Spirituality, Religious Wisdom, and the Care of the Patient
"Suffering and the Buddhist Tradition"
Venerable Guo Yuan Fa Shi
Venerable Guo Yuan Fa Shi is a monk in the Chan Buddhist tradition. He received ordination in Taiwan under the guidance of Master Sheng-yen and has also studied in Thailand. In 1999, he was appointed Abbot of the Chan Meditation Center and the Dharma Drum Retreat Center, located in the southern Catskill Mountains area. The Dharma Drum Center teaches meditation techniques with the goal of achieving for practitioners "peace and harmony of the body, the mind, the family, and career."

Today I'm going to speak about suffering. Although it is not a topic many people would like to face, nevertheless, suffering is universal through both space and time. The Buddha realized this on his spiritual journey and that's why he taught us the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are noble because they are timeless, universal and essential for the resolution of suffering. The First Noble Truth investigates what is suffering. From the perspective of cause and effect, the First Noble Truth is an effect. The Second Noble Truth on the other hand investigates the causes of suffering or why we suffer, and therefore, is the cause of the First Noble Truth.
What exactly is suffering? Suffering can be described as a feeling of dissatisfaction or a state of dis-ease. Suffering can come from the body as well as from the mind and more often it comes from both. We suffer physically when we feel hunger, cold, tiredness and exhaustion. We suffer mentally when we feel hatred, anger, sadness and fear. We have all suffered from physical hunger and this suffering is quite similar for all people. However this cannot be said for mental suffering. We have a saying in Chinese, which states: "Although husband and wife sleep in the same bed, they have different dreams." You and I may be watching the same movie, playing the same game or even eating at the same dinner table, but it is rare that we will have the same feelings doing these things.
Suffering in our daily lives is usually a combination of both physical and mental suffering. Physical suffering can affect the mind and mental suffering can affect the body. For example when the body feels hunger or thirst, this physical suffering affects the way we think and feel and causes mental suffering. The mind becomes agitated and vexations arise. Vexations feed upon vexations, giving rise sometimes to extreme actions, which can even destroy a person. For example a person who is hungry and has no income may become desperate enough mentally to even commit a crime such as murder or robbery. Or a person could be worried about his or her illness to the point that the mental vexations worsen the physical disease or suffering that person is already experiencing. Or even a simple thing such as anger, hatred or jealousy when constantly or frequently experienced can give rise to future physical ailments.
Physical suffering is relatively easy to cure. However the related mental suffering is much more difficult to cure. That is because each person comes from different backgrounds in life, has different scopes of knowledge, different attitudes, determination, will power, etc. The way out for all of these problems is to learn and practice Buddhism.
But before we discuss how Buddhism resolves the perennial problem of suffering, we must understand suffering at a deeper level. We can basically categorize human suffering into three categories: material suffering, suffering of the body and mind or physical and mental suffering, and suffering coming from human relationships.
Material suffering is the suffering that arises when we are dissatisfied with what we have or we perceive that we need more and we are unable to fulfill this need. We feel material suffering when we do not have enough food, clothing or a place to dwell or when transportation facilities are inadequate. Sometimes it is the perception that there is not enough food, clothing, etc. In both cases, when we are unable to get these necessities, we experience the suffering of wanting.
We have already discussed briefly the suffering of the body and mind. As human beings and sentient beings however, we will all suffer the major sufferings of birth, old age, illness and death. And even though most people do not think or have feelings about these events before it occurs, we will all have to face these events eventually.
And lastly, there is suffering that comes from human relationships. As human beings, we are unable to live outside human society. Therefore we develop all kinds of relationships-some good, some bad, some shallow and some profound. The level of dissatisfaction or suffering that arises from these relationships will differ. However we will all feel sadness and suffering when we depart from a loved one, whether it be our dear parents, children, spouses, siblings or friends. The dying person will feel the suffering of departing from those who remain alive and the surviving persons will feel the suffering of the loss of their dear ones.
Suffering coming from human relationships need not only arise from death. It can also come from being with someone we dislike or even hate. We don't want to meet someone or even be with that person but we must do it. We should not let perceptions such as dislike or hatred affect our mental state as it will give rise to an unending cycle of vexations feeding upon one another. This can affect our mental and physical health as well as affect the people and environment around us.
