Transforming Suffering: Reflections on Finding Peace in Troubled Times by His Holiness the Dalai Lamma, His Holiness Pope John Paul II, Thomas Keating, Joseph Goldstein, Thubten Chodroby Donald W. Mitchell, James Wiseman
In April 2002, several of the world’s most influential Buddhist and Christian monks, nuns, and lay practitioners gathered at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to ponder contemporary life’s most
From the hearts and minds of some of today’s great spiritual masters comes advice on maintaining spiritual awareness and finding peace in troubled times.
In April 2002, several of the world’s most influential Buddhist and Christian monks, nuns, and lay practitioners gathered at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to ponder contemporary life’s most difficult questions. The results of this great encounter are brought together in Transforming Suffering. These personal reflections from those who have spent their lives seeking to understand suffering and to provide spiritual guidance, inspiration, and support to those in trouble explore a wide range of difficult subjects, from the social, economic, military, and political turmoil we face today to enduring human concerns—the harmful affects of anger, hatred, and other negative emotions, the need to embrace compassion in our daily lives, the problems of aging and sickness, the loss of loved ones, facing our own mortality, and other similar personal and relational issues. His Holiness Pope John Paul II contributes his thoughts on the meaning of suffering, while His Holiness the Dalai Lama discusses the transformation of suffering. Conference participants include Thomas Keating, Joseph Goldstein, Thubten Chodron, Robert Aitken, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Mary Margaret Funk, John Daido Loori, Father Columba Stewart, and Geshe Lhundub Sopa.
As they share their experiences and the principles of their traditions, the participants demonstrate the different ways we can transform suffering for the healing of our world and ourselves.
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Read an Excerpt
The BuddhistUnderstanding of Suffering Geshe Lhundub Sopa
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it seems that people around the world are deeply troubled. There are financial worries for some, poverty, hunger, and starvation for others. Family concerns and personal stress grow as people work harder and longer hours to purchase consumer goods. Environmental and social problems are everywhere, and we are faced with war, violence, and terrorism. These are troubling times.
The Buddha spoke of what he called dukkha. This word is hard to translate. Some translate it as suffering, but a better translation is dissatisfaction. Dukkha is actually an ancient word that refers to what happens when a wheel rubs because the hub is not on correctly. So, as our life goes along, we feel the rub, we experience dissatisfaction with how things are going. Religion cannot inoculate us against the painful conditions of life. We all get sick, lose loved ones, grow old, and eventually pass away. But religion can provide spiritualities that address dukkha, our dissatisfied mind or troubled heart in the midst of the painful conditions that life brings us. Spiritual practice can lead us to an inner peace expressed in loving kindness, compassion, and empathetic joy. Even in the midst of the troubles of life, we can find happiness.
This inner peace of mind and heart is important for many reasons. The Buddha points out that it is especially important due to the fact that our dissatisfied mind, our troubled heart, can lead us to think, feel, and act in ways that contribute to suffering, to making our troubling situations even more painful for ourselves and others. For example, our dissatisfaction with another person can lead to anger and even hatred for that person. Those feelings are troubling in themselves but can also lead to acts of violence. We also may be dissatisfied with other races, nations, or religions; and we may respond to this dissatisfaction as a group in ways that are hurtful.
The Buddha teaches that our dissatisfaction with others is connected to a belief that someone, some race or nation or religion, is separate and different from ourselves. Their differences are seen as threatening to us, to our satisfaction or happiness. So we define the other as an enemy. This, in turn, leads to all sorts of troubles. Here we find a fundamental ignorance of our common humanity, of the fundamental unity of life, of its interconnectedness of which we are all parts. It is this ignorance that we have to overcome in order to find inner peace and happiness in a way that also supports the peace and happiness of others.
Venerable Henepola Gunaratana
I am the teacher in a meditation center. Normally, meditation centers draw people with troubles, especially younger people. Working with troubled people is a yeoman's task. We need to listen to them patiently and teach them by our example how to be patient with themselves. Patience does not mean that you let others walk all over you. It means waiting for the right time to say the right words with the right attitude to the right people.
We also need sometimes to agree with them and sometimes to agree to disagree with them. We never expect them to agree with what we tell them. If they don't agree with us, they need to feel free to say that they don't agree with us. And we both have to learn to agree to disagree. This is true not only for individuals but for societies, organizations, and religions. Everyone needs to learn to respect each other's cherished values, beliefs, and feelings. The ideal for the human family is harmony, unity with diversity.
