Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness

Step 1: Skillful Understanding

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Skillful Understanding

THE STORY OF THE BUDDHA’S LIFE is familiar to many of us. We know that Prince Siddhattha left his father’s lavish palace, took up the homeless life of a wandering spiritual seeker, and after years of rigorous practice, attained enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi Tree. When the Buddha arose from meditation, he walked to the city of Benares, now called Varanasi. There, in the Deer Park, he taught for the first time what he had discovered about the path to permanent happiness.

The Buddha’s message was simple but profound. Neither a life of self-indulgence nor one of self-mortification can bring happiness. Only a middle path, avoiding these two extremes, leads to peace of mind, wisdom, and complete liberation from the dissatisfactions of life.

The message of the Buddha is traditionally known as the Four Noble Truths. The last of these four truths sets out eight steps to happiness. He taught us to cultivate skillfulness in our understanding, thinking, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

In this and the following chapters we will examine these steps in detail. You’ll notice that three aspects — understanding, effort, and mindfulness — come up repeatedly in each step. These are the cardinal points of the path. All the steps are intertwined, but no step functions without the strong application of understanding, effort, and mindfulness.

You walk this path by bringing mindful awareness to every aspect of your daily life, continually working toward greater wholesomeness26 and applying proper understanding. As the mind settles down, insights begin to arise.

Some insights feel like a gentle “aha!” when some part of your life or the world suddenly becomes clear. Other insights feel profound, as though the whole earth has been shaken by your new knowledge. There may be a feeling of release, followed by a powerful sense of well-being or bliss that can last for hours or even for days. These wonderful experiences are not enlightenment. They just hint at what full enlightenment may be like.

But there may come a moment when all the factors of the eight steps are in place. Morality is perfected; concentration is deep and strong; the mind is bright and clear without any hindrances present. Then you may have a most profound insight — that all experience is impersonal and impermanent in every way, that nothing is worth clinging to. At that moment, all your doubts disappear, and the way you see everything changes.

From that time on, you walk the path on a whole new level. Before this point, you must already have had a good, clear intellectual understanding of the way all the parts of the path fit together. After that profound insight, your understanding reaches a higher level, called the “beyond worldly” level, and you proceed with supreme confidence. You know that no matter what, you will reach your goal.


In anything we do, the first step is to know why we’re doing it. That’s why the Buddha made Skillful Understanding the first step on his path to happiness. He wanted us to understand that the Buddhist path is not some abstract notion of “promising to be good” so that we can get some reward, not some mysterious code of behavior we have to follow to belong to a secret club.

Rather, the Buddha’s path is grounded in common sense and in careful observation of reality. He knew that if we open our eyes and look carefully at our lives, we will understand that the choices we make lead either to happiness or unhappiness. Once we understand this principle thoroughly, we will make good choices, because we do want to be happy.27

As the Buddha explained it, Skillful Understanding has two parts: understanding cause and effect, and understanding the Four Noble Truths.


Buddhists may describe actions as being right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral, but they intend a somewhat different meaning than these words usually convey. “Skillful or unskillful” probably explains the idea best. The basis of Buddhist morality is that acting in unskillful ways leads to unhappy results, and acting in skillful ways leads to happy results. This simple principle of cause and effect is an aspect of what Buddhists call kamma (or karma).

Even though unskillful deeds may bring temporary happiness — when, for example, a drug dealer is pleased with his shiny new car, or when you feel self-righteous gratification in causing pain to someone who has hurt you — the Buddha pointed out that wrong actions always lead to harm. Our own observations confirm this truth. Some of the harm may not be visible, such as the mental suffering of guilt and remorse. Other kinds of harm may not manifest immediately. The results of skillful and unskillful actions, the Buddha explained, may come to someone far, far in the future, even beyond this lifetime.

