Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Pondering the meaning of liberation from suffering, part 2

(To summarize my original entry about this topic...) I was struck by a comparison between the Buddhist and Christian views of suffering and decided to explore the topic a little. I suggested that according to my understanding of Buddhism, in order to understand the nature of suffering we need to appreciate the true nature of phenomena - that 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 (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) - there are no phenomena, whether physical, mental, or emotional, which can bring lasting happiness. That is because of...

Anitya (impermanence, transience) - 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, selflessness) - 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.

Now, I also added that this kind of thinking refers to suffering in terms of discomfort, fear, angst, dread, and general dissatisfaction. Physical and emotional pain, on the other hand, are sensations native to our existence as human beings. While these can be magnified and wedded to aversion by our attitudes and conceptions of phenomena, the sensations themselves are not eliminated by Buddhist practice. Or in other words, even advanced practitioners of Buddhism experience the sensations we associate with pain, but they are liberated from the suffering associated with the sensations. This was one possible meaning of the notion I suggested in my deliberations that liberation from suffering does not mean separation from suffering. In this interpretation, one could just as easily state it as liberation from suffering does not mean separation from pain.

But what else might it imply?

In the chapter from A Monk in the World by Wayne Teasdale that provoked by contemplation of this subject (Chapter 7: Tough Grace), Teasdale talks about the importance of suffering in the Christian tradition, and how many saints and mystics in the Church did not wish to be separated from their suffering. So that provoked my consideration of whether "liberation" from suffering, which is the foundation of Buddhism, is really the same as separation from suffering. To be blunt, I really don't think that it is.

Consider the question of the ego. Despite some views to the contrary, the ego is not a foe or an enemy of Buddhist practice. One does not need to "defeat" the ego, but rather to simply (I didn't say easily!) not be ruled by it or attached to it. Rather than giving in to it or ignoring it, in other words, one needs to accept it for what it is, free of attachment. In this way one can be said to be liberated from the self, which is a transient composite of ephemeral phenomena, as is our suffering.

Teasdale also discusses the role of suffering in providing insight into our spiritual development and acting as catalyst for humility. If indeed as Buddhism teaches suffering comes from clinging and grasping to false views and perceptions, then our suffering can point us in the direction of such attitudes and desires, revealing our hidden attachments. And in doing so, this would reinforce and perhaps deepen our appreciation of dependent co-arising and no-self, which would indeed generate humility.

Another important element of suffering mentioned in A Monk in the World is that of solidarity with all sentient beings. By their very nature, sentient beings are prone to suffering, and our own suffering gives us a greater understanding of and empathy toward the suffering of others. As I see it, such empathy is the basis for the moral sense of all sentient beings, and it is also the foundation of the Bodhisattva ideal of vowing to save all sentient beings from their suffering.

This last part is key to the idea of transformation. I think the story of Christ in the Gospels exemplifies the Bodhisattva ideal (perhaps some Christians would prefer to suggest that the Bodhisattva ideal exemplifies the story of Christ in the Gospels - either way works for me). Teasdale uses the analogy of turning trash into compost and then using that as fertilizer for growth - an image of recycling suffering into wisdom and compassion. This called to mind the title of a book on Shin Buddhism, based on a teaching of that school of Buddhism, called "Bits of rubble turned to gold." I know that many Pure Landers, especially those in Shin, are wary of the superficial comparisons of Christianity to their religion, but I am not trying to make some direct equation of the two faiths. However, the concept of grace is vital to both.

In both Christianity and Shin, reconciliation is a vital concept which is initialized, supported, and completed through grace. In Christianity this comes from Jesus, and in Shin it is brought about by Amida. Yet reconciliation, with or without a distinct imagery and mechanism of grace, is not important only to Shin Buddhism. The idea of (spiritual) reconciliation is found in all forms of Buddhism, though it is typically framed in terms of liberation, which is of course the topic at hand. It is because Teasdale specifically and Christian theology generally sees the value of suffering in the transformation brought about through reconciliation that he called the chapter of his book that deals with suffering "Tough Grace".

So then it would seem that for both Christians and Buddhists, suffering can be an invaluable teacher as well as a source of inspiration in our own practice, but what does it mean for others? How does this inform our approach to the suffering of others, whether it be physical, emotional, or existential? This is a vital question for both Christians who have taken up their crosses to follow Christ as well as Buddhists who walk the path of the Bodhisattva. So stay tuned!

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