Human Beings Experience Three Forms of Suffering
by Khenpo Sodargye Rinpoche

You may know something about these sufferings. Human beings experience many obvious sufferings which are called ‘suffering of suffering’. What does that mean? I’m happy but suddenly my parents die and then my business is in trouble and I find out my health is poor. One suffering is piled upon another; one suffering comes after another. This is what is meant by ‘suffering of suffering’.

What is the suffering of change? We are living happily as if in heaven. Then suddenly there is a tsunami, such as what happens in Japan or the Philippines. I asked some people whether there had been any tsunami activity recently in Singapore. Many said no but the future is hard to predict. They live at the seaside and tsunamis are unpredictable. I asked if there had been any political conflict. They said no, but again it’s hard to see into the future. Food here is imported and people here are immigrants. It’s difficult to ascertain what the future holds. People here are friendly now but given this mundane world, it’s hard to know if they can maintain harmony in future. Maybe now we’re having good relations with our loved ones, but it’s hard to tell what may transpire in the future. Changes may happen suddenly. This is the suffering of change. We suffer when we try to hold onto things that are constantly changing.

There is also the all-pervasive suffering of conditioning. We may not recognise it as suffering but in fact, it is. Today we live happily. Happiness is made possible by many people’s hard work. The buildings here in Singapore are so high that they amaze me. When I saw the surrounding areas of the Singapore River yesterday I had a strong feeling that Singaporeans are smart and brave and they have very advanced science and technology. In an underdeveloped area, such achievements would be hard to imagine. However, behind every high-rise and skyscraper are the painstaking effort and suffering of many people. This is the all-pervasive suffering of conditioning.

So please do not think life is full of happiness. Why is my book called Living Through Sufferings? I hesitated about calling it that because many people believe life is happy and happiness is life. This has been repeated so many times by so many people. It may sound good but in fact, people from every walk of life have their own sufferings, such as high-ranking officials, wealthy people, students, teachers, ordinary officials, beggars, etc. So we know in fact that life is full of sufferings.


In this mundane world, we experience sufferings associated with birth, old age, sickness and death. When a person is born he suffers greatly. Why do we say that? If we are truly happy to come into this world, why do all babies cry when they are just born? No baby is ever born laughing. It’s never happened. This tells us that birth is suffering. After we’re born, we inevitably age. Many people who worry about ageing end up using cosmetics and health care products. However, none of these can keep you young forever. As time goes by, your face will become more wrinkled and your hair greyer.

I feel the Singaporeans are pretty optimistic. This morning, I saw a 70-year-old man working in a hotel. I asked him how many more years he planned to work. He said he felt good and that he planned to work for some more years and was confident he could. I said this was great. In Tibet, when people approach 60, they say they are old. Actually, how we feel about ourselves is important. Some of my former classmates are in their fifties and are already thinking about retiring, stopping work altogether. I don’t think this is good for them.

Nevertheless, it is true that ageing is an inevitable process. Many people go to Korea to have facelifts and other cosmetic surgeries but after a few years, the wrinkles come back. Cosmetic surgeries cannot help; somehow their ads are aimed at making money. We should face the fact that getting old is a law of nature; none of the famous beauties in history could do anything about it. We often say no flower can bloom forever and good times do not last forever. Neither beautiful flowers nor good times last for very long. Everything in this world is as transient as the fleeting clouds and keeps changing constantly. When we think about this we can understand the teaching the Buddha taught us a long time ago.

When we become old we experience suffering. When we are dying we experience even worse suffering. Many people are afraid of death, especially those who hold no religious beliefs and dare not mention the word ‘death’. In fact, death is not so scary. We should make preparations for our death. People leave this world in different ways. Some leave without any preparation while others are fully prepared. Some die young, some die old. Death may come in many different ways. Therefore, we should be aware of these sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death.

In Singapore, most people have medical insurance. The government may provide all kinds of assistance. You live in high standard society, however, there are still many people who are afraid of becoming sick because they cannot afford medical treatment. Such problems exist in almost every country in the world. When you become sick, you feel that being healthy is the greatest happiness. Neither wealth nor social position compares to physical and mental health. Health is the greatest happiness. So when you are healthy you should really enjoy it. Otherwise, when you are seriously ill or when you’re dying you’ll regret that you didn’t cherish your health. These are examples of the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. You should think seriously about them.


There’s also the suffering of losing loved ones. Your loved ones are not always with you. Your parents, family or friends may leave you. There is also the suffering of meeting hated enemies. You do not desire a certain person’s company but very often have to be with him.

Nowadays people have poor interpersonal relationships. I hope students can develop good interpersonal relationships in university. If one can’t get along well with the people around him, no matter what academic degrees he achieves, no matter where he is, poor relationships could compromise his ability to do anything. You could be in an unsatisfying love relationship, under pressure from your job or from other aspects of life, but they do not last forever. However, poor relationships with parents, family members or friends will stay with you and bring suffering.

