Suffering, in all its myriad forms, is the most persistent issue that we face as human beings. The Buddha acknowledged this fact, making it the opening statement in his teaching. But he didn’t leave us to simply endure it. He went on to explain how suffering arises and how we can become free of it.
Unfortunately, many of us do not understand suffering, and so we suffer all the more. And not only do we suffer our own hardships, but we suffer over the hardships of others. We look around us at the world and everyone in it and cannot help but see the overwhelming persistence of suffering. And this observation causes a disturbance at the very core of our being. We are so affected by what we see as a world inflicted with suffering, that we often question the very meaning of existence.
We are told by our religious teachings that God is Love and that his love is far more profound than any earthly love, and yet, if we would do everything in our power to protect our own children, why would he not do the same?
The problem of suffering is perhaps one of the most influential reasons why people lose faith in God. And it is quite understandable. The line of reasoning goes something like this:
– God is all-loving and all-powerful.
– Such a God would not permit suffering.
– Therefore, one of these premises must be false.
– Either God is not all-loving or he is not all-powerful.
– Or, God simply does not exist.
This appears to be a very logical line of reasoning, but even our logic can be flawed if we overlook just one small part in the equation. When we take this line of reasoning, we are not thinking in a purely logical way. The entire idea is fueled by emotion which can easily cloud our understanding. We see that there is so much suffering in the world, and we are deeply affected by it. It saddens us, and even angers us, and that is why we seek an explanation in the first place.
We may initially feel angry with God because it would seem that he’s not doing his job. We then go on to question whether he is purposely neglectful or whether he is simply incapable of performing his duties. And then, if we take the extreme approach, we may conclude that he isn’t doing anything because he isn’t there.
But if we go back and re-examine this line of reasoning, we might find that we are overlooking something important, which at first seems unquestionable.
The third statement in this line of reasoning proposes that one of the premises must be false, and we are quick to assume that the falsity lies within the first statement. But we completely overlook the second. We assume that because God is all-loving and all-powerful that he would not allow suffering, because that would seem to be a contradiction. But what if it were not a contradiction, but rather a misunderstanding on our own part?
So let us try to understand it. Let us examine it in greater depth. And then we can have a clearer perspective.
It should be first of all understood that pain and suffering are not the same, and that the two exist independently of one another. Pain is a physical sensation, while suffering is a mental and emotional feeling. Pain is the body’s way of alerting us to physical damage or potential damage. Suffering is purely the product of thought. In other words, pain may be inevitable in life, but suffering is optional.
Now when the Buddha spoke of suffering he was referring not only to pronounced suffering, but also to that subtle sense of dissatisfaction which seems to underlie the entire experience of life. And he went on to explain that all suffering is caused by desire.
Desire also needs to be understood. Like suffering, desire is not always extreme. It can take on a very subtle nature. An obvious example of desire is the wanting of fame and riches. But desire is also found in the seeking of any pleasure whatsoever, physical or mental, and even in the seeking to be free of suffering. This has to be understood because we tend to think of desire and aversion as polar opposites, when actually they are two sides of the same coin.
Desire also takes the form of attachment and expectation, and when circumstances change or do not turn out the way we would like them to, we suffer in response. But it’s not our circumstances which cause us to suffer. Rather, it is our thoughts about those circumstances.
So the Buddha is trying to make us aware of how desire and suffering are so intimately entwined that there is little distinction between the two. It’s similar to the relationship between time and space. As soon as space comes into being, so does time. And so as soon as desire arises, suffering is also there.
Now the Buddha also went on to explain that we can be free of suffering, and I think it’s very obvious by now how this may be possible. If we understand that suffering is caused by desire, then naturally the way to become free of suffering is to become free of desire. This, of course, is easier said than done, but it is not impossible.
The first thing we must do is accept our suffering rather than resist it, because as I said before, our aversion to it is really just another form of desire. So the more we resist it, the more we suffer.
The second step is to bring full awareness to our suffering. This doesn’t mean that we get caught up in the surface emotions and negative thoughts which trigger the feeling, but that we delve deeply into it in order to understand why it has arisen in the first place. We can understand, intellectually, that suffering is caused by desire, but this intellectual understanding will do nothing for us. We have to understand it experientially. We have to explore those specific desires that are within us that lie at the very root of our personal suffering.
