In the second part of lesson two, Stephen invites us to consider suffering, or ‘dukkha’, as part of the first task of embracing life. He presents, and looks to understand, suffering from the perspective of the tragic plays of Ancient Greece. In particular the plays from three important tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes.


Stephen’s talk on suffering [Download this audio file here]

Discussion Question 
What works of literature, theatre or cinema have contributed to your understanding of suffering/dukkha that has enhanced your practice of the Dharma, and specifically of the first task, that of embracing suffering and of embracing life?


Q&A / discussion [Download this audio file here]

Preparation for lesson 3

If you are not familiar with the five aggregates you might want to read chapter 7 of “After Buddhism”.

Please read Chapter 5, sections 1 to 5 of “After Buddhism” titled ‘Letting go of truth’.




Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (the first part of the trilogy Oresteia):
  • Translation by Sarah Ruben
  • 1983 YouTube production by Peter Hall. Part 1:

Stephen's notes

Chapter 4. Suffering


Let us consider suffering as tragedy and try to understand it from the perspective of the tragedians of Ancient Greece.


Here the tragedy of life — suffering in the broadest sense — is not defined through doctrines. The playwright does not tell us what suffering is; he shows it through drama, he enacts it.


The classic tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes were performed at the yearly spring festival of Dionysus, the god of fertility, excess and intoxication, in an amphitheater below the Acropolis. Most of the male population of Athens would attend.


Athens was a democracy throughout this period and the tragedies and comedies performed gave an opportunity for the demos, the people, to speak truth to the aristocracy through the device of the chorus.


Here is a famous choral passage from Sophocles’ Antigone, which I first read when a Tibetan Buddhist monk in the 1970’s:


There is much that is strange, but nothing

that surpasses man in strangeness.

He sets sail on the frothing waters

amid the south winds of winter

tacking through the mountains

and furious chasms of the waves.

He wearies even the noblest

of the gods, the Earth,

indestructible and untiring,

overturning her from year to year,

driving the plows this way and that

with horses.


And man, pondering and plotting,

snares the light-gliding birds

and hunts the beasts of the wilderness

and the native creatures of the sea.


And he has found his way

to the resonance of the word,

and to wind-swift all-understanding,

and to the courage to rule over cities.

He has considered also how to flee

from exposure to the arrows

of unpropitious weather and frost.


Everywhere journeying, inexperienced and without issue,

he comes to nothingness.

Through no flight can he resist

the one assault of death,

even if he has succeeded in cleverly evading

painful sickness.


Clever indeed, mastering

the ways of skill beyond all hope,

he sometimes accomplishes evil,

sometimes achieves good deeds.

Seated high in his city,

he wends his way between the laws of the earth

and the justice of the gods. But he

whose daring moves him to evil

has no city at all.


May such a man never share my hearth,

May he never share my thoughts.


— Sophocles, Antigone, Lines 332 - 374,

 translated by Martin Heidegger, then into English by Ralph Mannheim.

The final lines follow the translation of Frank Nisetich.


This text encompasses everything from existential strangeness to the fight to survive, to the inevitability of death, to the moral struggle between good and evil, to the fear of being cast out of the company of others.


The date of the first performance Antigone is unknown, possibly around 440 BCE.


Gotama began to teach around 445 BCE. The tragedies in Greece and the Buddha’s teaching on suffering emerged at exactly the same time - within a few years of each other.


Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (the first part of the trilogy Oresteia) was first performed in 458 BCE - (Socrates would have been about 12 years old and may have attended)


Zeus puts us on the road

to mindfulness, Zeus decrees

we learn by suffering.

In the heart is no sleep; there drips instead

pain that remembers wounds.

And so wisdom reluctantly dawns. (Lines 176-180)


Malice lodged in the heart is a disease,

A blight that doubles pain in the infected:

They feel the weight of their own misery

And groan to see prosperity in others. (Lines 834-838)


Tr. Sarah Ruden, 2016


But it is not the specific verses that describe suffering poetically that are key to tragedy’s effect. It is the telling of a story.


Agamemnon was the Greek king who led the invasion of Troy to avenge the kidnapping of Helen by Paris. The play opens with fire: a message has been relayed by a relay of beacon fires announcing the defeat of Troy. After ten years of war and destruction Agamemnon finally returns home to Argos. He is accompanied by the seer Cassandra, daughter of Priam, king of Troy, now his war trophy and slave. After being coldly welcomed back by his wife Clytemnestra, Agamemnon — as well as Cassandra — are murdered by Clytemnestra, who during her husband’s absence has taken his cousin Aegisthus as her lover. Having rid themselves of Agamemnon, the couple now impose a tyranny in Argos.


This shows a world where terrible things happen. It is tragic not only because of the pain inflicted on people, but because of the characters being complicit in their downfall. It shows the playing out of fate or karma, the consequences of former deeds. Agamemnon is murdered in revenge for having sacrificed his and Clytemnestra’s daughter Iphegenia in order to gain fair winds to sail to Troy.


The plays appeal to the imagination, like parables, and once read are hard to forget. They impact our entire sense of what it means to be human.


Here is the choral conclusion to the Euripedes’ tragedies Medea, Alcestis, Helen, and The Bacchae


Zeus on Olympus keeps many things in store;

The gods accomplish many startling things.

What we expect does not take place,

And the god makes way for what we dont expect.

This is what has happened here today.


By contrast, Gotama defines suffering in terms of the first task as simply this: the five bundles (khandha) of physicality, feeling, perception, inclination and consciousness. [See After Buddhism, chapter 7]


This human condition is what is to be embraced with non-reactive awareness. This embrace is not passive, something one only observes carefully in meditation.


The five bundles are not a proto-empirical, objective description of human experience. They provide an operative frame for coming to terms with the “many startling things the gods accomplish:” the irrepressible, unpredictable, ineffable unfolding of life itself that Zeus keeps in store and constantly bombards us.


They provide a framework for responding ethically to the unfolding of life’s tragedy, which optimizes our ability to practice the four tasks.


They describe a spectrum: starting with the physical world that relentlessly impacts our senses, which simultaneously triggers feelings, perceptions, and inclinations.


We find ourselves always in a world that feels a certain way, makes sense to us in a certain way and predisposes us to respond in a certain way.


We can see this illustrated vividly in the tragedies such as Antigone and Agamemnon. They are especially and poignantly tragic, however, because the characters seem incapable of resisting their impulses to act out of hatred and revenge.


The purpose of the tragedies is to show these patterns of reactive behavior taking place on a stage with music and actors rather than in real life, thereby allowing the audience to see themselves through these characters’ dilemmas and actions, and thereby to provide the distance to question whether they could behave otherwise.


The practice of the dharma, or philosophy, is to recognize and then let go of reactivity in order to respond with wisdom rather than anger, in order to achieve justice rather than revenge.


Suffering is not to be ended, suffering is to be embraced.