With such a statement it is easy to conceive of Buddhism as pessimistic, even nihilistic, to say nothing of the man whose mouth such a downer of a statement came.
But to stop at “suffering” is to grossly misunderstand the Buddha and his teachings, for “suffering” is a poor translation for the Sanskrit word dukkha, which most (if not all) English translations gloss as “suffering.”
Now it is true that “suffering,” or dukkha is the focal point of the Buddha’s core teachings, known as the Four Noble Truths: 1) There is Suffering (not “Life is suffering”); 2) The Origin of Suffering; 3) The Cessation of Suffering; and 4) The Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering, more commonly known as the Noble Eightfold Path.
So what are we to make of this notion of suffering?
Dukkha literally means “the wheel off its axle.” Imagine yourself riding in your car. A wheel is loose. How is that ride going to be? A little bumpy? Unable to go straight? Just not right, right? And if that wheel is not taken care of, it will just get worse until finally that wheel might fly off. This is dukkha and thus the gentleman in the photo to the right is experiencing one heck of a lot of dukkha.
To say “There is Suffering,” or “Life is Suffering,” is to say that, according to the Buddha, this is typically how we go through life–our wheels are off their axles. Hence, we suffer. The Buddha’s teachings, then, were designed to teach his students to: 1) become aware that their wheels were off their axles; 2) to know how they got that way; 3) that they can be fixed and 4) and how to fix them.
As long as the wheel is off its axle, we will suffer.
But there is more to dukkha than just suffering: the term also carries with it the connotation of unsatisfactoriness. Things are unsatisfactory, so we tell ourselves, and we suffer. Things are unsatisfactory, the wheel gets off its axle.
I think of the weatherman/woman here in Texas where, after just a day or two of rain (which we desperately need), they are telling us when we can look forward to the sunshine again. And after we hit a few 100+ degree days, when we can hope for rain. Looking ahead, the day never quite being satisfactory.
Such is just a metaphor of course. As long as things are not satisfactory, as long as they are not “good enough,” we will, said the Buddha, never be content and as long as we are not content, we will suffer.
Is this not how consumer culture works? Preying on a sense of unsatisfactoriness?
In The New Imperial Order: Indigenous Responses to Globalization, Professor of Educational Policy Makere Stewart-Harawira cites the work of Professor of Political Science Stephen Rosow in regards to the philosophical origins of consumerism. Bearing weight on the topic of suffering, I quote Stewart-Harawira at length: Rosow writes:
“that the global economy of the eighteenth century was constructed around Enlightenment notions of luxury, consumption and commercial society. According to the ontology advance by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, the need for consumption and the social benefits that it endowed were the driving force behind the development of the rational self. As a powerful means of transforming the self from being passion-driven to needs-driven, luxury was considered as a ‘spur to accumulation and a moral discourse that civilizes men.’ In this sense therefore, luxury and consumption provide a civil means for comparison and competing with others and a framework within which human needs could be met without recourse to war. For Hume, the expansion of international trade for the purpose of satisfying the need for consumption was integral for the creation of civil order” (emphasis mine).
Well then. How about that? Supposedly, consumption, and its child consumerism, was envisioned as being necessary for the development of a rational self, with the added bonus of civilizing man through morality, thus enabling humankind to satisfy its needs without having to go to war.
Sounds nice, but seriously? Considering the effect our consumption based society has had on those whose lands possess the materials we need to make the stuff we “need” and the environmental impact of such, I wonder what he would think of modern society. Thus I pose a few questions:
1) How rational are we with our consumerism?
2) How moral has consumerism made us? That is, how ethical do we treat others in order that we may satisfy our needs?
3) How well has the idea of consumerism functioning as a means to prevent war panned out?
I imagine the Buddha would shake his head if he were to hear Hume’s case for consumerism. For from the Buddha’s perspective, such smacks of ignorance. Desire is the number one offender when it comes to suffering says Buddhism. We desire things because we think thing will satisfy us. This is where ignorance, delusion comes in.
We want things to satisfy us because our lives are not satisfactory. We want because we suffer and we suffer because we want. BUT, according to Buddhism, nothing we can possess can truly satisfy. Out of ignorance we don’t see this, so we want more, and more, and more.
You have the iPhone 5. “It’s the best phone ever,” you say.
The iPhone 6 will be out soon.
The iPhone 5 all of a sudden sucks–it is unsatisfactory. And you want the new one because you are unsatisfied with what was, just a few weeks ago, the best phone ever made.
Sorry David Hume, consumerism does not make humankind more rational. It does not make us more ethical, and it sure as hell doesn’t prevent war.
I would argue it makes us less rational, less ethical, and more prone to go war. Just take a look at “Colton Mining and Ethics.”
But who cares right?
I want my shit because my shit will make me happy.