“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked…The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain…When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find that it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.

We have seen that Buddhism arose out of the Hindu matrix of beliefs when the Buddha identified universal suffering as the impetus for enlightenment. Similarly Christianity emerged from the Hebrew tradition as a response to suffering, symbolized by the agony of a particular person, Christ. Today we will see how Paul Tillich elucidates the Christian conception of suffering existentially and compares and contrasts it with that of Buddhism.

Tillich  notes the similar locus suffering has in Buddhism and Christianity and the opportunity in both for suffering to be transformative. The difference between them centers on recognition of the two basic forms of suffering: first as “an element of essential finitude,” and second “an element of existential estrangement.”1 The latter according to Tillich can grip a person and become a “structure of destruction,” 2  and is therefore evil and so must be overcome. In Buddhism this distinction is not made; finitude is lumped with estrangement as evil, and thus salvation means escape from finitude as well. While Tillich thinks this interpretation is correct to the extent that suffering is derived from the will to be, he rejects the Buddha’s  conclusion that suffering is conquered by self-negation of the will’s desire to exist.

Christianity avoids this formula by attempting to free one from the suffering of existential estrangement, which is evil, while urging one to endure the suffering of finitude with an ultimate courage, that is, the courage to be. Tillich admits any victory over existential estrangement is limited in time and space, and the two remain difficult to differentiate. His solution is to distinguish suffering in which meaning can be experienced from meaningless suffering.  He believes the main cause of meaningless suffering is ‘aloneness,’ manifest as ‘loneliness’ and rejection by others in contrast to the ‘solitude’ in the case of finitude wherein man can experience the ultimate.

“If the distinction between essential solitude and existential loneliness is not maintained, ultimate unity is possible only by the annihilation of the lonely individual and through his disappearance in an undifferentiated substance. This solution aspired to in radical mysticism is analogous to the answer to the problem of suffering given in Buddhism.”3 72

If existential estrangement and loneliness can be conquered and finitude can be subsumed in the ultimate courage to be, suffering can be transformed into Christianity’s summum bonum, blessedness. In brief, then, Tillich sees the Buddha’s solution to man’s suffering as an escape from being, while the Christian solution is the conquest of estrangement from being (God) and the courage to be.

1Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology. The University of Chicago Press. 1967. ISBN 0-226-80336-8, Volume II, Page 70. Tillich uses the word essence to refer to potentiality, equivalent to Plato’s ideal. Existence is the actualization of the potential human, a state in which man is inherently estranged from the ground of being, from other beings, and even from himself. In the transition from essence to existence man acquires guilt, becomes sinful, and participates in universal tragedy. It is a state characterized by hubris, unbelief, and concupiscence. The condition of estrangement from the ultimate power of being is only conquered by love. (see pages 21-24 and 44-70)


3Ibid, page 72.

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