Plato explained that everything in the natural world is plucked out of the eternal realm. All that we see is just a facsimile of the true reality.
The colors are dark. I imagine they are hazy, as well, like a photograph with low resolution compared to the original.
Time restricts us.
Our bodies and all other physical matter limits us to the laws of physics that had to have been created in order for this temporal world to exist.
Yet, there is the transcendence of human thought and purpose that runs as a current through all of our existence.
And as I begin my study of Buddhism it is becoming clear to me that suffering is also part of this current.
Without suffering we would not exist. In many ways, this makes suffering the basis for all Truth.
The Buddha explained this as the Four Noble Truths, which serves as the foundation for understanding the basics of Buddhism:
- Suffering (dukkha)
- The origin of suffering
- Cessation of suffering
- The path leading to the cessation of suffering
Essentially, this teaches us that suffering is part of life. We cannot escape it, but if we accept that we cannot escape it, gain an understanding of where it comes from, and then learn to deal with and take systematic steps toward that process, we can become free of it.
These first lessons in my study of Buddhism are eye-opening, but not in the way I expected. I knew there were similarities between Christianity and Buddhism, but I am surprised by how similar the teachings really are.
Jesus said: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Not maybe, or possibly. You will have trouble. It’s an inevitability.
The Bible also speaks of the origin of suffering, first from the influences of the evil realm, which are a result of the fall of mankind:
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Ephesians 6:12
And then in the hearts of men:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.” James 4:1-2
The teachings of Christianity very clearly focus on two truths: 1) We will encounter suffering; and 2) Suffering comes from evil principalities, as well as from within our own hearts and minds.
While Buddhism does not directly blame suffering on the devil, the legend of Buddha does tell the story of a Siddhartha’s (the future Buddha) spiritual battle with the Mara, demon of desire (an actual, literal demon) at the base of the Bodhi tree, where he was enlightened. However, Buddha certainly focused on thought as a place that breeds suffering. It is not simply the circumstances in our lives, but the thoughts and feelings we direct toward those circumstances that causes suffering. And so even his encounter with this demon was manifested within his mind, and the Buddha overcame this by refusing to allow it to deter him from his meditation.
The Buddha’s claim that cessation of suffering is the only way to be free from it is a bit misleading. How can you claim that suffering is an integral part of life and then claim that getting rid of it is the only way to be happy? Seems a bit paradoxical, and the reason I was puzzled by Buddhist concepts for a very long time. But I’ve come to realize that in understanding the true origin of suffering (our minds), we cannot cease the circumstances that triggered the thought (because we have no control over this), but the thought itself must be dealt with.
Where Buddhism and Christianity diverge on these truths is in the path toward cessation of suffering. In a future post I will delve more deeply into the reasons I believe Jesus was a Buddhist, at least from a philosophical point of view. But for now I will just say that Jesus was very clear about the conundrum we faced in trying to meet God’s standard of perfection, and he recognized this as the cause of suffering. In fact, it was God who gave us the law as a way of listing his expectations of us and to demonstrate how utterly impossible it is for us to meet those expectations.
The Buddha’s path to enlightenment – which I equate to salvation in the Christian faith – is to awaken oneself to the truths of this life and that which exists beyond it, in order to be free from the confines of the material world, and thus from the effects of suffering.
Enlightenment and Salvation both recognize that we must gain perspective of things beyond the natural realm in order to be free from it. Buddha saw this as happening within one’s mind; an individual effort. In Christianity we realize that we do not have the capability for self-salvation because we are imperfect beings existing within an imperfect world. And so, Jesus made the effort on our behalf. And so, in recognizing the work that Jesus did on the cross, and the reason he did it – to free humanity from sin, which is a result of suffering in an fallen world – we will be freed from the confines and suffering of this world.
Jesus came to complete the law that God has given to us, to fill in the gaps where we are lacking. In the same way, he fills in the gaps of Buddha’s teaching. He is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). And in this, he is the path to cessation of suffering.