In this post I will compare some Buddhist views of suffering, desire, and the attending solution to the human dilemma with that of my own understanding of the Christian faith. Before beginning with this task I am reminded of some advice I once heard. A man once said “if you try to make a major world religion look bad in just a few moments, you really do not understand it.” Such is a reminder everyone should heed. My intention with this essay is not to malign a major religious worldview, but rather to affirm the insight of the Buddhist tradition and the philosophy’s assessment of the human condition. In this essay I will first lay out the Buddhist diagnosis of the human condition by looking at two of its four noble truths, that of Dukkha or suffering and Samudaya or desire. I will then communicate my own understanding of the Christian faith on the same topics of suffering and desire. Next I will look at the solutions offered to the human condition by both religious views. Finally, I will give some thought to how one might share the gospel with a Buddhist through the concepts of suffering and desire and make some concluding remarks.
Buddhist Assesment of the Human Condition
The Buddha was quite adamant that his philosophy was that of practice and of practical importance to solving the problem human beings face in the passage of life. He claimed to only have observed our condition, realized the truth about it, and offered the right medicine for people to apply. Speculation and theorizing, he claimed, was not helpful and should be avoided about things we have little access to through our minds. The illustration that was offered is that of a man dying with an arrow lodged in his flesh. If one stops to ask too many questions he places himself in deeper peril. If while bleeding he asks: What type of arrow is in me? What is the tip like? What are your credentials for removing arrows? If he asks such questions, the man will continue to bleed and die before he is assisted. The wise man will just remedy the problem; he will just remove the arrow. In this essay I will argue that the Buddha did indeed have great insight into the human condition; we are in a desperate situation with arrows lodged deeply in us. The question I will ask is this; did he know the proper path for removing the insidious darts? Before we turn to that question, we must first look at his diagnosis. To do so we will look at the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.
The first noble truth of the Buddha is that of Dukkha, which means that life is in essence suffering. From a purely human perspective, life under the sun is to experience suffering, lack of satisfaction, as the writer of Ecclesiastes also teaches; life is vanity of vanities, a chasing after the wind. I find this world to be very much like the Buddha describes. In realizing that to live is to suffer, the Buddha then turns to his second noble truth to provide an explanation as to the source of our suffering. While I find his identification of the source of our suffering to be perhaps incomplete, I find his insight to be helpful. To the reason for our suffering we now turn.
The second truth tells us that we suffer due to desire or attachment, a self orientation which causes a preoccupation with fulfilling our earthy wants. We try to quench the thirsts of our desires only to find that the attempt to find satisfaction leaves us even more unsatisfied, full of suffering. An analogy may be helpful. Think of a man who is set adrift at sea who has run out of fresh water to drink. He sees water all around him and he deeply desires to drink. Yet when he does he only finds that the water will kill him, multiplying his bodies thirst, rather than quenching it. We desire, we are attached to this world, seeking to quench our thirst in a vast ocean of suffering. If we drink, we only thirst more; if we continue to desire and stay attached, we will never be released from our suffering and pain. In summary the Buddha teaches us that our problem in this life is suffering and this suffering is produced by our attached and self centered desires. It is not hard to guess what his solution to this dilemma might be. Yet before moving to that very important task, let me first explain my own view of the human condition from my perspective as a follower of Jesus. Although the reason for our condition finds a very different explanation in my view, the condition we find ourselves is very near to that of these first two of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.
My Assesment of the Human Condition as a Christian
As a follower of Christ and the teachings of Scripture, my view of the world is not that far from that articulated by the Buddha. Indeed, I see a world that is fallen, fractured and quite full of suffering. This world, as a result of human being’s disobedience to God, is now under a curse; a curse which includes death, disease, and suffering in this present age. It is a creation under the bondage to decay which is awaiting redemption and is in great need of liberation. As GK Chesterton once aptly implied, this present age is one resembling a shipwreck, a golden vessel which went down at the foundation of the world and its goods are scattered amidst the wreckage of the world.
Additionally, if our desires and attachments are only for this world, I agree that this is a great source of suffering. St. Augustine provided me with some great insight in a discourse I read where discussed the Sunnum Bonum, the greatest good for human beings. His line of thought was that our hope, our greatest good, cannot be found in this world of suffering. If we place our hope in our health, it can be lost. If our greatest hope is in wealth, this too can be taken from us against our will. If our hope is placed in the good of home and family, loved ones too can be lost and taken from us. If our hope is placed in safety and security, our world is one where people are conquered and goods are plundered. Our supreme good would have to be found in another place than in this current fallen age. Indeed, desire and attachment placed in temporal “goods” is an attachment which will lead to despair and suffering. Ephesians teaches me that deceitful desires are part of our sinful nature and 1 John is very clear that the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.
Yet my view as a Christian does not hold that all is lost in this fallen world of suffering. For I am not a pessimist about our current condition and this is perhaps where the teaching of the Buddha and my view greatly diverge. For the Buddha lives in a world of human problems, and does not allow a divine light into his noble Truths. As we turn our attention to the solution of suffering and selfish desire, we will see that the gospel calls forth, evokes, directs new desires, where the Buddha only seeks to amputate desire from the human soul. Though the diagnoses are similar; that we are in need of deliverance from suffering produced by sinful desires, the salve for our condition is very different as offered from Buddha and offered from Jesus Christ. To this we now turn.
