Notes from Venerable Chodron's Talk: "Miseries and Sufferings of Cyclic Existence"

Fixing Up Our Samsara—Why Think about the Sufferings of Samsara?

In Verse 4, we read that "repeatedly contemplating… the miseries of cyclic existence" inspires in us the motivation to be free of them.

  • Unless you know you're in prison and you are fed up with being in prison, you're not going to try to get out.
  • Part of our problem is that we see cyclic existence as a pleasure grove, i.e., we enjoy our samsara when it's going well.
  • When it's not going well, we try to fix it and make it better, change our external circumstances in order to be happy.

Looking to the happiness of this life and striving to get a future rebirth with even more pleasure is a dead end.

  • All of samsara is permeated by impermanence, and is in the nature of suffering.
  • We never quite succeed in making our samsara perfect and wind up feeling very disappointed.
  • As long as we still have this mind of trying to improve samsara, we never really get to Dharma practice; we're too busy trying to fix samsara to turn our mind to virtue.

This "busyness" is so clear when we think about what fills our mind when we're trying to fix samsara, e.g.:

  • Do they like me? Do they accept me? Do they talk nice about me?
  • How can I make my house look nicer? How can I improve my landscaping?
  • I've got to get the right desk, the right computer.
  • It's too hot. Now it's too cold.

We're always taking care of everything around us with the motivation that "As long as this gets done, everything will function well, it will be beautiful, and I'll be happy." But that work never ends. You finish one thing, and there is another thing to do.

  • This doesn't mean don't mow the lawn or respond to your e-mail just because it will all need to be done again.
  • We need to see the mind that thinks that happiness will come just from organizing the world around us and making it right.
    • We never succeed, and in the process, we ignore our spiritual potential.
    • We have all this potential to practice, to learn single-pointed concentration, to understand the nature of reality, to generate impartial love and compassion and bodhicitta towards everybody.
    • We don't have or make time for those things because we're too busy trying to make things good for this lifetime.
    • At the end, all we have to show for it is negative karma, because our motivation was always with attachment.
    • Then we just cycle around and around in cyclic existence.
  • We still have to take care of things in our lives, but we need to do it with a different motivation, e.g., offering service to sentient beings. That way, daily life actions can become an accumulation of positive potential or merit.

The Buddha taught the truth of suffering first because he wanted us to really understand the depth of this situation that we're in so that we have the energy to get out.

  • We don't think about suffering in order to get depressed.
  • The purpose is to see our situation clearly so that we generate enough joyous effort to get out of it, and help others get out of it as well.

What Is Dukkha?

The Buddha taught about the miseries and sufferings, the dukkha of cyclic existence in different ways.

  • He spoke of the eight sufferings, the six sufferings, the three sufferings.
  • The word "dukkha" can refer to pain or it can refer simply to the unsatisfactory nature of existence, the lack of real security.

Six Sufferings of Cyclic Existence in General

These are taken from Mahamati's explanation of Nagarjuna's Friendly Letter.

The First Suffering: No Security

There is no certainty, no security, no stability in cyclic existence at all.

  • We're always trying to find security: Homeland Security, life insurance, health insurance, alarm systems on homes and businesses, etc.
  • Yet everything is totally unreliable, totally uncertain.
  • We try to plan everything out, fix everything so that we control everything to know exactly what's happening.
  • We get upset and angry instead of realizing this is just the nature of cyclic existence—no security, no stability, no certainty.

Within cyclic existence, everything is changing all the time.

  • It's completely under the influence of ignorance and the disturbing attitudes, and there's no security in that.
  • We think of the phenomena around us as being uncertain, but cyclic existence actually doesn't refer to that.
  • Cyclic existence or samsara means our five aggregates: Our bodies, our feelings, our discrimination, our volition, our compositional factors, our consciousness.
  • These things in dependence upon which we label "I"—that is our samsara—not the external world.
  • So trying to "fix" the external world will never work; samsara is our body and mind, and they go everywhere; we can't escape them.
  • Our body and mind are always changing, never certain.
  • We continually get trapped in thoughts that if we just have the right house, the right car, the right job, the right partner, the right schedule, the right teacher, etc., things will be right, things will be secure and certain.
  • Bottom line: Everything changes.

