha Sutta:

The lesson is clear. Pain — physical and emotion — is a fact of life. No mortal can go through life without pain. However, the wise ones, after being struck by pain, know how to avoid the “second arrow.” They do not make a bad situation worse by reacting negatively to pain. How can one avoid the Second Arrow? Again, it goes back to the practice of mindfulness. The wise ones realize that life is bound to have ups and downs. They don’t agonize over painful events. They are mindful that agonizing would not help the situation. As a result, they avoid unnecessary suffering. Jesus delivered a similar message during his Sermon on the Mount. In that sermon, Jesus asked his followers to look at the birds of the air and the lilies in the fields. The birds don’t worry about their food and the lilies don’t worry about what they will wear. Jesus also appealed to reason. He asked his followers, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Clearly, worrying is self-defeating, so is agonizing over a painful or stressful event in life.

Enlightenment and wisdom do not lead to perpetual bliss. But through the understanding of the truth of impermanence and the exercise of mindfulness on self-defeating activities, a Buddhist practitioner can avoid making a bad situation worse. S/he would consciously stop the worrying mind from taking over. Thus, the practitioner puts a damper on anxiety. This is not magic. This is about the cultivation of good mental habits.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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