The Eight Worldly Concerns in Buddhism are four pairs of attachments and aversions that we experience continually in our daily lives. Called 'Loka-Dhamma' in Pali, they are also sometimes translated as the Eight Worldly Dharmas, the Eight Worldly Conditions, or the Eight Worldly Preoccupations. They are often summarized as:
- Wanting gain and avoiding loss
- Wanting praise and avoiding blame
- Wanting fame and avoiding insignificance
- Wanting pleasure and avoiding pain
The Eight Worldly Concerns are not simply our desires and aversions, but the feelings of satisfaction and unhappiness that we feel when we experience what we want or do not want, what some term 'delight and disappointment.' Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron provided some modern examples in a 2007 interview in Mandala magazine:
" 1. Taking delight in having money and material possessions, and the other one in the pair is being disappointed, upset, angry when we lose them or don’t get them.
2. Feeling delighted when people praise us and approve of us and tell us how wonderful we are, and the converse is feeling very upset and dejected when they criticize us and disapprove of us – even if they are telling us the truth!
3. Feeling delighted when we have a good reputation and a good image, and the converse is being dejected and upset when we have a bad reputation.
4. Feeling delighted when we experience sense pleasures—fantastic sights, sounds, odors, tastes and tactile sensations—and feeling dejected and upset when we have unpleasant sensations."
- From interview with Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron by Sara Blumenthal in 2007 Mandala Magazine
Based on what we encounter in our daily lives, we swing between these experiences of 'delight and disappointment' all of the time. What we usually call our happiness or unhappiness is actually this cycle of swinging in response to external stimuli. Our goal in Buddhist practice is to unhook our happiness from these experiences, to discover a different kind of happiness that is not dependent upon receiving gain, praise, fame, or pleasure or avoiding loss, blame, insignificance, or pain.
Some people misinterpret teachings on the Eight Worldly Concerns as advocating the denial of pleasure altogether. In fact, this is counter to The Middle Way - the Buddha went through a phase of self-denial and extreme renunciation prior to discovering The Middle Way, which became the foundation for Buddhism. We do not have to avoid pleasurable experiences, but learn to 'hold them lightly', enjoying them while also aware of their transience, without our ultimate happiness becoming dependent upon them.
The Buddha speaks of this proper attitude towards them in the Lokavipatti Sutta, or 'The Failings of the World.' He distinguishes between the unconscious way in which the average person becomes consumed by The Eight Worldly Concerns and the way a monk should relate to them.
"Now, gain arises for a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones. He reflects, 'Gain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, and subject to change.' He discerns it as it actually is.
Loss arises... Status arises... Disgrace arises... Censure arises... Praise arises... Pleasure arises...
Pain arises. He reflects, 'Pain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, & subject to change.' He discerns it as it actually is.
His mind does not remain consumed with the gain. His mind does not remain consumed with the loss... with the status... the disgrace... the censure... the praise... the pleasure. His mind does not remain consumed with the pain.
He does not welcome the arisen gain, or rebel against the arisen loss. He does not welcome the arisen status, or rebel against the arisen disgrace. He does not welcome the arisen praise, or rebel against the arisen censure. He does not welcome the arisen pleasure, or rebel against the arisen pain. As he thus abandons welcoming and rebelling, he is released from birth, aging, and death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs. He is released, I tell you, from suffering & stress.
This is the difference, this the distinction, this the distinguishing factor between the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones and the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person."
- Lokavipatti Sutta: The Failings of the World, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Reflection, or contemplation, upon the true nature of our feelings of delight and disappointment, is the key to holding lightly to these experiences, and to being able to experience pain and pleasure without becoming consumed by them.
One common mistake when we first become truly conscious of the cycles of delight and disappointment in our awareness is to try and eradicate the sources of them altogether. We might seek to cut ourselves off from any stimuli that trigger one or the other. Indeed, renunciate paths are partly an attempt to limit such external stimuli in order to slow the stream of our responses to a level where they can be contemplated without becoming all–consuming.
Ultimately though, for those of us living in the world, our goal is to inquire into these feelings as they arise, so that we can experience them with non-attachment. Then we can enjoy pleasure in our lives, without the taint of fear that it will pass, and endure challenging times without the hopelessness that comes with fearing they will never end. Periods of retreat can provide us the opportunity to explore our habitual internal responses in more depth, because our external stimuli is reduced. Regular meditation also provides a way for us inquire into these patterns, as we notice our internal reactions to thoughts that arise, or distractions that we experience.
As Pema Chodron puts it in her classic When Things Fall Apart, over time we can even come to relate to The Eight Worldly Concerns (or Dharmas, the term she uses) as the means to our awakening, instead of as hindrances:
"We might feel that somehow we should try to eradicate these feelings of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace. A more practical approach would be to get to know them, see how they hook us, see how they color our perception of reality, see how they aren’t all that solid. Then the Eight Worldly Dharmas become the means for growing wiser, as well as kinder and more content."
- Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart