To Live Is To Suffer - A Hindu / Buddhist Perspective
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Hinduism and Suffering
Why is a soul born here on earth, and why does it suffer? In the Hindu belief system, every person is accountable for his or her actions (Sarma). Some people say that we create our own suffering. According to Jayaram, suffering arises out of our actions, inactions, reactions, thinking, conditioning, desires, attachment to earthly things, beliefs, attitudes and associations. Jayaram also says that suffering exists only in our minds. I tend to disagree with this last part of Jayaram’s argument. For instance, several years ago, I had a medical emergency that required immediate surgery to save my life. To the best of my knowledge, I did not do anything to bring this condition on. However, I suffered as a result of this condition, both in the hospital and during my recovery at home.
We suffer because of the way we think and act, the way we look at earthly things, and how we respond to life’s experiences. This I do agree with. As an example, I offer a family situation I am presently undergoing. I have not spoken with a large portion of my family since my mother’s death in 1995. Immediately following her death, I had a large and loud argument with certain members of the family about some of my personal dealings. Those family members have not spoken to me since, not even to notify me about the subsequent deaths of other family members. I have been suffering from this to this very day. I suffer from various physical and mental/emotional issues due to this family situation. According to Jayaram, my thinking and attitude towards suffering has trended into a rather familiar pattern and I have accepted and integrated it into the basic makeup of my personality.
However, according to Hindus, suffering can be a rather valuable educational tool. According to Jayaram, the aim of suffering is to make us whole and perfected and to guide us on the path to salvation.
Much as a lump of gold ore that is refined repeatedly in the furnace, Hinduism believes that suffering is necessary as a prerequisite to one’s liberation from earthly confinement. I don’t know whether that is true. Maybe when I meet my God (I was raised in the Christian tradition) He will tell me why I have been made to suffer so during my life on this Earth. I hope he does, because I don’t understand why this is so. Maybe I have wronged someone in a previous existence and I am paying for it now.
Hinduism offers the believer some good news. According to Jayaram, suffering is short-term (in the grand scheme of things) and does not last long. Through our efforts and prayers, we can be delivered from our Earthly suffering. Jayaram further states that we can deal with suffering on a short-term or long-term basis. Short-term suffering (paying the monthly household bills, for example) isn’t that painful and can be (usually) dealt with in short order. However, short-term suffering tends to happen repeatedly in one’s life, and thus must be dealt with repeatedly. Long-term suffering, on the other hand, long-term suffering tends to be more serious in nature. Furthermore, long-term suffering usually is more difficult to deal with.
As an personal example, I offer my present job situation. I have been repeatedly unemployed since moving to the Pittsburgh area eight years ago. I have only been able to find short-term temporary and contract jobs in my present area of expertise (Finance & Accounting). I have suffered greatly in the economic sense (eviction and utility shutoffs) and in the emotional sense (nervousness and the inability of my fiancée and me to plan for our wedding). This suffering has made me realize that I need to change my profession to one that has more job opportunities and pays better wages (Computer Science). And it only took me eight years to figure this out! Maybe the Hindu belief system that tells us that we (the immortal soul) is imprinted with our past actions. According to Dr. Sarma, a possible reasoning for the suffering of innocents can be the result of past life experiences. When we are spiritually mature enough to face atonement for our misdeeds, there are seven stages of this purification process. According to the editorial staff at Hinduism Today (December 1994 issue), these stages are: admission of guilt, remorse, repentance, showing the appropriate level of shame for one’s deeds, paying the penalty for one’s deeds, and reconciliation with the wronged parties. Once this procedure has been completed (according to Hinduism), all is forgiven.
Buddhism’s Perspective on Suffering
According to McIntyre, human suffering comes from association with the unpleasant. When our earthly desires (financial wealth, well-mannered children, happy marriage, etc.) are thwarted in this way, we suffer. The Buddha talks of this suffering coming from ignorance. In other words, we do not know HOW to live a good life and take care of the issues of life (such as those I mentioned earlier).
