3 Tutorials that teach Suffering
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Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will discuss how various world religions have dealt with the question of suffering, how it is defined by different traditions.

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Hello. Welcome. This lesson deals with the topic of suffering in human life. We're going to look at how religion confronts the reality of suffering. We'll start with Christianity, then we'll look at Buddhism, and then briefly at Hinduism.

Suffering involves the experience of physical and emotional pain which might include various existential and spiritual trials and challenges. And in the context of religion it also signifies the individual and collective response to the suffering of others.

If we look at the etymology of the word, "suffer" and "suffering," it traces back to the Indo-European root "bher," B-H-E-R, which means to bear and to carry. And perhaps the most vivid example of this is in Christianity with Jesus Christ bearing the weight of sin represented by the cross.

And the early monastic movement within Christianity was exemplified by a group called the Desert Fathers who intentionally renounced all physical comforts with the intention of getting closer to God through the suffering undertaken by Christ. Someone committed to these kinds of practices and commitments is referred to as an ascetic, living the life of asceticism, with the goal of spiritual growth and understanding. Austerity, simplicity, and physical challenge, even discomfort and pain, in some cases intentionally inflicted, were considered roots toward communion with God, and ultimately released from the suffering that comes with the commitments to the world and the bodily constraints and commitments.

The different branches of Christianity recognize the value of this teaching to varying degrees. But most, if not all, also emphasize the importance of consoling others and helping with relief from suffering. This is expressed through charitable organizations that are associated with the church and other Christian institutions. Volunteer work with the homeless, for example, or Christian hospice groups that help guide people and their families through the final days of life.

And the Christian idea penance is also associated with suffering. Confession of sins, repenting, and receiving final solution for one's sins constitutes the Christian notion of penance. It involves the individual's and the community's commitment to alleviating suffering. And in terms of suffering or release from suffering some branches of Christianity have doctrinal clues for what might be in store in the afterlife as well.

Life is suffering. This is the first Noble Truth of the Buddha. And the Sanskrit term for it is Dukkha. As Buddhism unfolded it developed a spiritual, philosophical, really a psychological doctrine for coming to terms with this fundamental aspect, truth of human life. Buddhism's second Noble Truth states that suffering is caused by cravings and attachments that are guided by our desires and fears, which are a result of our ignorance- ignorance of the way out of suffering.

One thing that Buddhism teaches the practitioner is how to train his or her mind to see cravings and desires, and everything that takes the form of will and thought and habit, all the material of suffering, to see them when they arise and to accept them and simply let them go without grasping and clinging to the security that our ignorance tells us they might provide.

The noble Eightfold Path is a guide for the practitioner to learn the value of karuna, which means compassion. Self-compassion and compassion for all beings. Buddhism emphasizes compassion, moral integrity, and intention, and a holy life that's committed to day-to-day consciousness about how one communicates with the world. These represent aspects of the three jewels of Buddhism- the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. So Buddha, the teaching, and community. And it offers a possibility of release or liberation from suffering, a state of being known as, or hoped to be known as, nirvana.

And in Hinduism suffering is believed to be the result of negative actions in this life or in a former life. These are just laws, fair laws, that must be accepted along the way. And the factors that determine one's spiritual advancement have to do with personal behaviors and actions. Moral and ethical conduct which, in turn, affect one's karma and the possibility of liberation.

This liberation is called moksha. And Hinduism teaches that the manifestation of universal soul is possible. One of the first sources of this teaching is in the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the larger epic tale called the Mahabharata. One of the most important stories in the Bhagavad Gita tells of an exchange between Lord Vishnu and Prince Arjuna. The setting is a battlefield, and Arjuna is faced with a most difficult decision. The unfolding revelation of truth represented in this image is given to Arjuna as a reminder of his original soul and the ultimate state of peace and freedom that might await him after the battle.

So now we can review and summarize. We started out with the Indo-European root of "suffering" which is "bher," B-H-E-R. And it means, to bear and to carry. And we used the example from Christianity of Christ bearing the cross, bearing the weight of sin for humanity. We also looked at the idea of Christian penance and the idea of repenting and confessing one's sins and how community support is often available to help alleviate suffering, not only in terms of penance but also in terms of helping out in the social environment and with the homeless and with different charitable organizations, hospice, et cetera.

And then we looked at Buddhism and the first Noble Truth, life is suffering. And we laid out a few of the vocabulary terms that help guide the practitioner toward release from suffering.

And then we looked at Hinduism very briefly and talked about moksha as the state of final release from suffering and the idea that karma and one's actions in the world dictate one's entanglements in suffering or not.

  • Suffering

    Physical, psychological, or spiritual pain.

  • Dukkha

    In Buddhism, "suffering".

  • Noble Eightfold Path

    In Buddhism, a series of practices that lead to enlightenment and to the end of suffering.

  • Karuna

    In Buddhism, the practice of compassion.

  • Moksha

    In Indian religions, liberation.

  • Nirvana

    In Buddhism, liberation.