The concept of suffering is at the core of the Buddhist tradition. One of the main teachings of the Buddha, and most pertinent to the school’s daily practices, is the goal of ascertaining nirvana. As individuals and a species, our aim, Buddhism argues, should be to dispel suffering of any form. In short, suffering, pain, hardship, are inherently bad, and to alleviate ourselves from such affliction is ultimately good. In his work ‘Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy: Empty Persons’, Mark Siderits explains and argues for the Buddhist goal-orientation towards ridding ourselves of emotional and physical pain. In this essay, I will argue against this goal-orientation, and will reject the claim that mental and physical pain are inherently bad. As an alternative, I will offer an effective analysis of pleasure and pain, positing both as absolutely necessary experiences. I propose a mode of conceptualisation where the idea of pleasure can be viewed as ontologically reliant on pain, and vice versa. With practice and time, an individual’s literal pain can be elevated to a realm of acceptance and even appreciation, undermining suffering as a whole. This not only allows for a more practical and less difficult application of suffering relief, but provides people with the ability and tendency to genuinely welcome suffering and hardship in their lives.
When Buddhism aims to dispel suffering, they are doing so on an ill-considered and abrupt understanding of good and bad, or pleasure and pain. Although instinct tells us to push away from discomfort, this is in fact psychologically unhealthy. If one were to live a life without suffering, then perhaps a constant rejection of pain wouldn’t be too damaging. But to mentally struggle at the idea of pain, and as such to do our best to not ponder upon it, prevents us from understanding it. The first step in making something uncomfortable comfortable, is to experience it and understand it. Thus, to relieve ourselves of this constant battle with pain, we must not strive to completely dispel it from our lives, but instead first come to understand it. Only with this attitude, can we adopt an attitude of not only curiosity and acceptance, but even appreciation and embracement of pain.
In order to discuss a reworked conceptual analysis of pain, we must first understand what the Buddhists refer to when using the word. Mark Siderits claims this to be “the sense of frustration, alienation and despair that arises in response to seeing the consequences of one’s mortality for the happiness-seeking enterprise on which one is embarked”. What he means here, is that as humans, our striving for happiness, for wellbeing, is completely undermined by the realisation that we will inevitably die. This, I argue is a short-sighted misinterpretation of dukkha, the Buddhist notion of suffering. In Samyutta Nikaya, one of the Buddha’s discourses, he outlines dukkha as “birth is painful, aging is painful, illness is painful, death is painful; sorrow, lamentation, physical pain, unhappiness and distress are painful; union with what is disliked is painful, separation from what is liked is painful, not to get what one wants is painful…” From this, it is clear that what Buddhists imply when referring to pain is not limited to Siderits’ existential dread, but includes all forms of mental and physical pain too.
While clearing up this definition, we will also do well to make some linguistic correlations to avoid confusion. The Buddhist claim is that suffering is the thing we want to dispel completely. Because of this, I will henceforth refer to ‘suffering/pain’ and ‘bad’ interchangeably, and will do the same for ‘pleasure/happiness’ with ‘good’. It’s also worthy of note that, as I shall refer to some ethical studies/texts, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ do not necessarily refer to moral goodness/badness, but rather, I believe these cited ethical ideas extend to the conceptions of general experiential good and bad themselves.
John Mackie, in his ‘Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong’, introduces the ideas of error theory, which draws from moral scepticism, the view that there are no objective moral values. In other words, goodness and badness do not reside as actual facts in the real world, but instead when we identify something as good or bad, we are simply making a claim that is false. A similar train of thought to moral scepticism is moral subjectivism, which argues that when we identify something as bad or good, we are in fact expressing a subjective approval or disapproval towards that thing. Henceforth, I will refer to these two ideas as value scepticism and value subjectivism, in as much as I take them to apply not just to moral values, but experiential values/identifications of any kind. It will be important to keep these ideas in mind for the following explanation.
