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Is Life Just Suffering?


Like me, you may have wondered why Buddhism is so obsessed with suffering, rather than the beauty of life. Not only is it stated in general terms, the Buddha actually made sure to point out instances of pain that are universal and unavoidable. This is depressing news. If life is so bad, why bother with anything, even a spiritual path?


Due to a Judeo-Christian cultural background, many Westerners assume that a just and loving God put us all here for a unique, specific reason. Buddhism seems incompatible with a purpose-driven life, with the typical criticism that it, like other esoteric Asian religions, assigns us with only one task – escaping life’s responsibilities. It’s important to note that Buddhism teaches the law of karma, so it is in our best interest to not harm ourselves or others. Since many Buddhists believe in rebirth, death is not considered an escape from life, but actually brings us back into the whirlwind. If you create bad karma by killing, you must face the painful consequences of those actions.


Regardless, there still persists the classic criticism that Buddhism is nihilistic, meaning that it considers beliefs, values, and even life itself to be useless. One example critics cite is the concept of “shunyata,” usually translated as “emptiness,” or “void.” Reality is empty? That doesn’t sound too inspiring! For those optimists out there who are still interested in the Buddha’s message, fortunately, the issue goes deeper.


The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha was the first teaching he gave after his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. He continued to spend 40 years teaching and, while these truths about suffering were often a cornerstone of his message, they were not the last word by any means. It’s important to note that these doctrines were first taught to spiritual practitioners who were already quite advanced on their yogic paths and did not doubt the truth of suffering (what they did not know was his particular solution and program for overcoming it).


Buddhism does not teach that life itself is an overarching evil, but rather that the condition it’s in now is out of harmony. If this wasn’t true, then there would be no point in engaging the path to liberation. Remember, the last noble truth states that there is a way out. The basic problem with life is our response to, and subsequent identification with, pain. We say that “I am in pain,” or this is “my pain.” Insight meditation penetrates this illusion of ownership. The result is to calm the obsession with getting and taking. If it’s impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self, it’s not worth clinging to, and this applies to any passing phenomenon.


Clearly, Buddhism is not pessimistic. But it is different from western religions in that there is no inherent meaning given to suffering. That would indeed mean that our suffering, especially when it is self-generated, is pretty much purposeless. If pain is useful at all, it is as a means to teach us, and help us avoid injury or death (from an evolutionary and biological perspective) but it is certainly not considered an end in itself. Thus, from this pragmatic standpoint Buddhism is more about the “how” rather than the “why.”


As a Westerner, however, I can’t help but wonder why life so hard.* I admit that it might not be possible to answer this question. Perhaps it’s not just the fact that life is difficult that is so troubling, but the question of what it is we’re struggling for. For some it is heaven in the afterlife, some seek a better world in this life, and some just want a good life for themselves. Whatever the goal, it’s clear that we all seek some sort of satisfaction. As the Dalai Lama says, our lives naturally and inevitably point toward happiness [as a goal].


In Buddhist metaphysics there are a plethora of heavens and hells. Whatever the mind desires after it dies, it gets in the form of a dream-like projection. As the Chinese proverb says - Be careful what you wish for, for it may come true. Imagine all the negative thoughts and feelings that occur even in one day. Imagine your state of mind during your death. How confident can you be that your desires at that time will necessarily be wise?
According to the Tibetan Lam Rim teachings, most seekers have a limited view of the path (that is, most religious people) and simply want to go to heaven after they die. That goal is fine, as far as it goes. Those on the second level know that heaven is actually impermanent, it is a mind-state rather than an actual place, so they seek nirvana, which transcends all normal mind-states. As the Bible says, this is “the peace that passes understanding.” The Theravada sect of Buddhism holds that the one who has reached the end of the path – the Arhant – has attained nirvana, at death attains total release, or pari-nirvana, and will never be tempted to enter the manifest world again. However, according to Mahayana (“the great vehicle”the highest spiritual path is that of the Bodhisattva who is about to be fully released in this life, or is very close to it, but realizes that so long as others do not have the chance for nirvana, their journey will continue. 
Thus, while one begins by seeking wisdom on an individual level through discipline and study, the Dharma blossoms into universal salvation by giving/receiving blessings to/from others.


A nirvana for one is incomplete liberation; it means that there is a subtle trace of self. The motivation to assist all beings to nirvana shows that the Bodhivsattva, if they are also a Buddha, has realized nirvana in the midst of samsara, the world of confusion. True paradise is not a place, it is inner freedom. Tibetans call pure awareness rig-pa, which is the innermost, indestructible, luminous, uncreated, primordial mind. The best known sage of the West, Jesus Christ, also taught that the kingdom of heaven is within us. Just imagine, if you can, not feeling any boredom, fear, or need. That is the heaven, I believe, he was really talking about.


Naturally, many people of faith find comfort in the promise of salvation, that is, guaranteed admission into an afterlife paradise. For Buddhists, faith means taking refuge in the three jewels of the teacher (Buddha), the teachings (Dharma), and the community of practitioners (Sangha). If you find a safe place, it supports you, and trust and confidence (saddha) come naturally. On the question of what nirvana is, the Buddha was largely silent, not wanting to deceive his followers with false previews.


Ultimately, I can’t know for sure which religion has the correct doctrine of the afterlife. Probably, after the body dies, that’s it for us. It is important to seriously consider these issues, though, for it puts life into a larger context. I’m willing to take a version of Pascal’s wager. If there is no afterlife, then when I get to the end, it really doesn’t really matter what I did at that point. You can make a moral case from a humanist perspective to live a good life, and it certainly helps during life, but ultimately, there is no consequence that awaits me after I die. But if consciousness does survive physical death, contemplative activity has real significance on the other side too. Either way, there is nothing to lose by doing it. (The opposing argument would be that if spiritual practice does not show results in this life, then it is a waste of time, as we only have one life, and it is short compared to eternal nothing. But the flipside is that eternal nothing renders a short life of frustrated striving insignificant, especially as there is no longer any sentience that feels regret about wasted time.) 


Of course, for Pascal, the actual terms of the wager was that permanent heaven is the best prize. The worst case scenario in the afterlife is permanent hell, so the religion that promises you a way to avoid that wins out. However, I find the idea of a permanent hell so unlikely that it smacks of nothing but political fear-mongering to me.


What could be more meaningful than spending the short life we have aiming for a higher state of being? If we could embrace a reality beyond suffering, we would conquer our fear of death, thus transforming our relationship to life. It doesn’t sound life-denying at all!


See also:;


*This theme is also explored in the essay Utopia

*Also explored in the essay Original Sin