Thursday, July 31, 2014

Question: Does suffering have a positive side?


Unless you die...

Someone very close to me asked this question and to give a thorough answer I must first define some terms. Suffering is a mental/emotional response to not getting what we want. And by positive I mean the perception of satisfaction. Next we need to define who is experiencing this suffering and how this entity perceives a positive affect. Our ordinary way of answering this entity question is with the answer of me. Yet who is this me? And how is this me perceived or experienced?

By understanding the mechanics of perception we can better understand how this me becomes the core of corruption and sadness. Perception requires several dimensions. First there must be a sensory system. We have five independent components of our system: sight, smell, auditory, touch, taste and a thinking processor.  Signals from each component are transmitted from objects to particular registry locations in our brain where they are identified, merged with other sensory dimensions into a gestalt and coded into words and thoughts. For example the object of a rose is fabricated into a mental image constructed from sight, smell and touch, which is then labeled Rose.

The second aspect of perception entails observation of objects. For objects to be sensed they must be distinguished from other things, and to be understood they must be discriminated into two opposite dimensions. An object is defined as an observable thing. Observation can be either physical or mental. An idea is a mental image (or object) whereas a rose is a physical object that becomes a mental image. The idea of a rose is different than an actual rose and the word rose is different yet. Both the word and an idea are abstractions, or codes, to represent an actual rose and both enable imagination and communication. To be perceived and understood, an object requires contrast (or discriminate properties). For example the idea of up only makes sense given the opposite of down; in opposed to out, a rose opposed to a non-rose.

The third and most important dimension of perception regards one who perceives (an observer) and the understanding that a true perceiver can’t perceive itself, since this perceiver has no observable properties or limiting identity yet can perceive anything objectively configured. This perceiver is called a subject (versus an object) and is understood as the true, unconditional mind. The mind is the locus of all perceptions whereas the ordinary way of understanding mind is a manifestation of the true mind (mental images, thoughts and emotions). 

Now we return to this idea of me. The same process of perception is involved with this me, only in the case of self identification there is no object to perceive except a physical body and a mental image of who we think we are: an ego or soul. This mental image is called an image of self (ego—the universal word for “I”) and it is a totally fabricated entity. Nevertheless the image satisfies the requirement of being a conditional, discriminate object, which can be perceived by the one doing the perceiving. Thus there is an object of perception (self-image) and the one perceiving. It is important to not confuse two terms: self and mind. Both the true Self and the true Mind are used synonymously. Neither has any identifiable properties since neither are objects. However, we have ideas about both. We imagine that mind is the manifestation rather than the source. The distinction between a manifestation and the source is preeminent. The source of creation is vastly different from what is fabricated or created, just as a manufacturing plant is different from what is manufactured in the plant. The ideas we possess about ourselves are simply the product of imagination. Whether we label these ideas as ego/self-image or soul they remain imaginary. We imagine a self that is an objective fabrication rather than who we truly are: the unconditional source. And as with anything else there must be the two opposite parts that allow perception to occur. Importantly these two (self-image and the self represented by the image) are opposite in nature, just as up is opposite from down. The ego/soul is perceived and we conclude, “that’s me.” But the ego is not the true self. It is a fabricated image to represent the self and this ego is completely unaware of the one creating and perceiving the image because the perceiver can’t be seen. The true self is not conditionally objective; instead it is unconditional without a limiting identity.

So, since the two (perceived and perceiver) are opposites, one has definable properties and the other doesn’t. One is real (but without discriminate properties) and the other is fabricated with conditional and discriminate properties. Now notice: since the ego is not real, and doesn’t know there is anything else, the ego believes it is real (and not fabricated). The problem is, the nature of an ego is discriminate and conditional (since it is objective and perceptible) and thus senses these discriminate differences and concludes me and not me and then judges good and bad. All of us desire good and wish to avoid bad and this desire is what creates suffering. Why? Because everything perceptibly objective is constantly changing, with the sense of satisfaction conditioned (or contingent) upon something else, which is also a changing object with conditional properties. Thus the ego can never remain satisfied. So long as we possess the good we desire, all is well and we are satisfied. But since everything perceptible changes it is impossible to stay satisfied. One moment what we desire is here and the next it is gone. Or what we wished to avoid  nevertheless finds it’s way to our door. In both cases the imagined me/ego/self-image/soul, becomes not satisfied (suffers) and this becomes a problem to be solved.

We humans are superior problem solvers but we only solve perceptible ones and we say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If we are continuously satisfied there is no concluded problem and thus nothing to solve. People live their entire lives denying their own suffering, but suffering is unavoidable so long as we misunderstand our true, unconditional nature but instead see ourselves as a vulnerable and conditional soul or ego. Suffering then is the seed of motivation to learn both who we are not and who we truly are. The ego is continuously vulnerable to suffering but wrongly concludes that possessing one object (which when lost) can be solved by possessing another object to replace the one lost. Thus the ego is possessive and greedy. This never works since all things change. After experiencing this failing process over and over, the ego is overwhelmed, suffers continuously and becomes angry, hostile, blameful and often violent. This strategy ultimately implodes and the ego tries a very different strategy but is not quick to commit suicide and eradicate itself.

The problem all along is this process of perception and conclusion of judgmental discrimination, me and not me, good and bad all of which are concerned with objects and judgment. At long last, after endless suffering, the ego/soul begins to die and we pursue a path of true self-emergence and unity with our source, which has no identifying properties. This death of what is fabricated reveals what has been there all along and is characterized within different spiritual disciplines in different ways. The Buddhist manner of addressing this process is nearly the same as the Christian manner. When Jesus was quoted as saying in John 12:24-25 that to have life eternal, the soul must die[1] he wasn’t saying anything significantly different than The Buddha when he distinguished between the Dharmakāya (body of truth and source of all manifestations) and the misidentification of ourselves.

The question becomes, how to get rid of the conditional illusions or images we hold of ourselves and merge with our unconditional selves? How is this pragmatically accomplished? And the answer is to stop the process of abstract thinking (imagining) at least long enough to realize our true nature. The father of Zen (Bodhidharma) defined Zen as not thinking. Thinking in simple terms, is the perception of virtual ideas and images. When we don’t think, what we are left with is the true self-perceiver (Mind) that is unified and unconditional (no discriminate properties). This true self-perceiver is who all of us are unconditionally and without limited identity. This is the essential conscious energy that permeates all life and is the place of constant peace and tranquility. This part of us never changes. It was never born, doesn’t die and is without judgment. There is nothing to discriminate or judge since it is unconditional, unified and whole.

Bodhidharma pointed out that we must accept suffering with gratitude since when we suffer we are compelled to reach beyond misery to find the way to bliss and eternal joy. He said, “Every suffering is a buddha-seed, because suffering impels us to seek wisdom. But you can only say that suffering gives rise to buddhahood. You can’t say that suffering is buddhahood.” He is right when he says that even suffering has to be gratefully accepted, because it is the very seed leading to the way to our true nature. If there were no suffering, we would never search for the truth. It is anguish and agony that goes on impelling us to go beyond. This entire dawning of genuine, unified, self-awareness could not happen without solving the problem of perceived suffering. Suffering alone provides the engine of motivation and that is the value of suffering.



[1] “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”

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