April 14, 2004
Is that all there is?
I was reading the spring issue of Tricycle today, and I was thinking about Buddhism and suffering in general and why I stopped meditating a few months ago. At that time, I realized that I was meditating to achieve some kind of peace or happiness, and that was not what I wanted. Whatever meaning I will be able to find in my life will come from its ups and downs as much as any small piece of peace I might manage to find. I stopped meditating because the very struggle to get through the large and small pains of existence has always been, for me, a source of meaning, and it is also what makes the times of not struggling peaceful. Is suffering always bad? Might not there be something to gain from suffering? Cannot suffering give meaning to one�s life? According to the German phenomenologist Max Scheler, the East and the West have two very different approaches to suffering. In the West, we attempt to eliminate all of the external causes of suffering. We have technologies that keep us in relative comfort. We have high-speed means of transportation and communication to ease the suffering of being far away from those whom we love. There are so many drugs on the market in the US that the idea that someone has a pain or ache for which there is nothing he or she can get a prescription has become unsettling. We can make bombs that can annihilate our enemies in minutes. In the East, (and Scheler is really talking about Buddhism in general, and through bad translations at that) the attempts to eliminate suffering are aimed at internal causes of suffering. Rather than getting rid of distance through technological means, the East aims at getting rid of the attachment to being near one�s loved ones that causes the suffering at their absence. Rather than taking twelve pills a day, the Eastern ethos might advise one to be less attached to one�s bodily comfort. And why bomb your enemies if they can�t hurt you? What these approaches have in common is that they both seek to eliminate the sources of suffering. During my year and a half as a Buddhist, I always thought that the Four Noble Truths were missing a premise, namely, the premise which states that suffering is bad and should always be avoided. I have read that the undesirable nature of suffering is self-evident. But I don�t think it is self-evident to reflective people who can find meaning in their suffering. Scheler is writing from a Catholic perspective, and what is crucial to his view on suffering is that there are objective values of which we are intuitively aware. These values are hierachical, i.e., some values are higher than other values, such as life being a higher value that usefulness and spirit (Geist) being a higher value than life. Taken separately from any Christian perspective, or even a necessarily theistic approach, one can understand Scheler�s notion of sacrifice, of disvaluing something for the sake of a higher value. From a Schelerian perspective, there are values for which one might be willing to sacrifice even one�s very life, and you don�t have to believe in Jesus to understand that. Coming back to suffering, of what use can suffering be? Sticking to our previous examples, being far away from a lover can help one to experience higher values than those which would otherwise be likely to be experienced. One cannot have sex or even have fun taking a walk with a lover from afar, but one may experience the more �spiritual� aspects of real love thereby. Perhaps one who is suffering physically can experience a more profound spirituality as a result of the out-pouring of love and warmth from one�s family. Having enemies can make us better people, sometimes, than having dead enemies or enemies who don�t really bother us all that much. Suffering can open up our experience to higher values and can, as such, certainly give meaning to our lives. Before we seek to eliminate suffering, perhaps we should ask what meaning can be had from such suffering and whether or not there are higher values to be experienced by finding this meaning in our suffering. Of course, this is all dependent on there being something else, something beyond the physical, the visible, that which is readily experienced. No one can convince us that there is something else. William James says that we can feel it; there is too much order and harmony to really suspect that it�s all an accident, according to him. This is not the place to get into religious convictions regarding the metaphysics of the universe. For someone who thinks that this is all there is, perhaps there is no meaning in suffering, since such suffering is all there is. But wouldn�t such a total life of suffering be meaningful also, if that were all there is? If there is nothing else but the physical/visible; and one suffers; and there is no meaning to suffering; one�s life would then be meaningless. And, well, I can�t give any �reasons� why, but I just can�t accept that.