According to the Lokavolokanasuttaṃ (The Discourse about surveying the World) the first thing the Buddha said, when he saw the world with enlightened eyes was:
“Ayaṃ loko santāpajāto.”
This world is full of torment. (The world is on fire.)
It’s a description of our society in one sentence, isn’t it? Everything we are seems to be about pain. It’s amazing, because evolutionary speaking, pain has a very limited use and purpose. That shooting pain in your arm was supposed to signal you that a saber-toothed cat is trying to bite it off and that <now> would be a good time to take action on the matter.
Somehow we got from there to a society that uses pain as it’s primary export product. A society that uses pain as a defining tool for the success of their citizens. A society that gets suspicious, if you are not suffering hard enough.
The Buddha realized that and so the very first of the noble truths in Buddhism is the truth of suffering. It is a truth which you are supposed to realize through practice. That means in Buddhism <suffering> and <pain> are your teachers.
The problem is, what exactly are they teaching us?
The Buddha taught that pain cannot be avoided or stopped forever. There is no place in this universe we can run to that is free from pain. What we can change, however, is out attitude towards the pain and the suffering. What the Buddha asked us to do is to understand pain and suffering and change ourselves according to these realizations. This is not a simple teaching.
The idea that there is no way to escape pain can easily be misconstrued to: You should not even try to remove it from your life. And the most fundamental idea in Buddhism, the idea to be happy, can be misconstrued to: You cannot progress on the spiritual path without suffering, hence you should suffer as much as possible to find enlightenment faster.
You have to be very careful what people teach you. Even in Buddhism. There are whole branches of Buddhism that will tell you that you need pain in your life and your meditation to progress und who make it an unwritten goal that the more suffering you can endure in your life, the more enlightened you will get in the end.
I’ll make it short: That is plain nonsense.
People who teach stuff like that are just sad. The don’t need more Buddhism in their life, what they need is a good therapist. They think if they can suffer the best, there will be nothing in life that can throw them out of their path to success. This makes as much sense as saying you should watch all horror movies on the planet, so you can deal with suffering better, once it arises. That is just heaping up suffering on a fundament of solid delusion. It is a sure recipe for disaster.
The bottom line is: If you train yourself in suffering you will end up being a person that suffers. I know, it’s shocking. The Buddha taught us, if you live like a dog, bark like a dog und eat like a dog, you will be reborn as a dog. (No kidding. It’s in the Kukkuravatika Sutta (The Dog-Duty Ascetic) ).
Here is the first take home message:
Your mind associates strongly with the energy you train it to live around. If you make pain your life, guess what life you will find?
The Buddha did not teach us, to be really good at suffering. That is micchā-ditthi (wrong view). He tried to teach us to observe our mind. Since observing your own mind is really hard to do, you can start by watching your reactions in extreme situations. When we experience pain and suffering we have a tendency to switch to a different state of mind very fast. Have you ever heard yourself starting to curse wildly, when you stubbed your toe? These are the moments that can teach you about your mind. How do I deal with pain? How do I deal with situations that are unpleasant. What is my go-to-state of mind?
There are plenty of painful situations in out life already, you don’t have to go out of your way to create them, just so you can show how little pain means to you. A behavior like that is extremely dangerous, since it will condition you to go for pain and suffering as a default state in your life. Remember, our mind is very flexible and can get addicted to everything. Yes, suffering can be addictive! I know people who will proudly tell you that they practiced/taught meditation for many decades. Then you take a closer look at how they manage their personal life and you realize that all they have accomplished is to turn themselves very professionally and with strong effort into a swirling vortex of pain and misery. It gets worse. They very deliberately keep their lives in that state of constant pain and suffering, just so that they can view themselves as superior, since they are the best at suffering. I have seen this over and over again. That is not Buddhism, it is a form of asceticism. And a weird one.
Be wary of people who want to teach you how to suffer more and better.
Be wary of societies that try to make you feel bad about yourself if you dare to be happy.
Buddhism is about finding peace, happiness and freedom from suffering.
Here is the second take home message:
You are allowed to be happy!