Buddhism and the "s" word

Meditate on, brother.

Life is suffering.

That's what Gautama Buddha said around 2,500 years ago, right? We don't know for certain because his utterances--which were only written down after his death--would have been in Sanskrit. When we read the English-translated version of Buddhism's Four Noble Truths, the first one that confronts us is:  Life is suffering. And herein lies the problem.

A buddy of mine who knows I've read a bit on Buddhism asked me to sum it up the Buddhist philosophy. When I hipped him to the first Truth, he looked perplexed. "I don't think that's right," he said. And that's a valid reaction. Especially in the relative abundance of the West, we're apt to look at our personal situation and, aside from minor annoyances, feel like we've got it pretty good. So it is with my friend. That's great, but it makes Buddhism's trek an uphill one if people balk at its first tenet. My opportunity to expose my buddy to my rudimentary understanding of Buddhism was derailed out of the gate by semantics. Opportunity lost.

When writers/scholars talk about the the first Noble Truth, they'll many  times change "suffering" to "discontentment" because they feel that's a more accurate interpretation of what Buddha really said. I like that because  I think all of us can relate to that feeling. Unfortunately, most of us are saddled with pretty big appetites for one thing or another--money, recognition, stuff, sex, food--that we satiate only to quickly want more of the same. How many times have you thought, Once I get/achieve/experience [fill in the blank], then I'll be happy? I sure have. But the feeling of elation we get from those things is always temporary. And it's that cycle of wanting, getting, then wanting again (and thinking that this next time we'll be satisfied) that is embodied in the First Truth. If you really think about the consequences of running in circles like that, you might reach the conclusion that "suffering" is actually closer to the truth.

Even so, the next time I get the chance to talk Buddhism and launch into the Four Noble truths, you better believe that I'll give the discontentment angle a shot.