The Second Suffering: No Satisfaction

We "can't get no satisfaction" anywhere in samsara. It's a nonexistent phenomenon.

  • We're always looking for satisfaction, we're always wanting more and better; our whole attitude is insatiable.
  • Kids always want the newest toy; adults always want to upgrade their computers or have the newest car.
  • Even Dharma practitioners do this: This cushion or that cushion? This teacher or that teacher? This practice or that practice?
  • Nobody's satisfied with their body: their age, their wrinkles, their shape, their skin color, their hair, etc.

So the suffering of samsara is that there's no peace, no satisfaction.

  • Until we realize emptiness and get ourselves out of samsara, we're going to keep on with this state of mind.
  • Whatever we have, we won't be satisfied.
  • Wherever we go, we won't be satisfied.
  • It's the state of mind that creates the dissatisfaction, so it's important to practice; practice is the only way to get ourselves out of this mess.

The Third Suffering: We Die Again and Again

We have to abandon our body repeatedly, i.e., die over and over again over multiple lifetimes.

  • Nobody looks forward to death or even wants to talk or hear about it.
  • Death is suffering physically.
  • It's also suffering mentally, because we're leaving everything that we think is me or mine when we die; all the "security" we have in building up our own ego structure, our own little world, all vanishes at death.
  • It's bad enough to think about the death of this lifetime. It's really horrible to think about rebirth and having to go through death again and again.
  • Realizing this gives us a lot of energy to do something about this situation.

The Fourth Suffering: We Take Rebirth Repeatedly

Not only do we die repeatedly, we have to get born again repeatedly.

  • Birth is traumatic, adolescence is difficult, all the stages of life are difficult.
  • Thinking about this happening over many lives gives us a stronger impetus to stop it by realizing wisdom and eliminating the cause of ignorance.

The Fifth Suffering: Our Status Changes Repeatedly

In samsara, we get reborn as many different things.

  • Recall the six realms of existence: hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, demigods, gods.
  • You go up and down in all these realms repeatedly.

This also happens within just this lifetime.

  • Some start out poor and get rich, then get poor again.
  • Some people start as aristocrats and end up in prison when a new regime comes in.
  • People praise us, then people blame us.
  • Even if you get to the "top" of cyclic existence, there's no place to go but down.

Even though in past lives we may have had single-pointed concentration, or even clairvoyant powers, negative karma can ripen after that. So there's repeated changing of status.

The Sixth Suffering: We Go Through Suffering Alone

We go through all this without companionship, without friends, i.e., no other ordinary sentient being can help us in any way with any of this.

  • We get born alone.
  • We die alone.
  • We have physical suffering alone.
  • Our emotional pain goes on inside us; we're alone in that.
  • Even finding "the right person" can't protect us from suffering.

How to Meditate on the Six Sufferings

We think about these six unsatisfactory conditions of cyclic existence, especially in relationship to our own life.

  • Consider "Is this my experience? How is this my experience?"
  • Think of specific times when these things have happened to us.
  • Then think of this happening over many lifetimes.
  • Then think of how unsatisfactory this is, how there's absolutely no happiness, no security, no peace in any of this.
  • When we feel this strongly, that's when we're fed up with cyclic existence and we're aiming for nirvana—that's the aspiration for liberation.
  • This is the very powerful mind that's going to get us going on the path.
  • We're not going to have this mind of renunciation day and night spontaneously. Maybe it lasts half an hour after meditation, and then we're back trying to fix our samsara again.
  • So this meditation needs to be done repeatedly, i.e., we need to remember these unsatisfactory conditions again and again.
  • Remember that meditation means familiarity, i.e., we need to habituate ourselves to this contemplating again and again.

The Eight Sufferings of Human Beings

The Suffering of Aging

The first four of the sufferings are birth, aging, sickness and death.

Nobody likes to think about getting old.

