January 18, 2008

Westner:Eastern Suffering

There was an odd column in our school newspaper the other day, titled “Suffering Must be Faced Without Fear,” by Luke Fischer a sophomore history and philosophy major. It was not odd in and of itself, but only because suffering is not a topic commonly found in the main stream media. (Not to say that our university paper is main stream, but at least it’s print and circulates several thousand copies daily.)

The editorial seemed to be prompted by the book Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza, which is a personal story of the Rawandan genocides of 1994. Fischer asserts that Ilibagiza chose to fight suffering by neither committing suicide nor allowing herself to be killed and that “in doing so she found great fulfillment. She found a purposed in life, and because of what she experienced, she has been able to change the lives of countless individuals.” I wonder what Ilibagiza would say to that?

I don’t argue at all with the last point, but the first few seem to reveal a somewhat naïve glorification of suffering. I don’t think anyone goes looking for fulfillment hiding in a three foot by four foot bathroom with seven other women for three months. An amazing number of people find fulfillment in much more mundane ways – feeding their baby, assisting the elderly, rebuilding a classic car. It seems that throughout the ordeal, Ilibagiza’s purpose in life was simply to live which is endemic to all beings. That Ilibagiza did live is truly remarkable and what she has done since is no doubt every bit as fulfilling as Fischer suggests and extremely praiseworthy.

However, Fischer’s writing suggests a kind of glorification of the suffering itself which seems to speak to mistaken views. (The Buddha warned of ascetic practices, mortification of the flesh, or purposeful suffering.) Not to say I am any more experienced than he. I dislike glass houses, my own or anyone else’s.

Fischer further typifies three responses to suffering: running from it, accepting it, or fighting it. The first, running, is one we are well familiar with. It is aversion and attachment, lived out loud in fancy cars and clothes, blockbuster movies, diet pills, binge drinking and a number of other self-destructive habits and diversions, most of which are ironically also causes of suffering.

“To simply accept suffering creates individuals and societies that are stagnant and without hope,” Fischer writes. Here he does not distingish between the acceptance as suffering itself and the acceptance of the causes of suffering, such as racism, violence, discrimination, poverty, etc.

Fischer asserts that we must fight suffering. “We should not fear the things that are difficult and sometimes painful. We should be thankful for them and be unafraid to push ourselves to go beyond our comfort zone.” This sounds amazingly similar to the Buddhist practice of being grateful to our enemies (or just that annoying person in the line in front of us who can’t make up their mind) for giving us opportunities to practice. Fischer’s “fight” is to take action against the causes of suffering, with which I agree completely.

In Buddhist philosophy, we recognize that to fight against the suffering itself can only cause more suffering. To accept the existence of suffering, in this present moment, is not to accept the causes of conditions of suffering, nor to fail in working towards to the relief of suffering for all beings.

Fischer ends with “We may hat them as we experience them, but without them life is empty, desolate and not fulfilling.”

How can a life free from suffering be “desolate?”

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