Human beings from time immemorial have grasped with these problems and have tried to eliminate these problems through study, medicine, education, religion and technology. The human response so far has been to eliminate or minimize threats from our natural environment and attempts at solving part of the problems arising from human relationships. Just as it is easier to alleviate physical suffering when compared to mental suffering, it is also relatively easier to minimize threats from our natural environment when compared to solving problems arising from human relationships.
The challenges of minimizing threats from our natural environment is relatively easy because it depends on principles which when realized, can be applied; and therefore we can control and make use of our environment. But the same cannot be said for human or social relationships. Different people will have varying attitudes, understanding and relationships. But even this is not that difficult to deal with.
The most difficult of all human sufferings is mental suffering. On the surface it seems that mental suffering is the most amendable and the easiest to resolve. However in actuality, mental suffering is much more complex. After all how many of us actually know who we truly are? How many of us can say with absolute certainty what is going on within our minds? Those things are not easy to know. One of the members of the Meditation Center had a son. He constantly complained about his parents spending time at the meditation center. His parents later asked him to sit down and write down all the thoughts he had. The son was surprised and shocked by what he wrote down. He later agreed with his parents that he had to go to temple to meditate.
And if we don't truly know what is really going on in our minds, how is it possible to truly control ourselves, much less control or affect other people or alleviate their mental suffering. That's why people who try to better themselves and fail often say, "I can't help it." That's why it is so important that we understand ourselves. And that is what Buddhism teaches. Namely, Buddhism shows us the way and tells us how we can enlighten ourselves; how we can change ourselves and cut off vexations and be liberated. Buddhism shows us how to be our own masters, how to eliminate suffering by transforming ourselves no matter the situation and even in adverse environmental situations.
The Third Noble Truth states that all of the above mentioned problems of suffering can be resolved. That is suffering can end. The Fourth Noble Truth states how we can end suffering or the methodology of ending suffering. Thus the Fourth Noble Truth is the cause of the Third Noble Truth and the Third Noble Truth is the effect of the application of the Fourth Noble Truth.
Let's now discuss how suffering can be ended. We should all know the law of cause and effect. Namely things are the way they are because of a prior action or cause. In Buddhism we do not only talk about this life but also the causal seeds we planted in our previous lives since time immemorial. These seeds will eventually ripen either in this life or the next. That is why people should learn how to face and accept whatever situation they are in, even those situations when one is suffering greatly.
We should also realize the reality of causes and condition. Certain causes and conditions are necessary in order for certain causal seeds to sprout. Causes and conditions can be likened to the water, fertilizer and sunlight necessary for causal seeds to sprout. Without the causes and condition of this hospital, the audience here, the coordinator Dr. Alan Astrow and Professor Keenan, my speech to you today would not be possible. Likewise the end of this dialogue will be the causes and condition for cleaning up this conference room, namely this room cannot be cleaned until this conference has ended.
When it comes to facing death for a sick person, he or she must realize that death is inevitable and therefore they should accept the eventuality of it. All things are temporary. And therefore this body too is temporary. In this way, the sick person facing death can minimize the mental suffering that comes from wanting to live on and can concentrate on the reality of living this very moment. On the other hand if the sick person is in pain, the realization that all things are temporary allows him or her to know that eventually this pain too will end. That is, the sick person can begin to deal with the reality of his or her situation. It is also important for the sick person to realize that the end of this life does not mean the end of this world or even of his life since Buddhists believe that depending upon one's karma, one is bound to be reborn in the next life.
We should also cultivate compassion by understanding our own conflicts, by developing inner peace, by having empathy for others' shortcomings, by forgiving others' mistakes and by being concerned with the suffering of others. We develop these qualities through the practice of formal meditation, mindfulness in our every thought and action, chanting and prostrations. The goal of these practices is to develop Wisdom and Compassion so we can handle all things with this in mind and to treat others with kindness and compassion.
And lastly, we must learn how to let things go. We should realize that what is possible is possible and nothing more. We should not have unrealistic expectations or hopes. As long as one has tried one's best, that should be satisfactory. We do not need to worry about gaining or losing something or being better or inferior to someone or whether we are a success or failure. As long as we can honestly say we have tried our best to live realistically, we should be completely satisfied. And even if we haven't tried our best in the past, the realization that we can change the course of our lives through our everyday thoughts and actions, should urge us to take charge of our lives and to make the remainder of our lives the best that it can possibly be.
Published: March 20, 2002