  • When we do think about it, we try to set it up so that we'll be happy and secure in old age: get health insurance, buy a house, have kids to take care of you when you're old, save money. We do all this even though we can't be sure we'll live that long.
  • We rarely think about what being old will be like: graying hair, wrinkles, loss of energy, having to use a cane or walker, getting senile or Alzheimer's, having people treat us as if we're stupid or tune us out because we're old.
  • Are we going to be able to age gracefully?
    • Think of the problems and personalities of the older people you know.
    • Will we be bitter and complaining?

When we think about all this, it's hard to imagine how we'll cope with even this life's old age, let alone lifetime after lifetime.

  • What about when your mind can't remember things and others are whispering that you should be checked for Alzheimer's?
  • What about when others are whispering that it's time to put you in an old age home?
  • Is our Dharma practice strong enough to carry us through those times?
    • That's all we're going to have when we're old, it's all that's going to bring us any solace.
    • Is our Dharma practice strong enough so that when we're old we can have happy minds?

The Suffering of Being Separated from What We Like

How do we feel when we're separated from what we like? Really make examples from our own lives.

  • How often does it happen or has it happened?
  • What about when you finally get what you like, but it disappoints you—a job, a relationship, a car?
  • What if you lose your house because your income goes down?

Even on a day-to-day basis, we think we're not attached to anything. Yet if our shoes suddenly went missing, we'd be upset.

The Suffering of Not Obtaining What We Like Even Though We Try So Hard to Get Them

Our whole life, we work so hard to get what we want.

  • We have these dreams, these goals: "If only I had… if only I were… Then I'd be happy."
  • We're always wanting this and that, working so hard to try and rearrange the world to be what we want, and we never succeed.
  • This brings about constant frustration, which we tend to handle by manipulating, complaining, backbiting, still trying to get what we want.
  • We can't get the perfect friend, perfect business partner, perfect Dharma teacher; we start finding fault everywhere.
  • This mind of samsara brings so much suffering: we try hard to get everything that we want, and we can never succeed.

The Suffering of Meeting with What We Don't Like

Even though we try very hard to avoid problems, they come like rainfall.

  • We don't want to get sick, to have pain, to have our good relationships change, yet we have no control over it.
  • This is samsara; if we don't get out, this is going to continue.

The Suffering of Having a Body and Mind under the Control of Afflictions and Karma

The eighth of the eight sufferings is having a body and mind under the control of disturbing attitudes and karma.

  • Just having the body and mind that we have is unsatisfactory; that's dukkha.
  • As soon as we have a body and mind under the influence of ignorance and karma, the rest is a given—all the other sufferings follow.
  • That's why it's so important to realize emptiness.
    • Only the realization of emptiness can eliminate the ignorance.
    • When we eliminate the ignorance, we stop the disturbing attitudes and negative emotions.
    • When we stop those, then the karma stops, then the rebirth stops, then all the suffering stops.
  • So we have to eliminate the ignorance that grasps at true existence because that's what's caused the mess.
    • But we only get the energy to do serious meditation on emptiness and bodhicitta if we want to get out of cyclic existence.
    • As long as we think that somehow fixing my samsara is going to make me happy, then we're always going to be distracted by those "fixing" efforts.
    • Samsaric work never ends and that's why we are trying to seek nirvana.
    • Nirvana is a state where we're free from all that; we have some final peace of mind and final happiness.
    • We have to create the causes for nirvana; it's not going to come on its own.
    • One of the chief causes for nirvana enlightenment is this renunciation of cyclic existence and the determination to be free.

Notes from Geshe Sonam Rinchen's Book: The Three Principal Aspects of the Path: An Oral Teaching

Our True Condition

We Must See Cyclic Existence for What It Is

In order to fully develop the wish to escape samsara, we must overcome our fascination with the marvels of cyclic existence.

  • It's easy to see how unstable and tenuous wealth, authority, power, and fame are—this is even part of the fascination.
  • We've all wished to enjoy more luxury and greater authority than we do at present.
  • In order to overcome this compulsive attraction, and thus escape cyclic existence, we must force ourselves to consider the disadvantageous aspects of the very things that appear so compelling.

Everything associated with cyclic existence is fundamentally flawed.

