You have probably heard that Buddhism teaches that life is suffering. Bodhipaksa rightly points out that the Buddha never said, “Life is suffering.”

Here is what the Buddha actually said:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering. (SN 56.11 Bodhi).

Meditation teacher Bodhipaksa rightly points out that “there are a lot of things here that are pointed to as being sources of suffering—in life. But life itself is not one of them….” However, the dictionary does define life as “the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death” (OED).

Notice that life includes change. And according to the Buddha, there is “suffering due to change” (SN 45.165 Bodhi). And isn’t birth the beginning of life, and death the end of life? In fact, all the “things here” deal with life. You can’t separate them from life. Take away birth, aging, and the five aggregates and you certainly can’t have life. So I think Bodhipaksa is partly wrong.

Since everything the Buddha lists could go under the heading of life, they could be categorized under the word life. But we know that the Buddha and the awakened disciples of the Buddha did not experience suffering. So it is only a certain kind of life that is suffering, the unawakened life.

So the unawakened life is suffering. But this still is not quite right. For the unawakened enjoy moments of happiness and joy. And so we come back to the Pali word dukkha, which is translated as “suffering.” This is a poor translation.

This is how I translated the passage:

Now this is the noble truth of dukkha. Rebirth is dukkha; old age is dukkha; sickness is dukkha; death is dukkha; association with the disliked is dukkha; separation from the liked is dukkha; not getting what you want is dukkha. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are dukkha (SN 56.11).

The unawakened life is dukkha. That is, it is a bad situation. It is a bummer. It is unsatisfactory. Why? Because birth ends in death. Attachment ends in loss. Good times always come to an end. Every relationship ends. Nothing lasts and everything is unreliable. And when everything is said and done, you get to repeat it over and over again. Sorry, but the unawakened life sucks.

So the Buddha never said life is suffering, but rather that the unawakened life is a bad situation. Admittedly that is a paraphrase and not a quotation. But it is the most accurate paraphrase of the Buddha’s meaning.

References

Bodhipaksa. “Life is suffering.” Fake Buddha Quotes. https://fakebuddhaquotes.com/life-is-suffering/