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

– – – – – – – – – –

* From the Vajradhvaja Sutra and Aksayamati-nirdesa. Read an expanded excerpt here.


Bodhicitta: The Nectar of Immortality

In Sanskrit, the word amrita means “immortality.” In traditional Indian mythology, amrita is the nectar or “sweet dew” of the gods that grants immortal life.

Within Buddhism amrita appears in different contexts: it might be water or food that is blessed through the act of chanting, or it may be a sacramental drink taken at the beginning of certain tantric rituals. The great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa called the precepts or samaya “the amrita (nectar) of abundant nourishment,” and there is the “Ocean of Amrita” a teaching by Padmasambhava, as well as a story about the Healing Buddha appearing before Padmasambhava to give him a cup of amrita that would prolong his life.

We can view both the idea of immortality and amrita as metaphors. The latter, the nectar, representing spiritual nourishment. Therefore, anything that helps sustain or nurture wayfarers is amrita, sweet dew.

The purest and most potent amrita is bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the elixir of compassion. In his teaching “The Four Immeasurables and the Six Paramitas,” Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche states,

[Bodhicitta] is very beneficial for oneself and for all others. So, when someone has bodhicitta, whatever he or she does, is like medicine or healing nectar (Skt. amrita) which brings calmness, peace, and the coolness discussed before. It is very beneficial and is like a great and powerful medicine. It just flows out quite spontaneously and naturally from the presence of one’s bodhicitta. Take the supreme example of bodhicitta: when the Buddha taught, he led a very simple life and everything happened spontaneously around him. These far-reaching effects were a completely natural outflow of this very therapeutic healing, coming from the very pure motivation which he had. This is very special.”

Bodhicitta is not only the ultimate spiritual nourishment, it is the foundation of the raison d’ê·tre for Buddhist cultivation, because in the Bodhisattva Way, we practice not just for ourselves but also, and perhaps most importantly, for the benefit of others. Bodhicitta is the aspiration to awaken for the sake of all living beings. Nurturing bodhicitta is a cause that comes back to nurture us. In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva says of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening,

It is the nectar of immortality prepared for vanquishing death in the world;
An inexhaustible elixir to end the world’s poverty.”

I like to think that Shantideva is using “the nectar of immortality” metaphorically to mean the non-fear of death. Fear of death is a negative state of mind, a fixation on the future that distracts us from living fully in the now. As this fear tightens its grip on our mind and spirit, it weakens our ability to deal with death when the time for it comes. When we live for more than just ourselves, we acquire a kind of courage, even without being aware of it, and of course, wisdom through which we see that death is an opportunity for awakening.

Speaking of metaphors, I am reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a wonderful book that I will perhaps write about in more detail later. Near the beginning of the book, Kundera has these great lines:

Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

And so ends my small offering of nectar for the mind and ambrosia for the heart.


Singing Shantideva

Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara) contains ten chapters made up of some seven hundred verses. Intended to serve as an introduction to the bodhisattva path (the title literally means “Entrance to the Bodhisattva Way”), this work of great philosophical depth and poetic beauty is also a comprehensive course in Buddhist philosophy. Sent to a deserted island and allowed to take only one book on Buddhism with you, this would be one to take.

It is the ultimate self-help book, a guide to learning how to deal with hatred, resentment, regret, and other negative emotions and mental states. For centuries, it has been studied, practiced, and taught by Buddhists of nearly all traditions. The Guide has many contemporary admirers; perhaps foremost among these is the Dalai Lama who has said, “If I have any understanding of compassion and the practice of the Bodhisattva path, it is entirely on the basis of this text that I possess it.”

In “A Mahayana Liturgy”*, Luis O. Gomez tells us that the first four chapters of the Guide became a classical liturgy “very popular, at least in monastic circles, during the later Mahayana period (about eighth to thirteenth centuries C.E.).” Liturgy is a ritual or form of public worship. Both the liturgy (which Gomez provides text) and the work itself contain many expressions of reverence for the Awakened, the Protectors, the Conquerors, all of which are names for Buddhas, but it goes without saying that these outward declarations are less important than the inward looks of self-reflection the work promotes.

Today’s post deals with the 2nd chapter, most commonly translated as “Confession” – confession of sins or faults or errors. The Tibetan word for confession is bshags pa: “the process of admitting or ‘exposing’ one’s misdeeds before a witness or support, feeling regret for them and vowing not to repeat them in future.” (Rigpa-wiki)

The “evil” or “sin” we are trying to expiate has to do with such things as arrogance and conceit and nothing at all with violating some being’s will. This point can be confusing, especially when we read in Buddhist texts like this one references to “supreme beings,” but we should read these reference more as “mythical celestial beings” and keep in mind what was written above about the expressions of reverence.

I ran across this clip on YouTube: the 2nd chapter of Guide done in song, performed by Vidya Rao, an Hindustani classical singer and writer. I have no other information about it other than that. It is a beautiful rendition, and since it is not in English, as you listen you may wish to read the Wallace translation of the chapter here.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Lopez, Donald S. (Ed.), Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press, 1995


The School Break that Lasted 800 Years and The 34th Verse

Normally, school breaks are 2-3 weeks at the most, except for the summer break, which when I was growing up was a glorious full 3 months. Some breaks coincide with holidays, like Christmas and Easter, the latter famous as “Spring Break” in the U.S. Today’s post concerns a school break that lasted 800 years, but it wasn’t a planned break and there was no holiday involved, more like a holocaust.