The intention here is not to resist suffering, nor to resist or repress the root desires. It is simply to take notice of them, to become aware of them without judgment. Often the reason we have so much trouble acknowledging what is in the shadows of our psyche is because we have so much judgment about it. We really need to be able to explore the inner depths of our consciousness with love and acceptance.
This isn’t about any sort of discipline. The idea here is not to force any sort of change. It’s simply to be an observer. And it’s by observing the mechanisms of the subconscious that we discover the futility of our desires. Once we understand how unnecessary and misguided they are, we eventually lose interest in pursuing them. This may be a gradual ongoing process, so we need to have patience with ourselves. We should have no expectations concerning our progress. We have to simply allow the process to unfold effortlessly.
Now I also want to make clear that suffering is also a great teacher. Much in the way that pain alerts us to issues within the body, suffering alerts us to wounds within the psyche that need attending. And the more we give loving attention to those wounds, the more we are able to heal them.
When we suffer, our initial reaction is to resist and escape, but it never goes away until we learn the lesson it has to teach us. In fact, the more we try to escape it, the more suffering we create on top of it. At some point we have to examine it and understand it. When we understand what is causing the suffering to arise, only then are we able to begin healing. And once we heal those wounds, we no longer need to suffer them.
So we can see how both pain and suffering have a purpose, but the question still remains, why does God allow these experiences? Couldn’t God simply create a world in which pain and suffering don’t exist? There is no reason to believe he could not. But what kind of world would that be?
Now when we say that God is Love, what does this mean? Love means acceptance. Love also means freedom. And because God creates everything with love, he allows for freedom. And it is with this freedom that we turn away from God. When we turn away from God, we lose sight of who we really are in relation to the Divine, and in relation to the rest of creation. We lose sight of the fact that we are of the same spiritual substance as our Creator. And when we become lost, fear and desire arises, and from fear and desire comes suffering.
Now when we think of God and the issue of suffering, we also tend to bring along with it concepts like evil, sin, punishment and reward. And when we think in these terms it seems ludicrous that God would create human beings with the freewill to sin, knowing that they would do evil, and then punish them for it. So we need to clear up some of these misconceptions.
First of all, the word sin is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word Chata’ah, which roughly means to be off-center or out of alignment. At the center of our being is being itself, the Divine Source from which everything arises and to which everything returns. So when we sin, all we are doing is misdirecting our awareness away from the center of our being. There’s no shame in this. It’s not a moral issue. However, since God is the source of love and joy, when we are out of alignment with that source, we are out of alignment with these qualities as well, and that is why we suffer.
Suffering is not punishment. God is Love, after all. God has created us with free will and accepts us just as we are, wherever we are on the path of life. However, there are natural consequences to spiritual laws, just as there are consequences in regard to physical laws.
So it’s because God loves us that he has created us with free will, and it’s in turning away from God that we suffer as a natural result. That is simply a consequence. God is not angry with us. He is not punishing us. He is the very source of love, and so he doesn’t require that we love him in return. If he were to force us to love him without the freedom to turn away, it would not be authentic, and therefore would not be love.
God wants us to experience love in all its glory, without coercion, and that’s why he allows us to suffer. We can’t blame God for our suffering, because our suffering is self-inflicted. We have to take responsibility for that. And only when we do so are we able to become free of it.
Now I’ve gone on about the nature of suffering, how it arises, and how we can become free of it. But as I said early on, there is a clear distinction between suffering and pain. And while suffering is something which we can learn to manage, pain seems to be something which is inescapable.
So what can be said about pain? Why does God allow pain in his creation? How can we possibly reconcile this with the idea that God is all-loving and all-powerful? When we look around at the world we see not only suffering, but intense pain as well. There is so much violence and disease that seems to have no preference for evil or good-hearted people. Everyone is afflicted in some way, and there appears to be no justice about it.
We can take responsibility for our own suffering, but how can we expect a child who is born with disease or deformity to assume responsibility for that affliction? Furthermore, if there is a God, why does he allow it in the first place? We can also apply this logic in regard to acts of violence as well as natural disasters which afflict seemingly innocent people. It would seem that such afflictions are quite random in who they effect.
