Sunday, June 24, 2007

Pondering the meaning of liberation from suffering

I was re-reading a few chapters of A Monk in the World by the late Wayne Teasdale this weekend and something occurred to me that hadn't before (which is why it's useful to re-read good books - your perspective will have changed). In a chapter about the importance of understanding and facing suffering, Teasdale described the Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering and then contrasted it with the Christian view of embracing suffering. (For those who don't know, Teasdale was a progressive Catholic who took a Christian version of an Indian monastic ritual and who championed interfaith / interspiritual / intermystical dialog and understanding.) From A Monk in the World and The Mystic Heart, it is clear Teasdale had an understanding of as well as much respect for Buddhism, so I don't want to presume his intention or his comprehension strictly from one page in one book. I, however, was left with the impression that his view is that the Buddha taught escape from suffering.

There may be many Buddhists who would agree with that assessment, so I won't presume to be a spokesperson for all Buddhists or all forms of Buddhism. Yet I can't help feeling that such a perspective gets back to a form of dualism, where "this world" is so terrible but there is some other "place" of perfection to which we can escape. It has been my understanding that "this world" refers to a delusional construction we make for ourselves, and so escaping occurs through seeing reality-as-it-is. Hence this "other place" is not a strictly physical destination, as we may commonly grasp the term. I have often quoted certain teachings which support this view, such as:

"Affliction is Bodhi and the cycle of birth and death is Nirvana"
-Platform Sutra of Hui Neng

"Happy is one who knows samsara and nirvana are not two."

"Just understand that birth-and-death is itself nirvana. There is nothing such as birth and death to be avoided; there is nothing such as nirvana to be sought. Only when you realize this are you free from birth and death."

"At this moment, is there anything lacking? Nirvana is right here now before our eyes. This place is the lotus land. This body now is the Buddha."

If we take this perspective seriously, then what does this imply for suffering? I suggest that it means that liberation from suffering does not mean separation from suffering.

Before exploring what that might mean, it would be helpful for you, dear reader, to get a brief outline of how I use the term suffering the Buddhist context. There are different kinds of suffering that are recognized in different classification schemes of various Buddhist tradition and schools, but we can grossly sort the lot into physical pain, emotional pain, and metaphysical or existential anxiety and dread. All forms of Buddhism of which I am aware assert that through the application of the Buddha's teachings,we can eliminate the latter kind of suffering, or unsatisfactoriness, from our lives because it is generated by false views in the first place. The other two are trickier and I think they can cause some sectarian disagreements.

For example, if we want to eliminate emotional pain, we would have to deaden our hearts. If we don't care about anything or anyone, then we cannot be hurt by feelings for them that do not exist. I have at times run across interpretations of Buddhism which would seem to advocate this kind of total emotional detachment in the name on non-attachment. I have referred to it before as Zombie Buddhism - the idea that you need to be dead inside to be free from pain. I have also written about my personal disapproval or rejection of this notion. Non-attachment, or not having an unrealistic view of phenomena, does not require one to not care. If you have a deep craving for something that you think you need to possess, this shows a lack of understanding of the nature of phenomena, which are impermanent and cannot really be "owned" in any meaningful sense. But in opening ourselves to the Truth, we are opening ourselves to all the experiences of life, not shutting ourselves away from them. Our hearts should become larger and more expansive in order to be all-embracing, not hardened and hidden away.

Then there is physical pain, caused by illness, injury, and infirmity. If we wanted to eliminate physical pain, we would need to extinguish our corporeal existence. For those Buddhists who accept reincarnation as rebirth and who also believe in permanently eliminating physical pain, then the goal of Buddhism must be to leave the physical world once and for all. This can lead to a kind of Euthanasia Buddhism - true and permanent physical death is akin to a merciful act to relieve unbearable suffering. I have also mentioned on other occasions my rejection of this notion as well. The extinction of the self, or ego, is not the same as physical extinction. This error arises by continuing the belief that a physical body is equivalent to one's separate existence from all other phenomena. It is true that our memories and experiences are processed and housed in our bodies, and that we have separate identities tied to our physical forms. There is nothing wrong with that at all, so long as we realize all phenomena, including the mental and physical phenomena of which our "selves" are composed, and interdependent and impermanent. Going beyond the ego obviously did not require physical death for the Buddha, so why believe it does for us?

