Beyond Suffering—What The Buddha Teaches About Tragedy

KG TogetherSomething about Buddhism always bugged me.   Of course it wasn’t Buddhism itself, but what I heard.  What stood out and bugged me was essentially the statement made by the Buddha that, “Life is suffering.”  Not only did I not believe it, I thought the whole of Buddhism revolved around that negative idea.  Rather than look deeper, I resisted the thought as though I could control the Universe and keep suffering away from either myself, or those I cared about.  Flash forward about 30 years.  Now I not only understand a great deal more about Buddhism, I also agree that suffering can and does happen every day to scores of people all around the world.  In fact, after a tragedy like what happened at the school in Connecticut, how is it possible to think for a minute that suffering isn’t real?  Of course the lesson taught by the Buddha doesn’t stop there.  Instead the Buddha explained that freedom and peace lies in a space beyond suffering, and that liberation is available to us all.

A quick course in Buddhism might help to explain how it all came about.  The Buddha (which means the awakened or enlightened one) grew up as a child named Siddhartha.  Born to a wealthy and privileged family, Siddhartha’s father so loved his child that he attempted to shelter him and keep him from ever knowing any difficulty, hardship or suffering.  (Hmmmm…sounds like a few parents I know today!)  But one day Siddhartha traveled beyond the family compound out into the real world.  There he was devastated by the pain, death and tragedy he saw around him.   As a way to find meaning and justify his own existence, he rejected his former life and became an ascetic.

Asceticism is the exact opposite to a life of privilege and luxury.  By giving up everything pleasing, gentle and kind Siddhartha thought he could numb himself to the pain he saw everywhere around him.  Sitting for years in meditation with little food, water, clothing or shelter he practically starved himself to death.  At that point he realized that rejecting all experience was too extreme and not the answer to life on Earth.    That’s when he came up with what he called “The Middle Way.” It was there, sitting under a bohdi tree, that he “woke up”.  Most people believe that it was from this enlightened state that the Buddha realized the insight into the cause behind suffering and pain in this world—and most importantly, the way beyond it.

What insight does the Buddha teach?  In case you are wondering I am not a Buddhist so this is my interpretation of the teaching.   Like most people I first heard about Buddhism by reading about  “The Four Noble Truths.”   There, the first truth reveals the statement, “Life is suffering,” and goes on to explain that life includes at one time or another pain, tragedy and ultimately death for every person on the planet. In addition no one is immune to psychological suffering like fear, disappointment, loneliness and betrayal.  (You can probably see why I didn’t like the idea when I first heard about it!)

So I’ll bet I’m like a lot of people who rejected such a cut-and-dry perspective, especially those of us in the US that grew up in a relatively happy household where all my basic needs were covered.  After all, when a person grows up in relative ease and safety, it is understandable that we would prefer to ignore and reject anything that would make us look at and contemplate some of the horror or evil in the world.

Unfortunately, if you live any length of time on the planet one of two things happen.  You eventually awakened to the reality of the suffering that occurs—or you go completely numb and end up thinking only of your own little world and those close to you.  Even then, circumstances like the tragedy in Connecticut or the recent Hurricane Sandy will usually cut through any barriers you’ve errected and force you to accept the harshness of some experiences.

That’s when it is a very good idea to consider the three other “truths” taught by the Buddha.  The Second Noble Truth teaches that the root cause of all suffering comes from our cravings, desires and ignorance.  In other words, the higher our expectations or the more we are attached to anything—the more likely we are to experience deep unhappiness.   If we expect others to do only what we think they should do, if we fight anything that is happening that we don’t believe is fair or justified, if we crave things we cannot have, then all of that leads to our suffering. Our mental ignorance and misunderstanding about reality and how life works here on the physical plane, and our attachments about how it should be, all contribute to our pain.  By growing our wisdom and understanding, and becoming unattached to cravings, we can learn to move past suffering to a place of peace.  This supports the idea that pain might be inevitable, but suffering is optional.  Or as my old friend Tom Costa used to say, “Just because you are going through hell, that doesn’t mean you should stop and build a condo.”

