Samsara is Only in the Nature of Suffering

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal (Archive #398)

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this teaching at the 19th Kopan Course, held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in 1986.

This excerpt from Lecture 8 of the course is lightly edited by Gordon McDougall and Sandra Smith. Click here to read more. 

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, possibly in Switzerland, 1990. Photo by Ueli Minder.

What is samsara? It is these aggregates, which are caused by the contaminated seed of karma and disturbing thoughts. Samsara means circling or the cycle. The straight translation is not cyclic existence; “circling” can be more effective. Korwa means circling.

With samsara and these aggregates, because the contaminated seed of karma and disturbing thoughts is there, when we meet a beautiful object, attachment arises, when we meet an undesirable object, anger arises and when we meet an indifferent object, ignorance arises. With these aggregates, we create karma, which compounds the seed of the future samsara and leaves the potential on the consciousness. So within this samsara, we compound the cause of our future life’s samsara.

As long as we are not liberated from samsara, even if we don’t experience the suffering of suffering, we experience the suffering of change. Pleasures don’t last. On the other hand, however much effort we put into practice and however much we attain, our Dharma happiness increases more and more, and it can be completed.

Samsaric pleasures depend on outside conditions, so however much effort we put into them, they do not last. The longer we try, the more they change into suffering. They become greater sufferings, then greater and greater sufferings that have no end. We try again and then the pleasure changes into the suffering of suffering, so it becomes a problem that has no end. Our work has no end, no way to finish. This is said in the Four Hundred Stanzas by Aryadeva.

The reason our samsaric experiences transform into the suffering of suffering is because the nature of pleasure itself is suffering. If the nature of pleasure were not suffering, if it were true happiness, then the longer we sit, the longer the pleasure would last. Our happiness would develop more and more. For example, after feeling so hot, we jump into the water at the beach, thinking we could stay there for months and years, like doing retreat. We think there should be more and more unbelievable, inconceivable happiness and bliss.

Similarly, if we kept on eating for months and years, then at nighttime there should be unbelievable, inconceivable happiness, but that is not the reality. If it was the reality, even death would not happen. The reason samsaric pleasure changes is because its nature is suffering. The basis is suffering, but we label it pleasure.

So, for example, after we have been standing for a long time, we sit down. Then the tiredness of standing stops and the tiredness of sitting starts. As soon as we sit down, the tiredness of sitting starts, from very small. On that feeling we label pleasure. The feeling is only that the great tiredness of standing has stopped and the small tiredness of sitting has started. So, on that we label pleasure. The longer we sit, the more the action of sitting compounds the tiredness of sitting—as soon as we sit down, it starts compounding. The longer we sit, the more the tiredness of sitting compounds and increases. As it grows and becomes visible, it becomes the suffering of suffering.

This is the same with all samsara, with all the pleasure that is to do with external conditions, except the happiness derived from practicing Dharma. As long as we aren’t liberated from samsara, whether we become a king, a farmer or a circus performer, or if we live our life playing sports or travelling on the mountains—whatever different style of life we live, it is in the nature of suffering. Whatever we do. Therefore, besides the suffering of suffering, again the conclusion is that there is nothing to cling to; there’s nothing to be attracted to.

Guru Shakyamuni Buddha said in the sutra text Entering the Womb, which he basically taught to his younger brother, Chungawa, that we should understand that all our actions are only in the nature of suffering, whether we are eating, standing, sitting, walking or sleeping. When the meditator examines it (I don’t remember word-for-word) he sees only suffering when he experiences these things, not happiness or pleasure. Guru Shakyamuni Buddha told Chungawa that when the suffering arises, it is in the nature of suffering, and even when it stops, it is in the nature of suffering. Like this, it compounds—when it arises, it is in the nature of compounding and when it stops, it is in the nature of compounding.

Even when we don’t experience the suffering of suffering or the suffering of change, there is the contaminated seed of karma and the disturbing thoughts. This is caused by the aggregates, which are under the control of karma and disturbing thoughts. So that’s why even when we pinch our flesh, there is pain. It is so easy for the body to feel discomfort.

Having this pain proves reincarnation, because if there were no past lives, there wouldn’t be any pain. There’s no reason why there has to be pain. It comes from karma and disturbing thoughts, so therefore we don’t have a choice to use the aggregates for virtue, as we wish. As we meet the different objects, suddenly the disturbing thoughts arise—we get overwhelmed by the disturbing thoughts, the six root delusions and things like that.

Lama Tsongkhapa explained in the Lam-rim Chen-mo that even if we’re not experiencing the suffering of suffering or the suffering of change now, there’s the third suffering—pervasive compounding suffering. We are under the control of karma and delusions and we are not free from these—so because of this pervasive compounding suffering, the suffering of change and the suffering of suffering can arise. They can happen; they can arise immediately, right this minute. Pervasive compounding suffering is compounding by meeting the object, so these disturbing thoughts arise again and we create the karma compounding the cause of samsara.

Pervasive, ka-pa du-che, means being under the control of karma and delusion. This becomes the base for both the suffering of change and the suffering of suffering. Pervasive suffering covers those, like a bubble coming from the water. It covers both the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change, therefore it is the root of all problems and sufferings. So therefore, it is extremely important to have strong renunciation for this pervasive compounding suffering. Lama Tsongkhapa said very clearly in the Lam-rim Chen-mo that this is the main renunciation we should have.

Now we can see that the whole samsara is completely in the nature of suffering. We should meditate on the sufferings of samsara, and then, not having the slightest attraction to it, we should feel that it is like the nature of fire. As long as we are in samsara, it is like being in the center of a fire. If we feel like this, it’s as if an arrow has gone inside our heart, so when we think about other sentient beings, unbearable compassion arises and we very quickly generate bodhicitta. We generate strong compassion and strong renunciation for our own samsara, as well as aversion and strong compassion for other beings’ suffering in samsara. There is stronger bodhicitta to lead sentient beings into the highest happiness—the peerless happiness, enlightenment. So therefore, enlightenment is quicker. The stronger our bodhicitta, the quicker the enlightenment.