Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Suffering Made Sufferable: Santideva, Dzongkaba, and Modern Therapeutic Approaches to Suffering's Silver Lining

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Suffering Made Sufferable: Santideva, Dzongkaba, and Modern Therapeutic Approaches to Suffering's Silver Lining

Article excerpt

It is the First Noble Truth: suffering is the problem, the enemy. Life should be joy, not anguish.

Yet on the path to the end of suffering, enemies can be friends. In fact, without suffering, there is no path because there is no motivation. The devas (and their human emulators who are sick with "affluenza") cannot rouse themselves to lifestyle changes and self-analysis because they lack the simple discomforts that stir most of us. And without suffering, there is no character development. As the Dalai Lama likes to say, only your enemy can teach you patience.

The positive side of suffering is elucidated beautifully by the eighth-century Mahayana poet Santideva, whose Bodhicdryavatara (Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds) is especially loved in the Tibetan tradition. Santideva composed it at the great monastery of Nalanda, where he is said to have recited it to a great assembly of monks. Its transcendent power was such that near its conclusion he floated off his teaching seat and disappeared into the sky, where his voice could still be heard as he intoned the book's last chapter and dedication.

Santideva's praise of suffering appears principally in his chapter on the perfection (paramita) of patience or forbearance (ksdnti), verses 12 to 21:

   Happiness is scarce. Suffering persists with no effort; but
   only through suffering is there escape. Therefore, mind,
   be strong!

   In Karnata the devotees of Durga willingly endure to no
   purpose the pain of burns, cuts, and worse. Why then am I
   a coward when my goal is liberation?

   There is nothing which remains difficult if it is practiced.
   So, through practice with minor discomforts, even major
   discomfort becomes bearable.

   The irritation of bugs, gnats, and mosquitoes, of hunger
   and thirst, and suffering such as an enormous itch: why do
   you not see them as insignificant?

   Cold, heat, rain and wind, journeying and sickness, imprisonment
   and beatings: one should not be too squeamish
   about them. Otherwise the distress becomes worse.

      Their own blood for some is valor's boon;
      While others' for others produces a swoon.

   This comes from the bravery or cowardice of the mind.
   Therefore one should become invincible to suffering and
   overpower discomfort.

   Not even in suffering should a wise person allow his serene
   confidence of mind to be disturbed, for the battle is
   with the defilements, and in warfare pain is easily won.

   Those who conquer the enemy taking the blows of their
   adversary on the chest, they are the triumphant heroes,
   while the rest kill what is already dead.

   The virtue of suffering has no rival, since, from the shock
   it causes, intoxication falls away and there arises
   compassion for those in cyclic existence, fear of evil, and a
   longing for the Conqueror. (3) (51)

According to Santideva, these, then, are the hidden blessings of suffering:

(1) It encourages us to escape, that is, to renounce samsara;

(2) It strengthens us against greater difficulties to come;

(3) It prevents the additional suffering of worry and anxiety that normally follows pain;

(4) It removes intoxication or arrogance;

(5) It enables us to develop compassion;

(6) It helps us to avoid evil;

(7) It helps us to rejoice in virtue or to aspire to Buddhahood.

Dzongkaba Losang Drakpa (4) (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa, 13571419), the founder of what came to be known as the Gelukba (dge lugs pa) order of Tibetan Buddhism, used Santideva's text as his main source in the chapter on patience in his masterwork, Lam rim Chenmo (The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path). In this essay I will attempt to explicate Santideva's thought by way of the commentary of Dzongkaba; I will then consider it in the context of what Ariel Glucklich has called "Sacred Pain"--the myriad ways in which religious people have found meaning in pain. …

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