In many colleges and universities in China, poor interpersonal relationships have led to horrible crimes. Many years ago in a university in Beijing, a student named Zhu Ling was poisoned and ended up in a vegetative state. This case, as we all know, gave rise again to a lot of discussions last year. Again, in 2004, a poor student from Yunnan province named Ma Jiajue killed his four roommates for no apparent reason. Today’s students may easily become unhappy and this can strain their relationships.

I’m not clear about what it is like here. A couple of days ago I heard that education here emphasises morality and humanity in every aspect of life. This is very good. Among these personal qualities, keeping a healthy relationship is more important. For many people, knowledge is important, but morality is even more important than knowledge. Without morality, it is impossible to associate with anyone.

I heard that a fellow Buddhist found associating with others so difficult that he almost had a nervous breakdown. But if he had prepared himself with an open mind, he would not be so helpless. In this world, there are many good and many bad people. When we encounter bad people, we should not feel frustrated or have a nervous breakdown or commit suicide.

In Singapore last year, more than 480 people committed suicide. These days, many young people choose suicide. This is not a wise decision. The suicide rate in the world keeps climbing. Last year, the suicide rate across the globe was about one million. This is tragic. The GDP may rise in some countries, but while the economy is striding forward, our morality, compassion, wisdom and confidence is slipping backwards. We need to solve this spiritual crisis. We may not now encounter an economic crisis, but a spiritual crisis can come at any time.

Many people seem to feel happy, but actually feel unhappy deep in their hearts. But many unhappy things are just like fleeting clouds. We shouldn’t keep them in our minds forever. We should understand that in our life there are many things that we don’t want to accept but must face in any case. This is the suffering of meeting hated enemies.


There is also the suffering of not getting what one wants. Having been to many universities, I can imagine the pressures students face with job searching, love, study, family, etc. I asked many teachers yesterday about job opportunities here in Singapore. They said the job market was not so bad and students could find jobs, though maybe not always the most satisfying one. But what is a satisfying job? We cannot expect too much. I don’t know if it’s the case here but in many places, people are somewhat lazy. They expect to be well-paid but don’t want to work hard. They want to rest on Saturdays and Sundays and maybe weekdays as well, while still expecting a lot from their jobs.

In actual fact, we need to put in hard work. Without hard work, you cannot expect to reap rewards. It’s the same with monks. We can’t just eat and sleep every day. Although we have no pressure from family or work, if we sleep all day maybe we won’t starve but that’s not the aim of our lives. Therefore, I believe for most of us, the fear in life should not be that we have too many things to do, but that we have nothing to do. The ants and bees are very hard working. There are stories about them in Buddhist scriptures. They seldom rest from their hard work. That’s why they are highly successful in their lives.

So for each of you here, finding a job should not be aimed at making money. This is not a good life goal. Instead, you should find a job that can make you both physically and mentally healthy. And meanwhile, what you are doing should bring benefit to society, to your country and to all humankind. These elements will make a job meaningful. Maybe this kind of job does not give you good pay, but in terms of the value of life, it is more important.

Many people work only to make money and nothing else. This is what Einstein called ‘the ideal of a pigsty’. If we were to have nothing but money, how depleted our morals would be. Not every problem can be solved with money, be it of a personal or social nature. We see that many rich people fail to pass the test of money. In the interest of money, they come to their death, are imprisoned or commit suicide. This is something that happens everywhere. It’s not unfamiliar to us. So we should be aware of these sufferings in our lives.


The last type of suffering is called the suffering of the flourishing of the five aggregates. Under the constraints of the five aggregates, everything in our lives can be the cause of suffering, the fundamental root of suffering or the causal condition of suffering. Nevertheless, some may argue that they enjoy their lives and are not suffering at all. Actually, this point has been well analysed in Buddhist teachings. A famous Abhidharmika named Aryadeva once wrote,

The impermanent is definitely harmed,
What is harmed is not pleasurable.
Therefore, all that is impermanent
Is said to be suffering.

This is an important teaching that tells us all the good things we experience in life are impermanent. There is no never-ending feast in the world. Our families, our lives, our relationships, none of these can provide us with lasting happiness.

Yesterday, I went sightseeing in the city of Singapore. On the one hand, I feel the city is like heaven. What a beautiful and cosmopolitan city! On the other hand, it came to me that all of the people here today would not be alive a hundred years from now and would become others. So the owners of properties will change and we’d better not hold the view that once we own something — for example a building — it belongs to us forever because we never know how many years we have left.

These days there are lots of people whose personal assets may amount to thousands or hundreds of thousands of RMB. However, the ownership of those assets may change from time to time. It is just that the owners may not notice this fact, and this may cause them confusion and anxiety. Indeed, any good situation is impermanent, and when it is about to change, we may experience pain.

