The Problem Of “Unsatisfactoriness”

“Hundreds of stupid flies gather
on a piece of rotten meat,
enjoying, they think, a delicious feast.
This image fits with the song
of the myriads of foolish living beings
who seek happiness in superficial pleasures;
in countless ways they try,
yet I have never seen them satisfied.”
– 7th Dalai Lama (early 18th century)

“I teach about suffering and the way to end it” – The Buddha

There is great misunderstanding concerning the keystone teaching of Buddhism known as the “Four Noble Truths.” The first of the Noble Truths states “life is dukkha,” and the confusion arises from the difficulty in translating the word “dukkha” from the ancient Indian Pali language that was the Buddha’s tongue. In his excellent book on Buddhist meditation titled Change Your Mind, meditation teacher, John Wilson, who goes by the name, Paramananda, states that dukkha “is normally translated as ‘suffering’, but this is probably a bit misleading… dukkha could perhaps be better rendered as unsatisfactoriness.’”

Another translation for dukkha that can be clarifying is “incapable of providing perfect happiness.” As the 7th Dalai Lama’s poem describes, human beings have a great deal of difficulty being satisfied, and never to be fully satisfied is indeed a form of intractable suffering. Isn’t it “perfect happiness” that we seek, and isn’t it the failure of the circumstances and relationships of our lives to provide perfect happiness that leaves us struggling with dissatisfaction?

So, the Four Noble Truths continue:
2nd Truth – Dukkha is caused by the grasping nature of the human ego.
3rd Truth – There is a way that leads to the release from Dukkha.
4th Truth – The way to release from Dukkha is the path of the Buddha (The Eightfold Path.) that teaches release from attachment and identity from the grasping nature of the human ego.

As I have written before, to understand the teachings of the Buddha requires that we understand the meaning of the name, Buddha. It means, “Awakened One.” And Buddhism is the path of awakening. When we translate the word dukkha as the particular kind of suffering that has to do with experiencing life as “unsatisfactory,” then the teaching is about how to live in such a way as to see (that is, be awake to) the myriad ways that attachment to the ego for identity and its pursuit of “happiness in superficial pleasures” leads to the experience of life as “unsatisfactory.” It then teaches how to reposition our sense of self-in-the-world so that we are in harmony with the natural flow of the transitory nature of existence in a way that leads to the ability to be awake to and experiencing the satisfactoriness of life-as-it-is.

So, returning to the Second Noble Truth: Dukkha is caused by the grasping nature of the human ego. The usual translation leaves the teaching at “dukkha caused by grasping” or, even more commonly, “attachment” and says nothing about human ego. This is a great oversight. A person has to study a great deal of Buddhism to get that what is being referred to as the cause for human suffering and dissatisfaction is attachment for personal identity in what is called the “ego-self,” that unique characteristic of the human mind to abstract experience into linear, dualistic, separated objects, including ourselves and other persons.

We experience ourselves as separate and alone in the universe, and with this experience of separateness comes an experience of insufficiency or unsatisfactoriness in the face of an overwhelming world. To compensate, the human ego “grasps” after fulfillment and becomes “attached” to objects, circumstances and relationships that will add to itself in the attempt to become sufficient. Happiness, fulfillment, satisfactoriness is sought outside of ourselves. And there is never enough. As was noted in the 7th Dalai Lama’s poem, we “seek happiness in superficial pleasures” and are never completely satisfied.

Complicating this is that human societies act like macro-egos, creating a group ego-self with values that insist upon competition, acquisitiveness, greed, anger, ignorant attitudes even violence as inherent to human nature, creating “dog-eat-dog” cultures. These cultures condition into individuals increasing levels of insecurity and the seeking of happiness and fulfillment outside of ourselves, taking from others and Nature to enhance ourselves and our group. It seems as if life is a constant game of top-dog/under-dog with everyone scrambling for significance, status and security as if there were no other way. The suffering of unending unsatisfactoriness appears unavoidable.

But the Third Truth says that there is a way out of dukkha, and the Fourth Truth teaches that the Eightfold Path of “correct” thought, speech, action, livelihood, understanding, effort, mindfulness and concentration will lead to the cessation of the suffering and unsatisfactoriness of dukkha. And what is “correct?” It is the awakened direct experience (not intellectual understanding) of the illusion of separateness caused by egoic perception. It is the realization that we are within the web of Life, the unfolding of the Universe, not separate. This is the core realization, the awakening of Buddhism.

Now it is very important not to look at The Eightfold Path as like the Ten Commandments of the Judeo/Christian tradition. These are not commandments about how to behave. They are realizations about what will naturally occur when you live with an “awakened” awareness of the truth of existence. You will have enlightened attitude and conduct concerning thought, speech, action, livelihood, understanding, effort, mindfulness and concentration because it will be who you are.

When, as is a saying in Zen, you realize that “you and the Universe are in the same place,” that “everything is as it can be,” to quote Orientalist Alan Watts, even unsatisfactory, even frightening situations from the egoic perspective can be transformed, can be transcended into life-as-it-is, not to be suffered, but to be lived fully.

In other words, happiness is a state of mind, and when we become adept at living from the deepest level of human consciousness that knows that who we are, to again quote Alan Watts, is “The Universe peering into itself from billions of points of view” we have access to the happiness that Buddhism teaches is our natural state. When “you and the Universe are in the same place,” we no longer are dependent on the superficial, that is, that which is outside ourselves for a sense of deep satisfaction with the experience of life – no matter what the circumstances. This may seem impossible, but if you meditate on the nature of mind and on life until you are one with it, it is absolutely possible to overcome the ego’s deep and ongoing sense of “unsatisfactoriness” with all the this and that of our life circumstances. You will come to know (be awake to) the truth – not intellectually – but, as Zen says, with a felt sense in the non-dualistic realization that this is really this, and nothing more is needed. This is the Universe and you in the same place.

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at

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