On suffering

Today I sat with a friend, having lunch and chatting. She’s a very spiritual person and as our conversation trundled along it moved into deeper and more spiritual matters as has happened before. She knows I attend a local Buddhist monastery and so she asked me, ‘What do Buddhists do to alleviate suffering in the world?’

It’s a fair question and it’s one that she’s asked before. I’m not sure my previous answer satisfied her enquiry, hence the question arising again today. I often call myself a Buddhist but I can’t speak for all Buddhists nor am I an apologist for Buddhism or any other religion. However, in the spirit of her enquiry I attempted an answer:

There is suffering in the world. None of us has the power, individually or collectively to stop all suffering. Old age, sickness and death occur and there’s nothing we can do to absolutely prevent that. You can walk down the street, pick up a piece of litter, place some money in a charity box, help an old person across the road. You can help to alleviate the suffering in the world through your actions.

But actually, old age, sickness and death are not suffering. They and many other things that happen as part of this life are facts. The suffering comes from our attachment to a personal view of life. We want things to be other than what they are and it’s that wanting that is the root of our suffering.

It’s so easy to miss the point with this. It’s not that things shouldn’t be different. It’s the actual act of wanting that’s the problem. We create a schism within: on the one hand we have what is; on the other what we want. When we can’t bring those two together there’s a separation and personal self view won’t tolerate separation, it’s ‘gravity’ tries and wants to pull all together into one. To be separate is for self view to weaken, possibly to split apart and ultimately it’s self view that we cling to most tightly so anyhting moving us in that direction generates fear and is avoided.

Every time you think of an action you can’t at that very time complete to your imagined satisfactory conclusion you create such a schism, small or large. Examine this for yourself and you’ll see it’s true. So many worries and sleepless nights over things we want to happen or things we want to avoid but are unable to bring about. What is a ‘control freak’ but one who does this more openly and overtly but actually we all have this tendency as long as we all operate through a personal sense of self.

But what happens when we surrender our personal sense of self? What happens when we realise the truth – all is one? Well, we walk down the street and we pick up a piece of litter and we put some money in a charity box and we help an old person across the road. Accepting the wholeness of the now is not to say we aren’t free to act in the world to alleviate the suffering of others. But it’s not enough to focus on the outer suffering of the world. You wouldn’t think much of a doctor if you went to them with a broken leg and they gave you paracetamol for the pain. You want them to cure the cause not just the outer symptom.

Just so with suffering. It has many outer forms, countless outer forms, some of which we can act to alleviate, others are beyond us. But the cause is not the outer form it’s our attachment to our sense of personal self that creates the schism of wanting it to be otherwise. Again – not that it shouldn’t be otherwise but it’s the wanting and the schism that ARE the suffering.

Without a sense of personal self, pain is just pain, loss is loss. Life will continue or not. The wheel turns and sometimes you’re on the top, sometimes the botom but always it will change. That’s the nature of the ever evolving present.

I’m not sure my answer satisfied my friend. She looked at me and I could tell I hadn’t quite made a connection. I hadn’t managed to find the right words or perhaps it just wasn’t the right time for her to see. Perhaps next time.

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