You may think, “I’m not worried about a future lifetime, I just want what I can get out of this life.” The Buddha advised us to consider these possibilities: Even if there is no future life, doing wholesome things will bring me happiness and a clear conscience in this life. If it turns out that there is a future life beyond death, I will be doubly rewarded — now and again later. On the other hand, if there is no future life, acting in an unwholesome way will make me feel miserable and guilty in this life. And if it turns out that there really is a future life beyond death, I will suffer again later. Thus, whether there is a future life or not, letting go of unwholesomeness and cultivating wholesomeness guarantees our happiness.

Once we understand that everything we think, say, or do is a cause that leads inevitably to some effect, now or in the future, we will naturally want to think, say, and do things that lead to positive results and avoid those thoughts, words, and deeds that lead to negative ones. Recognizing28 that causes always lead to results helps us accept the consequences of past actions. It also helps us focus our attention on making choices that can lead to a happier future.

Skillful actions are those that create the causes for happiness, such as actions motivated by loving-friendliness and compassion. Any action that comes from a mind not currently filled with greed, hatred, or delusion brings happiness to the doer and to the receiver. Such an action is, therefore, skillful or right.

Suppose, for example, that you consistently cultivate generosity and loving-friendliness toward all. This good behavior is a cause. Of what results? You’ll make lots of friends, many will love you, and you’ll feel relaxed and peaceful. People around you may be angry and unhappy, but you won’t be.

Your positive behavior has generated two types of immediate results. The first is internal — how you feel. Since you have been consistently generous and loving and have reflected upon your acts of generosity and love, your mind is peaceful and happy. The second is external: other people appreciate you and care for you. While their caring is certainly pleasant, it is less important than how you feel. Since external effects are dependent on the response of others, they are less reliable.

Once we understand this principle, its opposite also becomes clear. The Buddha pointed to ten actions that are always unskillful because they inevitably cause suffering. Three are actions of the body: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Four are actions of speech: lying, malicious words, harsh language, and useless talk. The last three are actions of the mind: covetousness, ill will, and wrong view of the nature of reality.

What is meant by each of these ten actions and how we can avoid them is explained in detail in later steps of the path. Before we can even begin to practice the Buddha’s path, however, we need enough basic understanding to see that these ten actions are unskillful because they inevitably bring deep suffering both to the doers and the recipients.

Refraining from these ten actions is not a list of commandments but a set of voluntary principles to follow out of conviction. Nobody can force them upon you. You have to find out for yourself, from your own29 experience and from your observations of the experiences of others, whether such actions lead to positive results or negative ones. Your experience will tell you that unskillful behaviors bring about physical and psychological pain to yourself and others.

Moreover, people engage in such misdeeds only when their understanding is faulty and their minds are polluted by greed, hatred, or delusion. In fact, any action that comes from a mind filled with greed, hatred, or delusion leads to suffering and is thus unskillful or wrong.

Buddhist morality is rational behavior based on this principle of cause and effect. You have to be lying to yourself about causes and effects to act wrongfully. The worse your behavior, the bigger your lie has to be. What deep insight, what release, will you ever reach if you deliberately feed your delusions with behavior that goes against this basic truth that actions have consequences? If you engage in seriously wrongful behavior, you won’t gain much clarity — let alone liberating insight — from the Buddha’s path. You must embrace this morality. That’s essential.

Mindfulness meditation increases awareness of the devastating consequences of immoral behavior. The meditator vividly experiences the painful effects of unwholesome thoughts, words, and deeds and urgently feels the need to give them all up.

You alone are the author of your future — experience teaches you that. Your behavior is not an unchangeable law of nature. At every moment, you have the opportunity to change — to alter your thoughts, your speech, your actions. If you train yourself to be mindful of what you do, and ask yourself whether it’s likely to lead to positive results or negative, you’ll be guiding yourself in the right direction.

Repeated good intentions can generate a powerful inner voice that will keep you on track. It will remind you — whenever you trap yourself in a cycle of unhappiness — that you can get out of that trap. Periodically you will have glimpses of what it is like to be free. You make this vision a reality by acting in positive ways and letting go of misery.

