A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering

A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering

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In western culture, suffering is generally defined as the experience of either somatic or psychological pain. Therefore, in the absence of such pain and whilst experiencing favourable socio-environmental conditions, individuals are generally not categorised as ‘suffering’ or ‘ill’ according to western medical conventions (e.g., as defined by the World Health Organization). However, within Buddhism, the term ‘suffering’ takes on a much more encompassing meaning. Irrespective of whether a sentient being is currently experiencing psychological or somatic pain, and irrespective of whether a sentient being considers itself to be suffering, Buddhism asserts that the very fact an unenlightened being exists means it suffers.

As we discussed in our recent post on Having Fun with the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha declared that ‘suffering exists’. In addition to representing the Buddha’s experiential understanding of the truth, these words were intended to represent a statement of fact. They were never meant to be ambiguous. ‘Suffering exists’ does not just mean that there is the potential for suffering to exist, it means that with the exception of those beings that have realised the third noble truth (i.e., the cessation of suffering), all beings suffer. Likewise, the noble truth of suffering does not mean that sentient beings suffer at certain times but not at other times, it means that sentient beings that have not transcended to liberation are continuously immersed in suffering.

This type of enduring latent suffering referred to above is known in Buddhism as ‘all-pervasive suffering’. In essence, it is the suffering that arises due to an individual’s ignorance as to the ultimate nature of self and reality. Since – as discussed in our post on Deconstructing the Self – unenlightened beings have a distorted perception of reality, Buddhism asserts that they are deluded. Accordingly, within Buddhism and to a certain extent, the words suffering, deluded and ignorant can all be used interchangeably.

One means of conceptualising the Buddhist interpretation of suffering as a form of delusion (or ignorance) is by drawing parallels between the two conditions of  ‘mindlessness’ and ‘hallucination’. Mindlessness refers to a lack of present moment awareness whereby the mind is preoccupied with future (i.e., fantasized) conjectures or past (i.e., bygone) occurrences. Therefore, an individual afflicted by mindlessness might be said to be engaging in the ‘non-perceiving of that which is’. Hallucination, on the other hand, can be described as being ‘the perceiving of that which is not’. Thus, given that both states involve an erroneous perception of the ‘here and now’, it could be argued that mindlessness is actually a form of ‘inverted hallucination’.

According to Buddhist thought, the population en masse is effectively deemed to be delusional (i.e., suffering) and in a permanent inverted-hallucinatory state. However, as the 12th century Tibetan Buddhist saint Gampopa aptly points out, although all unenlightened beings (human or otherwise) experience all-pervasive suffering, they are generally ignorant of this fact:

Ordinary people will not feel the all-pervasive suffering as, for example, when one is stricken with a serious plague and a small pain in the ears and so forth is not noticeable. But the saintly beings – the noble ones beyond samsara such as the stream enterers and so forth – will see the all-pervasive suffering as suffering …

In addition to all-pervasive suffering which might be described as a more subtle form of suffering, Buddhism recognises two other primary forms of suffering that are much more tangible. The first is known as the ‘suffering of change’ and refers to the fact that whatever temporary happiness there might be, it simply cannot endure. The Buddha stated that birth leads to the suffering of sickness and old age, and sickness and old age lead to suffering of death. Likewise, being in love leads to the suffering of separation, and having possessions (e.g., wealth, health, reputation, family, friends, etc.) leads to suffering when one is ultimately separated from such favourable circumstances. In short, suffering is ubiquitous to the human condition and the principle of impermanence means that just as with all phenomena, favourable circumstances are transient and are subject to dissolution.

The third primary form of suffering recognised in the Buddhist teachings is the ‘suffering of suffering’. This is the most palpable form of suffering and is typified by experiences such as somatic pain, psychological distress, hunger or starvation, thirst or dehydration, being too hot, and being too cold. Buddhism asserts that the human being comprises five aggregates (1. form, 2. feelings, 3. perceptions, 4. mental formations, and 5. consciousness; Sanskrit: skandhas; Pali: khandhas) and that each individual aggregate is likewise composite. For example, the first aggregate of form or the body in-turn comprises the five elements of water, wind (i.e., air), earth (i.e., food), sun (i.e., heat/energy), and space (i.e., in the bodily cavities and between molecules, etc.). Due to the fact the human body exists in reliance upon a delicate balance of innumerable causes, components and conditions, Buddhism asserts that even a slight imbalance in these elements and components results in both the suffering of suffering (e.g., pain and discomfort) and ultimately, the suffering of change (e.g., illness and death).

There is quite a lot more we could write about the Buddhist take on suffering, but the above provides a brief introduction to how Buddhism distinguishes between different types of suffering and why the Buddha stated that suffering exits. It is only by first recognising and coming to terms with the suffering within ourselves – including in all of its different guises – that we can fully appreciate the potency of the Buddha’s teachings and the need to earnestly apply ourselves towards spiritual development.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Bodhi, B. (1994). The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

 

Dalai Lama. (1995). The Path to Enlightenment. New York: Snow Lion.

