One of the main lures of Buddhism is extinguishment or cessation of defilements and hence suffering. Many religions offer the same thing of course but Buddhism seems to be the only one where the main focus of its practice is the permanent ending of suffering. From the outside and depending on the specific tradition, this can come across as mystical and something to do with escaping the cycle of death and rebirth but it doesn’t take too long to realise that for many schools especially in the west – the goal (or rather the lure) is the ending of suffering in this life.
The problem is that this is impossible.
Sure, most teachers say that complete extinguishment can only result after lifetimes of practice etc etc but within the paradigm of many teacher-student relationships, there’s always the projection that the teacher has actually achieved this. Given that in all Buddhist traditions the boasting of “achievements” is strongly discouraged and indeed evidence of a lack of achievement, this actually perpetuates the situation.
Because the belief that the cessation of suffering is attainable is the Third Noble Truth, I often consider whether I can claim to be Buddhist when I don’t agree with this. My view is that suffering never ceases – that cessation or extinguishment is impossible. What happens through practice however is that the influence of suffering on one’s mind and actions lessens and may eventually diminish entirely.
So, in my highly personal view – it is the cessation of the effects of suffering that is attainable. I’m sure this reveals also how early down the path I am.
EDIT: Turns out that the Greek Stoics have also travelled down this path: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apatheia.