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Suffering and Buddhism - Paul Ingram

While Howell touches on possible integrations of genetic science, suffering, and aspects of Christian Womanist, process, and liberationist theologies, Dr. Paul O. Ingram of Pacific Lutheran University presents the Buddhist tradition’s treatment of the problem of suffering. “Reflection about how Buddhist tradition has conceived the ‘problem of evil’” as it relates to science, suffering, and genetics is problematic, Ingram says. “Buddhists have been exploring the relationship between the Buddhist doctrines of interdependence and impermanence with contemporary physics and biological evolutionary paradigms for at least fifty years. Yet Buddhists have not, to my knowledge, explicitly connected analysis of the experience of suffering with the science of genetics.” And, secondly, Ingram says, “the ‘problem of evil’ is not a Buddhist problem.” Rather, Ingram says, the question of “how one can account for the existence of evil and suffering” rises from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic characterization of God as good, just, loving, and all-powerful.

“Buddhism indeed focuses on the suffering undergone by all sentient beings - not just human beings,” Ingram says, but “evil in a world created by a just, good and loving, all-powerful deity, as well as the problem of undeserved suffering of the righteous and the ‘undeserved prosperity’ of the unrighteous have never been structural elements in Buddhist explanations for the nature and cause of universal suffering.”

To understand Buddhist treatment of suffering, one must be acquainted with four “interdependent aspects of the Buddhist world view - apart from which there is no Buddhism” - the doctrines of impermanence, non-self, and interdependent co-origination, and the Law of Karma. “The first three doctrines characterize the structural character of all things and events at every moment of space time,” Ingram notes, “while the Law of Karma points to how human beings cause suffering both to themselves and other sentient beings. These elements of the Buddhist world view are so interdependent that each involves the other - like spokes of a wheel - so that each one needs to be understood in light of the other three.”

The doctrine of impermanence and the Law of Karma.

“[T]he Buddha taught that all existence is duhkah, usually translated as ‘suffering’ in Western languages,” Ingram says. “But more than simple suffering is involved in this teaching . . . all existence involves suffering, or better, ‘unsatisfactoriness,’ because all existence is characterized by change and impermanence. Literally, everything and event at every moment of space-time - past, present, and future - has existed, now exists, or will exist as processes of change and becoming, because all things and events are processes of change and becoming. Consequently, life as such is duhkha, ‘unsatisfactory’ ‘suffering,’ physically, mentally, morally.” When “we become aware that our own lives mirror the universality of impermanence, that change and becoming are ingredient in all things, that there is no permanence anywhere; when we experience our own mortality and feel the resulting anxiety about our lack of permanence, we have an understanding of what the Buddha was driving at in the first noble truth.”

“Seeing permanence of any kind forces us to live out of accord with reality, ‘the way things really are,’” Ingram says. And as “Buddhists understand the Law of Karma, living out of accord with reality causes suffering in the numerous forms suffering can take individually and collectively.”

The doctrines of non-self and interdependent co-origination.

“If there exist only process and becoming, but no permanent ‘things’ that process and ‘become,’ who or what experiences ‘suffering?’” Ingram asks. “Or put another way, if there is no ‘soul,’ who suffers?”

“Hinduism, some forms of classical Greek philosophy, and traditional Christian teaching,” Ingram says, suggest “the existence of a permanent soul-entity remaining self-identical through time to explain continuity, “the paradoxical experience that we are the same person through the changing moments of our lives even as we experience that we are not the same person through the moments of our lives.” Buddhism, however, “rejects any and all notions of permanence, including the notion of unchanging self or soul entities,” Ingram says. “We are not permanent souls or selves; we are impermanent non-selves.”

“Non-self,” however, does not mean “non-existence.” Rather, Ingram says, “we either exist or non-exist as a continuing series of interdependently causal relationships.” According to the doctrine of interdependent co-origination, “things, events, and us become in interdependent relation with everything in this universe at every moment of space time . . . we are as impermanent as the systems of relationships that constitute us.” Stated differently, Ingram says, “we are not permanent soul entities that have interdependent relationships and experiences. We are those relationships and experiences as we undergo them. We are not soul-entities that suffer, we are our suffering” as we experience suffering.

Nirvana, enlightenment, and awakened compassion. 

