Suffering (dukkha) is a core concept in Buddhism that I have blogged about many times, almost always using words from Buddhist teachers past and present to support or amplify my comments. Today, I’ll start out with some words about suffering from a non-Buddhist source. The following was written by American aid worker Kayla Mueller to her father on his birthday in 2011, some two years before terrorists captured her after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Syria:
Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love . . . I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”
This resonated deeply with me, as did her story. Kayla Mueller’s life was stamped with service to others. If you visit her Wikipedia page, I think you will be amazed to see all the different organizations she managed to work with as an activist and humanitarian during her short 26 years.
Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, once said, “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.” I do not share Mueller’s belief in God, and I don’t necessarily agree with Campbell because I feel the word ‘God’ carries with it too much baggage (superstition, associations, subjective feelings, etc.) to be very useful. However, going with the idea of metaphor here, I am inclined to interpret Mueller’s words as “God is suffering,” or certainly, “Life is suffering,” the Buddha’s famous words, which should not be taken as a negative or pessimistic statement.
In terms of Buddhist practice, suffering has three aspects: understanding and acceptance of suffering, endurance of suffering, relieving suffering.
Suffering is a universal truth of existence and there is relief from suffering but no real end to it. If there were an end of suffering, it would mean an end to life. Shantideva, in Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, says, “For the Buddha said that all fears and immeasurable sufferings arise from the mind only.” So, what we mean by an end to suffering is actually to transform the negative elements of the mind that produce suffering. These negative mental elements or afflictions have as their cause the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to change poison into medicine, sufferings into Nirvana.
Once we have acknowledged the truth of suffering and its inevitability (we will face suffering no matter what), we can then prepare for the endurance of suffering, and how we endure suffering determines much about the quality of our life condition.
In Healing Anger, the Dalai Lama writes,
[Shantideva observes] that pain and suffering are natural facts of existence and that denying this truth can cause additional misery. He then goes on to argue that if we could internalize this fundamental truth of our existence, we would derive enormous benefit in our day-to-day life. For one thing, we would see suffering as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Shantideva implies that a person who is capable of responding to suffering in this way can voluntarily accept the pain and hardship involved in seeking a higher purpose.”
This higher purpose is idealized in the form of the bodhisattva who works for the liberation of all beings. These altruistic heroes take on sufferings willingly, they even assume the sufferings of others, and they endure with great courage. The bodhisattva resolves:
I take upon myself the burden of all suffering. I am determined to do so, I will endure it. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble . . . I am not afraid . . . nor do I despair.”*
The courage of the bodhisattva may inspire us, but the idea of consenting to suffer is difficult to accept. However, as the Dalai Lama mentions, suffering has a beneficial side. When we realize that our existence is conditioned and characterized by suffering, then we see there is a possibility of not only personal but also universal liberation. Suffering stimulates our thoughts and motivates us toward liberation. The mind can change its poison into healing medicine, our negative thoughts can be transformed into wisdom, and what seems unbearable in the beginning, becomes easier to bear.
Even when the wise are suffering, their minds are serene; for when war is waged against mental afflictions, many injuries are inflicted in the battle.”
Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, Chapter Six “The Perfection of Patience,” Verse 19
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* From the Vajradhvaja Sutra and Aksayamati-nirdesa. Read an expanded excerpt here.