Is the Tathagata literal suffering?

I found out recently that many seem to believe a very literal version of “Only suffering comes to be…” to my great shock. I’ve previously understood such utterances as metaphorical or figurative language to be understood only in context with the whole of the Dhamma.

I’m struggling to understand how such a literal reading can be understood or incorporated into practice. Here are a few questions that come to mind that being stress and anxiety:

If aggregates are literally suffering and the Tathagata is a convention or name we give based upon the aggregates, doesn’t that mean:

  • The Tathagata is the name or convention we give to literal suffering?

  • The Tathagata did not escape suffering and enter nibbana on the night of his great awakening?

  • If it can not truly be said that the Tathagata escaped suffering and entered nibbana since he is properly understood as literal suffering, does that not mean that there is no escape?

  • If the aggregates and all conditioned things are literal suffering… have an essence of suffering or dhukka, then there is no escape? How can literal suffering turn into anything called bliss or happiness or escape?

  • It would seem that the very most that could be done with literal suffering is for it to cease with the death and destruction of literal suffering?

  • It would seem with the cessation of literal suffering - being all that is - then it could not truly be said that any “thing” at all actually escapes?

  • If nothing whatsoever can truly be said to escape, given that it is by very nature literal suffering, then it would seem there is no liberation for anything whatsoever but rather just an ending of literal suffering?

Is this correct?



In what is considered the Buddha’s first teaching, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he equates the 5 aggregates with dukkha.
I imagine this is to be taken quite literally.

The good news is that he also taught the end, or cessation of dukkha. This is stated explicitly in the 4 Noble Truths.

‘Tathagata’ is the title the Buddha often refers to himself with, I’ve not seen it called ‘literal suffering’. There is plenty of discussion about what it might mean or be translated as, ‘thus-gone’ , ‘thus-come’ ‘the one like that’ are possibilities.

The end or cessation of the aggregates then is actually no escape or liberation at all then for anyone or anything?

The Teacher many times described happiness for himself and others, how is it possible for happiness to be found in what is literal suffering?

It still is quite shocking that learned ones here believe that it cannot be truly said that liberation or escape can be found?

You, Stephen, believe that happiness is impossible to achieve? That nothing can be said to escape form or be liberated from literal suffering? That all that can be hoped for is obliteration or total ending of suffering with nothing at all actually escaping and discovering or knowing actual happiness?

That learned ones here believe they themselves, being a convention posited in dependence on literal suffering, which has the essence of literal suffering and thus happiness cannot be known or experienced by anything, anywhere, at any time?

It is shocking :pray:

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I’m not sure how you are coming to this misunderstanding. The Buddha taught about the liberation from suffering and the supreme bliss of Nibbana. It is not a hypothetical goal but a real endeavor.

I wish you well on this Christmas day and that you may be free of suffering.

I’ve seen many times kindness demonstrated on this forum. I have seen generosity of spirit and laughter and joy. I have seen respect and open heartedness and incredibly kind people with beautiful minds doing their best to help others and prayers.

How is it possible for literal suffering to generate any of that? How can literal suffering generate metta for others? How can literal suffering laugh? How can literal suffering experience any joy or brotherhood and sisterhood?

Should I view others as literal suffering to be avoided and escaped from? How can I ever generate loving kindness for others when I think of them as literal suffering that can never escape being the nature of literal suffering?

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I think so too, but you said that the aggregates are to be understood as literal suffering. If suffering is the very essence or nature of the aggregates, then what is liberated? Are persons somehow distinct from the aggregates?

Should I understand myself as distinct from the aggregates which are literal suffering?

Should I understand you Stephan as distinct from the aggregates which are literal suffering?

Is that how happiness is achieved? Is that how liberation is understood? That there is something else that makes us us that is distinct from the aggregates and that it is this that escapes from this literal suffering and goes on to liberation?

@Khemarato.bhikkhu @Sunyo can one of you please provide a lamp so I can see myself out of this darkness?


I don’t believe I used this phrase and am not quite sure what it means. Kindly do not put words in my mouth.

You can superimpose these verses

There’s no fire like passion,
no loss like anger,
no pain like the aggregates
Natthi khandhasamā dukkhā ,
no ease other than peace.

Hunger: the foremost illness.
Fabrications: the foremost pain.
saṅkhāraparamā dukhā
For one knowing this truth
as it actually is,
is the foremost ease.
nibbāṇaparamaṃ sukhaṃ.

“Why now do you assume ‘a being’?
Mara, is that your speculative view?
This is a heap of sheer fabrications:
Here no being is found.

“Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word ‘chariot’ is used,
So, when the aggregates exist,
There is the convention ‘a being.’

“It’s only suffering that comes to be,
Suffering that stands and falls away.
Nothing but suffering comes to be,
Nothing but suffering ceases.”

You’d get something like this

“Why now do you assume ‘a being’?
Mara, is that your speculative view?
This is a heap of foremost dukkha:
Here no being is found.

“Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word ‘chariot’ is used,
So, when the unparalleled dukkha exist,
There is the convention ‘a being.’