Nalanda ruins
Nalanda ruins

Nalanda University was an ancient center of learning near Bihar in India, thought to have been in operation from the fifth century CE until 1193 when the army of Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkic Muslim, laid siege to the place and destroyed it.

Last week, after a lengthy break of some 8 centuries, Nalanda began a new academic session, albeit with a mere 15 students, but nonetheless, like a phoenix this legendary institution is slowly but surely rising from the ashes.

The school has a website and the newly established campus at Rajgir is the result of an effort by the Government of India, which formed a Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG) in 2007 under the Chairmanship of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen charged with the task of reviving the school. The project was not without some controversy. Earlier this year Sen threatened to resign after the Indian finance ministry raised questions about the project’s financial management. And as I reported in 2011, Sen excluded Tibetan Buddhists and the Dalai Lama from being part of the project. The reason for the exclusion was a case of giving in to Chinese pressure. As we all know, the Chinese authorities have an abnormal obsession about the Dalai Lama.

Nalanda was founded sometime in the 5th century during the Gupta Dynasty, an ancient Indian empire noted for establishing peace and prosperity throughout its domain as well as promoting math, science, medicine, arts and literature among its people. Nalanda was not really a university but rather a Buddhist monastic center. However, it’s recorded that at one time 2,000 Teachers and 10,000 Students from all corners of the Buddhist world lived and studied there, and that its library was so vast that it took three months to burn to the ground after the Muslim forces set fire to it.

Two of the most famous residents of Nalanda are said to have been Nagarjuna and Shantideva. Legend has it that the former was abbot of Nalanda and that during his tenure he defeated 500 non-Buddhists in debate and expelled over 8,000 monks who did not properly observe the precepts. Modern scholars doubt Nagarjuna was ever there since archaeological evidence suggests that the site was not occupied until sometime after the 4th century (Nagarjuna lived in the 2nd or 3rd century) and as noted above, the university was not even established until the 5th century.

While it is easier to believe that Shantideva studied at Nalanda during the 8th century, the famous account about his stay at the center is almost certainly fantasy. According to the story, Shantideva was not very well liked. The officials and students thought he was lazy and no-good. When everyone else was busy studying and practicing, all he did was sleep and eat and use the toilet (later called Shantideva’s “Three Perfections”). They wanted to kick Shantideva out of Nalanda. However, they decided that he should be compelled to give at least one teaching before they expelled him. So one day they came up and demanded that he give a teaching. Shantideva had never given one before so he was hesitant, but eventually he said okay, let’s do it.

They gathered a large group of monks together and erected a very high throne for Shantideva to sit in. What the teachers and students had in mind was to embarrass Shantideva because they figured that he wouldn’t know how to get up into the throne. But when Shantideva merely touched the throne, it shrank to normal size. He sat down and the group demanded he present a teaching that had never been given by anyone before.

Nalanda ruins

Shantideva then recited the Bodhicharyavatara or “A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,” in its entirety, all ten chapters, and when he got to the 34th verse of the 9th chapter he rose into the sky and finished the rest of the teaching from atop a cloud.

Shantideva soon left and everyone was immediately bummed and regretted their attitude towards him because by then, of course, they realized he was a great and wise teacher. According to one version of the story, officials from Nalanda finally caught up with Shantideva and begged him to return, but he refused to come back, although he did clarify some of his teaching for them.

It may be that this famous Buddhist text was part of some oral transmission, but it is doubtful that it was created as the result of a spontaneous recitation. As the Dalai Lama notes in his book, A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night, Shantideva’s work was written “in the form of an inner dialogue. [Shantideva] turned his own weapons upon himself, doing battle with his negative emotions.” So, in this way, the work was “composed,” from a process of considerable deliberation and contemplation.

Shantideva’s Guide is essentially a text about bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. In the 9th chapter, “Transcendental Wisdom,” he discusses the Madhyamaka (Middle Way school founded by Nagarjuna) view of the concept of sunyata or emptiness. Verse 34, the verse that caused Shantideva to ascend to the sky, reads:

When the mind encounters an entity or a non-entity, since there are no possible alternatives, and having no objects, it becomes peaceful.


The Happiness Equation

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently published a study titled “A computational and neural model of momentary subjective well-being.” In other words, researchers have developed a mathematical model for happiness.


Yes, this is an instant of happiness, reduced to arithmetic.

The study says, “Using computational modeling, we show that emotional reactivity in the form of momentary happiness in response to outcomes of a probabilistic reward task is explained not by current task earnings, but by the combined influence of recent reward expectations and prediction errors arising from those expectations.” Frankly, I have no idea what that means. But if I were to hazard a guess, I would say it probably means that happiness is somewhat dependent upon our expectations, or that happiness is determined by how we experience it.

Buddhism teaches a path to happiness but also maintains that happiness cannot be known. It’s not something we can grasp with our intellect. We can’t “know” happiness like we know a table, or a chair. It is a state of mind, a life condition. Therefore, we can experience happiness.

According to Buddhism, any experience of happiness must include all living beings. It is not an individual thing, separate from others. Shantideva said,

All happiness in this world comes from desiring the happiness of others. Why say more?

Indeed. ‘Nuff said.