Thursday, April 3, 2008

What is the place of suffering?

Suffering is understood differently in different practices.

In Buddhism, the aim is to awaken and completely eliminate suffering. In the Gurdjieff work, the act of intentional suffering is understood as offering the opportunity to bring man into contact with something higher. We also find suffering at the heart of the Christian paradigm, in the form of Christ on the cross. Here, suffering is materially linked to joy in a mysterious manner that defies any easy explanations. Those who are literally minded and outside the Christian faith are often repulsed by the image.

I was reading Shambhala magazine this morning, and was struck by the insistence of one of the writers--an insistence shared, of course, by most Buddhists-- that the aim of Buddhism is to eliminate suffering. Of course, it's not the first time I have heard it. This is one of the central tenets of Buddhism. The Buddhists, on the whole, seem rather sure they know what suffering is. Gurdjieffians are a bit more confused about the subject--or at least, more circumspect in their assumptions about it.

Gurdjieff's teaching differs substantially from Buddhism in at least one major way: he maintains that there is a sorrow at the heart of the universe which it is man's responsibility to share. We don't encounter this idea of man shouldering part of the burden of existence in any major religion other than--perhaps--Christianity. This peculiar idea has little in common with Buddhist ideology, even though it's generally agreed that Gurdjieff's work owes some portion of its existence to understandings that derive from Tibetan Buddhist practice.

To the heart of the matter. I realized this morning that I find myself in disagreement with Buddhist philosophers on the question of suffering. I feel they've got it wrong.

I don't think it's the aim of life to eliminate suffering. Actually, if we want to legitimately acknowledge the most essential tenets of Buddhist philosophy, we would have to say that suffering cannot be eliminated; it is, after all, an inseparable aspect of the Dharma.

In this context, just as we are what we are, everything that happens just happens. We can label any event suffering or non--- suffering (and ah, how we men love labels!) ; it all depends on perspective, which is at our level completely subjective in nature. From the point of view of the insect, to be eaten by a bird is suffering; from the perspective of the bird, it is a gift, it is nourishment.

Suffering depends on viewpoint; it is very real, but like time itself, it changes depending on location and velocity. This one point is worth considerable pondering, because it potentially links man's emotional understanding to some very deep structural aspects of the universe.

We usually spend a lifetime trying to escape our suffering instead of investing in it.

I don't think we see that the suffering we encounter in life is inescapable; in fact, we need it. It is part of the food that feeds both us and the universe itself. Without it, inner development would be well-nigh impossible. In other words, there is a requirement of suffering, just as there is a requirement for non-suffering.

I believe it is in the overall acceptance of conditions that we find the heart of practice. Conditions inevitably contain both suffering and not suffering. So there is no need to escape the suffering.

In fact, from a very strictly Buddhist point of view, to wish to be free of suffering is just one more attachment. (I seem to find very little material from contemporary Buddhists addressing this distressing contradiction.) Every wish or desire is attachment.

of suffering, however, is not attachment, but rather acceptance. This goes back to what I said yesterday -- we are what we are. Everything is what it is. The Dharma exists. It does not exist positively or negatively. It is nothing other than true.

This brings me back to one of the central hypotheses within my own practice:

"There is no "I," there is only truth."

I don't claim to understand this particular teaching, which was given to me, not invented by me. It serves as a central point around which many other questions in my own work turn. I think the phrase itself bears a striking relationship to a great deal of what is said in Buddhism. It doesn't, however, take any definite position on the question of suffering.

Instead, it indicates that this truth around us contains everything within it. It exists regardless of our opinions, attitudes, forms, philosophies, ideas, or desires. It is absolute and irrevocable, and transcends every effort to define it. To eliminate suffering, in other words, would require us to eliminate the Dharma--reality-- itself. This leaves Buddhism's stated aim in a rather desperate set of circumstances--it proposes a kind of nihilism which, we can be certain, Dogen would have roundly rejected.

There are moments in a man or woman's work when he or she may get free enough to get a taste of the inestimable vastness we inhabit--a landscape as much emotional as physical, in every universal sense of the word--, and know for a moment that all the conditions we labor under are both inevitable and acceptable.

That's rare, but it's possible.

In a moment like that we may encounter that sorrow that lies at the heart of existence. Paradoxically, contact with that sorrow is joy--and who can explain such a contradiction? Impossible. Better to just let the organism sense it with all of the parts that it can, and move on.

In accepting life and receiving life, we eventually see that something beyond comprehension is taking place both in our existence and in relationship. We will encounter what the Buddhists call suffering, that is inevitable. It is in the transformation and transubstantiation of that same suffering, which in and of itself remains exactly what it is -- because it can never be more or less than that -- that liberation takes place.

Liberation, in other words includes suffering.

Perhaps this understanding offers a bridge between the Buddhist understanding of the elimination of suffering--which more rightly might be called the surpassing or transformance of suffering--and the inclusion of suffering within the heart of the Gurdjieff work, and Christianity.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.


  1. I wonder if you have overstated the aim of the 3rd Noble Truth, perhaps conflating attainment of non-attachment with elimination of suffering. Also, I wonder if Buddhists like Stephen Batchelor would warn us, in this regard, to distinguish between the teachings of the Buddha and the later Buddhist religious aspirations.
    This post calls to mind G's distinction between the 4th Way and the way of the monk; wherein, non-attachment may be available to me along the 4th Way, I see that elimination of existential suffering would more appropriately be attempted in a monastic setting.
    Thanks for sharing your work.

  2. I might have. After all, I'm a supreme idiot.

    One argument I'm presenting is that a wish for freedom from suffering is a form of attachment.

    Dogen repeatedly warned that many Buddhist philosophers and even Zen masters were "off the mark." Along these lines, he maintained that the desire for attaining enlightenment itself was--like all desire--headed in the wrong direction. The path is subtler than this.

    I've always felt that G's explanation of identification presents us with a more sophisticated and accurate viewpoint on the question than the word "attachment." Attachment implies the preservation (no matter how tenuous) of a distinction between subject and object.

    Identification, on the other hand, maintains that the "attachee" becomes lost in the attachment and hence ceases to exist.

    Both states presume what might be termed a self-imposed "victimization" of the experiencer by the experience, but Gurdjieff's explanation offers a mechanism that sheds more light on the denial that accompanies the state.

    This denial may be equivalent to the buddhist concept of "illusion."


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