I think it answers your question.

You ought to be phrasing the question differently;

Did the Bodhisatta, on the night of his great awakening, not escape suffering?

The answer is that he did. By turning his mind away from the constructed and towards the unmade, the stilling of all constructions, cessation, nibbana.

This was his awakening based on which he proclaimed the highest bliss and the escape from dukkha

There is the case where a monk, with the complete transcending of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, enters & remains in the cessation of perception & feeling. This is another pleasure more extreme & refined than that. Now it’s possible, Ananda, that some wanderers of other persuasions might say, ‘Gotama the contemplative speaks of the cessation of perception & feeling and yet describes it as pleasure. What is this? How can this be?’ When they say that, they are to be told, ‘It’s not the case, friends, that the Blessed One describes only pleasant feeling as included under pleasure. Wherever pleasure is found, in whatever terms, the Blessed One describes it as pleasure.’" Bahuvedaniya Sutta: Many Things to be Experienced

There is, bhikkhus, that base where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither-perception-nor-non-perception; neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkhus, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not movable, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.
Nibbāna Sutta: Parinibbana (1)

*There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. Nibbāna Sutta: Parinibbana (3)

The way you speak about things ‘having an essence’ or ‘not having an essence’ is somewhat suspect to me because this is not sutta method of talking about things. I’ve seen it come up in other posts of yours. If i was your teacher id want to correct this.

As to the question

How can literal suffering turn into anything called bliss or happiness or escape?

The constructed element doesn’t become the unconstructed element, dukkha doesn’t become sukkha. Rather dukkha ceases and that cessation is discerned as the unmade & highest pleasure.

Suffering is dependently arisen.

When causes are eliminated dukkha vanishes and this is possible because there is also an unmade truth & reality.

Nothing of this world/reality comes out. One meditates and suddenly the world disappears as if a rug is pulled out from underneath you, darkness disappears.

That which changes disappears and there is ‘discernment’ of what doesn’t change as it persists and it is indescribably beautiful & peaceful because there are no constructs, no threat, no impermanence, no parting, no aging.

It is just unparalleled peace and lack of existence of any kind.

A person might want to think of becoming a god, or a king or a mighty hero or whatnot. But not being anything is supreme to these states. It’s not ‘nothing’ like the atheist conception of non-existence, rather it is closer to an infinite potential for being anything you’d want and this ‘state’ surpasses any existence.


I would suggest exploring the Buddha’s teachings on ‘anatta’ “non-self” in relation to the 5 aggregates in order to help you with this vexing problem.

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I apologize. I thought I was accurately paraphrasing when you said:

Can you explain how I erred in my paraphrase?


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I will add that when i say ‘A person might want to think of becoming a god, or a king or a mighty hero or whatnot.’

I can here also add that a person might want to become a super meditator as to abide in some amazing meditative feeling of bliss or equanimity, but this too would come under dukkha and be surpassed by cessation.

This is the piece of sutta I referred to:

saṅkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhādukkhā.
in brief, the five constituent groups (of mind and body) that provide fuel for attachment are suffering
(Ven Anandajoti, trans. )

And I take the Buddha at his word here.

As I said above, it’s not clear to me what ‘literal suffering’ means, what would not literal suffering be?

The Blessed One said, "And which is the burden? ‘The five clinging-aggregates,’ it should be said. Which five? Form as a clinging-aggregate, feeling as a clinging-aggregate, perception as a clinging-aggregate, fabrications as a clinging-aggregate, consciousness as a clinging-aggregate. This, monks, is called the burden.

"And which is the carrier of the burden? ‘The person,’ it should be said. This venerable one with such a name, such a clan-name. This is called the carrier of the burden. Bhāra Sutta: The Burden

Unfortunately, I do not see how. I do not understand how beings who are just conventions based upon literal suffering can have any escape.

Thank you for the correction in my errant and sloppy language using the label “Tathagata” instead of “Bodhisatta” to describe Shakyamuni before his great awakening. I apologize for the mistake.

The way you speak about things ‘having an essence’ or ‘not having an essence’ is somewhat suspect to me because this is not sutta method of talking about things. I’ve seen it come up in other posts of yours. If i was your teacher id want to correct this.

You are correct. I know of only one or two places that have been translated by others as “essence” in the Pali canon. At the same time I know of no places where dukkha is said to be “literal suffering” so that too is not sutta method of talking about things. I am unaware of any place the Teacher said that the aggregates were said to be literally suffering. These two methods of talk, neither being found in the suttas, have the same meaning to me. Is literal suffering understood by you as something other than an essence of suffering?

I sense my questions might be causing annoyance or frustration in you? Is this correct? If so please let me know and I will stop immediately. I just wish to understand and I am asking in sincerity these questions because the implications of a literal understanding of the aggregates as suffering is bewildering and anxiety enducing to me.



I think this is figurative or metaphorical language that is guiding the recipients of the Teachers speech in just the way they needed to be guided at that time. At least that is my hypothesis. I cannot claim to truly know. It is just that the alternative - taking this literally- does not make sense to me and causes lots of questions as you have seen.