Thus morality — defined as actions in accordance with reality — is the foundation of all spiritual progress. Without this, nothing of the path will work to reduce suffering.30

The idea that actions have their corresponding results is the first part of Skillful Understanding. Now you must add to it a good comprehension of the Four Noble Truths.


The Buddha himself said that he taught only four ideas: dissatisfaction, cause, end, and path. “Dissatisfaction” refers to the unhappiness we feel in our lives. “Cause” is the reason for this unhappiness: our undisciplined, grasping mind. “End” is the Buddha’s promise that we can end suffering by eradicating our craving. “Path” is the eight steps we must take to reach this goal.

In his forty-five years of teaching, from the time of his first sermon in the Deer Park until his death, the Buddha explained these four words hundreds of times. He wanted to make sure that these essential ideas could be understood by people with different temperaments at various stages of spiritual growth.

On one occasion, he explained that dissatisfaction with the suffering of life is a burden. We cause our dissatisfaction by taking up the burden. We end it by putting the burden down. The path tells us how to unburden ourselves. Another time, he called dissatisfaction a sickness. Like a doctor, the Buddha diagnoses the cause of the sickness. The end of the sickness is Dr. Buddha’s cure, and the path is the medicine he prescribes to make us well.

Understanding the First Truth: Dissatisfaction

The Buddha’s first truth tells us that dissatisfaction is unavoidable. You may wonder, “Is this teaching on dissatisfaction relevant to the modern world in which so many discoveries have made our lives more comfortable? In the time of the Buddha, people must have suffered from the elements, disease, and natural disasters. But doesn’t our current technological know-how allow us to do whatever we want, go anywhere we wish, and manufacture anything we need?”

Yet, no matter how easy and safe our modern lives may seem, the truth of dissatisfaction has not changed. It is as relevant now as it was31 in the Buddha’s time. People back then were dissatisfied, and so are we.

We may call the Buddha’s first truth any number of names depending on the situation: suffering, stress, fear, tension, anxiety, worry, depression, disappointment, anger, jealousy, abandonment, nervousness, or pain. All human beings, no matter when or where they live, are subject to these problems.

We may fall ill at any time. We may be separated from our loved ones. We may lose what we have or be forced by circumstances to put up with conditions we despise. Parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends, communities and countries — all quarrel over wealth, position, power, and boundaries. Some of these problems are created by greed, some by hatred, others by ignorance. All of them relate to conditions both in the world — social, political, economic, educational, environmental — and in ourselves.

Recognizing the inevitability of these problems triggers pain in our minds. Acknowledging them and accepting them as they really are, without blaming others, is the essence of the Buddha’s first truth. To get started toward happiness, he told us, we need to look at dissatis­faction straight on — with stable emotions and a steady mind — without getting angry or feeling depressed or pessimistic. We must look squarely at our predicament: every experience of life brings some degree of suffering to anyone not fully enlightened.

The suffering may be extremely subtle, perhaps an underlying subtle restlessness. Or it may be more obvious, some strong attachment to a person, possession, or opinion. It all depends on how much greed, hatred, and delusion we have, and on our personalities and past experiences.

Consider, for example, two people who witness the same event but have completely different impressions. One finds the event happy and agreeable; the other, frightening and terrible. Happiness and its opposite are mind-made. Our minds create our life experiences, and our minds either enjoy those creations or suffer because of them. That is why the Buddha spoke of our creating heaven and hell in this very life.

Until we attain enlightenment, many kinds of experiences cause powerful dissatisfaction for us all. Let’s look at three: the life cycle, change, and having no control of our lives.32


The inevitable round of the human life cycle — birth, aging, sickness, death — gives rise to dissatisfaction.

