Life is Suffering - To live is to suffer. Life is accompanied by inevitable pain, sickness, disappointment, disillusion, decay and death. This place we live on, the earth plane, is characterized by inevitable and unavoidable dissatisfaction, disappointment, rejection, failure, pain, yearning, decrepitude, and loss. "Suffering" in Buddhism refers not only to physical pain, aging, sickness, and death, and to emotional pain like fear, loss, jealousy, disappointment, and unrequited love, but also to the existential sense that, somehow, deep down, life is permanently out of joint. Everything is touched by the shadow of dissatisfaction, imperfection, disappointment. Suffering, in the Buddhist sense, is a pervasive condition. No one escapes it. Even enlightened teachers grow old, suffer the pains of decay, and die.
Suffering is Caused by Attachment - Suffering arises because everything changes, everything is impermanent. Everything is in process, all the time. Whenever we hope to find any lasting happiness by means of something that is changing, suffering results. This means that nothing in the realm of ordinary human experience can provide lasting happiness, and trying to force things to stand still and make us happy is itself the main source of misery. "Attachment" in Buddhism extends far beyond the sense of "greed" or "clinging" to something closer to what the Christian tradition would call "pride"--a self-centered isolation, the separate selfhood, "ego" in the worst sense. " This is a deep, pervasive, but normal kind of alienation--one seemingly built into the nature of the human nervous system. The most pervasive form of self-centered suffering takes place as we project upon everyday experience a huge burden of extraneous interpretations, associations, fantasies, emotions, painful memories, and diversions. We act then with the Buddhist big three problems: greed, aversion, and delusion. Greed sucks things in to our purposes, violating their natures as necessary. Aversion shoves things away, denies, distorts, destroys them--again violating their natures. In the state of delusion, we float, confused, not seeing, not knowing, insulated from the pain and salvation of deep experience. Instead of seeing each moment as it is, we react to each moment from our past pain and frustration; then we react to the pain and frustration; then we react to that reaction; and so on and on. In this way a special form of mental torment is created that consists of seemingly endless layers of pain, negative emotion, self-doubt and self-justification--known in Buddhism as "samsara," the illusory world we think of as real. It is what, in honest moments, many people might call "normality." I think of it this way: Instead of experiencing life directly, we create a worldview and experience it. That worldview serves to protect us through a system of explanations; but it also makes each of us into an isolated self, separated from nature, from real experience, from spirituality, and from one another--causing all experience to be distorted and "out of joint," and ourselves to suffer from living at one remove from life. We are nearly always, in some degree, outsiders to the world and even to our own experience. Buddhists have given deep attention to the ways human beings are at once empowered and entrapped by the categories we create for thought and language. Racial prejudice is a straightforward example of what Buddhists mean by suffering that is created by the mind; it is based on mental categories that distort perception and project our expectations onto others. The fundamental Buddhist act is to accept responsibility for one's projections, and to learn to know, first hand, how the mind creates illusion and amplifies suffering.
Freedom from Attachment is the Cure for Suffering - If we could be released from attachment, we would be released from suffering. And our primary attachment is to the concept of a separate, isolated self--from which we derive all other attachments and experience all other sufferings. This I understand to be the central belief of Buddhism: When we fully face, accept, and lighten the self-amplified sufferings of our lives; when we begin to experience life beyond our delusions and confusions, beyond self, beyond culture, beyond knowledge--what we find is not a meaningless universe of alien forces, but our true home. Life is real. Reality is good. Goodness, gratitude, love and joy are the natural state of the awakened heart. When people begin to feel released from their self-sustained sufferings, they experience life more fully, they become more cheerful and compassionate. Most people have heard of the ultimate release--"nirvana"--a state of mystical unity with the cosmos. Fewer people know the moving story of how the Buddha and his major followers throughout history have approached nirvana, only to turn back from that mystical escape and devote themselves to a life of helping others in this imperfect world. Enlightened people do not cease to experience the pain of existence. They only stop creating illusions that amplify that pain and cause new suffering.
The Way Out of Suffering is through the Eightfold Path - Buddha taught a method to lead away from self-sustained suffering toward a more enlightened and compassionate life--through the pursuit of morality, meditation, and wisdom, described as eight pursuits: right speech, right action, right livelihood, right concentration, right mindfulness, right effort, right understanding and right thought. Because it avoids the extremes of asceticism and indulgence in favor of a life of moderation, nonviolence and compassion, Buddhism is known as the "Middle Way."