Buddhism, Suffering And How You ‘See’
I find it odd how some people utilize the clothes they wear and the accessories they show off to promote their faith. They want others to notice them.
But religion, and especially Buddhism, isn’t about how you look. It’s more about how you see. In fact the word “Buddha” is related to the word “see.” Not so much “see” in the physical sense, but more akin to “see” as in spiritual understanding. For example, when we finally understand something, we say we “see.” Moreover, the word “religion” literally means “connect again.”
Thus, Buddhism helps one to see the world in a certain way, to see connections between what is sacred and what is ordinary, and to see the ways in which causes and conditions arise and impact our lives. In short, Buddhism helps one to see the connections between the individual and the world, how we are shapers of and shaped by the world around us and the world within us.
There are several themes that underpin the teachings in Buddhism, including the notion that life is conditioned by suffering and impermanence. Because of the focus on suffering and impermanence, some view
Buddhism as a pessimistic religion. Indeed, a Shinto priest told me that in Japan, Shinto takes care of the happy occasions — births, weddings — while Buddhism takes care of the sad ones. This explains in part why, in most Buddhist cultures, weddings are not usually performed at Buddhist temples: Wedding couples do not want to be at the altar on this most joyous occasion and have a Buddhist priest tell them, “Nothing lasts. All is suffering.” (This may be true, but let the married couple find this out for themselves after the honeymoon.)
Buddhists, however, argue that their religion is not pessimistic, but realistic: Impermanence is a fact of life. In the midst of joy there is already the loss of joy. Ultimately, however, Buddhists say that Buddhism is an optimistic religion if one sees things from a proper perspective. We all suffer, but in the midst of suffering there is already the end of suffering.
The problem of suffering, then, is not how to avoid it, but how to transform it. We may not be able to always control what happens to us, but we can exercise control over how we respond to what happens to us. And if one can control the mind, one can control one’s self and — to a certain extent — one’s world.
One of the most popular stories in Buddhism is about a young woman, Kisa Gotami, who woke up one morning to find her baby boy dead. She frantically ran to her neighbors’ homes carrying her dead baby and pounded on the doors, begging people to help her. People thought she had lost her mind because her grief was so great. One neighbor told her to go see the Buddha, who was nearby. Kisa Gotami rushed to the Buddha still carrying her dead baby and pleaded with the Buddha to give her medicine that would help her. The Buddha told her to get a handful of mustard seeds, one seed from each family where no one had died. She desperately went from home to home, but she could not find a house that had not suffered the death of a family member. Instead, she heard stories of others who had lost loved ones too. With each house, Kisa Gotami began to see and understand that death is a part of life. Moreover, as she shared her story of her son’s death with others and they their stories of heartache with her, her suffering began to be transformed. Grief shared is grief lessened.
There is a word intimately connected to suffering — compassion — that literally means to “suffer with.” The sorrow she had for herself at the start transformed into compassion she felt for others in the end. She gave her son a proper funeral and was thankful for the precious time, as short as it was, that he was a part of her life. She then returned to the Buddha, who comforted her, and she became a follower.
Some may wonder why the Buddha did not resurrect the dead baby. In other religions, this sort of miracle would have been expected. Why not here? If the Buddha had brought the child back to life, his mother undoubtedly would have been happy. But what if the child died again? What would his mother do then? How many times would the Buddha have to restore the dead to life in order for one to be satisfied?
Denying death does not alleviate suffering or bring happiness. It deepens grief when death occurs instead. But accepting death and understanding that each moment is a link to all that came before and all that will follow, and — most importantly — will never occur again, inspires us to live our lives fully. There is an eternity of connections in each moment, and realizing this encourages us to create meaningful and truly happy lives.
Instead of healing the body, the Buddha healed Kisa Gotami’s mind and helped her to see and understand the meaning of life.
Religions are meaning-producing systems that help us transform suffering into something bearable, manageable and even meaningful. The Buddha’s teaching on suffering connects us to each other and to the world around us. We all suffer. However, suffering can be transformed into compassion, and from this endurance, honor, the renewal of hope and meaning will follow. There is a world of possibility in each moment, if one takes the time to see.
I dedicate this article to my wife.