The Third Noble Truth then points out a major aim of Buddhism—that is developing a reflective, disciplined and aware mind that sees the world as it is and lets go of delusions and attachments.   It is believed that a correct mental state is actually more than a good belief system.  Instead it is a mind that is receptive, pondering and considering in each individual moment.  Obviously, to obtain that kind of mind a person must undergo extensive meditation and study.  But once a person is able to remove craving, ill will, delusion and ignorance from one’s mind, then true and lasting peace and happiness is the end result.

The final and Fourth Noble truth is a springboard to more understanding and happiness.  This truth suggests that next course of action is to walk “The Eightfold Path.”  The eightfold path is:  right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.”  Each step represents a practical to-do list, which according to Buddhists will completely eliminate suffering or “dukkah” on this plane of existence.

So, I don’t know about you, but remembering these ideas from Buddhism help me understand a tragedy like the one in Connecticut in a more accepting fashion.  I’m not saying I could remember all this if I were one of the victims, only that I would strive to get there.  The Noble Truths remind me that most of my suffering is my desire and attachment to believing that death and bad things should never happen.  Whenever I crave a world that conforms to my expectations of how life should be, as opposed to what has occurred, I set myself up to experience misery.  That’s not to say I don’t work to change things within my abilities—like greater gun control and more help with those mentally afflicted, but I do my best to stay in a peaceful place if and when it does happen.  After all, I must remember that my suffering does nothing to change the situation.  Instead it asks me to acknowledge that life is uncertain, unpredictable and often painful.  I am also more aware that tragedies occur every single second around the world and that instead of closing down my heart and mind in a vain attempt at self protection, I can instead remain a compassionate, peaceful and hopeful light to everyone around me.

Something tells me the Buddha would not be crushed to learn that nearly 250 people lost their lives and billions of dollars of property was destroyed when Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast in late October.  He likely was also not devastated when an 8.9 level earthquake hit Japan in the spring of 2011 leading to both a killer tsunami as well as a nuclear reactor meltdown that killed nearly 20,000 people.  The fact that 1 billion people around the world went to bed hungry last night surely did not cause him anxiety.  Instead, I believe he would mediate and pray to insure his mind was free from all attachment—and then get involved in ways that he could to help alleviate the suffering of others and do his best to insure those same situations did not occur again.  Maybe that path would be SMART for us all to consider.


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4 Responses to Beyond Suffering—What The Buddha Teaches About Tragedy

  1. Kathy, thank you for this well-written piece. My knowledge of Buddhism is bits and pieces, so your telling of the Four Noble Truths was a beautiful primer for me. I am currently paying more attention to how I respond to external pain, as I have realized that I have a tendency to take on unnecessary suffering in my internal responses to these external events. This is helpful.
    Laura Zera recently posted…Tips and Tools for the Sensory Defensive, Part IMy Profile

    • Hi Laura! While I’m no expert either, I do appreciate the simplicity and practicality of Buddhism on many levels. And YES! The more we can pay attention to how we respond to everything (especially external pain) shows us how we are internalizing it all. I think far too many times we (and most everyone else) do it unconsciously. The more aware we can be the more free we will be–and that’s a very good thing. Thanks for your thoughts on this. ~Kathy

  2. kathy, what a thoughtful piece. i love it that you began with that that bothered you most, that buddhism was about suffering. i never got that either until, like you, i delved into it. i think that only by really looking, quietly, can we reach the places you have exposed here. i’m so grateful that you came to and left your comment and this post, for now i know where i can find much more inspirational material. little known fact, i have a site called ‘towards enlightenment, one step at a time’ where i explore my inner journey. i’ll refer you to one article, but like i see here, there is a gold mine to uncover. i strongly feel that we will be able to do more things together in the future. are you on triberr?
    gabi klaf recently posted…Gently Scooping Up Spiderwebs-My Profile

    • Hi Gabi….I’m so glad you stopped by and made a comment AND led me to your other website. I will definitely be checking it out. I knew from what I read on your nomadicfamily site that we shared many thoughts…so I look forward to reading some of your other work. I’m actually out of town myself right now…so not sure how quickly I’ll be reading and catching up–but it will be something I do for sure once I return….and yes, I was on triberr for a while but it was taking SO-O-O much time so I dropped out…I love working with other like-minds so let’s figure something out. ~Kathy

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