Suffering In Buddhism And Christianity

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Suffering is strictly the response to something – physical or mental – that occurs to a person. Yet, faiths worldwide have sought answers to this phenomenon, in hopes to decipher; why humans suffer and its necessity to life. Eastern faiths such as Buddhism cite that it is due to human’s attachment to material objects (Littlefair, 2017); whereas, Western religions, such as Christianity state suffering is inevitable due to sin, free will and humans needing to be tested for their second life (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2019). Thus, in Buddhism and Christianity, suffering is not only proven to be a necessary part of life, but inevitable. This will be shown through; examining Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path and their relation to suffering, exploring Christianity’s teachings towards suffering and then finally analysing suffering in the Australian context by looking into Indigenous peoples’ suffering.

Firstly, Buddhism’s views on suffering (dukkha) are Buddha’s most simple, but fundamental teachings that provide followers a path out of suffering. Buddhism teaches that suffering is everywhere and prevalent all aspects of an unenlightened individual’s life and directly links suffering to attachment, as it is through it’s the link of craving that humans inevitably experience suffering (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2019; New World Encyclopedia, 2015). Identifying and understanding the universality of suffering and becoming consciously aware of its inevitability is therefore the first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths – ‘life is suffering’ (Brumet, 2016; Mellor, 1991). Buddhism simply dictates, that every aspect of life contains a component of suffering in the teaching, an inescapable reality as a human (Mellor, 1991), as;

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‘[a]s long as the individual self thinks it is separate from the Lord, it revolves around the wheel in bondage to the laws of birth, death and rebirth…’ (Svetasvatara Upanishad 1.6-8) (New World Encyclopedia, 2015).

It is only in following Buddha’s subsequent truths that an individual may remove suffering from one’s life. The second Noble Truth states the cause of suffering is craving (tanha) and the third states that by removing resistance, suffering can be eradicated and become just an experience. Interestingly, here the truths link human’s tendency to attach oneself to materialistic objects and crave them is the cause for all human suffering, as through identifying this and removing attachment from all things in life, humans would then not experience any suffering (Brumet, 2016). Considering life nowadays is extremely materialistic, removing this attachment from personal belongings, finance and relationships is increasingly harder. Though, the final Noble Truth aids modern followers the tools for achieving enlightenment by outlining the guide to the cessation of suffering through following the Noble Eightfold Path. By following the eight prescriptions outlined, followers can then eradicate the cause of suffering, achieving escape from suffering and the world (samsara) through reaching enlightenment and thus freeing themselves from the cycle of rebirth (Brumet, 2016). Therefore, suffering is portrayed to be this inescapable destiny all humans are born into which permeates all aspects of an unenlightened individual’s life. It is only through accepting the inevitability and necessity of suffering and following the Four Noble Truths, that Buddhists can become enlightened and escape the impermanence of life, ridding themselves of suffering.

Whereas, Christianity views suffering differently. Like Buddhism, Christianity does believe suffering is a necessity and believes it is inevitable for humans, but instead of believing there is a path to free oneself from it, Christians believe the path is through it (Mellor, 1991). Opposed to Buddhist beliefs, Christians welcome suffering using it to connect to God and his son. As Peter 4:1 states; ‘…[s]ince Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin.’ (Bible Study Tools, 2019).

Therefore, it is taught, as Jesus suffered by suffering yourself you can develop a deeper understanding of self and become closer to God (Mellor, 1991). Though, in Christianity, the reason for suffering is a direct consequence of three things. The first is that sin, or more precisely original sin is the cause for humans suffering. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were free of suffering, having everything they needed. It was only following Eve’s temptation and the pairs’ subsequent sin that they were cast out and forced themselves and following mankind, to endure suffering (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2019). The second aspect Christians point to for the cause of sin is humans’ free will. Due to God being presented as omnipotent and all powerful, many people question why He does not cease human suffering; a widely accepted fact to why He doesn’t is due to Him giving humans free will. For God to stop human suffering He would be contradicting the gift He gave to humans to have free will over their actions (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2019). The final reason for suffering in Christian scriptures is to give humans a chance to improve their souls, as a preparation for heaven. Suffering is viewed as the measure God uses to test humans while on Earth, with the amount of suffering one endures and how they manage and overcome it becoming the basis for their admittance to heaven where they are compensated for their troubles in life (New World Encyclopedia, 2015). Therefore, through these avenues, Christians also validate suffering’s necessity in life, with factors such as original sin and human’s free will making it unavoidable in life.

However, in analysing suffering in the Australian context is soon becomes apparent of the inevitability of suffering, but not the necessity. On January 26th, 1788, the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Cove and proclaimed it British territory. Australia, void of any discernible infrastructure or governments was viewed as inhabited, despite the over 600 Indigenous tribes co-existing throughout the country, each with complex social code, equipped with traditions, values and beliefs (Korff, 2019; Tripcony, 2007). In the 200 years following, Indigenous Australians were treated as nothing more than the Australian landscape, allowed little human rights and were controlled by the white oppressors. In this time the Indigenous people were dealt an immeasurable amount of undeserved suffering, the most blatant example being that of the Stolen Generations, where half-caste – half white, half Indigenous – children were taken from their mothers and sent to live in adoptive houses and institution and deprived of their culture and their traditions (Australian Institue of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 2018). Today the prolonging effects of this time are still felt by the Indigenous community with Indigenous people being over represented in the criminal justice system and experiencing lower standards of health, education, employment and housing compared to non-indigenous Australians (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2019). Through analysing Indigenous suffering with a Buddhist perspective, their suffering can be attributed to inevitability, as life is suffering their suffering is necessary as being unenlightened individuals. To cease their suffering the Indigenous people of Australia would need to follow the teachings of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and thus remove any attachment they have to materialistic things, family and land (Brumet, 2016). Whereas, analysing the suffering sustained by Indigenous Australians with a Christian perspective presents an alternative view. Christianity would dictate that Indigenous peoples’ suffering is a measure God uses to test them for heaven, in as much suffering as they sustain and how they manage and overcome it being the basis for their admittance to heaven (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2019). Although, both of these perspectives are certainly not in line with Indigenous Spirituality which dictates a strong connection to land and the Indigenous peoples duty to protect and care for it as it gives everything life (Tripcony, 2007); through analysing suffering in the Australian context Buddhist and Christian views of suffering can be understood in how they believe in the necessity and inevitability of suffering.

Therefore, suffering in Buddhism is due to being unenlightened and only through following the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path may followers escape and cease suffering. Whereas, in Christianity, it is attributed to numerous things including sin, free will and as a measure to gain admittance into heaven. Through Australia’s Indigenous peoples’ suffering the general working of these teachings can be measured and understood, but in either faith both teach that suffering is indeed a necessary part of life, being inevitable to human’s existence.

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