The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine
Spirituality, Religious Wisdom, and the Care of the Patient
Suffering and the Buddhist Tradition
Guo Yuan Fa Shi
Venerable Guo Yuan Fa Shi is a monk in the Chan Buddhist tradition. He received ordination in Taiwan under the guidance of Master Sheng-yen and has also studied in Thailand. In 1999, he was appointed Abbot of the Chan Meditation Center and the Dharma Drum Retreat Center, located in the southern Catskill Mountains area. The Dharma Drum Center teaches meditation techniques with the goal of achieving for practitioners "peace and harmony of the body, the mind, the family, and career."
I'm going to speak about suffering. Although
it is not a topic many people would like to face, nevertheless,
suffering is universal through both space and time.
The Buddha realized this on his spiritual journey and that's
why he taught us the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths are noble because they are timeless,
universal and essential for the resolution of suffering.
The First Noble Truth investigates what is suffering.
From the perspective of cause and effect, the First Noble Truth
is an effect. The Second Noble
Truth on the other hand investigates the causes of suffering or why we
suffer, and therefore, is the cause of the First Noble Truth.
exactly is suffering? Suffering
can be described as a feeling of dissatisfaction or a state of
dis-ease. Suffering can come
from the body as well as from the mind and more often it comes from
both. We suffer physically when we feel hunger, cold, tiredness and
exhaustion. We suffer mentally
when we feel hatred, anger, sadness and fear.
We have all suffered from physical hunger and this suffering is
quite similar for all people. However
this cannot be said for mental suffering.
We have a saying in Chinese, which states: "Although husband
and wife sleep in the same bed, they have different dreams."
You and I may be watching the same movie, playing the same game
or even eating at the same dinner table, but it is rare that we will
have the same feelings doing these things.
in our daily lives is usually a combination of both physical and
mental suffering. Physical
suffering can affect the mind and mental suffering can affect the
body. For example when the body
feels hunger or thirst, this physical suffering affects the way we
think and feel and causes mental suffering.
The mind becomes agitated and vexations arise.
Vexations feed upon vexations, giving rise sometimes to extreme
actions, which can even destroy a person.
For example a person who is hungry and has no income may become
desperate enough mentally to even commit a crime such as murder or
robbery. Or a person could be
worried about his or her illness to the point that the mental
vexations worsen the physical disease or suffering that person is
already experiencing. Or even a
simple thing such as anger, hatred or jealousy when constantly or
frequently experienced can give rise to future physical ailments.
suffering is relatively easy to cure. However
the related mental suffering is much more difficult to cure.
That is because each person comes from different backgrounds in
life, has different scopes of knowledge, different attitudes,
determination, will power, etc. The way out for all of these problems is to learn and practice
before we discuss how Buddhism resolves the perennial problem of
suffering, we must understand suffering at a deeper level.
We can basically categorize human suffering into three
categories: material suffering,
suffering of the body and mind or physical and mental suffering, and
suffering coming from human relationships.
suffering is the suffering that arises when we are dissatisfied with
what we have or we perceive that we need more and we are unable to
fulfill this need. We feel
material suffering when we do not have enough food, clothing or a
place to dwell or when transportation facilities are inadequate.
Sometimes it is the perception that there is not enough food,
clothing, etc. In both cases,
when we are unable to get these necessities, we experience the
suffering of wanting.
have already discussed briefly the suffering of the body and mind.
As human beings and sentient beings however, we will all suffer
the major sufferings of birth, old age, illness and death.
And even though most people do not think or have feelings about
these events before it occurs, we will all have to face these events
lastly, there is suffering that comes from human relationships.
As human beings, we are unable to live outside human society.
Therefore we develop all kinds of relationships-some good,
some bad, some shallow and some profound.
The level of dissatisfaction or suffering that arises from
these relationships will differ. However
we will all feel sadness and suffering when we depart from a loved
one, whether it be our dear parents, children, spouses, siblings or
friends. The dying person
will feel the suffering of departing from those who remain alive and
the surviving persons will feel the suffering of the loss of their