Babies are not born with big smiles on their faces. As we grow, the cry with which we first greeted the world becomes less audible. We might say that it changes to an inward cry that continues for the rest of our lives. We cry for so many gallons of milk; so many tons of food; so many yards of clothes; so many square feet of land for housing, schools, and hospitals; so many trees for making books, papers, furniture; so many pills for various sicknesses; so many people to love us; so many ways to try to fill our neediness. If we had not been born into this unsatisfactory world, all other kinds of dissatisfaction would not come into existence. With every baby, it seems, unhappiness, too, is born.

Society as a whole also suffers as a result of birth. As the earth’s population increases, the pollution of our air, water, and land grows alarmingly. With so many mouths to feed, resources are depleted, and hunger stalks many parts of the planet. More forests are cleared to build roads and houses. Overcrowded living conditions contribute to the spread of terrible diseases. These are but a few examples. You can, no doubt, think of many more.

The aging process also gives rise to dissatisfaction. We’ve probably forgotten the adjustments we made in childhood to a new neighborhood or a new teacher, but we can remember the difficulties we had as teenagers adjusting to our changing bodies and emotions. In adulthood we have to adjust to new jobs, new relationships, new technologies, new diseases, new social conditions, often before we are fully at ease with existing ones. Uncomfortable changes seem to be common to every stage of life.

As we grow old, the problem of adjusting to change becomes more conspicuous. It is painful to lose the physical well-being we had when we were young. We know that aging is inevitable, but we wish it were not. Thus we suffer.

When the Buddha said that aging gives rise to unhappiness, he was really talking about growth and decay generally. We know that every cell in our body is decaying or dying, and new cells are continually taking their place. Every state of mind also disappears and a new one arises.33 Eventually, this process of decay and change weakens the body and mind, causing our physical death.

Illness is obviously another cause of dissatisfaction. Everybody knows how painful sickness is. Sickness actually causes two kinds of pain: fear of sickness and its direct experience. Thus sickness is a continuing source of anxiety, causing suffering when we are ill and fear when we are healthy.

People generally think that pain and dissatisfaction are synonymous, but they are not. Though you can’t avoid the pain of injury and disease, it is possible to avoid dissatisfaction as a result of the pain. As you grow less attached to your body feeling a particular way, you become less dissatisfied when it feels different. For instance, when Devadatta threw a rock and wounded the Buddha’s foot, the Buddha experienced pain. But because he understood the nature of pain, he did not suffer like ordinary people. Pain sensations are usually manageable. Dissatisfaction with “what is” is more profound and harder to overcome.

The fourth form of suffering in the life cycle is death — not just the moment of death but also everything that leads up it. We all fear death and worry about how and when we might die. We also know that when we die, we will have to leave everything behind. Can we bear that? When a loved one dies, we experience shock, grief, and loss which can last for years if not forever.

But the dissatisfactions of the life cycle do not end with death. The Buddha taught that death does not bring the cycle of dissatisfaction to a close. Someone who has gone through a lot may say, when nearing death, “I don’t want any more of this.” But that mere wish cannot stop the life cycle from continuing. As long as we are ignorant of the true nature of reality, this life links to another. As long as desire, hatred, and ignorance exist in our consciousness, the endless round of rebirth — the cycle of past, present, and future lives — will continue.

Within that cycle, the dissatisfactions that we have mentioned recur again and again. The energy of all these experiences is like a backpack that we carry from life to life through countless rebirths. In each new life, its contents are simply transferred into new baggage. When we die, nothing material goes with us. Yet that same backpack of energy — the imprints of all the mental activities and all the intentional words and34 deeds of this and previous lifetimes — not only travels with us but actually initiates the new life.

Until we have emptied our backpacks — until we have exhausted the results of all we have created through desire, hatred, or ignorance over countless lifetimes — we cannot escape perpetual death and rebirth. We can use this thought to motivate us to do whatever we can in this lifetime to achieve the permanent happiness of liberation.

We have already mentioned desire and hatred as strong motivations for our actions, but what does the Buddha mean by ignorance? And why is it so critical to the dissatisfactions we feel?

Ignorance in the Buddhist sense is both “not knowing” — as in not knowing what the Buddha meant by the Four Noble Truths — and “wrong knowing” — believing that we understand the way the world works when we do not.

