Friday, January 14, 2011

A Quick Look at Dukkha

Two Perspectives on Suffering

In our classes, when we talk about suffering (that all is dukkha, the first noble truth) and the need to consider it contemplatively and experientially, I ask students what they learned about suffering in their churches and synagogues. The answer is always a resounding “Nothing.”

The reason “suffering” is underplayed in Christianity and Judaism is that those faiths’ theological emphases are in other areas and so “suffering” is simply an underdeveloped concept. In Buddhism, on the other hand, “suffering” is the central theme and all the teachings are directed to understanding it, either cognitively or experientially.

Traditional Judeo-Christian theologians and philosophers, while admitting to the horror and uselessness of suffering, struggle to make sense of it. The difficulty arises from the belief that suffering cannot be eliminated, it is God-created and so part of the divine nature. God created suffering, as their reasoning goes, to purify and/or punish us for our sins.

The way to make sense of suffering in biblical traditions is to make it bearable by portraying suffering as somehow beneficial. Many Judeo-Christian thinkers suggest that suffering is a necessary test of faith. The greater the suffering, the stronger the faith.  They suggest that suffering serves a higher, though unknown and unknowable, purpose. Often in Judeo-Christian thought, those who see themselves as “saved” or “chosen,” see their suffering as somehow special, different from the suffering of others, and particularly beneficial. The answer to the question “Why me?” in Judeo-Christian theology is that God acts in mysterious ways, ways we cannot know.

In the Buddhist view, suffering is never good, never beneficial. Suffering is always seen as bad, always seen as harmful. It is neither to be borne nor to be endured for the sake of some higher purpose. It is not an external creation of a higher being or a force of the universe. It is not the source of salvation. In Buddhism, suffering is not inexplicable and it does not need to be justified. For Buddhists, faced with the challenges of suffering, there is no question “Why me?”

In Buddhism, suffering is the result of our skewed relationship to the universe. Our ignorance about the way things really works results in our suffering.  When, by dint of diligent, hard, spiritual work, we realign ourselves by trading ignorance for wisdom, suffering ends. Therefore, to a Buddhist, suffering and the end of suffering is entirely in our own hands. We increase our suffering, decrease our suffering, or eliminate our suffering, depending on how we think and what we do.


  1. Hi Carl--
    Although often discussed in our group, I think a particular and key aspect of suffering is worth your reiteration here--if you'd care to share it. Tell us please: What is the difference between pain and suffering? So often the two are linked and taken to be one and the same--most especially from the Judeo/Christian perspective.
    With metta

  2. You speak of the Christian view of suffering, and its role as a test of faith. While many seem to benefit and to share what they learn, I found it freeing to recognize that suffering just happens, that it is not the result of my bad behavior (necessarily; in some cases it is) or some test I need to pass.

    What I find more challenging is determining when I have accepted my dukkha, calmly, and when I have simply buried it or distracted myself from it. Ideas?

  3. I would love to know the answer to the questions from Nilda and Barbara. Good questions.

  4. I always enjoy reading your blog Carl and would like to meet you sometime. Having been raised in a buddhist household, I have little experience with the christian concept of suffering. We were always told "the deeper the mud the more beautiful the lotus blossom" and that obstacles keep us motivated to improve our practice. How boring life would be with no suffering. Isn't suffering as much a part of life as joy?

  5. It appears that the distinctions between Pain and Suffering remain elusive.
    Or not.