Buddhist Belief-Pain and Suffering

“By means of meditation we can teach our minds to be calm and balanced; within this calmness is a richness and a potential, an inner knowledge which can render our lives boundlessly satisfying and meaningful. While the mind may be what traps us in unhealthy patterns of stress and imbalance, it is also the mind which can free us. Through meditation, we can tap the healing qualities of mind.”

~~~ Tarthang Tulku

Hello to all — This post will be a bit different from those in the past years. I am delighted to be a part of an “on-line sangha” made up of good friends from the sangha I belonged to while I was still able.

A couple of days ago, one of our members wrote about some of her readings on the topic of pain and suffering. A great discussion ensued. I became a part of that discussion and would like to share some of what was said with you. I will not be using the actual names of anyone other than myself.

Before I get into the serious stuff, I have to inject a touch of humor. Here’s a wonderful photo that showed up on Facebook the other day:

Buddha and Squirrel
Doesn't Hurt to Ask!

The discussion opened with this message:


I have been thinking, again about pain and suffering. I have seen it written that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. As a central teaching Buddhism, it is important to study. I am constantly learning more about it. We also have little idea of what other people’s spiritual state may be. We do not know their thoughts or feelings we are good at projecting our own feelings on to others. We are good at judging others. We may think other people would be suffering in a situation that is painful, but they may not be. I have seen people who were near death that were happy. They were not faking it. It is not the situation, but the state of mind which creates suffering. Pain, on the other hand is every where. It is our affective experience of pain which causes suffering. People may be in abysmal circumstances, but may not suffer. Monks tortured and imprisoned by the Chinese claim not to have suffered. Yet, we are here to be compassionate. This is not the compassion of pity. It is the compassion of recognizing that we all do suffer. We hope to ease others suffering. It is the same as our own suffering. It is not to create suffering in ourselves or take on others suffering. We hope to teach others to ease suffering, just as we work on that goal ourselves.

This is from a Zen UU minister.


A quote from the article:
“The point of Buddhist transcending of suffering is not anesthesia. Unfortunately, much that passes for a description of Buddhist thought in our culture for years has seen Buddhism as a way being totally indifferent, of not emotionally responding. Buddhism is portrayed as a kind of emotional anesthesia that avoids all problems by simply not letting yourself become involved in them at all.

It is not a question of getting yourself not to feel pain anymore. Indeed, our usual response to pain, the indulging, wallowing in it, grasping . . . or pushing away, all produce suffering. But these responses also tend to numb us. And, in some ways, this is what we are after in the wallowing, obsessing, the grasping and pushing away. We are seeking the numbing that leaves us not feeling the pain so acutely.

In Buddhism, transcending suffering may well result in our feeling the pain that is inevitable even MORE acutely. Hence, the centrality in Buddhism of compassion, not indifference. But, if it means feeling pain more acutely, it also means feeling JOY more acutely. For, the anesthesia we have the habit of doing to ourselves to shut off our pain results also in shutting off much—if not all—of the playfulness and joyousness of life.”
Another member of the sangha came in with:

I too tend to focus on this principle myself.
Something I was told was (easier said than done, but helps me, at least) is when something “painful” (which is obviously subjective) occurs, to embrace it.
Fully accept the pain, the “suffering” you feel & upon realization that you have embraced the pain, the suffering is no longer there.
Be it a stubbed toe or hurt emotions, accepting the pain, acknowledge the response to “suffer”, accept it, embrace it… it’s no longer there. (But that stubbed toe still throbs!) LoL

That’s what I was taught & wanted to share.
Again, easier said than done, but with practice it becomes more natural (note: I didn’t say easier).
Another of our active contributors wondered how the rest of us would respond to this: To those of you who are discussing anger, pain and suffering, how do you see those in the lower caste systems of India, and those in certain parts of Africa who have AIDS, or are suffering from starvation and illnesses. Do you think they have chosen their paths? Do you think it is Karma that has them where they are in this life?
This is where I stuck my nose in:

First, I do see where, and why, someone may be feeling these discussions tend to get a bit hard to understand. Well, I guess that happens a lot when we’re talking about Buddhism. It is hard to understand — and the main reason is — ta-dah — Buddhism wants to shake us loose from a lifestyle and a culture we’ve lived in all our lives. We don’t like that — we’d rather keep on keeping on with what we have. It is difficult to understand any talk that says we have to suck it up or suffer — that it’s our choice. Some choice, right? I don’t like it either! Learning to suck it up, sucks!

Now, on to the pain and suffering part. Again, here Buddha is trying to tell us to do something contrary to what we are presently doing.

Let’s use myself as an example here.

I am at a stage now with my Pulmonary Fibrosis where every breath is a struggle and is often painful. I did an online Tricycle retreat yesterday where the leader was pointing out how our breath comes in 4 parts — the in-breath — the pause before the out-breath — the out-breath — and the pause before the next in-breath. I am now at a place where there is no longer a pause between the in-breath and the out-breath when I’m breathing normally. When I’m exerting a little energy and become winded and gasping, I even lose the pause before the next in-breath. If it’s there, I can’t sense it.

This is constant. It won’t go away in a few minutes — or a few hours — or a few weeks — or ever. It will only get worse. That’s just the way it is. Have I accepted it? — Of course, I can’t fight it — so I have accepted it. It is what is. I made the wrong choice many, many years ago, and this is how karma tends to work.

