The Buddhist Liberation from Suffering
by Kim Boykin

Buddhism is a practical tradition. The Buddha saw a problem, suffering, and found a solution. The practical wisdom of Buddhism regarding suffering and liberation from suffering is summarized in the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is the truth of duhkha which means "suffering" or "dissatisfaction." This is the observation that the ordinary, unenlightened life involves a lot of suffering, that our lives don't completely satisfy us. We suffer physical pain and emotional pain.

We can't always get what we want, and we often get what we don't want. Of course, we have happy times and pleasant experiences, but we know they won't last, and this makes us uneasy. All things, pleasant or unpleasant, are impermanent, including our own lives. Life is permeated with pain and impermanence, and in the unenlightened life this leads to duhkha, to suffering or dissatisfaction.

The Second Noble Truth is the truth of the origin of duhkha. Buddhism observes that suffering arises from “trishna,” or craving. Trishna is sometimes translated "desire," which is misleading. Saying that "desire" is the problem makes it sound like the ideal human state is like being clinical depressed, void of any motivation. But Buddhism is not about eliminating desires. Desire, in itself, is not the problem. The problem is when simple desire becomes craving, when desire is possessive or aggressive, when we believe that our joy in life depends on satisfying our desires and we go frantically chasing after what we desire. Our desires are inexhaustible, and the chase leaves us exhausted, frustrated, and still unsatisfied. In our misguided search for satisfaction, by our constant craving, we suffer and cause others to suffer. This craving is rooted in our ignorance of what Buddhism calls no self, or selflessness. We ordinarily view reality from the perspective of "me,” what pleases and displeases me, what helps or harms me, what I approve of and disapprove of. We tend to think of ourselves as separate, self-contained entities, entirely independent of everyone and everything else. Our lives revolve around a "self" that wants to be gratified with pleasure, protected from pain, and above all, protected from nonexistence, a "self" with endless cravings.

But our self-centeredness is ill-founded. Buddhism observes that the self we're so desperately concerned about is an illusion, a fiction, a construction. Our ultimate nature is no-self, or selflessness. Everyone and everything is interconnected and interdependent, and we need not suffer a life dominated by the cravings of "self."

The Third Noble Truth is the truth of the cessation of suffering, the observation that liberation from suffering is possible. If we awaken from our ignorance of no-self, if we perceive reality from the perspective of selflessness, we are liberated from the tyranny of egoism and thus from the suffering created by ego-centered cravings. We awaken to joy, a joy not dependent on our circumstances and we awaken to all-encompassing compassion. We are freed to more fully appreciate the wonder of life, with all its pleasure and pain, and we are freed to center our lives in the needs of all of reality, instead of in the possessive and aggressive cravings of the "self." We are freed to truly care for others and also for ourselves.

Note that Buddhism does not try to solve the problem of suffering by saying that pain is illusory or unreal. Pain is real, as we are well aware, and pain is inevitable in this life, but suffering is not. Suffering is the complication that our egoism constructs around simple pain. To be liberated from suffering doesn't mean that if you have a root canal, it won't hurt or if a loved one dies, you won't grieve. It means, rather, that we can live this pain-full life with joy and compassion. We are not liberated from pain; we are liberated within pain. We can be free of the ignorant self-centeredness that turns pain into suffering for ourselves and others.

Our liberation comes not from understanding or believing in selflessness but from practicing and directly experiencing selflessness. So how do we do that? The Fourth Noble Truth specifies the path to the cessation of suffering, the Eightfold Path. The path is divided into three sections: wisdom, ethical conduct and meditation, called the Three Trainings, which are practiced together, each supporting the others. Wisdom includes right view and right intention. Right view is understanding reality as it is: seeing the pervasiveness of suffering, seeing how suffering arises from craving, and seeing through the illusion of "self" at the root of craving. Right intention is an intention in favor of selfless renunciation, nonaggression and compassion. Ethical conduct includes right speech, right action and right livelihood. That is, in what we say, what we do, and how we earn a living, we refrain from behavior that creates suffering for ourselves and others and cultivate selfless, compassionate behavior.

Meditation helps us to see and let go of the cravings at the root of unethical conduct and to uncover wisdom, to experience reality from the perspective of no-self. Meditation includes right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Right effort is active engagement in overcoming unwholesome states of mind and cultivating wholesome states of mind. Right mindfulness is maintaining clear, open awareness of the present moment while right concentration is focusing the mind, resting the attention in one place. In essence, the Buddha's solution to the problem of suffering is selflessness. The Eightfold Path is not self-help but selflessness-help. It helps us awaken to no-self, or selflessness and it helps us live with more compassion, or selflessness. In awakening to our selflessness, we are freed to live a life of joyful selflessness.

Kim Boykin is the author of Zen for Christians: A Beginner's Guide (Jossey-Bass, 2003), available at