Through meditation the Buddhist experiences “nirvana,” “awakening,” “enlightenment,” or “wisdom” - an “apprehension of the universal interdependence and interrelatedness of all sentient beings as these processes coalesce in our own lives. This wisdom “Generates ‘compassion’ or karuna - experiencing the suffering of all sentient beings - not just human beings - as our own suffering, which is exactly what it is in an interdependent universe.” For the Buddhist, Ingram says, “no one is free from suffering unless all sentient beings are free from suffering.” Thus, “energized by awakened compassion, the awakened ones . . . are moved to work in the world to relieve all beings from suffering.”

The Buddhist way of addressing suffering - “social engagement,” or “social activism,” as it is more familiarly called by American Christians - is grounded in the practice of non-violence and the practice of meditation. Because “individual greed, hatred, and delusion are central problems from which all need deliverance,” Ingram says, quoting Thich Nhat Hahn, “‘social work entails inner work.’” And it is meditation, that practice in which Buddhist social engagement is grounded, that opens us “to the experience of interdependence [of] all things and events” and “engenders compassionate action.”

“However,” Ingram writes, “while Buddhist have always been socially engaged with the forces that engender suffering, focus on ‘systemic’ suffering has not generally been a central point of Buddhist thought and practice until its contemporary dialogue” with Christian liberation theology’s emphasis on “issues of structural suffering” - institutionalized causes of economic, gender, social, political, and environmental oppressions, as well as racism and war. Systemic suffering, Ingram says, the “suffering all persons experience but which bears little, if any, relation to personal choice or an individual’s clinging to permanence in an impermanent universe,” is “the primary form ‘the problem of suffering’ seems to be assuming in contemporary Buddhist theory and practice.”

Two particular issues - and “problems” for the Buddhist treatment of suffering - are human rights and violent social activism. “[T]hrough Buddhist eyes, the Western struggle for human rights seems to be a disguised form of clinging to permanent existence as in an impermanent universe,” Ingram says. “From this perspective the struggle for human rights can only engender more suffering for all sentient beings. “Nevertheless, according to Ingram, “Buddhists realize the importance of human rights issues as issues of suffering," and thus "Buddhist debate on the nature of human rights still continues.”

“Related to the issues of human rights is non-violent resistance against economic and political oppression,” Ingram adds. “Since the heart of Buddhist social engagement is the practice of non-violence that grows out of the sense that all things and events are interdependent, Buddhists are in principle opposed to any form of violent social activism in the struggle for justice and release from communal suffering. The general Buddhist principle at work here,” Ingram says, “is that violence only creates more violence in an interdependent universe. For this reason, until recent times, Buddhists have not been led to be socially active in struggle against unjust political systems, institutionalized forms of economic exploitation, and other forms of international violence. That is, classical Buddhist teaching and practice has tended to focus on individual suffering, but has not focused attention on how suffering becomes institutionalized in social systems.”

However, in “confronting systemic suffering,” Ingram says, “Buddhists are now facing this question: in a universe in which life must eat life to survive, is non-violence always the most ethical response to systemic suffering?” Or are there times in which the practice of non-violence “might itself engender more systemic suffering?”

Monotheistic theology faces “the problem of evil” and the related “problem of suffering” - the task of defending the Christian, Judaic, or Islamic good, just, all-powerful and loving god against accusations of unjust suffering and evil in the world. Buddhist teaching, however, grounded in the classical Buddhist doctrines of impermanence, non-self, interdependent co-origination and the Law of Karma, faces a different challenge. Buddhist teaching explains the presence of suffering as a result of individuals attempting to cling to permanence in a fleeting universe. The difficulty for Buddhism, however, lies in how to address, from a worldview grounded in non-violence, the suffering that results from oppression institutionalized in social systems.

According to Ingram, “the issue of suffering is not approached anywhere in Buddhist thought as a ‘problem of evil,’ since, given the non-theistic character [of] the Buddhist world view, the problem of theodicy cannot even occur. Furthermore, Buddhist reflection on unmerited systemic suffering has occurred only within the last thirty years, mostly inspired by Buddhist dialogue with Christianity.” Ingram concludes, “All that can be said for certain in this regard is that Buddhist thought and practice on this issue [are] still in process.”

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