Suffering and The Self: What Buddhism Says About Both

This is a doozey, folks! Took me 10 hours, but I think it’s a coherent piece that is very informative, and certainly thought provoking. At any rate, it’s the most up-beat thing I’ve written , so enjoy it while it lasts. The dark stuff is coming soon…

Yours in Contemplation,





Of all the fundamental characteristics of human life, none has received such exhausting treatment as that of suffering.  This inevitable condition seems to pervade our existence, heaping emotional weight and mental anguish on those afflicted. People run from suffering however they can; people distract themselves with hosts of things as a means of curing the “sickness until death.” Although many of the distractions are detrimental to the person seeking relief, others are not negative; many seek spiritual or religious ways of healing their hearts and souls, and ridding themselves of the myriad things that break them. While many religions focus heavily upon this very goal, Buddhism expounds voluminously about the causes of, and cure for, suffering. Among the many reasons for suffering, none is given as much attention as the concept of the “self.” Buddhist tradition states that giving up one’s concept of the self, and attaining full understanding will break the cycle of suffering in one’s life, and can lead to an everlasting state of peace called “nirvana.” The focus of this paper will be to examine the relationship between suffering, and the concept of “self,” and to determine if it is a plausible notion to reject such a fundamental concept of self in life. I intend to aver that it is.


Similar to western Judeo-Christians religions, Buddhism has different sects, or traditions that focus upon different aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, and as a result, different texts are considered “canonical.” In general, however, the Pali Canon (a collection of smaller writings similar to the various books within the Bible), and the several sutras are considered to be genuine buddhavacana (teachings of the Buddha). Such collections will be the basis of the ensuing discussion, specifically the Conze, and Lopez editions of The Buddhist Scriptures[1]. It will be helpful to first outline what Buddhism says about suffering, and to then discuss the self and how it is so linked with suffering.

Suffering is a condition that we all endure, and as one would rightly assume, it has many causes. According to various buddhavacana, suffering (dukkah) is one of the Three Marks of Existence. The first of these, impermanence (anicca), is related to temporary nature of life and all of its extant forms. As creatures of habit, we long for things to remain static, especially when things are in our favor. This leads us to “grasp,” or crave certain things, people, events, and so on. The second Mark is suffering (dukkha), and is actually comprised of three different types of suffering that are interrelated. (More on this later.) The third Mark is no-self (anatta), and reveals that all things are mere constituent parts of something else, and have no individual identity that stands fully alone; all things are connected.

The three kinds, or levels, of suffering (from lowest order to highest) are dukkah-dukkha, viaparinama-dukkha, and sankhara-dukkha. In the first, the suffering is based upon our experience in the physical world. Having material form entails that we are subject to the physical pains of birth, death, disease, hunger, being wounded, growing old, and dying. It is the most basic dukkha, and is unavoidable as long as we have a physical body. The second dukkha comes from impermanence, and our attachment to things that we cherish. Breaking up with a loved one, having a loved one die, losing a job we like, and even getting a bad grade are all the bitter fruits of this type of suffering. When things are good, we want them to always remain good, but life is in an eternal state of constant flux; nothing is ever the same for long, so trying to hold on to something of a specific form will always result in our longing for things as they once were, and as a result, will always lead to suffering. The third level of dukkha is considered to be an all-encompassing condition of suffering that pervades our existence.[2] In a conversation between a king named Milinda, and a bodhisattva named Nagasena, Nagasena describes this kind of suffering in a very poignant and illustrative way:

“So, someone whose thought is undeveloped, gets agitated in his mind when a pain arises in him, and his agitated mind bends and contorts his body, and makes it writhe. Undeveloped in his mind he trembles, shrieks, and cries with terror.” (Scriptures, P.161. 1959.)

We see that the source of sankhara-dukkha is the undeveloped/underdeveloped mind; it grasps for and desires things that bring it sensual, material, or emotional comforts and pleasures. Here, the all-pervasive dissatisfaction with life is a result of life itself failing to measure up to our expectations of it.

