I’m taking a class this semester on Buddhism and will subsequently be writing a series of posts on the subject. They’re not intended as final critiques or conclusions about the religion/philosophy, but are just thoughts I had during lecture. My opinions might change as I learn more, but I want to have a record of what I was thinking as I go through the semester.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are
- Life is Suffering
- Suffering is caused by Desire
- Suffering can be ended
- Suffering is ended by following the Eight-fold Path
As we discussed the life of Gautama Buddha, one of the underlying assumptions that jumped out at me was that suffering is bad. In leaving his palace during his three trips as a youth, he saw a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and a begging ascetic, and it was these three encounters that prompted him to leave home and seek out a better way. How can one enjoy life when death haunts our every step? he asked.
Of course, I come at the subject from an extremely different point of view. The concepts of karma and reincarnation were natural laws in south and east Asia, much like we consider gravity, and went unquestioned. Reincarnation was simply a fact of life, but one I clearly disagree with. As a Christian, I take the idea of heaven and eternity very seriously.
Which is to say, I take the idea of eternity with not only full faith, but expectation and recognition. Eternity isn’t something that starts at death, but something that simply is. My soul is eternal, and when this body dies, I merely pass through a doorway between this world and the next. I will have all of eternity to roam, learn more of God, worship and spend time with my Lord, talk and meet and learn with other Christians…
Therefore, my perspective on suffering is very different from a Buddhist’s, or perhaps a non-Christian’s perspective. I do not necessarily assume suffering is bad, and in the case of the Buddha, I couldn’t help ask the question (to myself, anyways), “If not for suffering, would he have been spurred towards enlightenment?”
In The Cave, the famous argument of Plato for why we seek knowledge, Socrates describes a cave in which people are chained to stare at a wall. They can see nothing but the shadows cast by those outside the cave, and so they assume that these shadows are all there is to life. When one is freed, they are led outside, and are blinded at first by the light. After seeing the wonders of the world, if they were taken back and chained to stare at the wall again, their mates would never believe them. What’s more, their suffering would be great, as would their desire to escape and gain more knowledge of the world.
Humans thrive on suffering, pain, and depravation. It is what motivates us to greater good, to higher goals, and while the pain is frustrating and hurtful, its outcome is not always negative. If we survive it, holding our sanity intact and bending rather than breaking, we learn something new about ourselves, the world, or both.
That isn’t to say that I advocate seeking suffering. Self -flagellation or -mutilation isn’t something to be desired in my book, but I can at least see the value of suffering in our lives. I think the key isn’t to try and stop the occurrence of suffering altogether, but rather to turn it to good. Find a way to take a negative situation and derive a positive from that situation.
If I was always content, there would be no reason for me to question, grow, or learn. It just seems daft to me to ignore the value of suffering. While ending suffering is a very noble goal, the initial assumption, that suffering is altogether bad and completely undesirable, seems naïve at best.