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Buddhadharma : Fall 2011
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 11 38 Suffering Is Not a Mistake In Buddhist cosmology, there are six realms: the god realm, the demigod realm, the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm, all defined by constant desire, and the hell realm, defined by constant pain and suffering. In the god realm, everything is perfect. There’s no pain and no discorpo- ration of the body because there is no body. Everything is sort of ethereal. Sounds nice, right? But this is not the best realm to be born into because in this realm one becomes addicted to pleasure. The best realm is the human realm because in the human realm, there’s just enough suffering that we have the incentive to seek liberation, but not so much suffering that we are consumed by it and cannot focus on a spiritual path. So suffering, if we can relate to it properly, is an advantage for the spiritual path. If we imagine somehow that our suf- fering will dissolve if we only do such and such, or if we are crushed by the weight of it, then we don’t have the energy or resources to understand it as a tool for greater consciousness. This is an improper response to suffering. The question then is not: Can we ameliorate or eliminate suffering? The ques- tion is: How will we receive and make use of the suffering in our lives? Suffering is not a mistake. It’s not a problem. It’s not your fault; it’s not my fault. It’s not the government’s fault. You and I and the government may make plenty of mistakes, but the question of suffering is much bigger than that. Suffering is piv- otal for human life. It’s what gives us the incentive, the vision, and the strength to really take hold of our lives spiritually. Whether or not you have a spiritual or religious point of view, if you’re human and if you have language, you know that life could either be meaningful or meaningless. The differ- ence between these two perspectives matters to all of us. None of us can bear a meaningless life. We all need to find some way for life to have meaning. This is part of being human. If we don’t have meaning, we become brittle, brutal, and numb. Suffering can reduce us to meaninglessness. So much of the overt suffering in this world is caused by people who have themselves suffered and been crushed by the weight of that suffering. But suffering can also bring us to the deepest pos- sible sense of meaning for human life. We can all likely recall a story of someone who, due to tremendous suffering, found a beauty and meaning in life that they never would have seen without that experience. In difficult times, the key thing is to turn toward the suffer- ing instead of trying to figure out how to get rid of it or paper it over with all kinds of positive things. We need to learn how to turn toward suffering, really take it in, find the meaning in it, and let it open a path for us to a new life. There’s nothing more beneficial than being able to be present with the breath and with the body to what’s happening when we are suffering, without flailing all around in resistance. That’s the beginning of a new path. Suffering and Possibility Rabbi Lew wrote a great book called Be Still and Get Going. In it he discusses the Garden of Eden story, which is essentially about people who have everything that they could want, but want the one thing they can’t have. The result, no surprise, is suffering. He writes, “Is the universe essentially deficient and in need of improvement? Is God flawed? Why was this desire, which would prove to be our undoing, implanted in our souls in the first place? Is God a screwup?” Rabbi Lew writes in terms of God, but if that’s not your way of looking at things, you could rephrase it as, “Is there a screwup in the nature of things? This is a horrible mess— what’s going on here?” He continues: Or is there something about the process of healing, of working through suffering and death, of mending a broken world, that is both necessary and good? I have a friend who was going through a period of tre- mendous suffering, a complete breakdown in his life; he couldn’t work or do anything. I’ve known him well over many years, and he was very discouraged and ashamed of himself for his suffering. I said to him, “You know, I guess this is just your way of digesting a new phase in your life. The last time this happened to you, you were about to enter a new phase. Perhaps this is just what you do: you go all to pieces, then you pick yourself up and you go forward.” He was going through a big reorganization, which is always painful. But then when he was done, he was able to move ahead in a way he hadn’t before. Rabbi Lew is saying that often suffering is needed for reor- ganization. We’re stronger after we reorganize. This raises more questions. Suffering may very well be inevitable, but can