Wednesday, January 30, 2008

thinking about Buddhism- suffering

Suffering is an important concept in Buddhism, but one that took me a long time to understand. Maybe I still don't understand it very well.

At first reading, it seems so entirely different than the Christian understanding of suffering. In my Evangelical childhood, I was taught to see suffering as a means to an end. The New Testament epistle of James says quite bluntly: "Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials (ie, when you suffer), knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and endurances produces perfect results, that you may be full and complete, lacking in nothing."

In Christianity, Suffering is the refiner's fire. You pass through problems and "tribulations" so that the trivial and unimportant is burned away, and you become a better Christian, a better person. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, more or less.

The not-so-subtle undercurrent (for me, back in the day) was: the more I suffer, the more deserving I will be of God's love; and even this: the more I suffer, the more God loves me. It leads to a sort of "Bring It On" mentality among some of us. Oh, yeah, I'm suffering, but it's making me into a better person. I think you find this attitude particularly among Christians of Northern European descent. :-)

So when I first started studying Buddhism and ran across the idea that "All is suffering" (a summary of the First Noble Truth), and that the point of Buddhism is to escape suffering, it made no sense to me. Why would you want to escape suffering? Suffering is part of life. Suffering is what helps you grow up. If you run from suffering, you miss out on life, you are a baby.

I struggled with this misunderstanding for a long time. I spent the whole time I was reading the Dalai Lama's book on happiness arguing with him. (Arrogant, much?)

I've come to think it's mainly a problem in translation, though. There is no way in English to differentiate between what His Holiness is talking about and the kind of suffering I was thinking about. The word suffering is used to mean something different, and it was a bit of a stretch for my WASP brain.

Finally one day last spring I GOT it. I was drying my hair, and feeling irritated that it was already time to get a haircut again. You get a haircut; it's too short for a week; then it's just right for a couple of weeks; then it's getting too long; then it's already time for a hair cut again.

And like the proverbial lightbulb going on, I thought, "Oh! that's it!" Nothing like the small mundane things to help you see larger truths. The Buddhist idea of suffering is more about the endless cycle, the daily grind, the unending work of getting through life. You get up, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat dinner, clean up, go to bed, then the next day you do it all over again. It's all about the cycle, the endless cycle.

It's a classic East/West difference. I was trained to think of suffering as a linear thing, something that happens along the way that is a means to an end, a process that gets you to a goal-- the goal of being a better Christian. Your life is going along just fine, then some big problem hits, and you have to get through it. Then things go back to normal (usually). Getting through the time of suffering helps you grow.

The Buddhist idea is about endless reiterations of the same things, the kinds of things my WASP brain would have considered background, white noise. In Christianity, suffering is big stuff--persecution, illness, losing your job. In Buddhism, suffering is just the grind, the stuff you have to do over and over to get through the day.

Like laundry. Laundry never ends. There is always more laundry to do at our house. Or cooking. Someone is always hungry at our house. Or batteries. Here are the rechargeable batteries I have: cell phone, iPod, camera, laptop. You charge them up, use them for a few hours or days, then they have to be recharged again. It's an endless cycle, and it's a pain in the ass.

But once I got that figured out, it seems that the attitude that you have toward suffering in both traditions is pretty similar. You don't run from it, you don't avoid it, you dive in. But where Christianity emphasizes endurance, getting through it, Buddhism emphasizes staying open, not shutting down, while you are in the midst of suffering.

Pema Chodron says you try to stay soft, instead of closing up like a clenched fist. You let yourself experience your suffering fully. You grow up. What I had interpreted in Buddhism as wanting to run away from suffering is actually not attaching importance to suffering, not letting yourself get caught up in thinking that the daily soap opera of our lives is important.

Disclaimer: As always, my understanding of Buddhism is anything but expert. More experienced insights welcome.


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