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 traditions 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
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
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.
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
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 theologys
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
individuals 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
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
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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| Contributed by: Heather Evans