Buddhism and the Limits of Suffering…

Suffering doesn’t have to be painful. It is only painful if you refuse to accept it. Buddhism is famous for its acknowledgement of suffering, of course, to the point that it must deal with charges of pessimism, when nothing could be further from the truth, to be honest. It is simply realistic: you are not immortal, you are not eternal, and you are not the center of the universe. We shouldn’t need to appeal to Science to prove something so obvious and fundamental. You will die. Get over it.

But these are the kinds of feel-good epithets that get tossed to the hungry lions we are, anxious for abundance and thirsty for fulfillment, of the fluid levels in our bodies and the ego levels in our mind, such that we will entertain fantastic notions in order to satisfy those notions of grandeur and grandiosity. If that is the shorthand definition of optimism—egotism—then maybe pessimism is better. But I won’t cop to that, and don’t think that is necessary.

Some do, though, and in their effort to train and constrain the ego resort to the exact opposite, possibly most obvious in the ‘non-duality’ that is all the rage in semi-religious and New Age circles. In this point-of-view it is popular to relegate the self to nothingness, nobody, and maybe nothing more than a ‘thingie.’ Which is all well and good, if that’s what you want. But that’s not what the Buddha said in his famous sutras on the anatta non-self that is definitely not the atta or atman in Pali and Sanskrit, respectively and respectfully, though it is not clear exactly what it is.

But it is in direct response to the cosmic self of the Vedic/Brahmanic Atman that is to find itself in mystic union with cosmic Brahman in some cosmic dualistic paradigm of mind and body or Self and Other. So non-duality is one response to that, and the Buddhist Middle Path is another. Buddhism seems resolved to allow a common-sense ‘conventional self’ that takes out the trash and makes hot tea in the morning, but nothing like the Heaven-bound eternal self of Christianity or the transmigratory permanent self of Hinduism.

But rebirth is another subject for another time. What the non-self anatta IS has probably been best elaborated in the Buddhist concept of shunyata, based on shunya, zero, and so best translated as zero-ness, or voidness, but most often as ‘emptiness.’ And like zero, it defines a space, and place, even when there is really nothing there. But there is meaning in that place notation. Thus, not only is self not real: nothing is really real, except in that we may imagine it to be.

And the degree of suffering in this world of illusion is directly proportional to the degree of self that we cling to, the clinging more nefarious than the self itself. There is no reason to either hate this world or love it, much less cling to it. There is only to accept it as it is and try to change it as possible. Thus, the suffering is endemic, not pandemic, and can be mitigated by degrees, if never totally cured, but hopefully ceasing incrementally. If this world is defined by its limits, then there are limits to that suffering, also. Suffer it with gladness for the opportunity of experience. And don’t forget to count your blessings.