Through conceptualisation, when we conceptualise, we are applying limits to an experience or thought. For example, when one imagines a circle, one has to envision the inner contents/substance of a circle, followed by the edge of this contents – the limits. This edge separates that which is the circle from that which is not the circle – that which is being conceptualised, from its limits. Without these so-called limits, the concept in mind wouldn’t exist. It would carry no meaning, or it would extend infinitely and never be identified as anything at all. The limits define the concept, they give it its identity and reality.
So, let us take a basic concept where there’s very little room for debate on its definition. For example, the concept of ‘up’. In our minds, when pondering upon this idea of upness, we could refer to an experience/memory or even an imagination, where we identify ‘up’ as ‘the place above our body at a given time’. But what if we attempt to define or conceptualise upness without reference to a specific example/case? Linguistically, one way to do this would be to define up as ‘the opposite of down’. So now, we have two modes of conceptualising upness. The latter undeniably relies on the opposite concept of downness, while the former relies on the relation of upness to our body. If we were to put this into words, one might say ‘upness is the place that my body is below’. Hopefully it has become clear that this is simply a more specific attempt to define upness, nevertheless still relying on the opposite of downness. Once again, this simple concept of upness or aboveness completely and ultimately relies on its limits, its opposite. If there was no downess, upness would have no meaning or reality. This is relatively easy to accept in a conceptual sense. Literally or ontologically, however, it requires a some elaboration. A physical object in reality, if it is ever to be described as ‘above’ something, by absolute ontological (and conceptual) necessity, there must also be something which is below it. Both conceptually and ontologically, this one concept and physical reality ultimately requires its opposite in order for it to exist.
If we take this idea of unity/identity of opposites and apply it to ‘good’ and ‘bad’, a similar pattern will appear. People are often inclined to define ‘bad’ as ‘not good’ and vice versa. Let us assume, as per the aforementioned value subjectivism, that these values of goodness and badness are purely subjective (there are plenty of convincing arguments for this claim, but I will not go into these in this essay) and thus vary between individuals. Although this doesn’t affect the truth or falsehood of my proposal, accepting the claim would imply that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are mere conceptual constructs. This interdependence of opposites means that it must be the case that any person’s conceptualisation, and thus understanding, of goodness necessarily relies on their understanding of badness. For someone’s experience (be that what it may) to be interpreted as good, they must have to have formed deep, meaningful limits to their concept of good. These limits are literally the concept of badness. I will now apply this line of reasoning to actual, experiential cases of suffering/pain in terms of Buddhism.
Our definitions of suffering and pleasure shift constantly. If someone has been subject to third degree burns at some point in their life, their pain threshold increases in so much as, once fully healed, may feel physical sensations and say “this doesn’t really hurt, not compared to those burns years ago” and thus they wouldn’t really interpret it as suffering. The same can be said of emotional hardship – when one goes through a painful and intensely emotional divorce / relationship breakup, the little things which used to put them in a bad mood seem trivial in comparison. People often say “I didn’t realise how good I had it” in regards to something they’ve lost – they’re literally finding further positive meaning within a past experience, based on the comparison to negative meaning they’re currently experiencing.
Therefore, it should be clear that the idea of an independent existence consisting only of absolute goodness isn’t possible, because this goodness relies on a counterfactual badness to define its limits, to outline its meaning, and to bring it into reality. In light of Buddhist claims, my proposal would render as follows: the literal existence of positive meaning, pleasure, enjoyment and happiness within a person’s experience conceptually, literally and ontologically relies on the counter-factual existence of negative meaning, pain, suffering and discontent within that person’s experience.
So, in the same way that one wishes to dispel bad experiences (like suffering and pain), one also craves and desires good experiences (like happiness or pleasure). When one realises that the limits of these good experiences are wholly and solely defined by the bad experiences, the desire to rid one’s life of their bad experiences becomes counter-intuitive. For it goes against one’s nature to want to dispel the thing which gives rise to the thing one desires. If one accepts that their goal is to remove all pain and suffering from their life, they must also accept their goal to be the removal of all pleasure and enjoyment from their life.