Additional discussion on suffering comes by way of the Four Noble Truths. In order to properly develop one’s mind (attain enlightenment), one must understand the Four Noble Truths; The Noble Truth of Suffering, The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering, The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, and The Noble Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering. As indicated by the titles, these truths focus on where suffering comes from, and how to dispose of it. A brief outline of each truth is basically as follows:

  1. There is suffering based on the way life is arranged, and our compositional make-up (the Five Heaps[3]); sensory pain.
  2. Suffering comes from craving and grasping for any and all things; it amounts to fulfilled and/or unfulfilled desires
  3. Giving up desire, craving, and grasping completely and fully, leaving no trace of it behind. This includes the desire for nirvana, and non-existence.
  4. The way to give up desire, craving, and grasping is through seeing things as they “really” are; this is achieved through training the mind to follow the Noble Eightfold Path consisting in right aspiration, right understanding, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.[4]

Key to all of this is our perception of “the way things really are.” Having an understanding of our constituent mental and physical parts, and understanding the different forms of suffering, where they come from, and how to free ourselves from them make it possible to attain the right perspective in life. Of paramount importance to seeing the “true” nature of things is the concept of “self,” or, “no-self.”

We speak very often of ourselves; what we like and dislike, what we think and feel about certain things, what we want, what we need, etc. In fact, our very perspective of the word is shaded by the obsession that we have with ourselves. Empathy aside, everything in our lives is put into the context of the self. This way of thinking is considered to be very unvirtuous in Buddhist Scripture. (Scriptures, P. 275. 2004.) But make no mistake, Buddhism is not advancing any kind of nihilism, rather, it is rejecting solipsism in the strongest possible terms. In fact, Buddhism appears to advance a sort of metaphysical theory of vagueness, one in which the precise point at which one object begins and another ends cannot be known, and may not even exist. Intimations that suggest support for such a position occur in section 2, chapter 7 of the Conze edition:

“Where all constituent parts are present,

The word ‘a chariot’ is applied.

So likewise where the skandhas are,

The term a ‘being’ commonly is used.” (Scriptures, P. 149. 1959)

We see in this dialogue between Milinda and Nagasena that we are not just one of our constituent parts, and neither are we the sum of those parts, but for the sake of convenience we apply such terms as “self,” “my,” “I,” and other possessives. Because everything is connected, we cannot say that we are “individual entities;” there is no self, no individual to speak of. So when we talk about ourselves, we are speaking from ignorance, and lack of wisdom. As a result of this concept of self, we maintain a tainted view of reality as being only those things that we have direct, personal sensory awareness of. This perspective will lead us to being consumed by sensory delights, and the resulting attachment to those transitory pleasures that keep us from moving closer to nirvana. The critical element to remember here is this; the improper concept of self leads us to being consumed by the obsession to satisfy our desires. These desires, when fulfilled, or unfulfilled, create attachments that prevent us from moving beyond a life filled with suffering, craving, desire, grasping, pain, despair, and so on. This is the crux of the suffering-self relationship.[5]


Knowing what we know now about the causal link between the concept of the self, and the condition of suffering, we are forced to ask ourselves, “If holding on to the concept of the self is the principle cause for suffering, and suffering is a bad thing that I want to avoid, is it possible for me to avoid thinking of things in terms of myself?” In fact, it is not only possible, but if what the Scriptures say is true, then we can see that we must find a way to think in terms outside of ourselves. The argument may look something like this:

P1) There is suffering

P2) Suffering is undesirable, and is to be avoided

P3) The principle cause of suffering is the conception of the self

C) To avoid suffering, the conception of the self must be eliminated

Soundness aside (P3 can be challenged), we see that the argument is at least valid, and warrants further discussion.

The conclusion, then, demands that we embrace the Third Mark of Existence, the non-self. The no-self doctrine is a way of pointing out that everything is connected, nothing is disconnected, and therefore we are being “unskillful” when we focus myopically on “our own” interests. Words like “me”, “my,” “mine,” and so on, all denote a conception of self that perceives identity as a sum of phenomena-perceiving parts, the direct awareness of qualia, or both. However, it is equally dangerous to confuse no-self with a concept that suggests that there is nothing at all! In fact, passages within the scripture specifically warn against such nihilism-solipsism dichotomies; “Do not cling to the notion of voidness, but consider all things alike…” (Scriptures, P. 175. 2004.) “In it all forms are endowed with the sameness of space, and the mind is held steady with the nature of this same sameness. When the mind ceases to be mind, the true nature of the Innate shines forth.” (Scriptures, P. 176. 1959.) Here we see specific admonitions to avoid nihilism and solipsism, and to embrace to interconnectedness of everything.

