“Siddhartha stopped fighting his fate this very hour, and he stopped suffering.”– Hermann Hess, Siddhartha.



Next we examine some of the commentary by Western philosophers on Buddha’s Noble Truths regarding the human condition. The first major thinker we consider is Arthur Schopenhauer who sees will as more basic than thought in understanding man. Intrigued by Immanuel Kant’s distinction between the phenomenon or sensation of a thing and the unreachable thing-in-itself, Schopenhauer says we can in fact know the thing-in-itself for ourselves. By introspection we see it is the will, especially the will to live. He projects this upon the world and concludes will is the thing-in-itself for all entities, and the cosmos is a single vast will to exist.1

Ever the pessimist, Schopenhauer thinks this eternal striving prevents peace – hence “all life is suffering.”2 For him, willing arises from need, therefore from deficiency. Fulfilling a need gives only temporary satisfaction. Even pleasure is the mere temporary relief of suffering. “As long as we are the subject of willing, we can never have lasting happiness or peace.” 3 He comes to  recognize the correspondences of his philosophy with Buddha’s first three Noble Truths. He answers Buddha’s implicit question as to why birth (and theoretically rebirth to believers) is the origin of suffering – because birth is the origin of the striving will.4 However, like Buddha, Schopenhauer does not believe suicide can relieve this suffering as suicide too is an action of the will.

Rather Schopenhauer sees two remedies: temporary and permanent. The temporary solution is to lose one self, and thereby suppress the will, in aesthetics – the visual arts and especially music. Such experience allows one to free oneself from the will albeit briefly. Permanent relief is found in selflessness manifest in asceticism and saintliness. Schopenhauer accepts that the ultimate wisdom is found in Nirvana, the reduction of one’s self to a minimum of desire and will: “The less the will is excited, the less we suffer.” 5

So we see that Schopenhauer comes to the same conclusions as the Buddha although by a different path. Both feel a level of self-denial and highly virtuous living are the solution to the problem of human suffering.

1 Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8 pageS 845-848.

2Schopenauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Idea, Orion Publishing Group, London, UK, 1995. ISBN 9778-0-4608-7505-9, page 197.

3Ibid. Page 120

4Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954. ISBN 0-671-54800-X,  Page  427.

5Durant, Will, The Story of Philosophy. Garden City Publishing Co., Inc.: Garden City, New York, 1927. Page 369.

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“Now this, O monks is the noble truth of the cause of pain: that craving that leads to rebirth, combined with pleasure and lust, finding pleasure here and there, namely, the craving for passion, the craving for existence, the craving for non-existence.” – Buddha, (the second Noble Truth).

There is much commentary on Buddhism in Western historical and philosophical traditions and some Western philosophers have even integrated portions of Buddhist dogma into their own philosophy. Today we will discuss the Western analysis of the historical context of Buddha’s enlightenment.

First Arnold Toynbee emphasizes the political environment of the Buddha’s life as one full of troubles, destructive wars, and “in a bad way… and this evidence is corroborated by the life and outlook of his contemporary, Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, and by the lives of others of the same generation in India who were turning away from This World and seeking to find another through asceticism.”1 According to Toynbee the Buddha “lived to see his native city state Kapilavastu sacked and his Sakyan kinsmen massacred.”2 Toynbee surmises that the Buddha responded to these challenges by renouncing his inhospitable world. Effectively, the Buddha’s concept of suffering arose out of his historicity.

