Life is Dukkha

A Sunday Gathering Message by Andy Pakula


A Contribution to Statistics
Wislawa Szymborska

Out of a hundred people

those who always know better -- fifty-two
doubting every step -- nearly all the rest,
glad to lend a hand if it doesn't take too long -- as high as forty-nine,
always good because they can't be otherwise -- four, well maybe five,
able to admire without envy -- eighteen,
suffering illusions induced by fleeting youth -- sixty, give or take a few,
not to be taken lightly -- forty and four,
living in constant fear of someone or something -- seventy-seven,
capable of happiness -- twenty-something tops,
harmless singly, savage in crowds -- half at least,
cruel when forced by circumstances -- better not to know even ballpark figures,
wise after the fact -- just a couple more than wise before it,
taking only things from life -- thirty (I wish I were wrong),
unched in pain, no flashlight in the dark -- eighty-three sooner or later,
righteous -- thirty-five, which is a lot,
righteous and understanding -- three,
worthy of compassion -- ninety-nine,

mortal -- a hundred out of a hundred.
Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.


Sunday Gathering message

“All right?” "Awright mate?"

It took me a while to get this British greeting, and especially when someone would ask it more slowly. "Are you alright?"

Uh... I thought I was - is something wrong? Do I look strange? Do you know something I don't know?

It not much different in the US, actually.

"Hey - how ya doing?"

"How's it going?"

Or the formal "how do you do?"

"Comment ça va?" in French.

"¿Cómo estás?" in Spanish.

At some point, we all learned that these questions are not meant to be answered with anything like honesty. Good, fine, alright, ça va…  we are meant to answer as though everything is fine unless - you know - we’re pinned under a car or bleeding profusely. Even people with severe illness who are feeling absolutely horrible are known to reflexively answer "alright."

For every single one of us, there are times when things are decidedly not alright.

Wislawa Szymborska gives her estimates and and suggests that 72 out of 100 of us live in constant fear that 83 of 100 will be - at some point - stumbling in pain in the dark without a flashlight.

As we know all too well, bad and sad and painful things happen in all of our lives.  We know that not even the luckiest of us live in a continual state of bliss. We have our many struggles - some small and others crushingly large.

And when the immediate crisis is over, we know that none of us will really live the fairytale ending of "Happily ever after."

All of the world's religions have had to respond to the reality that - intermingled with the wonders and pleasures we encounter - our lives inevitably include suffering.

Here, at New Unity, our response is intrinsic to the power of a healthy and loving community. It is our intention to offer sturdy shoulders to lean on for anytime anyone is not strong. We know too that the loving, accepting, and honest, embrace in community can allow each of us to heal and to learn from our experiences and come away more aware than when we began.

Let's look at some other religious understandings of suffering.

The three Abrahamic faiths take a somewhat similar position. For all three of them, the basic assumption is that an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing God exists and can control everything that happens. Logically then, if there is suffering, it is with God's approval. Suffering must have a purpose - it must, in some way - be for the good.

Christianity has an especially complex relationship with suffering. Suffering might be seen as a punishment from God for personal misdeeds or even for the collective evil of all humankind.

Some Christians understand suffering as a way that God tests human faith.

And there is another strand to the understanding of suffering in Christianity that sees suffering as positive and as an essential part of the Christian spiritual path. Because Jesus was said to suffer and die for humankind, suffering can be a way of emulating Jesus. St. Paul said that Christians should rejoice in suffering because it engenders endurance, hope and character.

To suffer well is - for some people - part of what it is to be a faithful Christian.

Suffering Christians can find comfort in the belief of an afterlife in which all good Christians - no matter how they suffered in life - will spend eternity in heavenly bliss.

When we get away from the Abrahamic faiths, we find similarities and some major differences.

Hindus also see suffering as punishment, but not only for misdeeds in this life. They also look beyond this life to explain suffering. When we die, according to Hinduism, we are reborn as another person or perhaps as non-human animal. If we do good in each life, we have better and better rebirths from insect to dog to pauper to successful business person and so on. Eventually - we may become enlightened and break out of the endless cycle of rebirth. If our actions are less than they should be, suffering in a future life can be the result.

Buddhism is unusual in that - rather than explain suffering or offer hope beyond this life, it actually offers an understanding of suffering and a path to eliminating it.

The Buddha first acknowledges there is suffering. In fact, he says that all is suffering - which in the Pali language is Dukkha. All is Dukkha.