 

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of meditation: training the mind for wisdom. London: Rider.

 

Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

 

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-127.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners

This week’s post is an article that we recently published in The Buddhist Voice: The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners. We wrote this paper with our friend and colleague Prof Mark Griffiths and the full citation is as follows: Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The top ten mistakes made by Buddhist meditation practitioners. Buddhist Voice, 1(5), 22-24.

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The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners

There are many excellent Buddhist texts that focus on how we should practice meditation – but it’s not always easy to come across material that specifically points out where meditation can go wrong. Based on a review of both the scientific and Buddhist literature, and on observations from our own research and practice of meditation, this article considers what we believe to be the top ten mistakes made by Buddhist meditation practitioners:

1. Not starting to meditate: Although not taking up the practice of meditation can’t really be said to be a mistake made by people who meditate, we decided to include this because there are clearly people that are interested in practicing meditation but never actually get round to doing so. For example, a recent survey by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation found that more than half of British adults would like to practice meditation, but only a quarter actually do so. Despite our best intentions and no matter how many meditation books we might read, if we never actually get around to practicing meditation, then the fruits of meditation practice will never develop.

2. Giving-up once started: As with many things in life, it is not uncommon for people to begin practicing meditation enthusiastically, but then give up as soon as they encounter a minor difficulty. One reason why many Buddhists don’t keep up their meditation practice is because they have unrealistic expectations as to what meditation entails. Meditation is not a quick-fix solution. Long-lasting spiritual growth requires perseverance and a great deal of practice. Thinking that meditation can immediately solve all of our problems or change our life overnight is a mistake. However, just as all effects follow a cause, the day-in day-out infusing of all aspects of our life with meditative awareness gradually begins to soften the conditioned mind and – over time – allows rays of tranquillity and insight to slowly break through. When correctly practiced, meditation can be extremely hard work and requires us to be patient and compassionate with ourselves. However, meditation also requires us to thoroughly enjoy life, no matter what situation we find ourselves in. Meditation isn’t easy, but it can – and should – be fun!

3. Not finding a teacher: An accomplished spiritual guide is necessary for effective meditative and spiritual development. Many people underestimate  the importance of this point, and misunderstand the role of the spiritual guide more generally. From the Buddhist perspective, the role of the spiritual guide is not so much about transmitting extensive volumes of teachings, but more about removing obstacles that cloud the mind and prevent its true nature from shining through. In other words, the teacher’s role is about removing confusion from the mind rather than cluttering it up with more concepts and theories. The spiritual guide has been likened to a skilful surgeon that carefully cuts away infected or damaged tissue. This can be a painful process, but it is necessary to make a full recovery. In a research paper that we recently published in the Journal of Religion and Health, we showed that meditation practitioners made better progress where they felt they were guided by an experienced meditation teacher. Given that most people’s minds have had many years to become highly accomplished in the practices of mindlessness and self-centredness, a skilful guide is required to help undo this deep-rooted conditioning.

4. Finding an unsuitable teacher: Worse than not finding a spiritual guide, is following one who is inappropriately skilled and qualified. People can spend many years practicing ineffective meditation techniques and achieve little more than bolstering the ego (and bank account) of their chosen guide. Meditation teachers who offer palm readings in exchange for money and/or that (try to) predict lottery numbers are quite easy to identify as frauds. But things can get a little trickier when, for example, a teacher without authentic spiritual realization happens to be a holder of an established lineage, has extensive scholarly training, and/or is a ‘recognised’ reincarnate lama. With such credentials, it can be very difficult for people to discern whether or not they are being led astray. To perform the role effectively, the spiritual teacher must be highly skilled in understanding and guiding people’s minds. According to the 15th century Tibetan Buddhist saint Tsong-kha-pa, a suitable spiritual guide is one who is “thoroughly pacified”, “serene” and “disciplined”. So as Buddhist practitioners, we should ask lots of questions and take time to get to know our prospective meditation teacher. However, at the same time, we should avoid having too many preconceived ideas and should try not to listen to other people’s opinions. Realized spiritual guides can take various guises and may not always fit what we deem to be the ‘perfect mould’. A good question to ask ourselves is:  ‘Do I feel enriched physically, mentally, and spiritually when in this person’s presence’? Try to allow your intuitive mind to answer this question rather than taking an overly-analytical approach.

5. Trying too hard: Trying too hard to make progress meditatively and/or spiritually can often lead to extreme behaviors. Extreme behaviors can cause life to become unbalanced and invariably give rise to unhealthy consequences. We discussed this in a recent issue of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in which we highlighted the scientific evidence showing that over-intensive meditation practice can actually induce psychotic episodes. Therefore, what we should really be aiming to do is to implement the Buddhist teachings of adopting a ‘middle-way philosophy’ towards our meditation practice (i.e., between too-little and too-much meditation). An approach of ‘short sessions, many times’ is generally preferred by Buddhist teachers – but the most important thing is to adopt a meditation routine that works for the individual.

