After enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautam met his five former ascetic companions to share his experience. He said, “Monks, let me tell you about the truth of suffering.”
It may sound strange for an enlightened person to talk of such a seemingly trivial thing. Who wouldn’t know about suffering? And he was talking to the ascetics who were walking examples of suffering! They ate a few grains of food in many days, just enough not to die. They slept on cold, hard floors of cremation grounds. They denied themselves even the tiniest and pettiest things of comfort. Being their former colleague, Siddhartha knew suffering wasn’t new to them. But he still had to talk about it. Why? To liberate them from suffering—the real one which had nothing to do with their bodies, but with their minds.
The five ascetics thought the body was a prison for their soul—the pure substance that they needed to free. The idea of liberating the soul from suffering became their fixation. When something becomes a fixation, one can go to any length. But the enlightened Siddhartha knew the poor guys would get nowhere by torturing their bodies. They needed to fix their minds.
From what the Buddha taught, we know he was helping people live a life of peace and contentment. It would be a life free of dissatisfaction, of course. To find freedom from something, first we need to realize it exists. A physician has to tell the patient that they have certain disease so that they can take the medicine. Likewise, the Buddha tells us to wake up to suffering, or the pains and dissatisfactions, of life.
There are obvious pains that we all face and see: birth, disease, old-age, death. There are natural disasters and pandemics. But there are less severe and less visible everyday pains as well. We have to live with people we don’t like. Our boss refuses us to grant leave from work and our long-planned trek to the mountains is canceled. When we desperately want to have a fresh lime soda, the waiter says they have run out of lemons. After finding a perfect ‘soulmate’, we cling to the ‘bliss’ of their company and fear losing it. The list is endless.
While the grosser ones like disease and old-age are physical, the subtler ones happen in the mind. Death or separation may only happen once, but the fear of it haunts us all the time. We are all trying to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic right now. The virus may or may not affect us at the physical level, but at the mental level it has already deeply affected us. We create most of our sufferings in the mind.
So what does it mean? Often, we are born and we die without actually knowing what’s happening. Most of us fail to see these things as suffering—they form part of ordinary routine life. Ignorance may be bliss, and if you are happy with it, that’s okay. But that’s not a wise choice. Knowing is more interesting than not knowing. Recognizing our subtle sufferings and knowing how our minds create them may open us to a higher possibility, just like the Buddha and other enlightened masters.