When pressed with an explanation many religious people have a way of circumventing the argument by suggesting that while we don’t know the precise reasons why God allows for such things to occur, we must assume that he does have a reason. But this answer is no answer at all, and is certainly not satisfactory to the skeptic. It seems more than anything to be a cop out. But it does bring up a good point. It asks us to consider the possibility that there may be a reason beyond our current comprehension, because after all there are many things which we do not fully understand.
I’m not saying that we should assume that there is most definitely a reason, and just leave it at that. What I’m suggesting is that we consider the mere possibility that there may be a reason, and that we try to explore it further. Until we have explored the issue in greater depth, we can have no certainty one way or the other.
Now when we bring this question to those of the Abrahamic religions, they often leave us just as confounded as we came. But when we bring this question to those of the Dharmic religions, they look at us with confusion as if to suggest that the answer should be very obvious. This is because these traditions emphasize the concepts of karma and rebirth. In fact, even the Abrahamic traditions seem to infer these concepts, but don’t make them a central part of their teachings.
Rebirth, or reincarnation, is simply the idea that the soul, which exists independently of the body, transmigrates from one body to the next. This can be difficult to comprehend if we assume that consciousness is produced by the brain, which has been a long held belief in the Western scientific community. But as science has advanced into the realms of quantum physics, it has now become the current model that consciousness is what underlies everything in the universe. This is to say that consciousness precedes the body, and not the other way round.
In addition, there have been many reports of children who recall having lived previously to their current incarnation. They can recall verifiable details about their past lives such as specific names and places, or they may be familiar with a language which no one in this life has taught them. There are a number of such accounts, if one is willing to research it, too many in fact to simply brush them off as mere coincidence.
But even if you are a hardened disbeliever, and unwilling to accept these evidences, then simply consider the concept of reincarnation as hypothetical just for the sake of this discussion. If we bring this concept into the discussion it resolves the problem of unjust afflictions, because it offers us the likelihood that all afflictions are justified.
If we are to assume that God is perfect and just, then we must also assume that he would create a perfect and just system, and the concept of reincarnation seems to be both perfect and just.
I spoke earlier about how suffering is a natural consequence of thoughts and actions which are out of alignment with the Divine. When we take this into consideration along with the idea of reincarnation we can easily see that the afflictions we are born with in this life could be the result of thoughts and actions which occurred in previous incarnations. Again, this is not about crime and punishment. Rather it is about the restoration of balance. The way in which karma and reincarnation work is that they are always bringing everything back into balance.
Now, this is not meant to be taken as an excuse to turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering of others. It is merely an explanation as to its origin. Just as there is consequence for thoughts and actions that are out of alignment with the Divine, there are also consequences for thoughts and actions that are in alignment with the Divine. Thoughts and actions which are rooted in love, not only arise from that divinity within us, but bring us back into alignment with that center.
What is interesting to note once more is that the problem of suffering is often the catalyst of Atheistic reasoning. What this tells me is that many Atheists are deeply empathetic. And this isn’t to suggest that being an Atheist makes one more empathetic. What I’m suggesting is that people who are highly empathetic are probably more likely to become Atheists, unless they find some way to resolve the philosophical problem of suffering. What I see in the Atheist who accuses God of being unjust and uncaring is someone who is driven by a deep compassion for others. What they fail to consider is that this compassion may be the very love of God stirring within them.
When anyone asks why God does nothing to intervene in the suffering of the world, I would remind them that maybe it is God within the heart that arouses their concern and is calling them to take action. Just as we are created with the freedom to do evil, we are also created with the freedom to do good. And I would go further to suggest that God is always calling us to do good.
If we can come to recognize that God is in the heart of all living beings, and that we are all one Divine family, then naturally we are moved to help one another. But whether or not we believe in God, if we are concerned with the suffering of humanity, then we cannot deny our own innate nature, which is compassion and love. And the more that we awaken that nature within ourselves, the more we awaken it in others, simply by becoming a living example of loving kindness. If there is any hope at all for a world that is free of suffering, it is in the sharing of this love and compassion with one another.