All Contaminated Things are Unsatisfactory

AUTHOR:Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö

In the Treatise of Four Hundred Verses, it is said:

There is no boundary in this ocean of suffering; the ignorant man who finds himself in its midst cannot help but fear.


What are contaminated phenomena? The various schools of thought, Sarvāstivāda, Sautrantika, Cittamatra, and so forth, give different interpretations of what is contaminated and what is not contaminated. In Abhidharmakosa, this difference is explained at length. From the standpoint of Mahayana Buddhism, everything that is impure is contaminated – this includes all kinds of attachment and object of attachment; everything that is pure is not contaminated – this includes the absence of any attachment and object of attachment, a state attained by bodhisattvas from the first stage up when abiding in the truth of reality.

What do we mean by attachment and object of attachment? As an example, when the eye consciousness perceives an object, attachment is formed. The object of attachment is that which is perceived by the eye consciousness. The eye consciousness and the object, that is, the attachment and the object of attachment, are separately known as the grasper and the grasped.

A pure or uncontaminated state is one in which grasper and the grasped all disappear; it is also the meditative state of bodhisattvas of the first and higher stages. Apart from the state of the buddhas and that of the realized bodhisattvas, all other states that contain grasper and the grasped are deemed impure or contaminated.

From this standpoint, whether it is the impure world in which we live, or the pure land of the buddhas, as long as there is attachment and object of attachment, it is contaminated and unsatisfactory.

One may ask if even the pure lands of the buddhas and bodhisattvas are contaminated, then the pure land of Amitabha and the Copper-Colored Mountain where Padmasambhava resides must also be filled with suffering. Yet, how can there be suffering in Amitabha pure land?

Actually, the sutras discuss three aspects of suffering: suffering of suffering, suffering of change, and all-pervasive suffering. Although there is neither suffering of change nor suffering of suffering in Amitabha pure land, there is all- pervasive suffering. This suffering pertains to the momentary impermanence of phenomena mentioned earlier. The outer and inner worlds of Amitabha pure land are impermanent. This is not to say the Western pure land will disappear one day, but that changes are taking place there moment to moment. Because changes are taking place each instant, suffering also exists in the Western pure land at the microscopic level.


The purpose of practicing the Second Dharma Seal is to develop renunciation. This renunciation is the genuine intention to be free from suffering in the six realms of rebirth in samsara, not in pure land. Hence, whether there is suffering or not in Amitabha pure land is irrelevant to the actual practice. We only need to understand this point.

Seeing contaminated things as unsatisfactory generates renunciation. Without renunciation, the entire effort we place on reciting the sutras, prostrating to the buddhas, burning incense, as well as practicing generosity, moral conduct, patience, etc. is no more than worldly activity. The best result we can expect is to avoid rebirth in the lower three realms and return as human beings or gods, all of which has nothing to do with liberation. However great our worldly blessings, we cannot transcend samsara.

The real objective of our practice is liberation, not rebirth in the higher realms. As such, we need to establish a path to liberation, with the primary requisite being renunciation. All practices that lead to liberation are based on renunciation. Renunciation is extremely important since we cannot progress to methods in subsequent stages without it. The purpose of seeing all contaminated things as suffering is to give rise to a resolution of complete renunciation.

Although the practice of renunciation is explained in great depth in The Words of My Perfect Teacher and also time and again in our lectures on this topic, the Four Dharma Seals contain a set of practices of their own. Thus, we shall still teach the actual practice of “all contaminated things are unsatisfactory” following the overview on the concepts.


Suffering of Suffering, Suffering of Change, All-Pervasive Suffering

To understand why contaminated things are suffering and dissatisfaction, we must first know the Buddha expounded two kinds of suffering, inner and outer. The outer kind pertains to the material world, the inner kind to the mental world of suffering.

One may think suffering is basically a feeling; as such, it belongs to a mental world which is inside, not outside. The material world outside is devoid of feeling. Without feeling, how can it be considered suffering?

Although there is no suffering in the world outside, i.e., mountains, rivers, and so forth, the external world is also deemed suffering because it is nonetheless the source of suffering.

Apart from these two classifications, there are also three aspects of suffering: suffering of suffering, suffering of change, and all-pervasive suffering.

We need to distinguish between these three aspects of suffering in order to truly apprehend why contaminated phenomena are unsatisfactory. This differentiation is necessary because of the very broad range of things that are considered impure. If we see suffering only as mental anguish, we have a limited understanding of what suffering is.

