Q.538 Duḥkha and Stress

A: The translation of Sanskrit terms is one of the main sources of confusion for seekers. Ideally, you would have a good understanding of Sanskrit yourself and then look to the context in which a word occurs before you accept a particular translation. If you want an understanding of the usage of a term in Advaita, you have to look to a sampradāya teacher of Advaita and should definitely not rely upon what is said by someone without those qualifications. I don’t know the author you mention but, on the face of it, he appears to be someone from academia who has turned to the more lucrative profession of writing for the uncommitted, casual seeker. Modern teachers are likely to distort many aspects in order to popularize themselves, as you will know if you have read material by satsang and neo-Advaitins.

One of the required qualifications for a seeker in Advaita is mumukṣutva. This means the desire to attain enlightenment above everything else, an attitude that one gains through becoming entirely dissatisfied with life and realizing it can never satisfy ultimately. And this in turn is frequently brought about by ‘suffering’ of one sort or another. The word duḥkha translates as: ‘uneasiness, pain, sorrow, trouble, difficulty’, according to Monier-Williams. It is generally regarded as the opposite of sukha – ‘comfort, pleasure, happiness’ etc., which is an equally transient, and not to be sought after ‘feeling’. I guess that ‘stress’ is an aspect of duḥkha and certainly a key one as perceived by the modern mind, but I rather fancy that the worldly worries of the ancients tended to be more serious than this!

But it is certainly a good example of the sort of problems that disturb seekers, usually unnecessarily. So, thank you for sharing that!

The important distinction to make really is between ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’. The jñānī will still be subject to the former, in the same way as he or she will still experience pleasure, but there will be no more ‘suffering’ in the true sense of the word, because it is now known that ‘I am Brahman’ and not this world-limited body-mind.

14 thoughts on “Q.538 Duḥkha and Stress

  1. [Q. says] Buddhist scholars are beginning to translate duḥkha as ‘stress’ rather than ‘suffering’. ‘Suffering’ seems a harsh appraisal of life, somewhat devoid of hope, rather negative and far from the entirety of my own experience. The choice of ‘stress’ as an alternative translation softens the picture considerably. Stress being already familiar, it is easy to accept its comings, goings and varying degrees without a need to escape its presence altogether.

    In Theravada Buddhism dukkha doesn’t refer to literal suffering (or even stress), but to the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of temporary states and things, including joyful but temporary experiences. We expect happiness from states and things which are impermanent, and so, Buddhists maintain, cannot gain real happiness. The ignorance or misperception (avijja) that anything is permanent, including a permanent self or soul, is the main source of dukkha. Dukkha arises when we crave and cling to these changing phenomena. The clinging and craving produces karma, which ties us to samsara, the round of death and rebirth. In the Buddha’s view of saṃsara “beings generally rise and fall, and fall and rise through the various realms, now experiencing unhappiness, now experiencing happiness. This precisely is the nature of saṃsara: wandering from life to life with no particular direction or purpose.” Every living being (jiva) in the universe participates in this process of one existence after another running into myriads of existences. Cosmologically, samsara is a nightmarish, many-tiered realm teeming with gods, demi-gods, and humans; the three lower realms are the realms of the animals, hungry ghosts (these sorry souls are said to undergo extreme forms of suffering for very long periods of time in different hells), and hell beings. Life in none of these realms is eternal. Nor is it free from the prospect of dukkha. In other words, irrespective of the realm, higher or lower, a wandering being cannot escape the dukkha of birth, death, and rebirth.

    The only way to escape saṃsara is through the attainment of nibbana (Sk: nirvaṇa). Dukkha ceases, or can be confined, when craving or clinging ceases or can be confined. This also means that no more karma is being produced and rebirth ends. Cessation is nirvana, “blowing out,” and peace of mind. By following the Buddhist path to moksha, one starts to disengage from craving and clinging to impermanent states and things. The term “path” is usually taken to mean the Noble Eightfold Path, but there are other versions in the Pali Nikayas. The Theravada tradition regards insight into the four truths as liberating in itself.

