Thursday, October 9, 2014

Being Real about Suffering

I had a discussion item posted on the NY Times in response to an opinion piece called 'Can Wanting to Believe Make Us Believers?', as follows:

I notice that this series of posts was predicated on the notion that religion is always a matter of belief. As a self-taught Buddhist convert from an Christian cultural background, I have learned that this seemingly basic assumption about what constitutes religion can be questioned.  
The basis of the Buddhist path is not whether there is an ominpotent but invisible deity, belief in whom is fundamental to our well-being, but observation of the verifiable fact of 'suffering and the cause of suffering'. 
It is worth reflecting that the derivation of 'orthodoxy' is from the Greek words for 'correct belief' (ortho doxa). The Buddhist point of departure is not belief, as such, but 'right view' or 'right understanding' (samma ditthi), which is similar, but also different in an important way. 
Anyway, this post is really not an advertisement for Buddhism, but an observation about how the question of 'belief' has become so central to the whole debate. So much hinges on this 'yes/no' response to the question 'does God exist'? And that question carries a lot of entailments and ramifications, over and above (for example) the teaching of Jesus to 'love one another'. 
Just something to think about.
Well, thinking about it some more, it occurs to me that one major obstacle for Christian believers is indeed 'the reality of suffering'.  Why? Because, the argument goes, if God is both benevolent and omnipotent, then why should there be suffering in the world? This seems to present a lot of problems to some people.

Personally I have never found it a convincing argument. My view is that there is suffering in the world, because of the way the world is; that is the nature of the world.  The worst suffering that I am aware of has been inflicted by people on others. Of course there are also natural disasters and epidemics; but Christians have always known the world was a 'vale of tears'. I thought the idea was: 'have faith, and in the end you will go to a better place, where there will be no tears whatever'.

But that is not the point I want to make. It is more about what Buddhism makes of suffering. Buddhism doesn't start from 'who made the world', which is at front and centre of the 'culture wars' about religion and science in Western culture (for instance in the question 'if God made the world, why is there so much suffering?')  Buddhism starts with the fact of dukkha, suffering  - unsatisfaction, you might call it. There is suffering - this is indisputable fact - and there is a cause for it - a cause which can be investigated and understood. So we need to learn to observe what is the cause, instead of having beliefs about something which might or might not exist.

This kind of direct observation is always applicable, without having to believe anything. Whenever I am in some kind of distress - at the moment, I'm in 'job distress' - there is the fact of dukkha, of suffering. Without trying to rationalise it or escape from it, you need to be aware of what the mind is doing in such a situation. All these thoughts come up - 'why me? Aren't I good enough? Will I ever find another job? Woe is me. I wish I had had another occupation' - and so on. This can be very distressing, obviously; despondency looms, it virtually stands next to you, saying things to you, like the proverbial 'black dog'. But part of me knows, these streams of words is also just thinking, just the activities of thought and the associated emotions. Actually it occurs to me that in some way I am the problem. 'Oh poor me'; I am so pre-occupied with myself. So I think if one has any meditative wisdom whatever, then you have to be able to not get drawn into those internal mental dramas, even though it is easy and natural to do so. You have to do whatever needs to be done in terms of finding work, but also be equanimous about not finding it. But most of all, you need not to let that black dog convince you of its reality.

Anyway, on a more philosophical note, that act of direct perception of the facts of one's mental and emotional state, and learning to maintain some kind of equanimity even when things are going to s***, is better than praying to an imagined deity and then asking why nothing seems to happen.  It is not a question of belief. It is based on the observation of the reality, and also on the ability to maintain some sense of detachment from it, by not being too caught up in your own dramas.

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