6. Not trying hard enough: Meditative development requires us to make the ‘right effort’ at all times. Sometimes people try to cram in their meditation practice with all of the other activities of their lives and then make the excuse that they don’t have time to practice. However, this approach often leads to a stressful attitude towards meditation and for some people the practice may quickly start to become a chore. Therefore, the trick is to not create a separation between your meditation practice and the rest of your life. In fact, it’s when you blow out your candles and stand up from your meditation cushion (or chair) that the practice really begins. While sitting at the computer, cooking the dinner, doing the weekly food shop, or even when going to the toilet, do your best to do so meditatively. Real meditators are those that can practice ‘on the job’. Try not to battle with yourself – make the present moment your home and simply bring your awareness to whatever you are doing.

7. Forgetting about death: One of the main reasons why people’s meditative practice goes astray is because they forget about death. We only have to look in the mirror to be reminded that from the moment we are born, every single day of our lives that goes by brings us closer to our death. We can’t hide from death nor can we predict when we will die. In fact, at any one time, the only thing that separates us from death is a single breath in or out. In general, people are complacent about death and continue to immerse themselves in totally meaningless activities. However, such complacency quickly disappears when people find themselves at death’s door. The Buddhist teachings explain that if  we haven’t made our human rebirth into a precious one (i.e., by infusing our life with spiritual awareness), then at the time of death we will be totally confused and tormented by regret and fear. At this time, family, friends, possessions, and reputation count for absolutely nothing. Our life will have been wasted and we will be leaving an island of jewels (i.e., the human rebirth) empty handed. So there really isn’t any time to delay our spiritual practice because all we can take with us when we die is that which we have accomplished spiritually – everyone and everything else must stay behind. So a good Buddhist practitioner is someone who, in every single breath and every single heartbeat, is deeply aware of the uncertainty of the time of death as well as its inevitability. From this perspective, perhaps death might even be thought of as the meditation practitioner’s best friend.

8. Letting doubt overrun the mind: If death is arguably the meditation practitioner’s best friend, then doubt is probably their worst enemy. Having met a suitable spiritual guide, doubt is what causes people to begin to find ‘faults’ in their teacher’s character and break their sacred connection to the Buddha-Dhamma. Unfortunately, just as a branch withers and dries up when it falls from the tree, the same happens when the connection with the spiritual teachings is severed. It’s not that doubt should be feared or run away from because it is a necessary part of spiritual growth. However, what we need to do is to know how to deal with doubt when it arises. In general, the reason why doubt arises has less to do with people becoming suspicious of the teachings or teacher, and more to do with them becoming suspicious of themselves and their own experiences. So when doubts arise, take a few deep breaths and centre yourself in the present moment. Give yourself plenty of time to examine your doubts and use them as a means of becoming a stronger practitioner. Rather than a blind conviction in the teachings or teacher, the best antidote to doubt is logical reasoning and reflection from a centred and stable mind-state. Actively reason things through but most importantly, rely on your own experiences. In short, if you are confused, then enjoy being confused!

9. Becoming dependent on meditation: In papers that we recently published in the British Journal of General Practice and the Journal of Behavioural Addictions, we referred to the risk of people actually becoming addicted to meditation. This is consistent with the Buddhist classical literature that contains cautionary notes regarding practitioners becoming overly attached to meditative bliss. Indeed, it seems that some people can even confuse meditative bliss (Sanskrit: prīti) with the state of enlightenment. Getting ‘stuck’ in states of meditative bliss (e.g., by exclusively practicing shamatha meditation) is a bit like taking painkillers when what’s really needed is an appendicitis. In other words, meditative bliss helps to calm the mind but it dosn’t remove mental afflictions at their roots – that’s why a combined approach of shamatha with vipashyana meditation is generally preferred. Also, the idea is not to use meditation to escape from the world and its problems, but as a tool for developing and engaging a compassionate heart.

10. Being a ‘meditation practitioner’: When, after many years of meditation practice, we eventually begin to experience some of the fruits of meditation that we have worked so hard for, it’s easy to start to think we have become a highly-accomplished meditation practitioner. We might think that there is no longer any clinging to a sense of self, and that we have finally conquered the ego. Indeed, it’s unfortunately not uncommon for meditation practitioners to do a good job in uprooting large portions of their ego-clinging, only to become attached to the idea that they are somebody that has defeated the ego. Of course, this situation is simply another example of the ego reclaiming its territory and of us deceiving ourselves once again. Therefore, from the outset, what we should be aiming to do is to completely let go of the concept of ‘being a meditator’ and even of ‘being a good Buddhist’. In fact, if a person is in any way caught up in regarding themselves as a ‘meditation practitioner’, then they’ve’ve totally missed the point!