Ignorant of the truth of dissatisfaction, we believe that a new job, a new house, or a new partner will bring us genuine happiness. Ignorant of how the energy of our words and deeds travels with us from this life to the next, we allow greed, hatred, doubt, and jealousy to motivate us. Ignorant that a simple and disciplined life, good friends, meditation, and mindful investigation of the true nature of our experience will bring us happiness in this life and in lives to come, we make millions of excuses for not engaging in these positive activities.

We are ignorant even of our ignorance. After a particularly deep teaching on the nature of reality, the Buddha’s attendant Ananda said to him, “Venerable sir, this teaching appears to be very deep, but it is as clear to me as clear can be.”

The Buddha replied, “No, no, do not say that! It not only seems to be deep, but it is deep.” (D 15)

Because of his ignorance, Ananda’s understanding of the Buddha’s message was not yet complete, and thus he did not attain liberation at that moment. Like Ananda, our ignorance keeps us spinning through the life cycle’s many dissatisfactions.


Change also dissatisfies us. No matter what we do, change separates us from what we love and presents us with what we hate. Death and distance35 divide us from people we love. Friends move away. Partners reject us. Such separations hurt a lot. Losing anything to which we are attached makes us angry and sad. Even something trivial can cause grief when it breaks or disappears.

Once when I was four years old I drew a perfect circle around me with my finger tip as I sat in the sand. Was I pleased! My sister, who was about seven, came by and rubbed away my circle with her foot. I became so angry I chased her, picked up a small but heavy wooden bench, and threw it at her. She still has a scar on one of her toes. All that upset and rage, all those tears and pain, caused by something so silly and transient as a circle in the sand!

Not only do we lose things we love, we are continually confronted by people and conditions we wish did not exist — at least not here, not right now. Living or working day in, day out with someone we do not like causes much unhappiness. Even something we cannot control, like the weather, makes us dissatisfied. At the Bhavana Society in West Virginia where I teach, people complain when it is hot and sticky. But they also complain when it is rainy and cool. When it is dry, they complain that their skin or their sinuses are affected. When it is cold, they complain because they fear they will slip on the ice. And when the weather is perfect, they complain that they do not have time to enjoy it!

When we look around us, it’s clear that everything that exists causes dissatisfaction. Why is this so? Actually, everything in the world exists as the result of a cause. Changes in the barometric pressure, winds, and temperature are causes of rain. A tree is caused by the seed from which it grows and the sunlight, soil, and water that nurture it. Our lives, too are the product of causes and conditions — the direct physical cause of our parents’ procreation and the cause of the energetic imprints we accumulated during our previous lifetimes.

The Buddha called these and everything else that arises from causes “conditioned things.” He explained that all conditioned things are characterized by three qualities. First, they are impermanent. Over time, everything — mountains and mayflies, marshmallows and microchips — breaks down, changes, or dies. Second, because of these changes, all conditioned things are unsatisfactory. As we have seen, every changing thing can give rise to suffering. Third, all conditioned things are selfless36 or soulless. This last quality is the most difficult to understand, so let’s put it aside for a moment.

Impermanence is pretty easy to understand. The fact that things are temporary is not the problem. Rather, it’s the attachment we have to people and things — like my circle in the sand — that makes us unhappy. Say we have a new jacket that we like enormously. After wearing it only a few times, we get some wet paint on it, or we tear it on something, or we leave it on a bus. We feel annoyed.

A ruined or lost jacket is no great tragedy, of course, and we can easily replace it. But what if the jacket was a gift from someone we love? What if we bought it to remember a special birthday, anniversary, or trip? Then we’re really attached to it, and its loss or damage saddens us deeply.

Sometimes people get upset when they hear discussions like this. “How about happiness?” they ask. “Why don’t we talk about that? Why don’t we talk about joy, delight, and pleasure instead of dissatisfaction all the time?”

