Following our tabulation of the causes and cures of suffering offered by Buddha and his followers and commentators in the last post, we ended with the irony of suffering transmuted from an evil to a good.
Still it seems odd to view the universal experience of suffering as a good; perhaps it is more accurate to see it as an opportunity. The main message of the Buddha may simply be for us to recognize that we continuously experience the burden of suffering. Rather than deny, rebel, complain, or despair, wisdom is the choice to endure it, learn from it, find the opening to transformation, and plunge deeply into contemplation. At the end of the day, the Buddha’s teaching is utterly optimistic – suffering can be overcome; it is not inevitable. It is the vehicle that carries one down the path to peace and enlightenment.
Of course, there is much more to Buddhism than suffering and its remedy. The second order lesson of Buddhism is that we must question our preconceived notions of reality and ethics, what I called in my early blogs, the big picture.2 It turns out the quest to relieve suffering mirrors the quest for meaning – in fact, they merge into a single quest. Inside his journey, the Buddha uncovers revolutionary truths: the no-self, no-time, and no-death; the wheel of becoming; the Middle Way; and the power of mindfulness. All of these do not appear or are underdeveloped in Western philosophy and thus represent priceless contributions to the corpus of human thought.
In conclusion then, it seems to me that the Buddha and his followers articulate the most sophisticated understanding of the place of suffering in human life. However, in general, the focus of the First Noble Truth is everyday human struggling and misery or what might be called ordinary suffering, rather than the physical pain, illness, torture, or desolation that make up extraordinary suffering. Buddhist insights apply well to the former, but arguably not as well to the latter. It seems doubtful, even insensitive, to offer only the four noble truths and the eight-fold path to a person with severe persistent pain or a rapidly terminal illness, or to someone living in a war zone. For those scenarios I propose another approach which is the subject of our next blog.
2See Philosophy: The Big Picture and The Two Fundamental Questions, this site 11/5/2018 and 11/7/2018.