The existential type of suffering can be summarized with a few questions - Where did I come from? What is the point of my life? What is death? What happens when I die? Why must we die? Why must we endure suffering? To put it briefly, if we want to eliminate existential pain, we need to appreciate the true nature of phenomena. Such suffering stems from an incongruence between reality (our true nature) and the idea of reality we have in our heads. Traditionally Buddhism identifies such misconceptions which are exposed by the following principles:

Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) - there are no phenomena, whether physical, mental, or emotional, which can bring lasting happiness. That is because of...

Anitya (impermanence) - all phenomena are ephemeral and arise and pass away according to specific conditions and causes. All phenomena are interconnected to one another at a fundamental level and are in constant flux - no particular phenomenon has an existence which is distinct from others or unchanging (i.e. no phenomenon has an intrinsic existence). Which leads to the idea of...

Anatman (no-Self) - there is no intrinsic existence of any sentient being. Sentient beings are composed of the same ephemeral phenomena that makes up everything else, so they too are subject to impermanence. This principle is often misunderstood to suggest that we do not exist at all rather than what is really says: we have no fixed, separate, permament reality apart from (causally disconnected to) the rest of existence.

Hence, if we base our satisfaction on the idea of possessions, we will be unhappy when we lose them (or even by worrying about losing them), including our most prized "possessions", our selves. If we believe our true nature is limited to the frail, ever-changing, temporary existence of our current identities, we fear losing them and so fear death. This clinging and grasping at phenomena is commonly referred to in Buddhism as attachment. Hence effective Buddhist practice aims at helping people to understand/realize the false views which are the cause of these attachments, which are in turn the cause(s) of their suffering.

So if one rejects what I have termed Zombie Buddhism and Euthanasia Buddhism (which if combined would make for an extremely morbid and depressing outlook), then what do we do with physical and emotional pain? As I stated above, it means we need to consider the distinction between liberation from suffering and separation from suffering.

One way to posit such a distinction would be replace the second appearance of the word "suffering" in the above statement with "pain", that is, to talk about the distinction between liberation from suffering and separation from pain. For example, dread is almost always worse than what is dreaded. The actual discomfort we may feel during an experience can and often is exaggerated and magnified by our minds - which is how some Buddhist monks can go through procedures such as root canals or tooth extractions awake and without any kind of anesthetic. They experience the pain, to be sure, but they are liberated from the suffering associated with the pain. The pain is just another sensation. A analogous example or two or a dozen could be thought up for emotional pain - experiencing it but being liberated from the added suffering associated with it.

From what little I know about Buddhism, which as I often remark is in fact very little, I get the impression that this is a common Buddhist view, at least in the way Buddhism is presented in the West. So that would mean that where we are going next could seem controversial in the context of traditional Buddhism. Or it may turn out that it's actually a common teaching found all over the place in Asia. I really can't say. Because now I want to explore other possible meanings of the notion that liberation from suffering does not mean separation from suffering. So stay tuned!


  1. the Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering and then contrasted it with the Christian view of embracing suffering.

    I am not sure that Christians embrace suffering but rather recognise it as a part of separation from God.

    Without detracting from Buddhist belief, not because I am wise enough to but because I am too ignorant to recognise that I might be doing so I suggest that as Christians grow closer to God their spiritual being increases in awareness and importance and that this enables them to come through suffering with strength.

    Perhaps we should think of "getting to grips" with suffering rather than "embracing" it.

  2. I don't think we can ever accurately discuss what Christians as a whole embrace, but the impetus for this series came from a book written by a Christian who focused on the theme of embracing suffering which he found in the life and writings of various people in the history of that faith. The quotes included people who recognized a value to suffering. If that is something other Christians don't recognize or accept, that is not a problem, as I have no wish to pigeon-hole people into rigid categories of belief or perspective.


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