  2. I aggree with your account and the rendition of Dukkha as ‘stress’. This would be equivalent to the Pre-socratic Empedocles’ definition of life as ‘strife’. Also to Calderón de la Barca’s ‘Life is a Dream’.

    What is this life but a frenzy,
    What is it but an illusion,
    A moving shadow, a fiction?
    The greatest good is but little,
    For all of life is a dream,
    And dreams are nothing but dreams.
    (‘Life is a Dream’, P. Calderón de la Barca – my translation)

  3. “‘Suffering’ seems a harsh appraisal of life, somewhat devoid of hope, rather negative and far from the entirety of my own experience.”

    Perhaps one needs to ask the people of Gaza, Libya, Iraq, Vietnam . . . who pay the price for the EU’s Borrell fantasising about the Western “garden” that we live in?

    For Advaita, if there is no self, then another’s suffering affects you as much as your own.

    As JK put it:
    “Is your suffering as an individual different from my suffering, or from the suffering of a man in Asia, in America, or in Russia? The circumstances, the incidents may vary, but in essence another man’s suffering is the same as mine and yours, isn’t it? Suffering is suffering, surely, not yours or mine.
    We don’t see that we are all one humanity, caught in different spheres of life, in different areas. When you love somebody, it is not your love. If it is, it becomes tyrannical, possessive, jealous, anxious, brutal. Similarly, suffering is suffering; it is not yours or mine. I am not just making it impersonal, I am not making it something abstract. When one suffers, one suffers. When a man has no food, no clothing, no shelter, he is suffering, whether he lives in Asia, or in the West. The people who are now being killed or wounded—the Vietnamese and the Americans—are suffering. To understand this suffering—which is neither yours nor mine, which is not impersonal or abstract, but actual and which we all have—requires great deal of penetration, insight. And the ending of this suffering will naturally bring about peace, not only within, but outside.”

    That is the problem with armchair Jnana.

  4. Yes, Venkat – the world is in a bad way; no doubt about it. But it is some way through the Kali Yuga, after all…

    On this site, one has to ask the question: what does this have to do with Advaita?

  5. If one has to ask the question, one has to reply:

    It has to do with the rather self-absorbed question of suffering that was posed, and the rather self-absorbed, sterile answers.

    What is the point of chasing enlightenment – oneness – if you don’t even feel compassion = “to suffer together”.

    People often ask how the Germans could not have known what was going on during the Holocaust, and/or why they did nothing. I guess we just need to look in the mirror – and appreciate they were debating the finer points of Heidegger’s philosophy or Wagner’s music, rather than being disturbed by extraneous issues.

  6. Yes indeed. Nevetheless, the purpose of this site is to discuss (pointers towards) the non-dual reality. Those who are not interested can continue to pursue the sad state of the mithyA appearance elsewhere. Social media, I am sure, must be full of it!

      • ???

        I thought that the first element of sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti was vairāgya.

      • Vairagya is well-defined in Vivekachudamani – “revulsion from all things seen, heard, etc, from all transient objects of enjoyment beginning with the body and up to Brahman”.

        When Advaita refers to vairagya, it is detachment from PERSONAL desires and attachments, which is what haunts most people. That is challenging – it is the prelude to disidentification with the body-mind.

        It is not referring to the rather trivial matter of detachment from the suffering of others (esp those that are not within our circle of identity) – since most of us already are not particularly concerned with such others.

        The whole import of Advaita is about letting go of the sense of personal self, of the ego – and therefore its concerns / desires / fears.

        BTW, there is a story in Vedanta, called Bhagavad Gita, in which one of the protagonists, Krishna, urges his pupil to fight a righteous war, for the good of the world. Maybe worth a read?