1.Suffering of Suffering

In the sutras, suffering of suffering is defined as having a feeling of suffering when it occurs; as soon as it disappears, a feeling of happiness arises. For instance, when we are sick, we feel pain; when we recover, we feel happy. Hence, physical pain from illness is suffering of suffering.

Why is the word “suffering” repeated? This alludes to the great intensity of the suffering. That aspect of suffering which all living beings, whether human or animal, perceive alike and reject, and which is clearly recognized as a painful feeling, is said to be suffering of suffering. This suffering is found primarily in the lower three realms; it is also evident in the human and god realms, for example, in the eight basic types of suffering of human beings such as birth, aging, sickness, and death.

In The Words of My Perfect Teacher, suffering of suffering is clearly expounded. This aspect of suffering in each of the six realms is explained in great detail and is therefore not repeated here.

2.Suffering of Change

In the sutras, suffering of change is defined as not having a feeling of suffering when things are progressing; however, when they end, a feeling of suffering arises.

This suffering is found primarily in the human and god realms. The gods here refer to those in the desire realm.

For instance, the gods in the desire realm enjoy good health, long life, and favorable living conditions; they also have certain supernatural powers. There is a sense of happiness under these circumstances; however, when this so-called “happiness” comes to an end, it is followed by distinct and unbearable suffering. One must know the feeling of well-being up front and the great suffering that follows are somewhat related.

Why is that? To use an analogy, a person who has led a life of poverty and hardship will not find it difficult to endure suffering because he or she is already used to it; on the other hand, a person who is accustomed to a good life free of obstacles will have a difficult time if he or she encounters the same hardship. Their subjective feeling will differ — the latter experiencing far more suffering than the former.

This disparity occurs because the latter is used to living the good life and is therefore unable to cope when suffering suddenly arises. For this reason, Sakyamuni Buddha said the happiness we experience up front is also a form of suffering.

If so, does the feeling of happiness exist at all? In Abhidharmakosa, the Buddha did not deny that tainted happiness exists, but that it is happiness only in relation to suffering of suffering; thus it is both happiness and suffering.

Why is it happiness as well as suffering? From the standpoint of suffering of suffering, suffering of change is happiness; for instance, when good health is compared to illness, good health is happiness. However, from the standpoint of suffering of change, it is suffering because a feeling of suffering arises as soon as good health is lost. The happiness ordinary people experience is transitory; since it leads to suffering at some point, it is also a form of suffering.

People generally take a simplistic view of suffering: as long as they are not undergoing suffering of suffering and are feeling happy at the moment, they do not think this is suffering. The Buddha, going beyond this notion, taught us even if we experience happiness, all that is contaminated is also suffering.

3.All-Pervasive Suffering

The term “all-pervasive” is synonymous with “composite” in “all composite phenomena are impermanent.” It refers to all things that arise from causes and conditions and are subject to cause and effect. They are all unsatisfactory.

The sutras define all-pervasive suffering as such: whether it exists or dissipates, one does not experience any suffering; nonetheless, it is called all-pervasive because it leads to other kinds of suffering.

All-pervasive suffering exists mainly in the form and formless realms. Sentient beings there do not experience notable suffering such as birth, aging, illness, and death, nor happiness such as good health and longevity. These beings are reborn in the form and formless realms because they attained meditative absorption in their previous life — a state of meditation which is inherently subtle and tranquil and which does not, as a result, produce any feeling of significance at the moment of rebirth. Although the form and formless realms do not have suffering or happiness, they are nevertheless impermanent; hence sentient beings there only experience all- pervasive suffering, not suffering of suffering or suffering of change.

From the standpoint of the three aspects of suffering, the three worlds and six realms of rebirth are filled with suffering.

Buddhism holds that all contaminated things are unsatisfactory but also acknowledges there is temporary happiness. There is no contradiction in these views, since suffering is absolute in samsara while happiness is relative. Renunciation arises when we contemplate and practice the teaching that all contaminated things are unsatisfactory or that samsara is suffering.


Some people run into problems when they practice contemplating samsara is suffering. I’ve come across people who go to extremes: before they do the practice, they are confident about life, their work, and the world, and feel good about everything; however, after doing the practice, the world turns grey, they lose interest in everything and become extremely passive and listless — to the point of seeing no meaning in life at all.

Is renunciation the same as passivity and pessimism? No, it would be a mistake to think so.

Just as bodhicitta is more than mere compassion, it is, with compassion as the base, the resolve and courage to attain Buddhahood in order to liberate all sentient beings; renunciation is more than just apprehending samsara is suffering, it is also the determination to seek liberation for oneself.

