Volume 4  No 1


The Eight Distresses
By Venerable Shen-Kai

LIFE IS never always a bed of roses for many of us. The occasional happiness that we experience is very often temporary and transient. Human beings face eight distress or sufferings in our lifetime on earth. The root of our sufferings lies in our physical make-up.

1 The Distress of Birth

Life begins in the womb of the mother. While in the womb
, the foetus is surrounded by darkness and its movement is restricted. The pregnant mother-to-be, besides having to cope with hormonal changes, will also experience increasing difficulty in mobility from an enlarging belly, nausea and other discomfort, and
sometimes poor appetite. These sufferings culminate in the pain that the mother has to endure in the birth process.  The foetus, for its part, has to leave the cosy and warm confine of its mother’s stomach, and encounter an unaccustomed rush of cold air into its lungs. The cry of the new-born baby attests to its protest of its uncomfortable introduction to the world, and is the beginning of its journey to the many sufferings in this life.

2 The Distress of the Five Skandhas

The Five Skandhas referred to in Buddhist literature relate to the five aggregates or components of an intelligent being, viz. rupa, a physical form relating to the five sensory organs (eyes, nose, ear, tongue, and body); vedana, the functioning of the mind relating to feelings; sanjna, the functioning of the mind relating to distinguishing or discerning; samskara, the functioning of the mind with regards to decision or volition; and vijnana, the mental faculty in regard to cognition and consciousness. These aggregates of form, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness are usually latent, but once ignited, cause a mixture of agony and misery, creating disillusionment with life.


3 The Distress of Attachment

Human beings tend to develop strong attachments to their loved ones, as well as to things material. When we lose any of these, we often grieve, worry or become depressed.

4 The Distress of Hate or Anger

Feelings of anger or hate commonly occur in our interpersonal relations. These could arise out of pride, prejudice or envy. Any encounter with the people towards whom our anger or hate is directed invariably brings distress, agony and misery.

5 The Distress of Unfulfilled Desires

Many agree that it is human nature to ceaselessly crave for more. This craving or greed, however, causes frustration and sufferings when our cravings are not met or our desires unfulfilled. Especially, if we carry our greed to an unlawful extent, and when caught, have to experience mental as well as physical punishment.


6 The Distress of Illness

Chinese medical science categorises human bodily functions into four elements - earth, water, fire and wind. Muscles, bones, skin, flesh, organs, arteries and veins, fingernails and hair form the earth element. Blood, urine, sweat, tears and other body fluids are the water element. Body temperature and energy are the fire element. The movement of air through our breath constitutes the wind element. If these elements are not in equilibrium, illness results.

7 The Distress of Ageing

As we approach old age, our health generally deteriorates. Weak limbs, grey hairs, failing eyesight, loose teeth and dimming memory are some of the common problems associated with old age. A sense of helplessness and hopelessness frequently creeps in, and the old and infirm tend to worry and fret.

8 The Distress of Death

All human beings will eventually face death, for it is certain. It is a matter of timing. Human beings are afraid of death because of strong attachment to worldly things; a desire for continued existence; and ignorance of the essence of life or living. Death then comes with a lot of mental suffering. If one has lived a life filled with greed or hate, the negative karma thus accumulated will lead to extreme suffering on one’s deathbed.

In short, life is suffering. From birth to death, we are constantly submerged in the sea of suffering. Only when we have realised the nature of suffering and resolve to free ourselves by cultivating our inner sentient being according to Buddha’s compassionate teachings will we be able to attain peace, dignity and freedom in our transient life.

Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre