The Meaning of Suffering

One of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that suffering is universal.  What is ‘suffering’ exactly?  Well, the origin of the English word ‘suffer’ comes from Latin ‘sub’ (from below) and ‘ferre’ (to bear).  So, this connotes the idea of bearing or carrying something from below.  I can see it as carrying on ourselves the things of this ‘below world’ in contrast to the airy lights of the heavens.

Another way of defining suffering has been defined as ‘to allow something to occur or to be subject to something.’  As living creatures or physical beings, we are in a world where things occur for one reason or another and we are affected by these occurrences. We are subject to the law of cause and effect.  This is suffering.

Our senses take in information from the outside world and our brain interprets these outside stimuli as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  Good is something that promotes survival or what our body sees as leading to survival or continuity and growth.

Bad are those things that threaten survival: things that destroy, cause damage, or lead to discontinuance, damnation, or death.

Our nerves send messages of contentment and harmony when outside influences are judged as good or messages of pain, avoidance, discomfort, or discord or dissatisfaction when things are judged as bad.

Suffering basically involves being subject to causes.  In the language of Buddha, Pali, the word used was apparently, ‘dukkha’, which means unsatisfactory, unpleasant, or unhappy.  This word is opposed in the same language to the word, ‘sukha’ which means happiness, comfort or ease.

In the Aryan language from which this language derives, the words ‘su’ and ‘dus’ are prefixes meaning ‘good’ and ‘bad’.  “Kha” is a hole and was used to refer to an axle hole in wagons.  So ‘sukha’ meant a good axle hole, which would lead to a comfortable ride; whereas, “duhka”would mean a “a bad axle hole” which would lead to an uncomfortable ride.

Suffering or discomfort is universal.  We all have to bear the bad effects  of unsatisfactory and destructive causes.

The meaning of suffer in English reminds me of the injunction to Christians upon the covenant of baptism, to “bear one another’s burdens.”  So, what does this mean?  I take it to mean that we are to not just bear our own burdens of the effects of burdensome causes, but we are to carry also the burdens of others, or in other words get involved in other people’s lives so that the causes that affect them affect us also.  We work to serve others to share their troubles or joys- and therefore make their burdens lighter.  We are meant to share and be involved in other’s lives, especially in the unity of the Church.

In addition, the Aryan word ‘sukha’ reminds me of the English word ‘succor’ and I am reminded how Christ said that he would know how to succor his people based on the fact that he descended below all things.  Christ suffered as well on this Earth and bore our burdens to an amazing degree.  Because Christ understands and experienced the good and the bad, having a thorough knowledge and experience of Good and Evil – he can help bring to pass the Good and ease the Evil.  We can be partners with him in learning Good and Evil since Adam and Eve, our forebears, partook of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  This led them and all of us into an endless cycle of dualities in which we truly do experience both good and bad and learn the difference. Through doing this we can help each other and help Christ in bringing forth the good or ‘prize the good’ and help those that suffer the bad as well.

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