Anguish—the Mark of Man

by Bhikkhu Saddhajiva

(From The Three Basic Facts of Existence II: Suffering (Dukkha): BPS, Kandy, The Wheel Publication No. 191–3,

The existentialist says at once that man is anguish.1

Man’s nature is the nature of dukkha—his life marked by unease, his mind a restlessness oscillating between the discomfort of pain and “that unrest which men miscall delight.”2 Yam kiñci vedayitam tam dukkhasmin’ti, said the Buddha—“Whatever is felt is included in dukkha.”3 This is echoed today by our leading thinkers—“Human reality therefore is by nature an unhappy consciousness with no possibility of surpassing its unhappy state.”4

It is a reality that many seek to avoid seeing,5 but let us instead look closer: Man’s physical survival alone requires the sorrow of ceaseless labour. A Hebrew poet three thousand years ago knew the grief of the labouring man “for all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief, yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night.”6 Modern man sometimes has other choices but the cynical would see little relief: “The lot of man is ceaseless labour, or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder. Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.”7 Yet his labour comes to nought “for what profit hath a man of all his labour?”8 Few gain real joy from leaving the fruits of their labour to a posterity we shall not see—“what has posterity ever done for us,” this is the thought of most. So his labour is tainted with futility:

Between the idea and the reality,
between the motion and the act,
falls the shadow.9

He knows the truth of aniccatā (change) that all will fade “and leave not a rack behind,”10 for “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.”11 And so the tragic tale ends with death, the final absurdity for the materialist, and his haunting fear: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”12 The body that requires so much labour to attend must end as dust that remains like Yorik’s skull a dumb testimony to fools that grasp at life.—“The history of a life, whatever it may be, is the history of a failure.”13

And what of the kingdom of the mind? It is a kingdom ill at ease. A ceaseless want, a negative, seeking to ingest life: this characterises the mental structure of man. It’s nutriments are sense-contact, intention and awareness;14 nothing so well describes man’s being as that of an insatiate digestive system. This ceaseless want (tanha) is the “irritant” that motivates man,15 it goads him into the agitation, the burning and subtle “pain” of “pleasure” to lead only to the cold sorrow of its fading; or if this burning is kept aflame it leads to that worst state, the featureless desert of boredom—ennui that subtle curse that more and more is the dominant mode of present life. The more sensitive and refined is man’s aesthetic nature, the more it is led to these doldrums, a Sargasso sea of sullen lethargy, the “white melancholy” of Gray, and the terrible power of accidie that the Christian ascetics knew as the companion of their solitude. “Life swings like a pendulum backwards and forwards between pain and boredom”16—and the comfortable emptiness of present civilization tends more and more to the latter mode of dukkha. Most men live in small worlds, constricted and suffocated by the narrow borders of their conditioning, too often caught in a vicious feedback-loop of stultifying repetitiveness. Their condition gives us a subjective re-definition of the physicists law of entropy, that “any given closed system gets more and more boring.”17

The phenomenon dukkha was defined by the Buddha’s reduction: sankhittena pañcupadanakkhandha dukkha:18 “in short the five constituents of being-as-attachment,19 are dukkha.” From this we see that dukkha does not depend upon an external environment but is a built-in structure of our being—in fact the basic mode of existence: “… misery is an essential part of the human landscape and dread the fundamental mood of existence, the only mood uncontaminated by direction to outside objects.”20 This fundamental “dread” or “anguish” manifests through a number of modes, the most basic of these is that termed “nausea:” “A dull and inescapable nausea perpetually reveals my body to my consciousness. Sometimes we look for the pleasant or for physical pain to free ourselves from this nausea; but as soon as the pain and the pleasure are existed by consciousness, they in turn manifest its facticity and its contingency; and it is on the ground of this nausea that they are revealed.”21 By introspection we invariably come upon this mood as the stable background to whatever other moods are present, that is to say feeling in itself is nausea—dukkha—whether it appears through the modes of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—the neutral mode in fact being nausea or boredom as essence.

Dukkha is fundamental to existence because it is precisely an awareness of the lack or incompleteness of existence itself: “Human reality by which lack appears in the world must be itself a lack … The existence of desire as a human fact is sufficient to prove that human reality is a lack.”22 Tanha thus continually seeks in vain to fill itself or gain completeness, an attempt at affirmation of being when being is by nature itself lack. Our anguish in face of choice is the same awareness of lack—choice implies lack, and as intrinsically lack we are condemned to choose. This choice also implies another facet of our being—as contingent: “In anguish we do not simply apprehend the fact that the possibles which we project are perpetually eaten away by our freedom-to-come; in addition we apprehend our choice—i.e., ourselves—as unjustifiable.23 Dukkha, that is existence experienced, thus gives us its final definition—that which gives us the possibility of its negation: “The essential thing is contingency. I mean that by definition existence is not necessity.”24 thus in dukkha we have the “absurd”—it has no necessity to be and we are Sartre’s term “too-much” (de trop)—superfluous, for we are existed towards an unattainable goal that of filling lack. Sartre’s famous conclusion might have been spoken by the Buddha—“man is a useless passion.”