After contemplating on the nature of samsara, we will know samsara is full of suffering — if it is not suffering of suffering, it is suffering of change or all-pervasive suffering. The things people covet, such as wealth and position, are all temptations that are transitory and unreliable. Those who make the pursuit of material pleasures their only goal in life will likely experience despair, disappointment, and pain after contemplating suffering of samsara. On the other hand, in recognizing all of the above, we as practitioners should probe further and ask: is there no goal more worthwhile than the pursuit of wealth and position? Is there no accomplishment to be attained other than wealth and reputation? While these pursuits are not meaningful, it doesn’t mean life is meaningless. Apart from seeking high office and material riches, we also have a far greater and more precious aspiration which we didn’t know about until Sakyamuni Buddha pointed it out to us, that is, to attain liberation by following the path.

Sentient beings in general, certainly the beings in hell and even the gods, do not have the opportunity to practice on the path of liberation. To establish a foundation for practice on the path of liberation, one must start in the human realm. Gods can also practice if they laid the basis of the practice in their previous life as a human being; thus, establishing this foundation in a previous life as a human is the only condition that governs whether they can continue to practice or not.

Although devas in the form and formless worlds are highly accomplished in meditative absorption, this type of meditation only yields tranquility; it does not bring forth realization of wisdom and therefore has nothing to do with liberation at all.

In the three worlds and six realms of rebirth, mankind has the best opportunity to attain liberation. Thus, human birth is very meaningful and should be cherished. Only with such appreciation can we establish the right values and outlook on life.

We have lived in delusion and held inverted values in the past — we ignore things that are important and relentlessly pursue things that are completely unimportant. After contemplation on the unsatisfactory nature of samsara, we can change how we think and bring meaning to our lives.

For this reason, The Words of My Perfect Teacher goes on to discuss the merit of liberation right after explaining samsara is suffering and other preliminaries. The teachings are given in that order to prevent everyone from losing courage due to sadness or disappointment after they contemplate impermanence and suffering; also to help everyone realize they spend their entire lifetime pursuing things that are of no value, building personal wealth and fame, and taking material pleasures as their only sustenance in life. Yet all of this — however much effort is exerted – is unreliable.

Even if we become rich, what good is it? After getting up in the morning, a lot of rich people spend two hours in a beauty treatment, followed by another two hours in the gym; after their workout, they do an hour of acupuncture; in the time remaining after lunch, they socialize. Even if they dedicate a great deal of time to looking good and staying healthy, they cannot avoid old age and illness in the end.

Prior to understanding this point, we spend the entire day seeking material pleasures and placing all our hope and effort on building wealth; when we no longer see the significance in these activities, we become extremely despondent and think there is no meaning in life at all. This disappointment is not surprising since the lifestyle just mentioned is basically meaningless. There is, however, a path of liberation which gives us courage and allows us to realize: it is wrong to invest all my effort in material pursuit; my life has been totally meaningless up to now; I cannot continue to live the same way; I shall strive to attain liberation from this moment on.

Going to the other extreme, some people may act impulsively at this time – they quit their work and abandon their family to take monastic vows.

Of course, if one can truly persist on the monastic path, it is certainly very good; family members should also understand and give their support. This is likened to a family of seven people who care for each other and get along very well; when one person dies, the rest of the family cannot follow him or her. Separation will happen sooner or later; hence, if one member in the family chooses to lead a monastic life, the rest should give their blessing instead of compelling the person to follow in their footsteps.

A person who has left behind all worldly concerns to live as a monastic should seize this rare opportunity to practice with dedication and diligence.

But some people cannot persist in this effort. After a year to two, or even within a few months, they regret their decision and want to return to their old ways. By that time, however, they have lost their job and family and have nothing to fall back on. Nor do they appear to have made progress in the practice which initially they could not wait to get started.

These two extremes are the result of inadequate training and unrealistic expectations.

As Buddhist practitioners, we should be steady and dutiful, unlike some people who are blind in their faith and obsessed with supernatural powers. To do otherwise is to denigrate the Dharma and adversely affect our practice.

Although practice is important, many lay practitioners have to make a living as well. Knowing samsara is suffering does not mean we can do without food and clothing. One cannot begin to talk about practice if basic necessities in life are not even met. Therefore, means of livelihood as well as occupation are necessary. We ourselves have to determine how to balance work with practice.

While these are not actual methods, they are necessary to know before our practice begins. In particular for the Chinese, it is important to understand this point.

Some people think because Buddhism propagates “samsara is suffering,” its ideology is passive and pessimistic. This could not be further from the truth. Buddhist doctrine is not passive; it is extremely pro-active, but its goal and direction are different from that of mundane beings. Ordinary people work to make money; Buddhist practitioners work to have money to live on, but their real aspiration is to liberate all living beings.

