Spirituality, Religious Wisdom, and the Care of the Patient

Suffering and the Buddhist Tradition

Venerable Guo Yuan Fa Shi

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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."

Today 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.

What 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.

Suffering 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.

Physical 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 Buddhism. 

But 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.

Material 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.

We 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 eventually.

And 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 dear ones.

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James F. Keenan, "Suffering and the Christian Tradition"
Suffering: Introduction
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