The answer, my friends, is change. Because of impermanence, anything that is pleasant, happy, or delightful, does not remain so. As intelligent, mature people, we must talk about what’s really happening without getting upset. We must look it right in the eye, this dissatisfaction caused by change, and acknowledge it. Why hide it and pretend that everything’s rosy?

When we look at change head on, we may begin to see that it has an up side as well. We can count on the fact that whatever conditions exist in our lives will also change. Things may get worse. But they may also improve. Because of impermanence, we have the opportunity to learn, develop, grow, teach, memorize, and make other positive changes, including practicing the Buddha’s path. If everything about us were set in concrete, none of these changes would be possible. The uneducated would stay uneducated. The poor and hungry would stay poor andhungry. We would have no chance to end our hatred, greed, or ignorance and their negative consequences.

Okay, we understand impermanence and the dissatisfaction it causes. Now, what about this selflessness or soullessness? What do they have to do with change? The Buddha taught that the things and beings of37 this world are selfless or soulless precisely because they are always changing. We and everything around us are not static, permanent entities. We cannot affix a “me” or “mine” label to anything in the universe. It all changes too quickly.

With our changing body and our changing feelings, perceptions, thoughts, consciousness, habits, and intentions, how can we point to something and say, “This is mine” or “This is me”? Even the idea or belief “this is me” changes right away. For convenience, we may say “I am here” or “this belongs to me,” but we should say these words wisely and not be fooled into thinking that they imply the existence of an unchanging entity, the “I” or “me.” Physical objects also change continually. We may use conventional labels and say “this is a chair” or “this is a chimpanzee,” but these labels barely fit the changing reality that we experience.

Rather, we and everything else are in process, in a continual flux of growth and decay, buildup and breakdown. Nothing about our world or ourselves is separate or enduring. Watch your mind for one minute and you’ll see what I mean. Memories, emotions, ideas, sensations flicker across the screen of consciousness so quickly we can hardly catch them. Therefore, it makes no sense for the mind to grab on to any of these passing shadows with attachment or to push them away with hatred. When our mindful attention is quick and sharp, as it is in a state of deep concentration, then we can clearly see the changes — so clearly that there is no room left for belief in a self.

Some people feel depressed and disappointed when they hear about the doctrine of non-self. Some even become angry. They mistakenly conclude that life has no meaning. They don’t understand that a life lived without a sense of self is most pleasant and meaningful.

Once I gave a manuscript of an article to a friend to edit. He was a professional editor, and I figured that the job would take him about an hour. Yet for six months I heard nothing from him. He finally came for a visit, and we went for a walk. When he said nothing about my article, I sensed this would be a delicate topic. Very gently and hesitantly I broached the subject. I asked, “Have you had time to take a look at my article?” He remained silent for a long moment and then replied, “Bhante G, I looked at it. When I came across the teaching of non-self,38 I became so angry I threw away the whole manuscript!” I was amazed, but I did not get upset with him. Instead I let go of my attachment to the article I had written. He had thrown away my manuscript because of non-self, so I threw away the self associated with the manuscript. I was able to stay relaxed, friendly, and peaceful. This man, however, became rigid, uptight, and unhappy, due to his clinging to self.

So you see how hard it can be to accept this notion of non-self. Yet so long as you retain this notion of self you’ll feel uncomfortable, rigid, and grasping, and people will find your egotistical self unpleasant. You’ll get upset or angry when someone disagrees with you or blames you for something, when things disappoint you or don’t go your way, and even when somebody offers you constructive criticism. Correctly understanding this idea of non-self, you’ll feel relaxed and comfortable. You’ll mix easily with people of any nationality, you won’t feel any more or less important than others, you’ll adapt easily to any situation, and everyone will feel comfortable around you.

By truly understanding selflessness you can feel happy and comfortable wherever you go, whether you are treated well or ill. Don’t let this teaching make you depressed and don’t let it make you angry.