One is inclined to ask, “How does one adopt a perspective of no-self? Isn’t it counterintuitive to think that one is thinking with any other mind than his own? What is the thing that is thinking if it is not the self?”  This is a very good question, and one that probably comes to mind immediately when talking about no-self, but it is important (at this point) not to conflate the concept with notions of ontological coincidence, universal consciousness, or other metaphysical conundrums that we cannot address here. It is also important to note that one must not focus on what to replace the concept of self with, they must simply give up the concept. If one focuses on what to replace the self with, then they are clearly still thinking of things in terms of the self, and regardless of what new term they assign to the self, it is still the self. The point of the no-self doctrine is to discard notions of a separate being that is disconnected with everything else, and to not replace that concept with another conception of self-ness. It is identity itself that is intended to be relinquished, and as a result, all of the desires/attachments that are inherent in the self; the resulting abandonment of desire will lead to an awareness of the way things really are, and one may then continue on the path to enlightenment, and the cessation of suffering.

Giving up the most fundamental part of our perception of reality, the existence of ourselves, seems impossible. It is a fact that no matter how intensely focused someone is on abandoning the concept of the self, they cannot rid themselves of self-awareness. But is that what Buddhism is asking of us? Do the Scriptures tell us that we must abandon self-awareness? The answer is plainly, “No.” The no-self doctrine is virtually encapsulated in a shockingly brief three-line stanza:

“‘This is myself and this is another.’

Be free of this bond which encompasses you about,

And your own self is thereby released.” (Scriptures, P. 179. 1959.)

It becomes more and more a tenable proposition to release the concept of the self, and therefore our bond to suffering, when we give focused attention to the entreaties of the Scriptures. In fact, it seems to be a relatively simple idea once we have all of the necessary background information (of course achieving this is undoubtedly more difficult). To recapitulate the crux of the non-self doctrine, I offer the following; we use names to refer to specific objects because it is shorthand for referring to the constituent part of the larger universal one. So, “Dr. Finsen” is just shorthand for the longer description that she satisfies, say, “The constituent part of the universe, composed of the Five Heaps, living in common with all extant things under the Three Marks of Existence, and designated by the word Dr. Finsen.”[6] Additionally, the lack of self makes room for the doctrine of “codependent arising;” a notion that states that “our” well-being is somewhat dependent on how well others are doing. This has intuitive appeal as well. Thinking back to the Chariot Analogy (Scriptures, P. 149. 1959.), we can imagine that care must be taken to preserve all the parts of the chariot in order that the whole may function best. Like all difficult and skill-intensive tasks, this too is possible, but it requires diligent attention and adherence to the Noble Eightfold Path. Difficult? Yes; but not impossible.

Taken together, we see that suffering is a symptom of a kind of myopic, metaphysical self-absorption, and when the self-absorption is eliminated, it allows us to be free of those vexing symptoms. Still, it must be conceded that this is by no means an easy thing to do, however easy to understand it may be. Indeed, the attention and discipline that it would take to finally adhere to the no-self concept can appear out of reach to most, but the cost of not taking those steps, even if very modest at first, is one of living in perpetual anguish and misery for (potentially) many lifetimes.  I must admit that this concept seemed nigh unreachable at first, but I also know that there’s more to life than living life like a down-and-out song. I hope that I can develop enough to finally stop grasping; to let it go and walk away. Until then…

“Drinking Again,” by Frank Sinatra

Drinkin’ again and thinkin’ of when, when you loved me
I’m havin’ a few and wishin’ that you were here
Makin’ the rounds, accepting a round from strangers
Bein’ a fool just hopin’ that you’ll appear
Sure, I can borrow a smoke, maybe tell some joker a bad joke
But nobody laughs, they don’t laugh at a broken heart
Oh, yeah, I’m drinkin’ again, it’s always the same
That same old story
After the kicks there’s little old mixed-up me
Tryin’ to lose a dream that used to be

[1] The Buddhist Scriptures, Edward Conze. Penguin Books. 1959. And, The Buddhist Scriptures, Donald Lopez. Penguin Classics [Kindle Edition]. 2004. Abbreviated hereafter as Scriptures, 1959; and Scriptures, 2004, respectively.

[2] Concepts in this paragraph gleaned from

[3] A.K.A. skandhas. (Scriptures, Loc. 10447. 2004.) These skandhas are what comprise our unenlightened conception of ourselves; they are, form/matter, feeling, perception, impulses, and consciousness.

[4] Concepts about the Four Noble Truths taken from

[5] Scriptures, P. 155-156. 1959.

[6] Some may find comfort in knowing that this philosophy is widely accepted in the philosophy of language, particularly the work of description theorists such as Gottlob Frege.

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2 Responses to Suffering and The Self: What Buddhism Says About Both

  1. Pingback: Suffering, Self, and Service | Nick Grossman

  2. Pingback: Suffering, self, and service – Nick Grossman

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