  • Birth as a human or celestial being is the best kind of birth in cyclic existence, but even these contain plenty of pain.
  • Think of the eight kinds of suffering which characterize the dissatisfaction and misery of being human: birth, death, aging, sickness, not getting what we want, meeting with what we don't like, being separated from what we love, and having a contaminated body and mind.
  • Unless we understand cyclic existence as a source of continual suffering, antipathy to it will not arise.
    • The cycle of our rebirths is without beginning and is like a vast ocean of endless suffering in which we're drowning.
    • The contaminated body and mind are cyclic existence as we experience it.
    • Since beginningless time, we've been floundering in this ocean, constantly made turbulent by disturbing emotions and wrong views.
    • We've been swallowed up by the vortexes of birth, sickness, aging, and death.
    • Have we not noticed how great our suffering really is?
    • Our time in the womb is dark and confining. The birth process is traumatic and painful. Youth fades and old age is upon us before we know it: bones ache, sight and hearing fails, memory declines, and it gets harder to move around. Sickness comes throughout life. When death approaches, we're overcome with regret for things we've done or not done, and sadness for leaving loved ones and our possessions. We're anxious about what comes after death.
    • Besides the sufferings of birth, sickness, aging, and death, we repeatedly encounter what is hostile and unwanted. We suffer separation from people and things we love. We fail to accomplish all we want to despite our best efforts.
    • Finally, having this contaminated body and mind is not only the basis for the suffering of birth, sickness, aging, and death. Our attachment to our body and mind gives rise to disturbing emotions which make us act compulsively, so it's like a magnet that attracts future suffering. It acts as the seed for the suffering of pain and the suffering of change and is itself the pervasive suffering of conditioning because only the slightest stimulus is needed for overt and intense suffering to arise. All this leaves little opportunity for us to enjoy happiness.


Change is painful and entails suffering when we try to cling to things which are by nature unstable and unreliable. However:

  • Not ALL change is associated with suffering; study and practice of the teachings is intended to change us in a positive way, so we need to use the teachings for this purpose.
  • Masters of the past have stressed the importance of contemplating the suffering of birth and the different aspects of the pervasive suffering of conditioning—the fact that anything conditioned and governed by compulsive actions and disturbing emotions is unsatisfactory and painful.
  • The other six kinds of suffering—aging, sickness, death, separation from what we like, encountering what we don't like, and not getting what we want—are self-evident.
  • Ordinary people (those with no direct perception of reality) are unaware of the pervasive suffering of conditioning. Yet without contemplating and fully acknowledging our own suffering, we'll never aspire to be free nor have true compassion for others.
  • We have to remember that birth, death, aging, sickness, and the other sufferings are the nature of cyclic existence, so astonishment and indignation when they occur are inappropriate.
  • Even celestial beings suffer much unpleasantness as death approaches. The pleasures and luxuries they enjoy are the result of good actions they performed in the past, but without creating further virtue, their stock of merit comes to an end and they are reborn in bad states. Their ability to see their unfortunate future fills them with intense misery and fear.
  • Humans have a much better opportunity to develop a genuine wish for freedom and to gain insights.

The Thought of Liberation

The Six Sufferings

No matter what kind of rebirth we have, there are six kinds of suffering that afflict us in cyclic existence.

  • Uncertainty
    • The very things which fascinate us, in which we place our hopes, and to which we cling (despite many disappointments) are utterly untrustworthy and unreliable.
    • Friends can turn to enemies; enemies can become friends.
  • Lack of satisfaction
    • No matter what we eat, drink, or own, we never experience the expected satisfaction.
    • The more we indulge, the more we crave.
    • As we pursue more variety and more pleasure, we perform many negative actions which bring suffering.
    • What we hope will still our hunger and bring gratification turns out to harm us.
  • We must abandon our body over and over
    • We identify with our body through our ignorance.
    • Out of strong attachment to this body, though it's unreliable and cannot last, we do much wrong.
    • In the end, we must relinquish it and find a new one.
  • Constant change in status
    • There is a constant flux between high and low.
    • The powerful fall and the lowly take their places.
    • The rich lose their wealth and the poor win the lottery.
    • Everything changes.
  • We suffer alone
    • We spend some time with others, then disperse in different directions.
    • We are born alone and die alone.
    • In between, we create much non-virtue for the sake of our friends and loved ones, yet they cannot share the suffering this will bring us; we must bear it alone.
    • Understanding the transitory nature of friendship, we should love and help those we call our friends without being attached to them and without letting our feelings for them hamper our spiritual practice.
  • We are born again and again.
    • Each time, we have to give up our body and begin once more.
    • Unless we intervene, this process continues endlessly.
    • When we gain direct perception of reality, the end of this cycle of involuntary birth and death is finally in view.

