Sunday, March 6, 2011


In Buddhism, we find it useful to distinguish between pain and suffering. As my friend writer Candace Robb says, "Pain is something that comes in life, but suffering is voluntary or optional."
Let's try to unpack that very compressed and succinct statement.
The second Noble Truth states that the cause of suffering is trsnaa, which is usually translated as "thirst." This thirst is desire, especially selfish desire based on ignorance (avidya) of the nature of things, which is impermanence and emptiness (shunyata), i.e., things possess no enduring substance or essence or independent existence. In The Buddhist Vision, Alex Kennedy rightly says, "All things, whether subject or object, are processes linked together in an intricate network of mutual conditions...The ordinary man is distracted by the bright surface of the world and mistakes this for reality."
Our society, a capitalist one that bombards us with 3,000 product messages a day, depends on citizen consumers constantly feeling desire or thirst (that is, feeling incomplete in themselves, that they "need" something beyond themselves for their happiness); and, as members of the Marxist Frankfurt school pointed out, so many of those desires are false. They are part of our social conditioning, and the relentless work of advertisers and the media. But if you can't make yourself happy, no one can.
So in my novel Oxherding Tale, we have the character of Reb the Coffinmaker, a spiritual advisor for the book's protagonist, who goes to public market, looks around, and "rejoices at all the things he didn't need." With characteristic profundity, the Buddha said, "Man's sensual desires are only attachments to concepts." Think about that, please. It is the idea of something you are desiring and chasing, its name (nama) and form (rupa), a product of your own mind. Whatever it is, it is you.
But pain is something we all will experience. Pain is a part of life. Sooner or later, we all will become sick, know old age, and die. But pain becomes suffering when (1) within ourselves we (or society) create a feeling of lack that we imagine some external thing can satisfy; or (2) when we allow the natural pains and aches of life to become something the mind dwells on or is attached to. Thus, that form of suffering is voluntary and optional. We choose it. We nurture it. We let the mind return to it again and again, for very often the ego enjoys its own suffering--it's "my suffering," you see? Everything is still about "me, myself, and I."
For this reason, Shakyamuni Buddha said, "Perfect peace can dwell only where all vanity has disappeared."

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