Reverend Heng Sure
I once took part in a church activity called Data Sabbath. People set aside their technological devices, taking a total break from the "power grid," and coming back to friends and family. For those of us who are troubled by the fast pace of modern life, this idea has much to offer. It shows us that real peace and happiness that are truly meaningful and satisfying are not to be found on a technological highway going a hundred miles an hour, but with no one at the wheel. When is there time to ask the big questions about where we are going? What is this life about? To take some time to slow down, to set the technological world aside and return to the divine, to nature, to family, to oneself is very important not only spiritually but humanly as well.
Most people think that contemplative Buddhist monasteries are quiet and peaceful places and that we just sit on our cushions all day. Actually, monasteries can be filled with activities, and sometimes my life has never felt so busy! Yet there is a spaciousness in that kind of environment that allows all that we find difficult to experience and be with--our inner resistances, aversion, despair, a sense of the meaninglessness of it all--to be accepted in consciousness and let go of. Spaciousness on the physical, psychological, and spiritual levels allows the heart to rest and provide the context we need to allow change and healing to take place. Unfortunately, in our modern world, this commodity is considered pretty worthless. Thus, we rarely find the means to access that inner spaciousness of awareness so much needed to discover our own humanness and the way to real happiness.
Venerable Chuen Phangcham
What does happiness mean? Some say that it means life without problems, having food, clothes, medicine, housing, and so on. For the Buddha, happiness is peacefulness, living peacefully without hatred, greed, anger, in the midst of the problematic situations of life. It means living with a calm and clear mind, an awakened mind that is free from delusion. The Buddha's path leads us to this Nirvana.
The first level of the path has to do with changing how we live. We refrain from killing, stealing, lying, taking intoxicating drinks or harmful drugs, and any sexual misconduct. We cultivate a life of loving kindness, universal compassion, generosity, sincerity, truthfulness, mindfulness, and wisdom. Here are the seeds of true happiness.
On the second level of the path, we practice meditation to deepen these virtues in our mind and root out the vices that restrict our freedom. We develop a calm and peaceful mind, step by step. Mental defilements, unwholesome thoughts and feelings, are loosened and subdued; the mind becomes more and more free, loving, and wise.
On the third and final level of the path, we deepen our wisdom. We find that we are not separate from one another. We are one with others and part of the unity of all things. Everyone is a brother or sister to be loved. As this new vision of life grows in our consciousness, we feel united in heart with all beings and want to bring peace and harmony into the lives of everyone. In doing so, we not only find happiness, we bring it to everyone we meet. This is the ideal of the Buddha: "May peace prevail on earth, and may all living beings be happy."
Venerable Henepola Gunaratana
There are many kinds of rings: wedding rings, engagement rings, earrings. But there is one ring that we all have, whether Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, or no religion. All living beings have suffering. Suffering is universal. We cannot totally eliminate it. Because of our modern technology, we have discovered various things to combat suffering, prolong our life a bit, overcome many sicknesses, eliminate some poverty, provide better sanitation, and so forth. But in spite of all these modern developments, suffering still exists. It has not totally been eliminated. It can never be fully eliminated from the world.
For instance, can we stop falling sick? Can we stop growing old? Can we stop sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair caused by separation from loved ones? There is also suffering associated with not getting what we want, or getting what we do not want. And when we do have what we want, we worry about losing it or protecting it. Then when we look around us, we witness crimes, wars, killings--all kind of things that we really don't want to see or hear. But we do not have the capacity to stop these painful things. Today people are especially prone to the suffering of stress, fear and anxiety, nervousness and depression, worry and anger, restlessness and a lack of self-worth. These states of mind come and go as we adjust to the different stages of our lives.
Nobody is born with a big smile; everybody is born with a big cry. Why do we cry? We cry not only because we are separated from our mother's comfortable womb but because we are thrust into this world, and at that moment we start crying. This crying about our human condition continues all our life. It may not be always heard, but the cry is always going on deep within our hearts. That first cry is symbolic of the cry we carry for the rest of our life. The more beings there are, the more cries there are.
Now, being ignorant of the source of this cry in our hearts, we seek happiness in the things we enjoy in the world around us. We often think that something new can bring us happiness, like a new car or house. I once knew a man who had been married six times. He was certain that his next marriage would bring him the happiness he was seeking. But the truth is that no matter what we use to stop the crying, the suffering of our lives continues due to the fact that we do not understand it. Indeed, understanding suffering is essential in order to do something about it. Just as if we were sick and didn't know what was making us sick. Until we find out what kind of sickness we have, how can we find a cure?
