Grappling with suffering as a universal concept

While reading Rupert Gethin’s piece I was reminded of some of the comments and questions made in class about the different degrees of suffering. A few people made a clear point to ask about Buddhist perception of suffering as it relates to economic inequality. Our Professor explained that in actuality Buddhists believe we are all suffering, regardless of wealth because we are all susceptible to sickness, old age and death. These contrasting definitions made me realize my own definition of suffering was much more tied to privilege and carried its own very specific set of indicators or markers. For me, suffering is something that people slip into or are born into due to economic standing or specific circumstances like a war or systemic exclusion. I then began to question where these standards or ideas of suffering came from, and how they might conflict or support Buddhist ideology.

It became clear that my notions of suffering were a byproduct of its’ international commodification. An example of this commodification can be found in the way it has been banded for the Global North by humanitarianism. Ads for international NGOs and the general “liberation” ideology often used to support “democratic” wars have long relied on this brand to garner funding and political support. It is so deeply tied to our history and sense of patriotism that it has been internalized as part of the Western identity.

For myself, growing up in the US it is very easy to reference specific images or representations that point to this specific “suffering” brand. There is often a geographic marker, typically from the Global South, focused predominately on woman and children and containing messages of general helplessness and victimhood. This is not to say that there aren’t factual reasons to support this specific representation, woman and children often are those that bear a specific form of the burden of war, poverty and violence. And I don’t mean to question the branding or evaluate the motivations for marketing humanitarianism. I think it is a vastly complex issue and at times can be boiled down to our belief in the existence of true altruism. What I mean to ask is how this specific branding effort has challenged our ability to view suffering as universal.

The few markers of suffering that I have previously mentioned are only a few examples. In reality there are countless ways this branding has been pushed and even more ways in which it has been rejected and revolutionized. But as a whole this branding has alienated us from a concept of universal suffering. There is a section of the reading that discussed the suffering of change and asks “how close does it [suffering] have to come before it in some sense impinges on my sense of well-being—the next street, the house next door, the next room?” (62). By geographically separating the Global North, through this branding agenda and the specific markers used to identify suffering, we have in essence cut ourselves off from the ability to assume it in our own lives as a more cross-economic, universal human experience like sickness, old age and death. In essence, we have convinced ourselves that we have escaped suffering because by sheer chance we were born out of its’ specific geographical and ideological grasp. We have rejected universal suffering and therefore may have also rejected universal empathy.

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3 Responses to Grappling with suffering as a universal concept

  1. Rebecca Swartz says:

    I think your comments on the commodification of suffering are very interesting and highly relevant to our discussions on what constitutes suffering to Buddhists. Traditional western ideas of suffering seem to focus on constructions of what occurs in other parts of the world, specifically in the Global South, thus ignoring instances of harm, destruction, pain, danger, etc. that occur in the Global North. Moreover, framing the Global South as experiencing a higher degree of suffering than what people endure in the North makes the Global North a group that is responsible for combating the problems among the less privileged. Buddhism dispels this notion by viewing suffering as a natural, human condition that cannot be overcome through money or health or even happiness. There are specific events that are intrinsic to life as a human being, and being of a certain status or belonging to a certain place will not allow you to escape these inevitable stages of life. In this way, Buddhism not only simplifies the scope of what it means to suffer, but its definition includes all of humanity, something western ideology fails to do because of the power in creating a hierarchy around suffering allows those in the Global North to achieve.

  2. mlincoln says:

    I too have problems reconciling an anti-oppression analysis with Buddhism’s insistence that suffering is universal–especially given that, for me, anti-oppression hinges on a rejection of the “universal” as a normative and exclusionary western Enlightenment construct that causes ideological and material harm to eastern cultures, including Buddhist ones, through Orientalism.

    As for mental illness, I can only speak from my own experience. First of all, I think of mental illness as yet another axis of oppression and simultaneously a result of living under other oppressions, rather than “cutting across all walks of life,” but your point about invisibility is important. Also, I’m not a Buddhist but the more I learn about Buddhism, the more its principles are difficult but ultimately helpful for me as a mentally ill person. There have been times in my life when “right concentration” would have been an inaccessible option for me and the Four Noble Truths would just have been another way mental illness cut me off from the rest of the world who might have an easier time with the cessation of suffering. I would have been angry at the suggestion that I could just stop being mentally ill if I tried hard enough. But fighting for survival has involved fighting for something that looks a lot like the Four Noble Truths. This is complicated, though, by the notion of ignoring suffering in order to convince oneself falsely that one has escaped it. Sometimes ignoring suffering is the only thing you are able to do, the only means you have of surviving long enough to escape it.

  3. Wesley Crusher says:

    This idea that we may ignore certain kinds of suffering in order to convince ourselves we have escaped makes me think immediately about people living with mental illness. These “invisible” disabilities cut across all walks of life. With the focus on “right concentration” and on a disciplined mind, I wonder what Buddhism has to say about / offer to people with mental illness? Does it pose itself as a solution?

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