With mental reiteration of this realisation, it can become habituated in one’s mode of thought. This habituation allows an individual to perceive the truth of these claims in their actual experiences, more and more often, further backing up their faith in the ideas. The close coupling of goodness and badness, the unifying of these two concepts and realities, allows one to feel genuine pleasure when experiencing suffering, because they know this pain is the source of the positive meaning they so enjoy in life.
This unification of good and bad into a self-reliant dichotomy can take shape in myriad ways. Bring to mind the days where you’ve just had enough – you’re in a terrible mood or you’re feeling genuinely unhappy. For most of us, what gets us through is the thought of seeing our loved one(s), spending time with friends, or just enjoying some relaxing downtime as soon as you can. The mental acknowledgement that one is feeling negative almost instantly reflects back on itself as a call to positivity. Two sides of the same coin bringing its opposite into being.
The same can be said for memory, or pure conceptions which draw from memory. When one imagine badness in terms of a personal experience, one would usually refer to the memory of a ‘day that was particularly bad’. One may not be consciously aware of this, but in these cases, there is an ever-present concept of a ‘particularly good day’ which allows or causes a negative interpretation of the memory. If a subject had full-blown amnesia where their habits and memories were wiped, and then they were given the experience of a constantly painful day of mental/physical suffering, they wouldn’t think “this has been so horrible, this memory is intensely bad”. Of course they’d still feel the pain sensations, but they wouldn’t assign a label of ‘bad suffering’ to it any more than a bodily reaction to physical pain occurs.
It is this interpretation and mental reaction that causes the existential suffering both Siderits and Buddhists refer to. Temporally, this unification becomes most obvious. Imagine you’ve broken your arm, and had it in a cast for two months. It’s been painful, uncomfortable, inconvenient, and thus tedious and frustrating – two months of both mental and physical suffering. The day you get the cast removed, you’re overjoyed! You’re positively ecstatic with pleasure, and feel euphoric. Physically and mentally, you feel free. But now ask yourself, what is the difference between your state before the injury and your state after the cast came off? Why weren’t you this pleased to be free of suffering before you broke your arm? The answer is obvious – your two months of suffering has reshaped your idea of pleasure and joy. To put this into Buddhist terminology, the pleasure exists dependently – it has dependently arisen specifically due to previous suffering. Experiencing that pain brought more meaning to a state of no pain. The metaphorical pendulum swung much further left than normal – you suffered a lot – and then it balanced out by swinging much further right than normal – you felt a surge of positivity and pleasure. Badness brought goodness into being, and the mental unification of these two undermines the severity of suffering completely.
In summary, although the Buddhist notion of dukkha and their goal to dispel it seems to fall in line with intuitive human perspective, this is in fact a flawed approach to analysing pleasure and pain. As an alternative, I propose a reformulation of our understanding of pairs of opposite concepts, most importantly good and bad. I give an account of badness as not only the opposite idea to goodness, but as that which gives goodness its meaning. When understood in a conceptual light, one begins to see this materialise in their real-world experiences, which in turn allows one to strengthen this given perspective indefinitely. I argue that our experience of pain and suffering can become something to appreciate as much as we do for certain pleasures and happiness in life. As a conceptual, ontological and literal theory of good and bad, these ideas can be effectively used as an alternative to the Buddhist approach in understanding and accepting suffering, allowing us as humans to live happy, fulfilling lives.
- Mark Siderits. Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy Empty Persons. London: Routledge, 2003.
- The Buddha. The Samyutta Nikaya. 1959
- Mackie, J. L. (John Leslie). Ethics : Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth ; New York :Penguin, 1977.
 Mark Siderits. Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy: Empty Persons. London: Routledge, 2003, page 31.
 The Buddha. The Samyutta Nikaya. 1959 edition.
 Mackie, J. L. (John Leslie). Ethics : Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth ; New York :Penguin, 1977.