Thursday, June 28, 2007

Pondering the meaning of liberation from suffering, part 3

In the first installment of this series I suggested that liberation from suffering does not mean separation from suffering. In the second installment I commented that for both Christians and Buddhists, suffering can be an invaluable teacher as well as a source of inspiration in our own practice. That then begged the question, How does this inform our approach to the suffering of others, whether it be physical, emotional, or existential?

This is perhaps the most vital as well as practical aspect of contemplating suffering - how to go from contemplation to action. I don't think there can be a handbook or pocket guide to such things, although many sacred texts offer examples through parable and allegory. Still, a brief exploration of the issue can't hurt.

The response first and foremost should always be based on deep empathy, tempered with wisdom. That is, what may seem like a quick fix may do more harm than good in the long run, and what may seem a little unpleasant at first may be of great benefit in the long run. However, this kind of thinking shouldn't be used to justify imposing our will on others "for their own good". In physical and emotional terms, such immediate response is summed up in the book of Matthew...

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Matthew 25: 34-40

Then there are intermediate range responses, such as helping suffering people find or volunteering to work with organizations such as literacy programs, food banks, job training workshops, housing assistance, medical assistance, rehabilitation clinics for substance abuse, and mental health clinics as well as schools, hospitals, and the like. This is intermediate between the most personal one-on-one contact of immediate assistance (though it may provide additional opportunities for additional encounters) and the fairly impersonal methods of long range responses. These kinds of responses, like immediate responses, occur at a local level.

Long range responses include political engagement for societal reforms addressing the physical and mental/emotional suffering of our fellow human beings. I am not going to specifically address any particular cause here because I don't want the emphasis to veer off into political disagreements, but examples would include clean drinking water and sanitation, vaccines for preventable diseases, and the cessation of violent conflicts.

These are not new ideas nor things about which concerned people are unaware. But how active are we at each level of response? Because of our resources (money, time, training, experience, occupation, etc), we may be more able to contribute to one level than to the others, but we always have opportunities arising through which we can engage all three. One could argue that even in the most progressive, egalitarian society, there will always be injury, illness, infirmity, anxiety, and death, but that doesn't mean it is pointless to try to reduce violence, disease, and other factors contributing to the causes of suffering. Besides, we have a LONG way to go before we start approaching any kind of "minimal societal suffering". There is a lot of work to do. Pain and suffering will always be with us, as will wisdom and compassion.

But what about the existential angst type of suffering endured primarily (exclusively?) by sentient beings? It can be triggered by and magnify the other types of suffering, but even a perfectly healthy person in no immediate danger and with abundant resources for meeting their basic and extended needs (food, shelter, fun activities, friends, meaningful work or occupation, etc) can succumb to the travails of dukkha. Those who have a viable spiritual path, even if they don't use that terminology, may come to understand and find liberation from their suffering, but what can they (and we) do for such suffering in others? This is for me a more difficulty question than dealing with other kinds of suffering in others and for me it has a less obvious solution.

For one thing, people may be told about this sacred tradition, that religion, this spiritual path, that philosophy, but that alone in insufficient. Even if they "give them a try", the process is very personal and not everyone responds the same way. I am just now appreciating lessons I "knew" twenty years ago but that I never really "got". Intellectual assent is not enough. Going through the motions of ritual or prayer/meditation is not enough. These practices are in the category of things that can be called "necessary but not sufficient". Having a structure is good and productive, whether it is traditional or non-traditional, but what is being structured? If a person has not been deeply touched by their own suffering and then found it in the plight of another, what is really fueling their spiritual journey? Maybe it is vanity, or fear, or inherited behavior. Maybe it is something else. The point is, we cannot force people onto a genuine spiritual path. We can't goad or tempt them into it. And besides, how are we to know which kind of path will be right for them and what the outcome of their journey will be?

If we cannot impose such a path, which seems to be in contradiction with many well-known forms of proselytizing, then our example may serve as an inspiration to others. That is, in ministering to/serving others and showing deep compassion toward and acceptance of all people, not only are we fulfilling the more obvious and immediate needs but offering other potential benefits as well by living what we preach.

One of the obstacles to generating or sustaining the required compassion, however, is judgment. This person caused their own suffering. They don't deserve my attention or assistance. It is true that people are often responsible for the causes of their own suffering, but should that have any real bearing on our response to that suffering? Stay tuned!

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