For now, we must be content with trying to accept this idea intellectually. As our practice of mindfulness continues, however, we can look forward to the day when we will perceive the selflessness and soullessness of all phenomena directly. When we do, the unhappiness that comes as a result of change will end for us, forever.

The Buddha and the other great beings who have attained full enlightenment are proof of this. The Buddha was completely free of the concept of “I.” Of course, the Buddha continued to live in society after he achieved enlightenment. For conventional purposes and to make communication easy, he continued to use conventional terms, such as “I” or “me.” It’s okay if you do as well. The name on your driver’s license may not be an absolutely accurate label, a guarantee of your permanent identity, but it’s a convenient handle for the conventions of everyday life.

But when mindfulness leads you to realize that the “self” you have been protecting so vigorously is, in fact, an illusion — a stream of constantly changing sensations, emotions, and physical states, with no39 permanence or fixed identity — then there will be no “you” to attach to the impermanent things of this world, and thus no reason for you to be dissatisfied or unhappy.


If we were really in control of our lives, we’d have no reason to be dissatisfied. But we’re not in control. Time after time we don’t get what we want, and we get what we don’t want.

We want our perfect job, perfect office, perfect boss, and perfect pay to continue forever, but they change, and we have no say about why or when. We want to keep our loved ones, but no matter how tightly we cling to them, someday we’ll be separated. To stay healthy we take herbs and vitamins, work out, and eat right, but we still get sick. We want to remain young and strong and hope that old age will happen only to others, but years pass and we discover that our body has other plans. Whatever ideal situation we’re in, we naturally wish to hold on to it. But we have no control over the law of impermanence. Everything exists by consent of this law, and we have no protection against it.

It’s also painful to have things happen to us that we never wished for. You’re stung by a bee. Your favorite TV show is canceled. Someone breaks into your car. You lose your job. A loved one gets cancer. Your precious wedding pictures or baseball memorabilia are lost in a fire. Your child has an accident or gets involved in drugs. Scandal, blame, shame, failure, hunger, loss of goods, loss of love, physical deterioration — so many bad, unwanted things happen to us and to the people we wish to protect. And we have no control over any of it.

“All right!” you may be saying. “Enough already!” But there’s one more piece to this picture. If we look carefully, we can see that even getting our wishes fulfilled is also unsatisfying.

Say what you wish for is a beautiful house. So, you buy it, and look at the trouble you have to go through. You have to pay the mortgage, pay the taxes, protect it, secure it, insure it, decorate it, repair and maintain it. And then, you’re not home very much anyway. Early in the morning, you go to work. In the evening, maybe you go to a party or a movie, come home to sleep for five or six hours, and then off you go again. The house is very big and very beautiful, no doubt. And you keep40 paying the bills and cutting the grass and fixing the roof and cleaning out the garage. You have gotten what you wished for, but are you happy?

Look at another example. A boy likes a girl, and she likes him. Each works very hard to attract the other. But from the moment they start their relationship, they are afraid. He fears that she’ll fall for some guy who is more handsome, and she fears a more attractive woman will steal him. Jealousy, suspicion, worry. Is this happiness?

You can think of other examples. Just read the newspaper. Read about the lucky fellow who wins the lottery and lives miserably ever after! That’s why it is said that there are only two tragedies in life: not getting what one wants, and getting it.


The Buddha tried to make it very clear that every single thing in life brings suffering for the unenlightened person. He listed “five aggregates” that include every possible aspect of reality: form, feelings, perceptions, volitional formations, and consciousness. “Form” refers to all material existence — including the body and things that are contacted through the senses.

The other four aggregates cover all mental experience. At the end of a list of all the things that bring suffering, the Buddha said, “In short, the five aggregates of clinging are suffering.” (D 22)

What’s going on here? Why is it that dissatisfaction touches absolutely every aspect of our lives? As the Buddha explained, our dissatisfaction comes from how we perceive and think about what we experience. How this works is very subtle.

We know that we perceive the world through our senses. We generally talk about five senses, through which we see, hear, smell, taste, and tou

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