Our inner cry has two causes. One is what we call in Buddhism an insatiable greed. By greed, we mean that there is something in us that is never satisfied. No matter what we have, we want more. The second is even more important. We call it ignorance. We don't know what it is that makes us so dissatisfied. There is something in us that does not understand what is happening that makes us dissatisfied or unhappy. These two causes combine and work together.
We Buddhists believe that our dissatisfaction, our unhappiness, our inner cry exists because of what we call clinging of attachment to self. It's like the word onion. How do you spell onion? O, N, with I in the middle, and then O, N again: on and on, with I in the middle. So, too, our crying goes on and on because I is in the middle. So long as we are attached to this I, our unhappiness continues to go on and on. Because of my attachment, my clinging to my concept of myself, we continue to be troubled. This is ignorance. Once we recognize that this "self" that I conceive myself to be is a mere concept, that it is not something substantial as I think it is, we will find freedom from our troubled minds and hearts. Our unhappiness and our crying will cease.
For example, self-identity is very important in Western psychology, and we do everything to promote it. When I was a little boy, about six years old living in a very poor village in Sri Lanka, I sat down and drew a beautiful pumpkin with my fingers in the sand in front of our home. I began to admire this pumpkin because it was mine. I created it, and I was attached to it. While I was enjoying looking at it, my sister, who was about four years older than me, came by, stopped, and erased the picture that I had drawn in the sand. I got so furious that I wanted to attack her. I looked around and found a block of wood. I hardly could lift it, but I managed and chased after her. She ran into the house and through the kitchen, hoping to run out the kitchen door. Unfortunately for her, the kitchen door was locked. When she stopped, I took that block of wood and threw it at her. It hit her foot and her big toenail broke off. She was crying, weeping, making a big commotion. Until this day, my sister still has that scar on her big toe. I created all this trouble for my sister, myself, and everyone because of my ignorant attachment to something that did not really exist. It was just a made-up pumpkin. And I suffer even now when I think about it.
We all make up our sense of selfhood, our identity, but it is just a concept. Our attachment to this self-concept brings us much suffering. So, in order to minimize our suffering, we need to redirect our thoughts in a positive, wholesome direction that leads to true happiness. We can begin to do this by developing an honest understanding of our attachments to our nonexisting, imaginary concept of selfhood. This is the goal of many of our meditation practices. Then with an understanding of our false self, we can begin letting go of that self. In letting go of this attachment to self, with all the related worries about ourselves and our unhealthy reactions to the world around us, we can begin to minimize our unhappiness.
This letting go is what we call generosity. Generosity does not mean just letting go of material things. Sharing things with others is one aspect of generosity. Real generosity means letting go of this attachment to self. This letting go of self is also called "selflessness." Understanding our attachment to self is not easy. So, to cultivate this generosity, this selflessness, we also practice what is called loving kindness, or what I prefer to call loving friendliness. The word for loving kindness is metta, which is derived from the word for friend, mitta.
Loving friendliness is to be directed toward ourselves and toward others. It is opposed to self-hatred and hatred of others. As we live loving friendliness with a number of people, we reduce the suffering of those people. This practice is called "boundless" because it transcends all religions, all cultures, all races, all traditions--all boundaries. Its practice helps us break down conceptual limitations on our love and care for ourselves and for others. Everything is transcended when we cultivate this thought of loving friendliness. In fact, I think that one of the hallmarks of high world religions is that they all teach loving all living beings, respecting their dignity in a very basic way.
When we live this kind of loving friendliness, our self-centeredness is reduced, our openness to others is increased, and we can begin to let go of ourselves, our ignorant attachments to self. What is happening here is that we grow in compassion from the thought of loving friendliness. Compassion motivates us to reduce the suffering of others and opposes the selfish motivation to live for ourselves. As we live loving friendliness and compassion, we find that our happiness increases, and so does the happiness of others. We can at last begin to see a way of transcending our troubles and making our life more satisfying and peaceful.
Meet the Author
DONALD W. MITCHELL is Professor of Comparative Philosophy at Purdue University, where he is also Chair of the Religious Studies Program. JAMES WISEMAN, O.S.B., is a member of the Benedictine community of Saint Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, D.C., and is an associate professor of theology and Chairman of the Department of Theology at the Catholic University of America.
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