Suffering, craving and Fourfold Task


DUKKHA  (suffering), TANHA (craving) and the FOURFOLD TASK

Based on his scholarly research into the early texts of Buddhism, Walpola Rahula suggests that there are three aspects to dukkha: ‘dukkha as ordinary suffering’; ‘dukkha as produced by change’; and, ‘dukkha as conditioned states’.

Pain, ill-health (mental and physical), old age, unpleasant experiences and not getting what we desire – are all forms of ‘ordinary suffering’ [dukkha-dukkha]. Closely related to this aspect of suffering is ‘suffering produced by change’ [viparinama-dukkha] – including, the disturbance we feel when happiness turns to sadness or boredom, or when a sunny spell ends and rain sets in, or when we look in the mirror and see wrinkles in our skin that weren’t previously there. These forms of suffering are relatively easy to understand. However, Rahula points out that the Buddha includes every kind of happiness in his descriptions of dukkha – even including the ‘spiritual’ states of equanimity and peace – because ‘whatever is impermanent is dukkha.’

The third aspect, ‘suffering as conditioned states’ [samkhara-dukkha] is more difficult to comprehend. Rahula’s description of samkhara-dukkha is not easy to follow – but here is my understanding of what he writes. ‘Conditioned states’ are all those states to which causality [karma] gives rise and which to us may appear to have fixed identities or essences – that is, the way in which we consider a chair, a flower or a person, to be a fixed identity or an object, even when, seen through the passage of time, we know they are ever-changing processes without any fixed substance or identity [anatta]. This illusion (or delusion) of selfhood, objecthood, substance and essence is itself samkhara-dukkha.

Buddhaghosa, paraphrases the Buddha when he reminds us that there is no independent self somehow behind or apart from our ever-changing perceptions, thoughts and feelings. In this sense: ‘mere suffering exists, but no sufferer is found; the deeds are, but no doer is found.’

Rahula, like the Buddha before him, suggests that there is nothing to be gained by being impatient or angry with dukkha – as this only adds to the suffering. Only insight, acceptance and understanding, developed with patience, mindfulness and care, will enable us to live with dukkha in its many forms.


In his book, After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor, writes about dukkha from a different perspective – as part of what he refers to as the ‘fourfold task’ set out by the Buddha.

The first part of the task is described as ‘comprehending dukkha.’ The buddha uses the term, parinna [pron. ‘parinyah’] – which literally means, ‘total knowing’ – that is, a holistic comprehension of a situation at each moment (what we might also call being mindful). Parinna involves dispassionate clear-sighted awareness and realism – mindful attention to all aspects of our experience: our perceptions of the world, and the subjective responses and reactions we have to our perceptions of the world. As the Buddha says, dukkha, includes not only unpleasurable experiences but also pleasurable ones – this is because we become captivated by pleasurable feelings and by being captivated we are afflicted (snared, snagged, trapped).

Batchelor, then goes on to describe the second part of the fourfold task: letting go of (pahana) what arises (samudaya).

We are creatures who react as we come into contact with the world through our senses. If what we meet feels pleasant, we react with attraction; if it feels unpleasant, we react with aversion; and if it feels neither pleasant nor unpleasant, we react with restlessness or boredom. To these reactions we could add guilt, self-doubt, vanity, inadequacy, anxiety, conceit, paranoia, expectation, wishful thinking, and so on. Such reactions…. are what arises.

Batchelor suggests that the Buddha makes a distinction between our perceptions, and our reactions to our perceptions – which arise habitually and, often, immediately. This reactivity is what the Buddha calls, tanha (which literally means thirst or craving).

This is the arising (sammudaya): it is craving (tanha), which is repetitive, wallows in attachment and greed, obsessively indulges in this and that: craving for stimulation, craving for existence, craving for nonexistence.

Buddha refers to these reactive behaviours as ‘snares’ or ‘fish-hooks’ – by which we become trapped in the whirlpool of our own emotions, becoming ever more self-centred and imprisoned in cycles of obsessive rumination, dissatisfaction and conflict. Only by letting go of this reactivity can we free ourselves from its hold over us, and from the suffering we experience – and, as Batchelor writes, ‘letting go is a consequence of comprehending reactivity.’ Once we become aware and mindful of reactivity in all its aspects, for that moment, we are free of its power.

Walpola Rahula: What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, New York, 1974.

Stephen Batchelor: After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age, Yale University Press, 2015.