Suffering? What does Buddhism say say about it? Why does it happen and what hope is there in the midst of it? How should we respond to the reality of suffering?
Why does suffering happen?
Why does suffering happen? What hope do we have in the midst of suffering? And what do the major views of the world say about these questions?
There are a bunch of different forms of suffering. Suffering because of the actions of others, because of our own choices, from loneliness, from financial distress, from the death of a loved one. Statistics say there have been millions of deaths worldwide from COVID-19 alone. Suffering is sadly part of our world.
But, why? And did it have to be this way? Does it have to be this way?
In the upcoming posts we’re going to briefly look at what Buddhism, Hinduism, New Age Spirituality, Islam, Naturalism, and Christianity say about suffering.
What does Buddhism say about suffering?
Buddha said, “Existence and suffering are one.” And Buddha explains, through the four noble truths, that suffering is a result of desire. Therefore, Buddhism says, the solution, the way to end suffering, is for us to end desire. To get to our resting place then, to get to Nirvana, where we no longer suffer, we must cut the root of all desire.
Issa, an eighteenth-century poet from Japan, went to a Buddhist Zen Master for help. He was grieving. He tragically lost his wife and all five of his children. In Issa’s distress and grief he went to the Zen Master. The Zen Master said: “Remember the world is dew.” That was the solution that was given, “Remember the world is dew.”
Dew is fleeting. “The sun rises and the dew is gone. So too is suffering and death in this world of illusion, so the mistake is to become to engaged. Remember the world is dew. Be more detached, and transcend the engagement of mourning that prolongs the grief.”
The answer given, then, is basically, “Be more detached. Care less.” After Issa received his consolation he composed one of his most famous poems:
I appreciate something E. Stanley Jones said:
“Buddha was right in diagnosing our difficulty as ‘desire.’ It is the desires of men reaching out to this thing and that thing that return to them disillusioned, pained, suffering. We seem to be infinite beings trying to find satisfaction with finite things. The result—suffering! Yes, Buddha was right in finding the root of our difficulty to be in desire, but he was wrong in the remedy. He would try to get rid of all desire, when the fact is that there is no possible way to get rid of one desire except to replace it by a higher desire.”
What’s the Christian View?
The Bible actually agrees that we have desire and that it is strong. For example, Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that we have eternity in our hearts. Therefore, the Bible as well as Augustine and Aquinas say we have great desire but they also say our desire can be met, but only by God Himself.
So, let’s think through the implications of the Buddhist view of suffering. The Buddhist view leaves people wanting to leave earthly existence altogether and arrive at the passionless state of Nirvana; that is the true solution from the Buddhist approach.
One of the problems with this kind of belief is that it does away with the significance of good and evil. And thus it also does away with rescue. C.S. Lewis said it this way: “Confronted with a cancer or a slum the Pantheist can say, ‘If you could only see it from the divine point of view, you would realise that this also is God.’ The Christian replies, ‘Don’t talk damned nonsense.’”
The Christian view of suffering looks at suffering as much more multidimensional. From a Christian perspective, there are many reasons for suffering:
- sin and wrong desire
- war and human conflicts
- living in a fallen and cursed world in which there are physical calamities such as hurricanes and pandemics
- health issues and physical infirmities
- economic distress
- humans sinning against other humans in various ways
- the abuse of secular and religious authorities and even at the hands of parents within the family structure
- Suffering, for the Christian, can also happen as result of living for Jesus the Lord
For the Christian, the solution is much different too. The solution is not leaving earthly existence, the solution is Jesus coming to earth. And Him always having the right desire and doing the right thing and suffering in the place of humans.
 Of course, in the space we have, we cannot come close to an exhaustive account of each view. Instead, we’ll look at what I believe is a fair representation.
 This is what the four noble truths say: (1) Suffering is an innate characteristic of existence with each rebirth and (2) the cause of that suffering is desire. (3) We can therefore end all suffering by ending all desire. And (4) we can end all desire by following the eightfold path.
 E. Stanley Jones, Christ and Human Suffering (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1937), 49-50.
 As Psalm 16:11 says, “In the LORD’s presence there is fullness of joy. At His right hand our pleasures forever more.”
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
*Photo by JD Mason