The Inherent Unsatisfactoriness of the World Conditioned by Ignorance

What we call “happiness” is generally a source of suffering.

We might long for wealth, power, and glory, or succumb to the obsessive quest for pleasure, imagining that those things will bring us happiness.

In our daily life, things appear to us as “pleasant” or “unpleasant” and people as “good” or “bad,” and we believe that those qualities or defects are inherent.

And what we call “I,” the one who experiences all this, seems to be real and concrete.

Yet there is a big difference between the way things appear to us and the way they actually are.

We attribute a continual existence to transient phenomena and a solid reality to our mental constructs.

But what appear to us to be autonomous entities are in fact an infinite network of interdependencies in constant flux.

This mistake leads to powerful reflexes of attachment and rejection that in turn lead to frustration and suffering.

In his first teaching, the Buddha spoke of what is known as the “four noble truths”:

(1) The truth of suffering that inexorably permeates the world conditioned by ignorance;

(2) The truth of the cause of suffering—mental confusion, negative emotions and actions with their inevitable results (or karma);

(3) The truth of cessation, which is the possibility of putting an end to suffering; and

(4) The truth of the path that leads to that cessation.

“Suffering” is a broad term that includes all forms of dissatisfaction and painful experiences such as birth, aging, sickness, and death, being confronted with enemies, losing loved ones, and so on.

The Buddha distinguishes three kinds of suffering: (1) visible suffering, the (2) suffering of change, and the (3) universal suffering that is inherent in all phenomena composed of elements that come together momentarily and are transient by nature.

(1) Visible suffering is evident everywhere: illness, death, war, natural disasters, and so forth.

(2) The suffering of change is the suffering latent in the various pleasures that seem to last but sooner or later turn into their opposites. The fleeting experience of pleasure is dependent upon circumstance, on a specific location or moment in time. It is unstable by nature, and the sensation it evokes soon becomes neutral or even unpleasant. Likewise, when repeated, it may grow insipid or even lead to disgust; savoring a delicious meal is a source of genuine pleasure, but we are indifferent to it once we’ve had our fill and would sicken of it if we were to continue eating. Pleasure is exhausted by usage, like a candle consuming itself. It is almost always linked to an activity and naturally leads to lassitude by dint of being repeated. Listening to beautiful music requires a focus of attention that, minimal as it is, cannot be maintained indefinitely. Were we forced to listen for days on end, it would become unbearable. This type of pain can occur at any moment of our lives, but we never think of it that way. We are fascinated by the mirage of appearances and forget that beings and things are constantly changing.

(3) Finally, universal suffering is the most difficult to detect because it is concomitant with the blindness of our mind and is constantly renewing itself as long as we are in the grip of ignorance and attachment to the ego. It stems from the fact that we have not grasped what we need to do to avoid suffering. This confusion and the tendencies associated with it lead us to perpetuate the very actions that are at the root of our troubles. To dispel this suffering, it is necessary to wake up from the sleep of ignorance and understand the mechanisms of happiness and suffering.

Source: Ricard, Matthieu. On the Path to Enlightenment: Heart Advice from the Great Tibetan Masters. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2013.