The last of The Four Thoughts that Turn the mind to practice is ‘contemplation on the unsatisfactoriness of samsara’. This is often given as ‘contemplation on the suffering of samsara’, which is an unfortunate phrase, as it may cause us to miss the profound subtlety of the teaching. We may find it obvious that we should feel compassion for those who suffer through hunger, loss, illness, or catastrophe, but believe that the rich and famous, the well-fed and comfortable, do not need a second thought. Dharma however, aspires to free all sentient beings from their suffering – including the rich, famous, well-fed, and comfortable.
We need to understand the elusive nature of the suffering of those whose lives are apparently happy and successful. This suffering is the subtle sense of dissatisfaction that is ever-present, even at times of joy and happiness. Through yearning for such happiness and satisfaction to abide as a permanent and continuous experience, we actually create unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Through grasping at happiness, and attempting to prevent it dissolving into emptiness, we undermine the present moment. Through fear of loss of happiness we fail to enjoy and appreciate happiness in the present moment, and project this duality into the next moment, preventing the continuing empty dance of happiness.
The Sanskrit word ‘dukkha’1 is often translated as ‘suffering’. ‘Du’ means worthless, and ‘kha’ means hollow. So ‘dukkha’ encompasses more than pain—it includes ‘life simply being different to how I would prefer it to be’—and indicates the illusory nature of dukkha. The Tibetan word which equates with dukkha is dug-ngal which means ‘unsatisfactoriness’. It combines the word ‘dug’—which means ‘frustration’—with the word ‘ngal’ which means ‘weariness’.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche says of dug-ngal:
Dukkha or dug-ngal does not really mean ‘suffering’ per se.
Dug-ngal is a term which contains suffering as part of a broad
spectrum of exquisite dualistic inconveniences which range from mild
displeasure to utter agony. Unsatisfactoriness is therefore a
preferable term in respect of translating dug-ngal.
‘Worthlessness’ and ‘hollowness’ hint that we ourselves create dissatisfaction. It is not self-existent. Samsara is dualism – it is the process of grasping at form and retracting from emptiness in which we engage moment by moment, day by day, throughout our lives.
1. Dukkha (Sanskrit): dug-ngal (sDug bsNgal) (Tibetan), the experience of dissatisfaction, usually translated as ‘suffering’.