But he doesn't leave it there. He explains that most suffering comes from our disappointed expectations. We cling to hopes that life will be a certain way, and we suffer because of our disappointment with the reality of life.

Happiness, the Buddhists say, comes from accepting life exactly as it is in the present moment and living right here in the now.

There is certainly great truth in the Buddha’s message.

There are two things I particularly want to say about suffering today. First is that suffering is universal and that we must acknowledge and engage with that reality. And second, I want to talk about what we gain personally from suffering.

Unlike some strains of Christianity, I would never suggest that suffering is to be sought or that it is a path to spiritual growth. Too many women and children have been convinced to stay in abusive situations because they should suffer as Jesus did. We should be dedicated to relieving suffering - not encouraging it.

We must talk about suffering though, because to talk about life without talking about suffering would be a lie. Life is not always beautiful. It is not the mythical garden of eden.

Some of us turn to the natural world for inspiration and comfort - seeing it as a place uncorrupted by human cruelty. But nature is not a place of pure beauty and wonder. Accompanying the beauty is the reality of pain, and disease, and killing.

When we do not acknowledge suffering in our own lives, we feel detached from one another. It took me until my thirties to really understand at a deep way that I was not the only person feeling frightened and deeply adequate.

Until then, I had compared my insides to other people's outsides. They looked confident and happy. How was I to know that they were putting up a front, just as I was?

A Buddhist story tells of a woman called Kisa Gautami. She was a widow and her only son was the great joy of her life. Sadly, the child became gravely ill and soon died. In her inconsolable sorrow, Kisa Gautami would not release the dead body of her child and she carried him from place to place begging for someone to bring him back to life.

At last, someone sent her to the Buddha.  She begged the Buddha to bring her child back to life. At last, he said "I will do this, but first you must bring me one single mustard seed from a home that has not known death."

The knowledge that suffering is universal creates a bridge between human beings. It allows us to understand that arrogance might hide a tender spirit, that behind apparent overconfidence might be a sense of worthlessness.

Kisa Gautami went from house to house asking for a mustard seed. At one home after another, she found the residents very happy to give her a mustard seed - or many - but each then share their family's own story of suffering. The death of a child, a husband, a wife, a brother, sister, mother, father... There is not family untouched by hardship.

Kisa Gautami buried her child and returned to the Buddha with a newfound sense of connection to all beings.

We need to know that we are not alone in our suffering. The knowledge that suffering is universal creates a bridge between human beings. It allows us to understand that arrogance might hide a tender spirit, that behind apparent overconfidence might be a sense of worthlessness.

Knowing that we all have suffering and longings helps to chip away at the walls that keep us apart - the walls we all build when the experience of suffering makes us too afraid to let anyone close.

Suffering is the cause of our separation and knowing its universality can be part of the cure.

The second thing we must say about suffering is that, as much as it is to be avoided, it is through the hard experiences of our lives that we grow and develop. Through the loss of a loved one, we begin to appreciate everyone in our lives more. We find ourselves speaking our love and care to everyone important to us.

An illness or an injury often prompts us to stop taking the moments of our lives for granted. We find ourselves appreciating life more and treasuring life for the gift it is.

Perhaps the hardest suffering to bear is when we have played a part in causing the suffering ourselves. It may be an addiction, a conflict, a betrayal, a cruelty... Our suffering is compounded by our sense of guilt and shame.

And yet, this most difficult pain can - if we can face ourselves - teach us more about ourselves than can decades of stress-less times. These are the experiences that show us who we are and help us to identify the barriers we have built against our own happiness and fulfillment.

If I am honest, then when I respond with anger I look frankly at my response. Rather than justify it in another person’s actions, I strive to understand the wounds and patterns that I carry around - the fragile parts of myself that I am protecting with that anger. And knowing this, I can do better the next time. I can grow toward being the person I want to be.

It is said that that which does not kill us makes us stronger.

This is not entirely true. In fact, suffering can make us bitter and fearful. It can cause us to withdraw from life and to miss out on all of the experiences that might have brought real satisfaction to our lives.

Suffering makes us stronger in a special context - in a place and with people where we can be comforted enough to bear the pain. In a place where we can be nurtured enough to recover. In a place where we can feel safe enough and accepted enough to face ourselves honestly - to recognised the role we play in our own suffering - and to move forward with new eyes and new resolve.

Suffering is a universal reality of life. May it help us to know and love one another more keenly and may our love and acceptance for one another allow our suffering to to help make us the people we long to be.