Freedom from Grief?

A little while ago I came across an article on the Buddhist concept of ‘dukkha’, by a prominent lay-teacher, at It went reasonably well until the following paragraph. I highlight the point in question in bold.

‘Dukkha is different from pain. Buddhist thought makes a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is part of our human experience. For example, getting sick is painful, as is grief at the loss of a loved one; this is natural and appropriate. However, we then tend to generate a whole extra layer of suffering, through our difficulty in accepting how things are. When we resist the natural flow of life we create suffering, stress, and struggle.’

Firstly, and before we get to the meat of the issue, the way she separates pain from dukkha is wrong. Although illness (which she classes as pain and not as dukkha) is certainly unavoidable, it is still, according the First Noble Truth, dukkha, as we’ll see in a minute.

What she is attempting to say is that there are some kinds of suffering which we cannot avoid, such as aging, physical pain and illness, and some that we can. She doesn’t provide examples for the second kind, but it would include greed, fear, anger, frustration, jealousy, and so on.

One of the Buddha’s clearest teachings on unavoidable and avoidable suffering is the simile of the two darts: the first dart is the physical pain, the second dart is the mental pain that arises when we react with aversion to that physical pain. The first dart we cannot escape; the second we can.

However, and this is the main point here, she includes grief in the first kind of suffering – that which is ‘part of our human experience’, ‘natural and appropriate’. In other words, it’s not the kind of pain and suffering that we are aiming to overcome.

But this goes against what the Buddha taught. Grief, according to the Buddha, is part and parcel of this ‘whole mass of suffering’. As he said in the First Sermon: ‘Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha.’

It is precisely this dukkha that we are trying to end by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

She says that dukkha arises because we ‘[have] difficulty in accepting how things are.’ But why doesn’t she apply this principle to grief? Isn’t the fact that things die ‘how things are’? And don’t we grieve when we can’t accept this?

If we truly see the way things are then grief will simply not arise, because we understand, as the Buddha pointed out to a distraught Ananda shortly before he, the Buddha, was going to pass away, that: ‘Whatever is born must die. How can it be otherwise?’

Cold and Uncaring?

People have difficulty understanding this teaching on grief, as they do with the one on non-attachment. I remember another Western Buddhist teacher saying that when he discovered that arahants don’t grieve he decided that he didn’t want that kind of enlightenment. It’s as if to give up our attachment and grief is to remove our love and compassion. But it’s not like this at all.

I often tell the story of when my mother dropped off my younger brother at the airport. He was going to New Zealand for the long-term, and she wouldn’t be seeing him again for some time. At this point she had been meditating for a few years, as well as paying attention to the teachings.

As she was driving back to her home from the airport ( a good 90 minute journey) she suddenly realised something: ‘Hold on a minute’, she thought to herself, ‘I’m not crying’. It shocked her. She realised that had she not found meditation, nor the Buddha’s teachings on letting go, it would have been a very emotional, and painful, parting. She’d have been reluctant to let him go. But she also realised that that reaction would have been a purely selfish one, and unbeneficial to both her and my brother.

She hadn’t stopped loving him, of course, but she had let him go. There was no loss of warmth, just a loss of selfish clinging.

2 Replies to “Freedom from Grief?”

  1. A most interesting concept on the pains of suffering. I feel that a lot of it is to do with the strength of character of the individual. Over the years I’ve seen many people undergon various kinds of pain and suffering, there are those who when a close one has passed on get over it very quickly indeed, yet some can be deeply traumatized and suffer for a very long time.
    Without doubt the the practices and disciplines of Buddhist meditation help and be a kind of medicine. A mistake which can be made is that the uninitiated can wrongly believe that meditation is an overnight panacea, yet as with learning to play a musical instrument and going through the laborious learning of scales and results come with time.

  2. For most of us it is indeed a long process. I am certainly not free of attachment and know I would grieve if a close family member or friend were to pass away. However, thanks to Buddhist training I’m confident I now have the mental tools to deal with such a situation in a skillful manner.

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