This is why in Buddhism we say all phenomena are impermanent and all impermanence brings suffering. This is a very insightful teaching. So please do not think that Buddhism lacks enthusiasm for life or that life is only full of sweetness and happiness. Since youth is full of joy, why is the metaphor of a burning house used in Buddhism to describe life?


The teachings of Buddhism have already elaborated the truth of life and such truths should not be replaced by any external image. I have noticed that there are lots of Buddhist followers in many countries, both from colleges and universities as well as other walks of life. Whenever there is a Dharma event, tens of thousands of people will attend. This is good because religion is a great way to purify human minds. However, many people simply treat Buddhism as a ritual, considering it a money-making tool, a way to keep them safe or as a type of ‘medicine’ to maintain health. Given this, they can barely taste the deep meaning of Buddhism or make the effort to study the vast and profound Buddhist teachings. This is to be regretted.

Some dharma masters and scholars try to appease these peoples’ taste by simplifying or vulgarising Buddhism. As a result, divorced from profundity, many people just see it as a way to make money or to keep fit and stay healthy. For those people with limited and narrow insight, the only reason for taking refuge is to keep themselves and their families safe and sound. Indeed, this is a rather diminished goal.

You will find that Buddhism offers knowledge of aspects from the macroscopic to the microscopic and in particular, the subtle knowledge of the mind. You can find and learn all of these valuable truths in Buddhism. If you doubt this and think I am bragging about Buddhism because I’m a Buddhist, you will find proofs in the Tripitaka, which has a history of more than 2500 years. This has convinced many scientists and scholars these days. Likewise, a great number of people throughout history achieved great wisdom through these teachings. In Eastern cultures, Buddhism offers an amazing fund of wisdom that has been maintained up to this day. This precious treasure of human thought deserves both our study and investigation.

But many people do not study Buddhism in a systematic way. Rather they regard it as a simple ritual to be followed and to bestow upon them what they want. For example, Buddhism can ensure my health and bless me so that I am safe while driving. That’s my purpose for taking refuge. The other day I met someone who had just taken refuge with a guru. He was a college professor. I asked him, “why did you take refuge?” He said he wanted to feel safe while driving since he drove a lot and always worried about traffic accidents. That was his reason for seeking out a guru and taking refuge with him. If this is the motive of a college professor in taking refuge, we may need to think more about it.


In Buddhism, it is taught that life is full of suffering but this is not just a Buddhist view. In the book Happiness: A History, the author, an American professor, after spending six years studying the evolution of happiness over 2000 years of Western thought and culture, drew a similar conclusion. In the book, he argues that the idea of happiness is actually a human expectation without any solid basis. I completely agree with him. Today, many people pursue what they hope is the ultimate happiness, but when the moment finally comes, they often want more than that. The reason is that desire drives us to pursue happiness and since desire is endless, our pursuit is endless.

For instance, you may think that a happy family is all you want. You keep pursuing that goal, but once you do have a happy family, you may start to desire something else, like making more money and so on. Different desires will follow one after the other. It is just like trying to catch a rainbow. Each time you get closer, you will find it has moved a little further away. Once you have a house, you may wish for a better one. Once you earn 1 million SGD you want 2 million. Once you have 2 million you may want 3 million. If you possess 3 million SGD, you may want 3 million American dollars. Your expectation keeps getting higher and higher. When you’re about to leave this world, you still may not be able to satisfy your desire and attain happiness. You just keep running after happiness.

So does the happiness we pursue truly exist? We do experience temporary happiness. Schopenhauer described such happiness when he wrote that life is essentially suffering, but there are different levels of happiness that people can pursue. For instance, the creative ideas of modern artists and the contemplations of philosophers are fascinating, but happiness obtained through them is due simply to a temporary state of no-ego.

I see your university is building an art centre. This is very nice. When an artist visits, he may be so deeply enchanted that he temporarily forgets himself. However, under different circumstances with different causes and conditions, his ego will again emerge and bring him suffering. The same can happen with philosophers. When contemplating, philosophers may be completely immersed in their thoughts and forget about their lives, money or anything else and thereby reach a state of no ego. Nevertheless, their ego will emerge sooner or later.

That’s why Schopenhauer paid special attention to the Buddhist Nirvana. If we analyse the state of Nirvana, we will find that the so-called ‘I’ who seeks happiness does not exist and that the nature of all phenomena is emptiness. When we deeply understand the truth of emptiness, we will realise it cannot be refuted or overthrown by any other theory. At such time, we will fully accept the fact that the so-called ‘I’ or self-attachment is baseless and cannot stand up under analysis or investigation. However, we are lost in our illusions and cling to non-existent things as real. The sooner we realise the truth, the sooner we will achieve everlasting liberation and happiness.

Khenpo Sodargye (索达吉堪布) 49..jpg