It has been widely assumed that the Buddhist theory of suffering is coherent, plausible, and profound. I want to show that there is a great deal of unexamined baloney in that theory of suffering.
Let us start with the central claims of the Buddhist theory of suffering. These are encapsulated in the famous “Four Noble Truths” doctrine expounded by the Buddha in his first sermon after his alleged “enlightenment”.
The first “noble truth”, or, to be accurate, the first “noble” truth-claim is that existence, constituted of the five “khandhas” or aggregates, is suffering. The Theravada version of the “first noble truth” expounded in the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sutra is as follows:
“This is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are 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.”
These five aggregates or compounds constitutive of existence are: Rupa or form inclusive of matter, Vedana or sensation, Sanna or perception or cognition, Sankhara or thoughts, beliefs, resolves, and volitions, and Vinnana or consciousness or awareness. So, the first “noble” truth-claim is that these compounds are suffering.
Note the ambiguity of the claim “These compounds are suffering.” This could mean either that these compounds are subject to or undergo suffering or that these compounds constitute suffering, or, are identical to suffering.
Let us examine the first construal, that the five aggregates or compounds are subject to, or undergo, suffering. This claim is sheer nonsense! It is nonsensical to claim that form or matter is subject to or undergoes suffering because form or matter is not the sort of thing which can be the subject of any experience, let alone the complex experience of suffering. In just the same way, it is not meaningful to claim that sensation, perception, thought, belief, volition, and awareness undergo suffering. What we have here is the mother of all category mistakes in Ryle’s sense of that term: attribution of properties to things which, given what they are, cannot possibly have those properties.
The alternative reading also results in a grotesque form of nonsense: the five aggregates or compounds, namely, form or matter, sensation, perception, thought, belief, volition, and awareness are identical to suffering. To have form or matter may be a necessary condition for experiencing suffering, but it is meaningless to claim that form or matter is suffering since the terms “form” or “matter” on the one hand and the term “suffering” on the other hand have completely different meanings. It is meaningless to claim that A and B are identical if they obviously have different properties. In other words, what we have here is a violation of the law of identity: each thing is identical to itself and not to something else.
To have the capacity for sensation is a necessary condition for experiencing suffering, but it is meaningless to claim that sensation is suffering. Painful sensations may constitute some forms of suffering, but sensations in themselves are not identical to any form of suffering. If sensations are identical to suffering, then any sensation, including a pleasurable one, would be identical to suffering, but the claim that a pleasurable sensation is identical to suffering is sheer nonsense. In just the same way, it is meaningless to identify perception, or thought, or volition, or awareness with suffering.
It could be argued that my analysis overlooks the key phrase “subject to clinging” in the claim that “the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering”. But, in fact, to attribute “clinging” or “craving” to any of the five aggregates is another big category mistake. Form or matter, sensation, perception, thought, belief, volition, and awareness cannot be said to crave for or cling to anything. Again, they are, or may be, necessary conditions for clinging to or craving something, but it is meaningless to claim that they actually cling to or crave something.
What, if anything, could be meant by statements such as “Perception craves for peaches.”, “Sensation clings to the taste of sugar.”, “Thought craves for tea.” , “Volition clings to victory.”, “Awareness craves for pleasant aromas.”, and so on? They are all nonsensical since they attribute a property, clinging or craving, to things which are not capable of having that property.
However, the first “noble” truth-claim does contain some commonplace truths and tautologies. It is arguable whether the process of birth involves pain or suffering for the human organism which is being born, but we can all agree that aging, disease, and death, or rather, dying, are fraught with suffering. Certainly “sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering” is a tautology to which we can heartily give assent. We can also agree that deprivation of the object of pleasure, failure to obtain the object of desire, and association with the object of aversion generally produces some degree of suffering. These are commonplace and commonsense truths known to every peasant in Bodh Gaya before, during, and since the Buddha’s time and no special “enlightenment” is required to know them.
I will examine the other “noble” truths, or truth-claims, in subsequent posts.