The cause of suffering is craving and grasping after the aggregates to be solid and substantial proven things upon which many place their identity of “I” and “mine.” The Teachers speech above I interpret as metaphorical and figurative speech to counteract this ruinous habit that beings have since time unknowable.

To believe this literally seems to be overreach to my mind and swings to an opposite extreme. Contemplating and analyzing this extreme brings a host of anxiety enducing stress along with all the vexing questions I have shared here. On the other hand, it is peaceful to think of this as figurative language encouraging the relinquishing of craving for the aggregates and continued existence through attachment to aggregates.

It is surprising to me that others have a different experience.


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Yes, that too is figurative speech to me. Metaphorical speech which is not meant to be taken literally. Is it not for you? Do you envision the person literally carrying around the aggregates like a burden?


The Buddha’s teaching can indeed be shocking and unsettling. He called it ‘against the stream’.

My best wishes to you for a successful practice in the Dhamma.

Ok, I will not bother you with my inability to understand any more. Best wishes to you as well and thank you for your patience. :pray:

To speak of ‘beings’ is to speak in terms of abstractions, as in having model of what is thought about.

You can’t pin down a being as a truth & reality even now but you have no problem saying the beings could escape from a literal prison?

If no being can be pinned down, then how escape from anything…

However in as far as talking about beings there is that narrative which goes in as far as the six senses go.

In that narrative beings are said to escape but the narrative is a model, a way of thinking about reality, that which we think about is not what we think about it.

It is stated in so many places. Eg

"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

Maybe you are reading suffering as a verb here? It is supposed to read as a noun.

I don’t think that it’s reasonable to expect that he would say ‘aggregates are literally suffering’ because it’d be redundant given the many explicit statements and reasoning behind the statement such as

Is form constant or inconstant?"

“Inconstant, lord.”

“And is that which is inconstant sukkha or dukkha?”

“Dukkha, lord.”

I think it is explicit and as literal as can be.

I’ll give an analogy. The way i read it is akin to this.

Does oxygen in the atmosphere possess the property of having a shape?
And what doesn’t have the property of a shape, pliability and hardness, is that a metal or a gas?
It is a Gas.

In this way the constructed is dukkha meaning a bad thing in a general sense, it is unfortunate that it occurs to him.

Therefore one can train like this as to break the fetters

‘It should not be, it should not occur to me; it will not be, it will not occur to me’

"He discerns, as it actually is, inconstant form as ‘inconstant form’ … inconstant feeling as ‘inconstant feeling’ … inconstant perception as ‘inconstant perception’ … inconstant fabrications as ‘inconstant fabrications’ … inconstant consciousness as ‘inconstant consciousness.’

"He discerns, as it actually is, stressful form as ‘stressful form’ … stressful feeling as ‘stressful feeling’ … stressful perception as ‘stressful perception’ … stressful fabrications as ‘stressful fabrications’ … stressful consciousness as ‘stressful consciousness.’

"He discerns, as it actually is, not-self form as ‘not-self form’ … not-self feeling as ‘not-self feeling’ … not-self perception as ‘not-self perception’ … not-self fabrications as ‘not-self fabrications’ … not-self consciousness as ‘not-self consciousness.’

"He discerns, as it actually is, fabricated form as ‘fabricated form’ … fabricated feeling as ‘fabricated feeling’ … fabricated perception as ‘fabricated perception’ … fabricated fabrications as ‘fabricated fabrications’ … fabricated consciousness as ‘fabricated consciousness.’

"He discerns, as it actually is, that ‘form will stop being’ … ‘feeling will stop being’ … ‘perception will stop being’ … ‘fabrications will stop being’ … ‘consciousness will stop being.’

“From the stopping of form, from the stopping of feeling … of perception … of fabrications … of consciousness, a monk set on this — ‘It should not be, it should not occur to me; it will not be, it will not occur to me’ — would break the [five] lower fetters.”

Not at all.

I acknowledge that the Teacher often used language like this. He often would use a pattern of language that looks like “X is Y.”

Read in a literal way this can be understood as a positive ontological commitment that X and Y are equivalent. This is the kind of reading I think you are adopting above?

Read in a non-literal way it involves no such positive ontological commitment. It is language used as a speech act to teach through metaphor.

That is how I read the above. Which one is correct? I confess I do not know the truth. I only have a hypothesis that seems to ease my mind, but I don’t have a firm ontological certainty that my hypothesis is correct.

The question I have for you is how do you distinguish or how are you so certain the former is the correct reading? That the Teacher intended to make a firm ontological commitment to the total equivalence between the two?

You quoted a sutta above where the Buddha said something like the person is the carrier of the burden and the burden is the aggregates. You didn’t answer if you thought this too was to be understood in a literal way. Can you tell me if you think this too should be understood literally?

If you agree the “carrier of the burden” should not be understood literally, then by what criteria do you arrive at this? By what criteria do you distinguish between the two cases and which reading is appropriate?

I rejoice my questions are not a bother to you!