We usually try to avoid the anguish of our freedom by the self-deceit of “bad-faith” (mauvaise foi) or the spirit of “seriousness”—both an escape to the role, an attempt to assume a static and thus “complete” being; or the myth of destiny or other evasion of free choice. This playing of roles gives us the alienated (or in Camus term “estranged”) individual—alienated that is from reality, from authentic being. The alienated individual is not a now concept, this was spoken in the 6th Century B.C.: “Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar”25—but today it is our norm. Individuals are too isolated—there is always that gulf that cannot be bridged: “The heart knoweth his own bitterness; and a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy.”26 And there is no better image of isolation, significance and meaninglessness than this line: “Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind.”27 Modern poetry often expresses very clearly this terrible emptiness and the tedium of alienated existence: “I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils, neat in their boxes, dolour of pad and paper-weight, all the misery of manilla folders and mucilage, desolation in immaculate public places … Endless duplication of lives and objects…”28 And that this sickness not only eats away life but becomes pathological as neurosis is seen from C.G. Jung’s observation: “About one-third of my patients are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives.”29

It is this senselessness that is our tragedy—the superficial round, we endlessly repeat the same silly tasks because we see them as necessary. Great suffering can be endured—it has a meaning, tragedy has a “moral,” a reason; our suffering has no saving reason, it teaches us nothing. “Great men have great suffering” Nietzsche wrote, their suffering has a meaning: it was the mark of their greatness. This is why he too saw a repetition, a round of “eternal recurrence,” and gloried in it—only the “overman” would joyously grasp a majestic suffering repeated for ever, the defining of his existence. But we are all trapped in eternal recurrence but with a load far more crushing than Nietzsche’s heroes—our suffering has no necessity and no purpose. We are not Promethean heroes crushed by suffering but still defying heaven and the fates—suffering is negated by such defiance, such scorn: “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”30 We are rather Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man,” puny, insignificant,—we are not warrior heroes but court jesters. We are not crushed by adversity but smothered in the futility and pettiness of our drab existence. We are not destroyed in a blaze of glory but fade out in commonplace insignificance. We have no terrible destiny to lament, no cruel fate to rail against, we have only our own freedom to take part in the drab and dreary comedy of life, where stale jokes are repeated for ever. We are in Kierkegaard’s phrase “mocked by existence.”

Man tries in many ways to escape from himself. T.S. Eliot spoke of “the pain of living and the drug of dreams” but dreams and fantasy are but a temporary sedative, unless, as with the diseased mind, they become an addictive narcotic, and then the dreams are nightmares. But there is a way out, a way to understanding, and an awareness of the depth of suffering is the beginning of its overcoming: “every man who has not tasted the bitterness of despair has missed the significance of life.”31 How does this dukkha arise? The Buddha’s answer is admirably spoken by Kirillov: “Life is pain, life is fear, and man is unhappy. Now man loves life. And that’s how it comes about.”32 This love of life is bhavatanha, the will-to-live, the burning flame that knows no satisfaction, for “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing”33 and there is no end to wanting, and no end to dukkha if that is what we chose. For we have a choice, the Buddha has pointed out a way, the way of understanding existence as it is—as dukkha, and the development of estrangement (nibbida) from it that will lead on to extinction (Nibbana).

When one sees with wisdom that all constituent elements are painful, then one becomes disgusted with pain; this is the way to purity.


1 Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Existentialisme est un humanisme, 1946.
2 Shelley: Adonis.
3 SN 35:11.
4 J.P. Sartre: “L’Etre et le Neant” p.66 (this and further refs. to the English translation of Hazel Barnes: Citadel Press).
5 “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”, T. S. Eliot: Burnt Norton.
6 Ecclesiastes II, v. 23.
7 T. S. Eliot: Choruses from the Rock.
8 Ecclesiastes I, v. 3.
9 T. S. Eliot: The Hollow Men.
10 Shakespeare: The Tempest, 1, iv, 156.
11 Shakespeare: Macbeth, 5, v, 20.
12 T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land.
13 Sartre: op. cit., p. 457.
14 Nutriment or sustaining factors of life (ahara) were defined by the Buddha as material food (kabalinkarahara) and the mental needs sense-contact (phassa), volition (manosañcetana) and consciousness (viññana).
15 cf. ”For the most part the stimulus awakens in the organism merely a want, which the reaction of the organism endeavours to supply. Hence it appears that want or lack alone is able to bring about such reactions.”—Nageli: Theory of Organic Evolution.
16 Schopenhauer.
17 Ñanavira Thera: Letters 1955–60; the process of samsara is itself such a closed system manifesting as repetitiveness (vatta).
18 Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta—Sam. N. (Sacca Samyutta).
19 These five factors which manifest as “living being,” in all but the arahat, exist through the mode of attachment (affirmation) to life (upadana). The arahat is just these five (purified) factors minus attachment, and such being has no basis for dukkha which is the product of upadana not the factors in themselves.
20 J.T. Fraser: “The concept of Time in Western Thought”—Main Currents in Modern Thought vol. 28 No. 4 (the italics are mine)—written in reference to the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger. The various aspects of “dread” (Angst) are the most central features revealed by Heidegger’s ontology: “Heidegger considers the human condition coldly and announces that existence is humiliated. The only reality is “anxiety” in the whole chain of beings. To the man lost in the world and its diversions this anxiety is a brief, fleeting fear. But if that fear becomes conscious of itself, it becomes anguish, the perpetual climate of the lucid man “in whom existence is concentrated”… He enumerates its aspects: boredom when the ordinary man strives to quash it in him and benumb it; terror when the mind contemplates death.”—Albert Camus: Myth de Sisyphe, p. 40.
21 Sartre: op. cit., p. 314.
22 Sartre: ibid., p. 63.
23 Sartre. ibid., p. 440.
24 Sartre: Nausée.
25 Heraclitus: Fragment.
26 Proverbs.
27 T. S Eliot: Burnt Norton.
28 Theodore Roethke: Dolour.
29 C.G. Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
30 Camus: Myth de Sisyphe.

31 Kierkegaard: Either/Or vol. II.

32 Dostoevsky: The Possessed.
33 Ecclesiastes: I. v. 8.

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