Am I transcending the suffering? Not at all. I am always suffering. I can’t make my mind say, “Don’t suffer!” I am suffering. If there’s a good Buddhist way to transcend the suffering I haven’t found it. Can the mind be trained when a terminal illness has progressed this far? I’m thinking perhaps not. The reality is there may be another “mind” out there — the non-self mind — which can transcend the suffering of this body I’m in, but it’s not in the “mind” I’m living with. Even during deep meditation — or for that matter, even during sleep, I am still suffering. I can’t find a way to tap into that “other” mind which can transcend suffering.

Can I still show peace and compassion to others? Sure.

Can I show my own happiness? Not too well, I’m afraid. It’s just too hard to physically hide the suffering any longer. It’s on my face — it’s in my eyes — it’s in my whole body. I am not happy to be in this condition.

Am I happy about other things? Sure — there are lots of things I’m happy about. I’m especially happy for the friends who are a part of my life. You all are among those wonderful friends.

Am I afraid of death? Not at all. Believe me when I say I am anxiously awaiting it. I am doing everything I can to make this final transition as peaceful and contemplative as I can. It’s been a challenge considering the recent changes in my home life, but I’ve worked out some of the physical arrangements here to help counteract a lot of the chaos and disruption.

Buddha taught that if we go out in peace, there’s a good chance we’ll come back in peace. I’m counting on it.

Peace and love to all of you!!

Ron Rink

P.S. Maybe we’ll count this message as my Buddhist Blog post for this time. :-) Heck, maybe I’ll actually post it there too. — RR
There was another post after I started to write this, so I’ll include it here:

Shit happens. I don’t think that has anything to do with karma. That people are tortured or made to be sex slaves isn’t because of their karma. I don’t think that people who are in pain draw that to themselves necessarily. I think that our actions and thoughts create problems for us. I view that as making the same mistake repeatedly. That kind of mistake in my view is doing something that causes you suffering and/or creates suffering for others. An example might be losing your temper because things don’t go your way. Its kind of like the story of the person who walks down the street and falls into a hole everyday. One day, they see that if they cross the street, they will stop falling into the hole. That is karma to me. One day, we see that our habitual patterns of thinking create suffering and are unproductive.

That there is suffering or dissatisfaction with life, is from the first Noble Truth. The Noble Truths are 1) There is dissatisfaction with life (or suffering); 2) Attachment causes the suffering; 3) There is an end to suffering; 3) The way to end suffering is through the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is a way to live, to follow the path to enlightenment or at least a way to suffer less. The point here is about choosing how we react to our situation. We choose how we react through practice. So, in the above example, instead of losing our temper, we recognize that we are angry. We see the anger is from us. We may want to fix the situation but, if we call people names or in some way harm others, we create problems. Anger may motive us to try to fix unjust conditions. If we hold on to an emotion instead of letting it go and let it flow through us, we create problems. The same could be said for other emotions.

Lets take the lower caste people in India. Many are Buddhist. Again, we are not talking about karma. They may not have much money and live in huts. They can see this as terrible. They can also enjoy their family relationship, their community and their celebrations. They create unhappiness when they compare themselves to someone else. The desire for things to be different is what creates suffering. We can not assume that people who have less are not happy. When I worked for hospice, this point was really made clear to me. I can assume that if you are dying that you are suffering. That is not true. There are people who are dying who are genuinely happy. They accept that they are dying. They feel that they have had a good life. They recognize that everyone dies. They are ready to die also. I think that is amazing. That kind of acceptance and peace is admirable. There are few people who can do this. We do not know the state of mind of someone who is dying. We may know that they are in pain, but we do not know their heart. We do not know if they are resisting their fate. We do not know unless they tell us so. Pity is not part of Buddhism.

Just as an aside, I was reading recently how happy most of the people living in the slums of India are. They have celebrations, they value their relationship and they enjoy their lives. If they just thought about how awful everything is, they would miss out on what is wonderful about life. I have read in some countries, which lack material goods, they pity us. They think we are disadvantaged because we let other people take care of our children and do not take care of our own elders.

So, what do we do when we see pain. I think that it is clear that, in Buddhism, the correct response is compassion. We strive to change what we can. We recognize that we can not change everything for everyone. We recognize that is the current condition of the world. We suffer and are in pain. They suffer and are in pain. Suffering because other people suffer doesn’t help them. Feeling compassion and recognizing that we are all in the same boat helps. Acting compassionately, to the best of our ability does help. That includes compassion toward ourselves.

I go over this stuff to learn. That there is suffering or dissatisfaction is the First Noble Truth. It is important to me to understand and discuss. When there is a discussion about it, I go look something up. I hope to share what I learn with other people.

What Buddha talked about with his followers is hard to say. I do know that Buddhist teachers talk about these things. Pema Chodron discusses these issues in a clear way.

Suffering is NOT karma. Suffering or dissatisfaction is the emotional response to pain, not getting what you want, getting something you don’t want, etc. This doesn’t imply a disinterest or lack of compassion for people who suffer or are in pain. We can not assume that people who are in dire circumstances suffer, because we do not know their heart. We are just like everyone. That is why we know about suffering. In Buddhism, we reach peace by confronting and changing ourselves.
That’s all there is up to this point. I’m not going to add anything further at this time. I’ll go ahead and post this and see what the rest of you have to add.

Be well — be in peace,

Ron Rink

One thought on “Buddhist Belief-Pain and Suffering”

  1. Hi Ron,
    I’ve recently started to learn the Buddhist teachings which have transformed my life. Everything makes sense and now I know the truths I can begin to live my life with wisdom and compassion.
    I am in a lot of physical pain at present and I am trying to learn to feel the pain more acutely rather than push it away so as to transmute it. This is very difficult but it’s a challenge I need to face so I can practice acceptance.
    Thank you so much for telling us your story and by. doing so, helping other people deal with and face pain.

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