Thoughts on Buddhism – Suffering – Part 2

Last Monday night, I posed my question to our professor regarding the assumption that suffering is bad, and he corrected me. While the goal of Buddhism is, indeed, to end suffering, there is at least tacit recognition that suffering has its place in the world. It is recognized that the Buddha would not have sought enlightenment if he had not seen suffering, and therefore it is valuable in motivating us towards nirvana.

Moreover, he outlined the levels of beings in the world, which goes something like this (if I can remember it correctly)

  1. Gods
  2. Humans
  3. Titans
  4. Animals
  5. Hungry Ghosts
  6. Hell-dwellers

Buddhists consider reincarnation as a human to be the luckiest and best among these six possibilities, for only humans are capable of awakening. Better to be a human than a god, for instance, because gods do not experience suffering. Because of this, they cannot achieve nirvana and thereby escape the cycle of birth and death.

Everything below humans experience a great deal of suffering, so much so that they can never achieve self-actualization (which I would assume is necessary for enlightenment) and, afterwards, nirvana. As you move down the list, suffering increases, as does potential time spent. If you are sent to one of the many Buddhist hells (say, because you murdered someone), it could be thousands of years before you finally escape as something higher up the chain.

You’re too busy suffering to pursue nirvana in one of these states, so once you’ve reached number 2, you finally have a shot. Of course, even then, very few people obtain nirvana. Only 230 million to 1.6 billion people (depending on who you ask) are Buddhists in the world, and relatively few of those achieve enlightenment. Mostly, we all just die and are reborn hundreds of thousands of times.

In response to Traveller’s comment, my professor spoke at length about ignorance, and you are correct in that Right Thought, as one facet of the Eight-Fold Path, is essential to ending ignorance and achieving nirvana. However, it should be noted that I am 1) taking this class to learn about Buddhism, not because I’m Buddhist, and 2) that in doing so, I am working on ending my own ignorance of the subject. As I stated at the beginning of my first entry on Buddhism, my thoughts will change as I learn more about Buddhism, as this post aptly demonstrates 😛

However, I must reply to your statement “as a christian, your suffering maybe the ignorance of god’s love, and the way to get out of it is, embrace the love of his, and then, your nirvana is life in heaven with him, well maybe.” My consideration on the topic of suffering has nothing to do with my own, personal suffering. I was simply curious about the assumptions made by Buddhism (and will continue to write about them, for they fascinate me). I am by no means ignorant of God’s love, a subject on which I hope to write someday soon (as in sometime in the next two years). At some point in this semester, I will also have to write about the mutual exclusivity of Christianity in relation to Buddhism.

The concept of nirvana in Buddhism is nothing like the concept of heaven in Christianity, just as our saviour Jesus is nothing like the Eight Fold Path. One cannot compare Jesus to the Buddha, even, for they served very different purposes. But again, I will write about this at a later date when I can expand on the idea properly.

Thank you for commenting, and keep them coming! This is an exciting religion to study.

Thoughts on Buddhism – Suffering

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

  1. Life is Suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by Desire
  3. Suffering can be ended
  4. 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.