God is Suffering

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.


9 thoughts on “God is Suffering

  1. David, I found myself enthusiastically agreeing to nearly everything you wrote here.

    Coming at it from a cognitive perspective, my mentor/teacher said, “Remember that a trigger is a present that you have to open carefully.”

    Whenever those “negative” emotions happen, we have the opportunity to redefine them and remove a source of suffering from our lives. So when we do that, suffering itself becomes a gift.

  2. so true…without suffering there is no wisdom. Without proper compassion one does not fully comprehend suffering. As its said, wisdom without full fledged compassion (bodhicitta) is just illusion (maya).

    The book “Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior” by shantideva is indeed one of the best out there. Though I feel we need to focus more on doing perfect karma as discussed in buddha’s noble 8 fold path (wisdom, conduct, concentration)
    Suffering is there, but unless one does the perfect(samma, wholesome) karma one does not “evolve”.

    Not sure, but I think lot of Christians take inspiration from suffering of Jesus on the cross…often as a life long inspiration for endurance. Very powerful stuff.

    1. A comparison of the suffering of Jesus and the sufferings the bodhisattva takes on has been made by a few people, including Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.

  3. what i find most interesting with suffering and the buddhist path, is that its the practical, well reasoned, logical thing to do. Its the ultimate wisdom, reality as-is. There is no other logical end to our existence, other than perfecting it (pure wisdom).

    Even if we look purely from materialistic point of view, forget buddha for a minute, there is no other logical-end-wisdom one could reach.

    The path is full of incremental, practical benefits too. One sheds all kinds of weaknesses behind, becomes mature, mentally strong, able to unleash full potential, which can be fully applied to anything they wish.

    Its just mind boggling, sometimes, for me why more humans (the remaining 4 billions on planet earth) do not see the wisdom in buddhism (even if we take the word “buddha” or “buddhism” our of it, buddha would gladly approve).

    Though, I totally empathize with people who grew up indoctrinated in other religions until their early adulthood, when they know enough to peek-out/use-their-mind.

    1. I think we are in a period of the secularization of religion, at least here in the West. We see more and more Buddhist notions (and Taoist ones) become part of our main-stream understanding of life. Once people get over the God thing, the philosophy surrounding it will just collapse, and probably what we will replace it is a form of Buddhism with the Buddha.

      1. Newcomers to buddhism often complain about this whole concept of “suffering”…seems a downer, put-off. When I first came upon buddhism, i too was not sure what to make of 4 noble truths , which is all about suffering. Thinking back, I laugh. How we evolve.

        Now a days I hear people suggesting this whole “suffering thing” was applicable only in old-times where there was lot of suffering. Supposedly all the modern advancements already took care of most of the suffering 🙂 .

        It can be hard see the scope, breadth and depth of “suffering”/mind. Now we have TV, or sports, music or tech, to divert one’s self easily. People could easily waste (busy lives) decades in any one of those or other diversions, without even hearing or having to contemplate the word “suffering”. So I am not as hopeful as you are that the wisdom will be eagerly adopted by majority humans so soon. But, I do think science/physics will help them get there sooner than later.

        1. The widespread suffering caused by poverty and disease has been alleviated for many people in this modern age, yet there are still far too many who suffer needlessly, since our advancements have made it possible to feed, clothe, educate, and medically treat almost all people the world over. So, even though the majority of us have it better, no forms of suffering have arisen to replace the old ones.

  4. If I may add one more comment, I believe buddha or his follower shantideva, do want to go beyond suffering. Suffering is not to be taken as the ultimate, but rather, just a reality. Some of the comments by guru’s like Thich Nhat Hanh (even some bodhicitta preachers) seem to suggest we should take on suffering for the sake of it. I am not so sure.

    As shantideva compares in that quote “war is waged against mental afflictions”…almost like warriors fighting…not slaves taking the suffering.

    There is actively doing something for a certain goal, and then there is “bearing” something for no-apparent reason. I believe both buddha’s teaching (or shantideva’s) falls into the former. War/Warrior is a good analogy.

    Another analogy I like is that of physical exercise, or better, hatha yoga. The noble-eight-fold path is basically a mental exercise/war one should continually engage-in (which i call “karma”), until they perfect their mental/mind-state, where suffering becomes no-different than, say eating, or sleeping, or walking process.

    Bodhicitta is a tool, or good action (“karma”), like a dumb-bell/treadmill in gym, that one exercises, so they can reach higher wisdom-states, and beyond. Suffering is the medium, but in a way this is not about suffering, or taking on suffering, but rather about higher purpose. A practical, dare i say materialistic, logical end-goal (seemingly selfish, then again, one dwelling in bodhicitta would have left that feeling eons ago). Everything is you, You, everything.

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