A related one is “having a self/ego is suffering”.
These are, at the least, incomplete understandings. At worse, they become a detriment to our individual path of reducing suffering and allowing joy to be naturally present.
The original Sutta sentence simply says “there’s suffering”. It calls out the phenomena, the mere fact of it, rather than making some ontological, ultimate statement about life. “It hurts!”.
The more complete and nuanced interpretation of our situation would be:
“Grasping at any phenomena creates tension”.
This encompasses the standard, colloquial notion of attachments to worldly objects, emotional states, or identities. However, even the fundamental act of self-reflective awareness – i.e., taking a screenshot of an aspect of conscious experience and projecting it upstream to ourselves – creates subtle tension. Even when the most highly realized being does it!
This tension isn’t “bad”. There would not be anything we could call “life” or “existence” without tension. The Buddhist path is more about reducing unnecessary tension — finding the causes of there being a disequilibrium that pools tension in certain parts of ourselves, what leads to debilitating pain and suffering, than condemning the whole of “it”, whether it’s desire, craving, a “self”, or life altogether.
A metaphor that comes to mind is that of happily floating down the river, peacefully enjoying the ride and the sights. Upon seeing a beautiful woman, one grabs onto a branch, trying to hold on to maintain the woman in view. The immense power of the river is then fully felt as one strains to hold in place while the water rushes by and through.
What image of life are you continually self-reflecting to yourself, spinning on, to the detriment of your flow?
A very limited metaphor, only serving to emphasize how the river of life can feel daunting upon even the slightest of straining against it. The full path – how to float joyously while still navigating, controlling, planning, being a full human – is a little more complex. Aside from my book, I’ll be posting more such snippets on my Twitter from now on. Follow if you want for a smoother ride down the stream (or otherwise care for my modern panditri).