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Stories of Suffering

April 2, 2018

‘Jesus’ by Argya Diptya via

“Crucify him! Crucify him!”

“Let my people go!”

This past Friday, I participated in the stories of suffering of two different religious groups. I attended the Good Friday Catholic Mass, which tells the story of the passion (torture and crucifixion) of Christ in preparation for his return from the dead on Easter Sunday. Later that evening, I attended a Passover Seder with the Hillel Jewish community, which remembers the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.

Both are stories of profound suffering. They deal in death and blood. The innocent and the righteous die. Yet in the end God’s will is done, according to the storytellers.

Buddhists talk a lot about suffering, but on Good Friday / Passover, I notice how we talk about it differently.

In both the Catholic and Jewish stories, I got the impression that the suffering was regrettable but ultimately purposeful. In the passion of Christ, Jesus suffers and dies to redeem the sins of humanity. In the Passover story, plagues are visited upon Egypt to win the freedom of a chosen people from hundreds of years of bondage. In both cases, the outcome was good, even worthwhile.

When Buddhists talk about suffering, I don’t get same impression. Rather, suffering is unfortunate and unnecessary. It is a not a noble means to an end. The very distinction between means and ends is even challenged. Suffering is to be transcended.

Nevertheless, we know the Buddhist path is not always rainbows and roses. Sometimes we describe it as the destruction of taints, the uprooting of the ego, the cutting off of attachments and delusions, or, heck, just the pain of knees and back from too many hours of meditation. Suffering is pervasive to the human condition.

While liberation from suffering is the goal and some suffering for the sake of the path seems inevitable, we don’t ritualize or celebrate it the way our Catholic and Jewish friends do. I have to wonder, what is gained by this? And what is lost?

Let me start with what is lost. Sometimes Buddhists I meet seem almost embarrassed by their level of suffering. As though we think, “If I were a ‘real’ Buddhist and sincere in my practice, then I could let go of my [insert negative emotion here] and abide in equanimity.” So we hide our distress. After all, the Buddha abided in equanimity? Shouldn’t we?

Even in the Jataka stories of self-sacrifice, the bodhisattva who would become the Buddha demonstrated supreme calm when cutting off body parts to feed hungry tigers.

In these stories the right path is often difficult, but always clear. (Of course, they are primarily children’s stories.) So we think a Buddhist must also act with confidence. A “real” Buddhist would not be confused about right and wrong. So we elevate our teachers and gurus onto planes of “do no wrong.”

In the Catholic and Jewish stories, I appreciated the frank approach to human suffering and the flawed nature of people. Simon Peter denied being a disciple of Christ three times out of fear or embarrassment. Moses, as a young man, killed an Egyptian he saw beating a Hebrew and hid the body in fear. The world is a horrible place. The people in it suffer and, in their suffering, they do horrible things.

Sometimes, as Buddhists, I think we distantiate ourselves from our own suffering and thereby from our own wrongdoing in the name of nonattachment and nonselfness and tribal identity in some mythical form of “real” Buddhism.

Perhaps this has given modern Buddhism its warm, fuzzy, and peaceful image in the western world. But it has also made us complicit in suffering, even atrocities, to which we have turned a blind eye because we didn’t want to think “real” Buddhism and “real” Buddhists would behave that way. We are guilty of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and, yes, even genocide.

Suffering is never noble so suffering becomes only shameful and shameful things are to be hidden but the hidden cannot be healed. Thus the wheel of samsara keeps turning.

But what is to be gained from the idea that suffering cannot be justified? From de-valorizing it? We gain an ultimate hope that suffering can end.

Through distantiation we can also gain clarity. It does little good to act the way we think a nonattached, egoless person ought to act, because all such ideas come from delusion. But it does us every good to actually be nonattached and egoless.

In my reckoning, becoming such means also letting go of our attachment to the idea that a “real” Buddhist is somehow above or beyond suffering. First, we have to work with our lives as they are, bloody and dirty. Liberation from suffering then becomes possible.

To use a Christian term, we must admit our sins. We must turn towards our suffering, both personal and social, and we must recon among that suffering the wrongdoing we have committed against others.

Among the sangha, the monastics confess their ethical transgressions every two weeks. As laypeople, we have no such obligation. Some communities (see Chanting from the Heart, by Thich Nhat Hanh) have integrated rituals for repentance that name the suffering we have caused through wrong speech, wrong actions, and the afflictions of greed, hatred, and ignorance. These rituals tend to use formal and nonspecific language about “immeasurable lifetimes” and “untold suffering.”

Stories are different. Stories are specific in their characters, contexts, and details. Stories persist because they are relatable and powerful. Stories are measurable and told.

One of the reasons twelve-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are so powerful and persistent is that they provide a platform for stories not just of suffering experienced, but of suffering caused. One of the reasons Catholics celebrate the Passion of the Christ and Jews celebrate Passover, thousands of years later, is the sheer humanity of these stories, not just the divinity. Through these stories, we can then reflect on both our own suffering and our own transgressions.

It makes me wonder what stories of suffering we tell as Buddhists, both communally and individually? The Vietnam war? The struggle for Tibet? The racism of America? The genocides in Burma and Sri Lanka? The time we yelled at our girl/boyfriend? The time we beat that guy half to death? The time we stole from our mother and lied about it?

And how do we tell those stories? Ritually and publicly? Or shamefully and in whispers? How do we listen to those stories? Are we open and accepting? Or are we reluctant or judgmental? If we don’t know what we’re holding, how can we let go?

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 3, 2018 2:30 am


    I think we have a different understanding of suffering. In the four basic thoughts we learn about our opportunities in human life, impermanence, karma and that suffering exists and is a fuel to help us realize the Buddha’s teachings. If we did not suffer we have no need to meditate and find enlightenment. There is no need to celebrate this just understand how it works. I would find celebrating suffering rather morbid. Suffering is terrible and we can, should, and will end it with the Buddha dharma. How primarily with the development of compassion and wisdom. Both arise when one embarks on the Bhodisatva path and meditates.

    We do not elevate our teaches to a level of do no wrong because of confusion we do it so that we can have an enlightened example that we can slowly become.

    Suffering is neither noble nor shameful it simply just is and our challenge as Buddhists is to work with it in compassionate and wise ways.

    I disagree that we need to admit our sins as such. I however think that we need to accept responsibility for the results of all our actions both good and bad. Taking responsibility is far more powerful as I can only “blame” myself. (If there is still a self ;))

    I also firmly believe that the Christians glorify suffering and are all happy to suffer themselves for Christ.

    Thanks for the read,


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