Liberation is not a myth, but an objective and realistic goal to elevate the discriminating mind of ordinary people to the wisdom mind of the buddhas. To accomplish this grand aspiration, practitioners can forgo worldly pursuits such as fame and wealth; they are far-sighted and pro-active. Ordinary people are just the opposite; they lack vision, cannot see beyond this lifetime, and hence do their utmost to get ahead in this life only.

Buddhist doctrine is also not pessimistic. Pessimism is an attitude that sees the dark side of things or expects the worst to happen. From this standpoint, mundane beings are actually the real pessimists. However successful their lives and career may be in youth, they are disheartened as they get older by failing health and the loss of their best years, and give up on themselves; in particular, terrified of death, almost all become grief-stricken and tearful at the end of their lives. If this is not pessimism, what is?

True Buddhist practitioners are not pessimists even though they look upon money and fame as things of little value. This is because they are fully aware their spiritual development is not impaired by the body’s physical decline; wisdom and compassion will always follow them like a shadow in old age and even in death. Awaiting them from afar is a state of clarity and bliss; thus, far from being defeatist, they are optimistic and full of confidence. Because they have this aspiration, they can practice tirelessly and without regret. We need not fear suffering nor lose hope; with effort, we can free ourselves from the shackles of samsara and attain absolute happiness.

There are very few people now who are truly willing to study the sutras themselves. Most come across the teachings only by hearsay and conclude Buddhism is pessimistic and passive as soon as they are told “life is impermanent” and “samsara is suffering.” This is a complete mistake.

A Buddhist practitioner must first be able to see through the vanity of money, fame, etc. To “see through” is to know these things fade like the cloud and smoke, and that none are worth pursuing. Of course, even if we have this understanding today, we may not be able to give them up right away. The Buddha did not expect us to do so either; even if he did, we would not be able to comply. Nonetheless, the inability to forgo these things does not imply samsara is not suffering, nor does it suggest we cannot give them up in the future.

Although we understand these concepts on an intellectual level, putting them into practice is difficult. Until our practice reaches a certain stage, we will remain attached to success and recognition in this world, and to material pleasures. Without a doubt, it is only by way of practice that this attachment can be diminished or eradicated.

Perhaps some people will ask what level of realization I have attained if I can deliver the teachings so convincingly. I certainly cannot claim any achievement for myself. I am like a parrot that can repeat the teachings exactly as taught by the Buddha. This does not imply, however, that you do not need to practice. Although my own practice is inadequate, my guru was an accomplished master and the Buddha attained enlightenment; like the media, my role is to communicate their teachings to everyone.

As we all know, Sakyamuni Buddha was not born in Tibet or China, and entered parinirvana a long time ago. However, due to the work of his disciples, the Dharma has been propagated worldwide, the wisdom of the Dharma remains undiminished, and the torch of the Dharma continues to be passed generation after generation. Without people to communicate these teachings, we would not understand the real essence of Kangyur and Tengyur — the Tibetan Tripitakas, nor would the Dharma continue to flourish.

For example, the Buddha turned the wheel of the Dharma three times and expounded 84,000 methods to suit people of different propensities. On the surface, it would appear there are some contradictions in the teachings at each stage; however, from the commentaries of the past Buddhist masters, we are able to apprehend the real significance of the teachings and the ultimate viewpoint of the Buddha. Hence, the purpose of pointing this out is to keep you from taking a roundabout path.

If our practice is inadequate, we should not really see it as a problem. We want to learn and practice precisely because our practice is not good enough. If our practice is very good from the start, is it even necessary to listen to the Dharma or propagate it? No, it isn’t!

To a non-practitioner, it is essential to be able to self-reflect. This is likened to putting pressure on oneself — ordinarily, when we do not reflect on our actions and thoughts, we are complacent and do not see our shortcomings; however, once we self-reflect, we discover we have not advanced in either learning or the practice and become remorseful. This pressure is an impetus that drives us to engage in practice.

It would be a pity if you do not practice at all after I have explained the methods. It is not my effort that I regret but that you have wasted your precious life and time and missed an invaluable opportunity.

Whether your practice was good or not in the past is not very important. The key is in the future — in how you can gain faith in the right view and subsequently put it into action.

The fundamentals of the practice are first cultivating renunciation, then bodhicitta. Before renunciation is developed, we can maintain the regular daily practice of reciting the sutras, but focus the remainder of our time entirely on cultivating renunciation. Once renunciation is developed, we should set aside everything and focus one-pointedly on cultivating bodhicitta.