Solutions to the Problem of Misplaced Desires
In examining the Buddhist view of solving the diliemna of suffering caused by attachment/desire we move to the third of the Four Noble Truths. If Suffering is caused by desire, the Buddhist makes a reasonable, though deeply flawed move. If desire is the culprit, then he must be terminated. The third truth, Nirodha, means that desire and attachment to the objects of desire must end. The goal is to be free from desire so that one will not suffer. In fact, one must be free of the illusion that he is an entity we would call a “self.” You realize that you have no essential identity and as a result desire, attachment and suffering fade away as one is extinguished into nirvana. Instead of removing the arrow from a man’s leg; it seems the solution of the Buddha is to cut off the leg completely. Even more so, to deny there is an arrow, a “you”, any real reality to any of it at all. But the questions which arise to me are the following: What if desires, loves, wants, and attachments are essential to human beings? What if there is a “self” that is intrinsically valuable but does not have to be the center of all things? Yes, desire can be wrongly aimed and projected to the wrong persons and things; yet this hardly assumes that there is not a proper person for the highest and most intense desires. In this I find the person of Christ to offer a much more excellent way.
In looking at the human soul many have observed that there is something essential to our nature that longs for relationship and worship. Human beings are always worshipping – in fact it would not at all be improper to call us homo adorans. Yet in our fallen state we can aim our affections at many things both good and sinful. The problem is that our desires are deceitful and our affections are for sin and self, not that I have desires. My Christian faith and experience informs me that there can be pure affections and holy longings; desires for a person that is true, right, and good. Our sins need forgiveness and our desires need to be placed firmly upon the living God. In the gospel we see that our desires need not amputation but rebirth. Our desires need not to be removed but captured by a greater master; the Lord God himself.
The Buddhist offers meditation as a way to clear and empty the mind and remove earthly desires. In contrast as a Christian I seek to mediate with a full mind, inflamed and set upon God’s majestic beauty, benevolent character, holy justice, his word and works in this world. Jesus told us not to kill desire but rather to love fully. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. How can this happen to selfish people who are stuck in the miseries of sin? God is his grace redeems us, forgives us, removes our guilt and gives us new loves, new affections, and yes, new desires. He then fills our lives with his own Spirit to lead and guide us through this fallen world. All of these things take place under the gigantic shadow of the wondrous promise of his coming redemption of all things. This world of death, disease, despair, and suffering – even Dukkha, will one day be brought into the full liberation and renewal of the Kingdom of God. In that day the tears will be dried, hopes eternally realized, and we shall run without amputation with the beauty of consummated and realized desire.
Dialogue With those who Embrace Buddhist Views
When I think about how to apply this understanding to sharing the gospel with others, the method represented in a book I read comes to mind. In the book, Engaging Unbelief, a Captivating Strategy from Augustine and Aquinas (IVP, 1999), author Curtis Chang looks at to historical models of engaging other worldviews. To summarize quickly he encourages us to enter the story of the other person by their own presuppositions and definitions. Second, we retell the story from within that view exposing its flaws in explaining our human condition. Third, the truthful insights of the worldview may be captured in the broad Christian narrative which better explains where the other view falls short. In living this in conversation with someone with Buddhist views (something I did in travels to Eastern Europe - lots of Buddhist philosophy floating around today in that idealogical vacuum known as Europe ), there is a great entry to his story via the two Noble Truths regarding suffering and desire. We can affirm the insight of the Buddha and his good understanding of the human condition. We can then ask questions about the nature of the solution. Is all desire bad? What sort of desire could be good desire? If there are good desires what are they for? What if our desire for relationship was a great clue to where our desires ought to find culmination? In looking at the Buddhist story we can share that only certain desires are corrupting and others might perhaps be a clue to something wonderful, relational, and true. Additionally asking one other other question is helpful: what if our primary purpose was for love and worship? We can then affirm the intuitive Buddhist drive for this reality by their practice of prayer (note: Mahayana Buddhists have more of an idea of god than Thervada Buddhists...so ask some questions and see what a person is into). Prayer is the greatest validation of the I/Thou relationship which can only occur between the self and the “other.” This urge towards prayer demonstrates something profound in of our nature. Namely, that desire for someone else is perhaps very essential to being human. Finally, the themes of suffering and desiring within the Christian story can acknowledge this world of suffering, yet offers a very different solution to our dilemma. The solution of reconciliation with God, the only one in whom we may loose ourselves in deep desire, even worship, and thereby find our truest selves in the process.
In today’s world many who claim to be disciples of Christ have adopted a view of the world that suffering is somehow abnormal and strange for them. Christians need to expect and know “to live is to suffer” – too many have been sold a happy, two hand clappy, version of the Christian life, seeking your best life now. Our Christian forebears in the Bible and on the pages of Church history have told us that this world is indeed fallen, full of disease pain and suffering. Our Buddhist friends have observed this well. When all is done we are made not for extinguishing ourselves, but for worship. The traveling soul on its earthly sojourn will not find ultimate and final rest in anything but worship and relationships. Indeed Augustine wrote insightfully:
Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts [the center of our desires]are restless till they find rest in Thee