As a Buddhist and a Westerner I am proud and pleased to see that as Buddhism makes its way into the West, it is adopting more egalitarian, less monastic, sectarian, ritualistic and more gender equal structures. However, even in the West I tend to notice that in terms of authenticity of Buddha’s teachings, there has been backsliding among the truly authentic Buddhist teachings (such as Zen and Tibetan Buddhism) and even the more deviant sects (such as SGI). One aspect I find particularly troubling is the tendency of some Buddhist teachers to “indulge” in suffering, meaning pain as opposed to physical suffering. Last spring Buddhist teacher, Norman Fischer, wrote an article in Buddhadharma magazine called The Real Path on “how suffering gives us the incentive, vision and strength to change our lives.” No offense to Mr. Fischer but I can find several things wrong with such a premise.
Above all, my real objections to Mr. Fischer’s ideas are not that they are wrong. I am saying simply that they are misleading. Suffering, including pain, can give us the incentive to transform our lives. We can learn lessons that enrich them in many unfathomable ways. But from reading his article, one would believe that suffering, mostly meaning pain, is the only thing that can lead us to change our lives. But indeed by experiencing more pleasant situations than others we have experienced we can to learn to transform our lives. What many don’t know for example is that the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s had its in Black American soldiers who fought in World War II. During the war these soldiers served in France where the independent French government clashed with the Vichy Nazi-collaborationist French politicians. From serving in WWII, these black soldiers got to experience for the first time what it was like to live in a more integrated society, and as they returned home, they campaigned to make America a more integrated society.
Had these soldiers only experienced pain (the racist attitudes of American society), they may not have fought for change (the integration of blacks and whites). To say suffering gives us the incentive to change our lives is not wrong, per say, but it can overlook the fact that happiness to, can help us change our lives. If we only knew pain, it we may accept it having not known another way. To say pain alone is the real spiritual path would be as if to say that social events alone are the real way to succeed in college. Both have their place but they are only part of the equation.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Western Buddhists saying suffering in and of itself is to be sought as a companion to change our lives is that without suffering, we could not know how other people feel. An obvious flaw I find in this argument is that when we suffer, we are simply at one with everyone else in the universe, who are also suffering. Though this seems like a profound idea, I find it inherently flawed. A person who loses his bike could not possibly know from that experience what it is like to have cancer or be in Darfur. Having suffered does not merely give us the ability towards seeing other people as feeling a certain way. I think people can show empathy towards people how don’t have something (such as money, a home, or a job) by realizing how it feels to have what you do have because then you can know how you’d feel if you didn’t have them.
Perhaps another equally big reason for the Western Buddhist idea that suffering is the way to change our lives is the first noble truth which translates in English as “Life is suffering.” If one were to learn the first noble truth’s proper translation, they would know it means, “All living things suffer.” Of course we don’t all suffer to the same degree or in the same ways first of all, and this ignores the third noble truth, “Desire (the cause of suffering and therefore suffering) can be overcome” and the fourth which gives a coherent solution to do it.
Another big reason for this notion that suffering is the true way to redemption I American Buddhism is our culture. American Buddhism has to adapt to our culture. In the West, many of us were taught that Christ suffered so we could be saved. Since then, many Westerners have seen suffering as the true way to redemption. Jews and Christians have both been taught that the suffering that goes on in the world is merely God’s will. My objection to this is that we are not believing these things because it is based off credible evidence and reason. We are believing it because that is what we have been told. We say we must believe it however, because Buddhism needs to adapt to Western culture. This idea greatly misses the Buddhist notion of impermanence. Cultural values change and hanging onto them when they are unable to be saved, like other things, causes suffering. Buddhism is also its own system. It is not Jewish, Christian, Sufi, Hindu, Taoist, Atheist, or Agnostic. Nor does it belong to other schools of ideas such as Indian philosophy or Western psychology or any culture Eastern or Western. Buddhism is a universal path that has been around for two thousand five hundred years. It may contain values of ideas like secular humanism (hence the title of this article) but it does not find itself subservient to these ideas. To merely follow Buddhism to conform to other schools of thought is to miss its essence.
I also could not help but notice that in saying, suffering allows us to change our lives, we are truly implying that there is always something to change. This belief is probably due to the Western notion of self-improvement belonging to Western psychotherapy. But Buddhism as I see it, talks more about accepting ourselves even though we may need to change certain parts of how we act. But self-improvement for self-improvement’s sake is not in line with Buddhism because it is separate from Western psychotherapy as it is free of monopoly from all other different ideas.