Answers to Suffering

From Buddhist and Biblical Traditions

| by Jagath Asoka

( May 05, 2012, Washington DC, Sri Lanka Guardian) Why do we suffer? One of the common answers that you find in the Buddhist texts and in the Bible is that suffering comes as a consequence of our sins: our bad deeds. The etymology of the word “sin” denotes several meanings: moral wrongdoing, offense against God, and misdeed. In Buddhism, the word “sin” is synonymous with “misdeed” and “moral wrongdoing,” whereas in the Bible the word sin is used to describe not only “misdeed” and “moral wrongdoing”, but also “offense against God.”

Photo by  Michel
Privation and suffering are at the core of Buddhism. How do we ease or cease our suffering? In Buddhism, there are three major causes of suffering: According to the Four Noble Truths, you cause your own suffering by attachment, desire, anger, and ignorance; suffering can result from your karma; the suffering that comes as a consequence of bad karma differs from the unavoidable suffering of old age, which is common to both ordinary people and enlightened beings.

In Buddhism, the law of karma stipulates that our deeds—good and bad—have consequences not only during this present life but also in our future lives. Good deeds will lead to a pleasant and happy life, and bad deeds to suffering. The following statement in Anguttara Nikaya summarizes the role of karma: "I am the owner of my karma; I inherit my karma; I am born of my karma; I am related to my karma; I am supported by my karma; whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, that I shall inherit." (Anguttara Nikaya V.57, Upajjhatthana Sutta). Buddhists often use the word “Karma” to explain both explainable and unexplainable sufferings in their lives. The story of Moggallana illustrates the workings of karma. Sariputta and Moggallana were the two top disciples of the Buddha. In one of his previous lives, Moggallana had killed both his parents who were blind—he took his parents into the forest and beat them to death pretending that they were attacked by robbers. Killing one's parents is considered one of the top five—patricide, matricide, killing an enlightened being, injuring a Buddha, and creating schism in the community of monks—worst actions. The killers smashed Moggallana’s every limb and left him dying in a pool of blood. Moggallana was an enlightened being, yet his sins were not forgiven. Moggallana’s death exemplifies that even if you become an enlightened being and live a virtuous life according to the Four Noble Truths and Follow the Eightfold path, you cannot avoid your bad karma.

According to the Four Noble Truths, we create our own suffering. The first Noble Truth says that not only human beings but also animals will experience suffering—pain, sadness, fear, disappointment, confusion, and pain of loss—and these experiences are inevitable and inherent; the second Noble Truth explains the “Cause of Suffering”: suffering is caused by our attachments. the third Noble Truth tells that “the Release from Suffering" is possible: it is possible to learn how to transcend suffering; the Fourth Noble Truth deals with “The Eightfold Path," which avoids the two extremes—over indulgence and self-mortification—provides a methodology to observe our thoughts and feelings deeply and thereby gives rise to wisdom and culminates in the destruction of all bondage: Nirvana. In Buddhism, the Middle Way is the path between extremes of over indulgence and self-mortification. So, The Eightfold Path is promoted as the means to escape suffering and create peace instead. By limiting our attachments, we can alleviate suffering. It is not about avoiding attachments, but about choosing one's attachments wisely, and to be willing to pay the price for it. When you love someone deeply, you are vulnerable to considerable suffering. But you have to say “yes” to the suffering that is inseparable from the joy that love brings. The Epicureans and the Buddhists both assert that an integral part of obtaining freedom from suffering is leading a virtuous life.

The suffering that comes with illnesses of old age, which is common to both ordinary people and enlightened beings, is just a fact of life.

If you read the Bible, you will find that there are several answers to the question why we suffer. I am going to present the biblical answers—not in chronological order.

According to the Bible, suffering comes as a punishment for sin. The Bible begins with the story of Adam and Eve. In the Book of Genesis, God asks Adam and Eve not to eat the fruits from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve disobey, so God curses them. Eventually, when the entire world becomes wicked, God punishes the human race by sending a flood, which kills everybody except Noah and his close family. This theme of punishment for disobeying God continues in the Bible: When people sin, sin leads to punishment from God. If people repent, the punishment will stop, if not, more punishment will come. This idea that suffering comes as a penalty for sin does not explain why the righteous suffer. You would expect that the people who suffer always would be the wicked, and the righteous would prosper. Obviously, that is not what we always see: the righteous also suffer. So, the Bible has an explanation for why the righteous also suffer. Not all suffering comes as a punishment for sin. God is not always punishing people, but wicked people do wicked things to other innocent people. Among Christians, the prominent explanation why people suffer is because people have free will. God has given people the free will not only to love God but also to hate God; not only to do good but also to do evil. “Suffering brings salvation” is another explanation that you find in the Bible, a motif in the Old and New Testament. It is found in the stories of Joseph and Jesus. In the story of Joseph, Joseph was able to bring salvation to his family starving in Palestine; they were saved from dire famine because of Joseph’s suffering. Jesus suffered for the sake of salvation, and our salvation is a direct result of Jesus’ suffering.

In the Book of Job, suffering has nothing to do with sin; Job suffered because God is omnipotent. Job was a very righteous man, so he had a terrific life until one day God asked Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Satan said,” Does Job fear God for nothing?” Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

So, God gave Satan permission to test Job's piety, faithfulness, and righteousness by saying, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

In order to get Job to curse God, Satan destroyed all that Job owned, killed his children, and struck Job himself with vile sores. Three friends of Job, who visited to console Job in his affliction, said that he was getting what he deserved. Job's friends maintained that misfortunes were sent by God as punishments for sin, and thus despite Job's apparent goodness, he must really be a terrible sinner. Job persistently disputed them. Even in his absolute misery, Job would not curse God, instead, he said “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord.”

As a reward for his steadfast faith, God healed Job and “gave him twice as much as he had before.” According to the Book of Job, Satan killed Job’s children with God’s approval. The omnipotent God who resurrected his own son—Jesus—did not resurrect Job’s children; instead, God gave Job new sons and daughters. If you are a parent, you know that your children cannot be replaced. What God did was an affront to all parents.

So, the Bible and the Buddhist texts give various explanations to the questions why we suffer and how to avoid suffering.

Whether you are a Buddhist, a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, an atheist, or an agnostic, suffering is an inherent and inseparable part of your life. Various traditions teach us how to come to terms with it. I follow the Buddhist saying, “If you have to cross a field covered with thorns, and you try to cover the field with leather, you won’t succeed. It is far simpler to cover your feet with leather.”