Will Durant follows a different line of reasoning. While he grants difficulties for the natives caused by the Aryan invasion, he highlights the philosophical milieu that followed the establishment of Hinduism with its priests and caste system.  In “an age of amazingly free thought and a thousand experiments in philosophy,”3 skeptics criticized and mocked orthodox clergy and creeds. Traveling Sophists – the Paribbajka, or Wanderers – taught logic as the art of proving anything, including the non-existence of God and the inexpediency of virtue. Finally the nihilistic Sutras of Brihaspati led to a school of Hindu materialists, the Charvakas who ridiculed the Vedas, divine truth, deity, the soul, immortality, and morality.4

Durant, in his typical fashion and contrary to Toynbee, sees the decline of religion and morality and the rise of epicureanism and materialism as the consequence of Indian prosperity, and Buddhism (and Jainism) as a religious reaction. Against that backdrop, the legendary story of the Buddha involves three interstices of suffering. First there is the witnessing of suffering (the dead man, old man, and sick man) that arouses the search for enlightenment. Second is the self-imposition of suffering through asceticism which leads to a dead end. Last is the return to the middle way and the recognition that suffering is sustained by rebirth, itself due to karmic retribution for evil in this life, making rebirth stoppable by virtuous living.

Durant sums it up beautifully: ”If one could still all desires for one’s self, and seek only to do good, then individuality, that first and worst delusion of mankind, might be overcome, and the soul would merge at last with unconscious infinity. What peace there would be in the heart that had cleansed itself of every personal desire! – and what heart that had not so cleansed itself could know peace? Happiness is possible neither here, as paganism thinks, nor hereafter, as many religions think. Only peace is possible, only the cool quietude of craving ended, only Nirvana.”5

1Toynbee, Arnold, A Study of History – Abridgement of Volumes I-VI by D.C. Somervell. Oxford University Press, New York & London, 1956. Page 21.

2Ibid, page 227.

3Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1963. ISBN 0-671-54800-X, page 418.

4Ibid. Page 428

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“To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.”- Bodhidharma



As Buddhism moved out of India and into China, it blended with Taoist philosophy and transmuted into ‘ch’an’ or Zen (meaning meditation). Today we will examine what this now mostly Japanese discipline offers on the concept of universal suffering.

Described by Professor Joel J. Kupperman as “like a philosophical iceberg where almost all of the philosophy is beneath the surface,”1 Zen generally implies rather than states the traditional Buddhist proposition that desires and attachments are the main cause of suffering and that detachment from desires eliminates suffering. D.T. Suzuki seems to take this even further in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism where he writes “There is no knowledge, no ignorance, no destruction of ignorance…There are no four truths, viz. there is no pain, no origin of pain, no stoppage of pain, and no path to the stoppage of pain.”2 This Parmenides-like skeptical denial of the appearance of reality is foundational to Zen.

Still Suzuki tells us Zen does assent to the four noble truths, but the focal point is not external or psychological suffering, but the struggle in each of us between the finite and the infinite. “Zen is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being” where one finds resolution of the conflict through a direct grasping.3

Suffering then falls within the purview of an ephemeral wisdom, the recognition of the limitations and futility of all propositional truth or dogma.  Verbal explanation and analysis are viewed as distracting; instead the practitioner seeks pointers to truth, sometimes in the experience of pain itself (Zen masters have been known to slap students to facilitate understanding). It turns out study of the four noble truths and the Buddhist canon can actually interfere with achieving serenity and enlightenment or satori, meaning intuitive introspection rather than an intellectual exercise. In the end, it may only be through the experience of suffering that one can attain the wisdom that is wanted.4

In summary, Zen offers an alternative perspective on suffering. Suffering is not a symptom, but a sign – effectively incidental to our misconception of the nature of things and of our selves. The cure does not come from learning and is not found through an intellectual process of understanding, but coincident to a sudden grasping of the true nature of reality and one’s make-up. I find this mystical and mysterious, but ultimately optimistic as most of us have the opportunity to grasp that reality before our individual suffering becomes intense or unbearable.

Next we will look briefly at some of the influence of Buddhism on Western philosophy, and some Western commentary.

1 Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8, page 969.

2 Kaufmann, Walter, Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York, 1958.p.187

3 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publsihers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 623-632.

4 Kaufmann, Walter, Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York, 1958.p.190

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