I agree with Ray McIntyre’s position on this issue. Ignorance is not bliss. One must have knowledge in the proper handling of the issues of Earthly life to properly dispose of them. As an personal example, I offer the family dispute I mentioned earlier. I tend to fly off the handle when I am unexpectedly ambushed with attacks on my personal business dealings. I now know that, unfortunately, some people cannot be trusted with sensitive information. One must be careful with the information one disseminates, be it legal, financial, medical, etc. This was a rather painful and expensive lesson for me to learn, but I have learned the lesson well.
How, then, do we end suffering and maintain inner peace? There are two ways. According to McIntyre, the Five Precepts (when properly applied to our lives) can go a long way to reduce or eliminate suffering. The five precepts, in their simplest form, are: Not causing harm to any other living being, Not taking that which does not belong to you, propriety in one’s sexual activities, truth in word and deed, as well as the abstention from mind-altering substances. The five precepts bear some resemblance to the Christian Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not murder, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, Thou shalt not bear false witness.
I personally would find some of this “five step program” hard to do. First, how does one eat if one must not do harm to do any living being. According to Buddhism, every living thing has a soul, from cattle and chickens to dandelions and ants. Avoiding theft, sexual impropriety, and lies or misstatements are universal taboos in the world’s religions. Some people have problems with drugs and alcohol, and they suffer for it. As an example, I offer a friend of mine who was recently hospitalized for tremors and hallucinations (auditory and visual). She suffers from diabetes that (according to her doctor) was brought on by her overindulgence in alcohol. She suffers greatly for her addictions, but she has not yet arrived at the point where she would say to herself “I have to quit drinking”, even though it may ultimately kill her. My fiancée and I are suffering along with her. We are her friends and we do not know what to do about her multiple addiction situation (alcohol, tobacco, drugs), so we suffer as well, even though neither of us has any addictions to any harmful substances.
Another option, according to Crestwell, is known as the “eightfold path”. These eight steps (understanding, intention, speech, action, work, effort, meditation, and contemplation) form a program that Buddha taught will lead us to freedom from the “shakiness” and suffering of the real world. Together, they describe three main goals: to face life dispassionately, to live in a kind and humane manner, and to cultivate peace on a core level. These eight steps are not intended for practice in a sequential pattern. Rather, they are to be practiced simultaneously.
One of the more popular Buddhist sayings is that “it is the illusion of permanence that is the source of all suffering”. Buddhism would say that if you want peace, you must purge your mind of those things that bind it up and do not allow it to work properly. When one does finally let go, one can finally reach Nirvana, that I would term an emotional state of never-ending joy and bliss.
Why do we suffer? According to Hinduism and Buddhism, suffering has several root causes. One’s personal conduct (whether in this life or a previous incarnation) goes a long way towards how one’s present Earthly existence will proceed. Also, over-emphasis on earthly matters combined with neglect of the spiritual will cause one to experience various degrees of suffering. Regardless of the particular type of religious training, one must re-examine one’s spiritual and earthly existence if they are to reduce suffering in this life or the next.
Crestwell Jr., John T., Pastor, Is Buddhism Practical in Western Culture? Retrieved July 21, 2008 from http://www.dmuuc.org/minister/John/Buddhism.html
McIntyre, Ray, A Basis for a Buddhist Ethic. Retrieved July 21, 2008 from http://buddhist-beliefs.suite101.com/article.cfm/a_basis_for_a_buddhist_ethic
Molloy, Michael (2008) Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition Challenge, and Change. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Sarma, P. Ravi, MD. Hindus: How does Hinduism explain suffering? Retrieved July 21, 2008 from http://en.allexperts.com/q/Hindus-946/Hinduism-explain-suffering.htm
Sin and Suffering. (1994, December). Hinduism Today. Retrieved July 21, 2008, from http://www.hinduismtoday.com/archives/1994/12/1994-12-14.shtml
V, Jayaram. The Four Universal Truths About Suffering. Retrieved July 21, 2008 from http://www.hinduwebsite.com/divinelife/divinelaws7.asp