Contemplating these drawbacks of cyclic existence, we recognize our unique good fortune in having a sound body and mind.

  • We need to use them well in order to ensure our future well-being.
  • What could be better than to devote our energy to developing these three principal insights, starting with the desire to leave cyclic existence?
  • This is the best way to make our lives meaningful.

The Three Sufferings

Asanga defined the three kinds of suffering within which every kind of suffering can be included.

  • The suffering of pain is that which is painful when it arises and while it lasts.
  • The suffering of change is that which is pleasurable when it arises and while it lasts, but painful when it stops.
    • Everything impermanent that is produced through contaminated actions underlain by disturbing emotions is miserable and unsatisfactory. The moment the pleasure stops, suffering of some kind starts.
    • The suffering of change also includes all mental activities and states of mind accompanying such contaminated pleasurable feelings.
    • All pleasurable feelings are not the suffering of change, since there are feelings of pleasure which are uncontaminated (e.g., the pleasure accompanying direct perception of selflessness).
  • The pervasive suffering of conditioning refers to contaminated neutral feelings, i.e., when neither pleasure nor outright pain occur.
    • They contain the imprints, causes, and seeds for suffering and for the disturbing emotions.
    • All neutral feelings are not the pervasive suffering of conditioning, since there are three kinds of neutral feelings:
      • virtuous (which may be contaminated or uncontaminated)
      • non-virtuous
      • unspecified

These three kinds of contaminated feelings (sufferings of pain, change, and conditioning) give rise to disturbing emotions.

  • Pleasurable feelings arouse craving.
  • Disagreeable feelings arouse anger.
  • Neutral feelings cause confusion, which, e.g., mistakes impermanent for permanent and unsatisfactory for pleasurable.
  • These disturbing emotions induce suffering (e.g., craving, frustration, disappointment, anger, attachment, etc.).

Practice focuses on interrupting the process by which feelings induce suffering.

  • Learn to recognize contaminated pleasurable feelings as a form of suffering instead of mistaking them for real happiness. In this way, we can stop attachment to them.
  • When disagreeable feelings arise and we experience pain, don't allow this to make us angry; remember that our body and mind are a mass of causes that produce suffering at the slightest provocation.
  • While we have a contaminated body and mind, pain cannot be avoided and will continue to occur.

From the Madhyamika point of view, contaminated pleasurable feelings are not regarded as real pleasure, but seen as a mere alleviation of suffering.

  • They occur at the point when intense suffering of one kind has subsided and a new kind of suffering is beginning but isn't yet apparent.
  • If this were real pleasure, it should increase as we continue to do what induces it. But we know that as we go on eating or indulging in other sense pleasures, the feelings and sensations eventually become disagreeable.
  • Suffering on the other hand is real because the more contact we have with what induces it, the more intense the suffering becomes.


So wherever we are born in the six realms with a body and mind that have resulted from contaminated actions and disturbing emotions, suffering is present.

  • If you're carrying a heavy load, you can find no relief until you put it down.
  • In The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, Tsongkhapa explains the practices of the initial and intermediate levels in relation to developing the wish to leave cyclic existence.
  • Emphasis on stopping your own suffering leads to a strong wish to be free from the cycle of involuntary birth and death.
  • Concern to stop others' suffering gives rise to compassion. But you can't develop this compassion until you recognize your own suffering.

As a result of repeatedly contemplating impermanence, the suffering of bad rebirths, the connections between actions and their effects, and the suffering experienced in good rebirths, you come to see life in cyclic existence—even the best celestial rebirth—as essenceless, and no worldly wealth can tempt you.

When the thought of liberation is foremost in your mind at all times, day and night, you have developed the wish to leave cyclic existence.