  7. The traditional teaching of Advaita about the way to think and feel about the world which includes, of course, the suffering of others, is set out by Swami Viditatmananda in his commentary on the Kaivalya Upanishad. He asserts that the proper attitude is one of indifference. “The value of dream” he writes, “is that we can apply its lessons to develop the proper attitude toward the waking world. Just as we can be indifferent to the dream, knowing it as mithya, we can also be indifferent to the waking state, which is also mithya. And we can let it go. I cannot have any reaction to mithya. I can have reaction only to something real. Vedanta teaches that the whole waking world is mithya. So you need not be bothered about it.”

    Some reject this negative conclusion and argue that the oneness of brahman in fact grounds morality (other-regardingness). For example: I should love you because you are me, or I should not hurt you because I would only be hurting myself. Spontaneous universal love should be the result. But, love is not required under this interpretation: one need not love any other manifestation of the “self” even if we know we are all identical to the underlying reality. Love still has to be opted for—it is not compelled by enlightenment. Modern Neo-Vedantins, heavily influenced by Western humanist and Christian thought, see Shankara’s nondualism as the ground for social works, especially helping the poor. But this tactic reinterprets and even distorts Shankara’s doctrine of nonduality. It confuses the identity of brahman with the surface diversity of persons: brahman is the one reality everything in this realm “has,” but the individual persons (jivas) within the dream remain multiple and unreal. Again, atman is merely the impersonal consciousness of brahman “in” a person. Translating “atman” as “self” may lead to seeing a moral possibility where there is none—there are no “selves” in the makeup of reality. And nothing we can do to individual persons affects atman. Hurting another jiva in no way hurts what is actually real (atman)—we can do whatever we want to the characters in the dream, and the dreamer will remain unaffected. Killing another jiva does not affect either anything real or the killer’s own (unreal) individual self within the dream.

    Similarly, there is no reality to love. Love requires two realities—a lover and a beloved—but brahman is not a distinct object (it is the only reality that we already are), and there are no real individuals (including oneself). Thus, there is no reality to hate (see Shankara’s commentary on Isha Upanishad 5-6), but conversely there is no reality to love. Love and hate are equally groundless. Even if one loves oneself (either brahman/atman or erroneously the jiva), this still has no bearing on how one treats other individuals (the jivas) in the dream of nescience. Any moral or immoral action is simply without effect, and thinking otherwise is a sign of nescience. In other words, showing a genuine concern for another’s welfare—being moral—is a sign of nescience. Invoking a doctrine of “two levels of truth” or “two realms” at this point again does not help: some actions in the realm of illusion can be moral only if the characters in this realm are in some final sense real. But the enlightened know the status of the realm of illusion, and the issue is how they could take any actions seriously once they know that the characters in brahman’s play are not real. In sum, morality is a matter of the relations of the jivas, and they are not real. Thus, if only brahman is real, the realities needed for morality are not present.

  8. It is clever argument Rick. Only a liberated one, who according to Sankara is likely to be a paramahamsa sannyasin – who has given up all concern with the body, and with being a householder – can have no action.

    However, it is a conceit, if you are not that, to go about pursuing wrong actions to benefit yourself, by claiming “we can do whatever we want to the characters in the dream, and the dreamer will remain unaffected”. Because we are still identified with the character in the dream (“me”) and not the dreamer.

    Sureshvara, 4.62-63 of Naiskama Siddhi:

    Now in order to refute the view that because he is stainless he can therefore behave as he likes, we say:
    If the enlightened man could behave as he liked what would be the difference between a sage and a dog?
    Ignorance results from unrighteous deeds; uncontrolled behaviour from ignorance. How can there be unrighteous deeds in the case of one who by acting righteously has already gone beyond the plane of righteousness?

    • Btw, the reason Krishna urges Arjuna to karma yoga, is exactly because he is not yet ready to assimilate knowledge – rather than just “know it” intellectually – and thereby attain to non-action. Ie Krishna recognises that Arjuna is still fully identified with the character in the dream, despite his seeming words of knowledge at the outset.

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