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Why Is There Suffering in the World?

Dorothy Figen


Buddha had taught (and I refer to The Buddha, for there have been many and you, yourself, may have the aspiration to one day be one), that it is man's clinging to the idea of separate selfness which is the cause of his suffering. Implicit in separate selfhood is egotism and craving. This is illusion, the basic illusion. The man who "prays to God" expresses craving. He is a clinger. He wishes something for self, is egotistic. Even the idea of a God expresses the thought of an extension of his egotism into a future life -- in heaven or wherever. The prayer craves for a beautiful painfree future or continuation of the present. In return he promises his God to be of good behavior.

Buddha teaches that beauty is fleeting, life is impermanent and transitory, that pain and sorrow are an outcome of the craving egotistic self. That craving is our suffering. Craving implies cravenness. To be craven is to fear. Fearfulness is suffering. Life is fearful.

There is suffering in the world because the fearful, fearing self continues in its illusion of lonely separateness. The separate self clings to its fears, its self-seeking, its pleading, hoping, craving. "Give me," it implores its God, "help me." What is the Buddha's answer to this? Does he not say, "Cleanse yourself of the self-idea, of its greed, hatred, ignorance"? And what is this ignorance? Is it not our ignoring, our refusal to see the basic illusion of selfhood?

We finally return to meditation again, to why we meditate. Meditation is a way, the Buddha's way of self-cleansing, self-elimination, of freeing the mind of its attachments to the impermananent and illusory. Through meditation we learn to detach the self from its assumptions, to realize that ego is substance-less, to free our mind from its defilements and illusions; to approach, through wisdom and compassion, the ultimate cessation of suffering which comes with Nibbana, the utter abandonment of our selfhood. In this no eternity is sought, no endless continuity. And no annihilation. For, since there is no one, what is there to annihilate? Or to eternalize?

In a way of thinking, is not this a kind of sublime mysticism? A creed or belief that yields unseeking equanimity, quietude and the end of suffering? Since all being, in the end, is mystery; since trembling , transitory being is but an illusory drop of water in a depthless ocean, why not accept it as so?

Those who crave for and pray to gods often achieve thereby a kind of mental purification. Even the prayers of sceptics often achieve the same result. If prayer brings relief and quietude, remission of suffering, it cannot be bad. But what if the relief is unlasting? Apart from the notion that prayer implies a dependency on external or supernatural authority, which I have no reason to bring into question, it definitely is based on the idea of a self as opposed to an other, and of bringing the two together in a sort of bargaining process. But what if we can accept the idea that there is no self to begin with and therefore no one to do the bargaining? I am reminded, in conclusion, of a little story:

A Christian missionary found a Chinese priest chanting in a temple. When the Chinese had finished, the missionary asked him: "To whom were you praying?"

"To no one," replied the Chinese priest.

"Well, what were you praying for?" the missionary insisted.

"Nothing," said the Chinese,

The missionary turned away, baffled. As the was leaving the temple the Chinese added, kindly: "And there was no one praying, you know!"

I have learned that through meditation one comes to appreciate vistas of truth in no other way attainable; and that if one does not come to understand totally and unquestionably the fullest depths of meaning possible as to the causes of suffering, one does at least arrive by painful experience and mindfulness to comprehension of its imponderability and immensity. I see it in a personal way, in my seventh decade, in severe and frequent anginas, in arthritic pains which make sittings so difficult that I must frequently change positions during meditation, or do standing meditation. I see it in my deafened and daily worsening hearing, the dimming of my eyes and in the realization that in the course of minding my breath and giving consideration to the dissolution of every component of my body, anicca, impermanence, is the source out of which this suffering or dukkha flows. Out of this impermanence, too, I sense the vastness of the illusion that we possess anything life abiding, continuous and distinguishable selfhood and that the epitome of suffering arises from this basic illusion -- that there is a "one," a "self" which is suffering or sufferable.

The facts of suffering, its truth, and the facts of impermanence as well, are widely recognized by most religions. All accept the basic tragical quality of life. Where Buddhism goes forward from the rest is in the maintenance and espousal of the theme of no-self. Life, death, impermanence and suffering then become but a process in which, in an ultimate and fundamental sense, there is no personal participation. From this notion comes release, emancipation and enlightenment. As phenomena we may continue to go on until the ultimate collapse of our bodies and death overtakes us. But since no self is any longer engaged in the process, it becomes depersonalized. We are no longer subjects or even objects of calamity, despair, disease. Disturbance, dejection, worry, dread, anguish, decay, enfeeblement, senility, no longer concern us. Serenity and equanimity come with a new wisdom reflecting our detachment not alone from these negative emotions but also from the positive ones such as longing, craving, hoping, desiring, wishing, clinging. Because, whether we realize and attain the positive results or goals sought through these emotions, or do not, there is continued suffering. We suffer if we fail to attain them and there is disappointment. If we do attain them, they are impermanent, suffer their own kind of decay, and out of this loss we suffer as well.

The goal, in the end, becomes the even-minded depersonalized middle course wherein irritation, aversion, uncertainty vanish. Hate and animosity become impossible. One is neither submissive nor rebellious. We transcend the need for personal love or hate. Quietude comes to us. Release. These are the goals of insight or vipassana meditation, whose aim is release from suffering. How close we come to realizing them will depend on the quality of those we seek out to teach us and on our own assiduity in the mindfulness with which we seek, through our meditation, to arrive at the other shore.

Dorothy Figen

Source: "Beginning Insight Meditation And Other Essays", Dorothy Figen. Buddhist Publication Society, Bodhi Leaves BL 85. Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1980, 1988.

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