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Reflections on Cynicism, Truth and Liberation in the Zen Notion of Life is Suffering

Updated on September 13, 2016

There are no right or wrong analyses of Life is Suffering, so why not read yet another one?

Life is Suffering is one of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism and it may be among the most misunderstood of all Buddhist concepts. Then again, it might very well be the most accurately understood depending upon what draws you to ponder on this particular truth and at what stage in your life you actually are doing the pondering.

Is that a semiconscious inference that tries to mimic common open-ended ambiguity the average Zen philosophy analysis is known for? Honestly, it would be very difficult to offer a clear or empirical explanation about "Life is Suffering" because one really may not exist. If you are looking for a definition for this term on paper, you may never be able to find it. Everything has to be experienced and reflected upon - and such an experience is going to be unique for each individual.

Experiencing a Noble Truth

The key to understanding traditional Zen theory would be that it is experiential. In other words, you cannot analyze the item in question to arrive at the conclusion before the actual journey. The road to enlightenment is one that involves experience. Hopefully, during the journey of your life you will make the right decisions through following the moral, philosophical and intellectual directives of the Eight-Fold Path

So, how does this tie into an understanding of life is suffering? You can look at this from two perspectives: the cynical one and the liberated one.

The Cynical Path towards Suffering

The cynical perception takes the notion that life is suffering literally.
There is an inherent problem with the cynical approach. It is one that starts with a conclusion. A person with a cynical outlook might say Yes, life is suffering because it is filled with pain, misery and alienation or fill in whatever angst ridden theme is befitting. A person prescribing to such a sentiment is really not looking for an awakening. Rather, he or she is looking for an affirmation that makes possessing an outright cynical mindset.....noble.

While there may be an homage to antiheroes in this mode of sentimentality, such an attitude may not be the best path on a journey of learning. Instead, it reflects beginning with a conclusion. When you begin a thought process with a concluding theory, things are defined so they fit your outlook while simultaneously ignoring any sentiment or truth that does not actually prescribe to your beliefs. All that has been achieved is you have boxed yourself in.
And you have boxed yourself in with a very trite analysis of Life is Suffering that is more tragic than enlightened.

People may have a tendency to see themselves as put upon or victimized when borrowing from the cynical perspective. An outlook of this nature may cloud perspectives, which creates a wall preventing the ability to arrive at any sort of enlightenment.
The Liberated Outlook on Suffering

The liberated outlook on suffering is much more multifaceted. One direction it can take would be accepting a certain solace with suffering and accepting its existence and becoming free of the anguish it can cause. Simply put, because we do not want to suffer or be inconvenienced or deal with difficulty, we can react to negative things in life, even common, little things, with extreme displeasure. However, if you simply accept the fact that not everything in life goes as planned, you can cut down on some of the negative effects such a thing can have.

For example, no one wants to find their car malfunctioning because a costly bill will come with fixing it. People would be even less thrilled if this occurred after they have already suffered a recent financial issue draining their funds. However, you do have to realize things like this can and do happen because they are part of life. Life is full of minor suffering like this and it is the type of thing that can be readily overcome. So, why let it and other non-serious matters cause you any mental anguish and strife?

Save Serious Concerns for Serious Suffering

Yes, there will be serious problems, trials and tribulations that are not easy to overcome and have negative effects on your life. No one would say such things should be dismissed, However, there is no reason to truly dwell on many of the things in life that upset us. Often, they really are not things that even should upset us that much until we begin to realize strife is simply a component to life that has to be accepted. In doing so, one can become a lot better prepared for these events when they occur. When prepared for strife, you will find its impact can be minimized.

Since we already realize that life comes with a certain level of suffering, we mentally and emotionally accept a portion of it and we become better prepared to handle them when they arise. Or, at least that is the plan.


Obviously, experience plays a huge role in the ability to look at the truth surrounding Life is Suffering from this perspective. To do so is not a switch that can be turned on or off. Simply reading a description of it simply will not internalize a reaction. To internalize the reaction requires the realization the root of suffering is attachment which is another noble truth and one that also requires experience to learn.

Challenges in Life

Life, at some point or another, is going to have its challenges. The challenges can even be tragic. To assume life will be without tragic occurrences is, truthfully, delusional. The sooner we are able to accept these truisms about life, the less of a negative hold they might have on our psyche.

Growth is even possible once we accept the negative occurrences in life. Cliched as it might sound, negative events do offer a chance for growth.

Zen is rooted in realism and, sometimes, reality might have a cynical edge. But, that is life and life is suffering.

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