A lesson on Dukkha

- through Francois Leclercq

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Dukkha. One of the key words of the Buddha's teaching, dukkha is the subject of the first of the Four Noble Truths. A Pali term, often translated as “suffering”, dukkha literally means “difficult to bear”, but has several meanings in Buddhist vocabulary. It effectively corresponds to the notion of ordinary, physical and moral suffering. But it is also the painful dissatisfaction linked to change and, even more, to the conditioned state of all the phenomena in the world in which we evolve. Dukkha is inextricably linked with the notion of impermanence.

Without yet being able to put into words what he perceives, the child Siddhartha has a fleeting experience of it during the first meditation, when unfolds before his eyes one of those little daily dramas of nature in which an animal is devoured by bigger than him. Years later, the prince has a more poignant view of it during the first three of the Four Encounters: the decay of old age, the physical pains of illness and the abandonment it sometimes brings, the death and despair that she talks to the loved ones of the deceased. The fourth encounter brings him face to face with the renouncer who has left his privileged environment after realizing the vanity of the things of the world.

We all find ourselves, at some point in our lives, in the skin of skinny Gautami: refusing to admit the inevitability of a professional failure, a romantic breakdown or the disappearance of a loved one.

In the last years of the Buddha's life, a succession of tragic events affecting him closely only confirmed what he repeated over and over again to his audiences: everything that is born is perishable. Some of his closest followers disappear; his own clan, the Shâkya, is massacred by a rival clan; his friend and lay disciple, King Bimbisara, who had faithfully supported the community, is imprisoned by his own son in conditions that lead to his death.

Each time he teaches, the Buddha gladly uses the events, happy or tragic, which take place around him or in the daily life of his audience to make understand what he wants to transmit. What his disciples will express after his death by this anecdote.

Gautami the Skinny's Quest

A low-caste widow, whom some texts call the skinny Gautami, roams the city carrying the corpse of her only son in her arms. She screams her despair, begs and begs the passers-by. Blinded by distress, she is convinced that someone can bring her child back to life. We turn away from it, we sometimes even push it away unceremoniously.

However, a good soul approaches and advises him to go to the one called the Buddha. He shows infinite compassion and it is said that he has already accomplished great wonders. He should be able to resurrect the child without a doubt. The unfortunate rushes and there she is at the feet of the Buddha. The latter sees his despair, he knows that Gautami is, in this state, unable to hear a theoretical discourse on the impermanence of things and to accept that nothing can bring his child back to life. He welcomes her with kindness. Carefully tells her that he might be able to do something if, however, she brings him some mustard seeds from a house where no one has ever died. Without thinking, Gautami goes on a quest. From door to door, she asks. But here the father has just passed away: there he is a brother; further on, it is for a mother that we still mourn. Gautami goes around the city. And, slowly, the truth imposes itself on her: everything that is born is perishable.

In a spirit very characteristic of his method, the Buddha let her have her own experience and understand for herself what a speech could not have made her admit a few hours earlier. Sad, but appeased, Gautami returns to the Buddha. Some texts even say that she then asked to join the community of nuns that the Buddha had finally agreed to form after long hesitations.

This story is symbolic and universal. We all find ourselves, at one point or another in our lives, in the skin of Gautami the skinny. Refusing to admit the character inevitable a professional failure, a romantic break-up, the sudden or foreseeable disappearance of a loved one.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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