Spirituality, Religious Wisdom, and
the Care of the Patient
"Suffering and the Buddhist Tradition"
Venerable Guo Yuan Fa Shi
Venerable Guo Yuan Fa Shi
is a monk in the Chan Buddhist tradition. He received ordination in Taiwan under
the guidance of Master Sheng-yen and has also studied in Thailand. In 1999, he
was appointed Abbot of the Chan Meditation Center and the Dharma Drum Retreat
Center, located in the southern Catskill Mountains area. The Dharma Drum Center
teaches meditation techniques with the goal of achieving for practitioners "peace
and harmony of the body, the mind, the family, and career."
I'm going to speak about suffering. Although it is not a topic many people would
like to face, nevertheless, suffering is universal through both space and time.
The Buddha realized this on his spiritual journey and that's why he taught us
the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are noble because they are timeless,
universal and essential for the resolution of suffering. The First Noble Truth
investigates what is suffering. From the perspective of cause and effect, the
First Noble Truth is an effect. The Second Noble Truth on the other hand investigates
the causes of suffering or why we suffer, and therefore, is the cause of the First
What exactly is suffering? Suffering can be described as a feeling
of dissatisfaction or a state of dis-ease. Suffering can come from the body as
well as from the mind and more often it comes from both. We suffer physically
when we feel hunger, cold, tiredness and exhaustion. We suffer mentally when we
feel hatred, anger, sadness and fear. We have all suffered from physical hunger
and this suffering is quite similar for all people. However this cannot be said
for mental suffering. We have a saying in Chinese, which states: "Although
husband and wife sleep in the same bed, they have different dreams." You
and I may be watching the same movie, playing the same game or even eating at
the same dinner table, but it is rare that we will have the same feelings doing
Suffering in our daily lives is usually a combination of both
physical and mental suffering. Physical suffering can affect the mind and mental
suffering can affect the body. For example when the body feels hunger or thirst,
this physical suffering affects the way we think and feel and causes mental suffering.
The mind becomes agitated and vexations arise. Vexations feed upon vexations,
giving rise sometimes to extreme actions, which can even destroy a person. For
example a person who is hungry and has no income may become desperate enough mentally
to even commit a crime such as murder or robbery. Or a person could be worried
about his or her illness to the point that the mental vexations worsen the physical
disease or suffering that person is already experiencing. Or even a simple thing
such as anger, hatred or jealousy when constantly or frequently experienced can
give rise to future physical ailments.
Physical suffering is relatively easy
to cure. However the related mental suffering is much more difficult to cure.
That is because each person comes from different backgrounds in life, has different
scopes of knowledge, different attitudes, determination, will power, etc. The
way out for all of these problems is to learn and practice Buddhism.
we discuss how Buddhism resolves the perennial problem of suffering, we must understand
suffering at a deeper level. We can basically categorize human suffering into
three categories: material suffering, suffering of the body and mind or physical
and mental suffering, and suffering coming from human relationships.
suffering is the suffering that arises when we are dissatisfied with what we have
or we perceive that we need more and we are unable to fulfill this need. We feel
material suffering when we do not have enough food, clothing or a place to dwell
or when transportation facilities are inadequate. Sometimes it is the perception
that there is not enough food, clothing, etc. In both cases, when we are unable
to get these necessities, we experience the suffering of wanting.
already discussed briefly the suffering of the body and mind. As human beings
and sentient beings however, we will all suffer the major sufferings of birth,
old age, illness and death. And even though most people do not think or have feelings
about these events before it occurs, we will all have to face these events eventually.
And lastly, there is suffering that comes from human relationships. As human
beings, we are unable to live outside human society. Therefore we develop all
kinds of relationships-some good, some bad, some shallow and some profound. The
level of dissatisfaction or suffering that arises from these relationships will
differ. However we will all feel sadness and suffering when we depart from a loved
one, whether it be our dear parents, children, spouses, siblings or friends. The
dying person will feel the suffering of departing from those who remain alive
and the surviving persons will feel the suffering of the loss of their dear ones.
Suffering coming from human relationships need not only arise from death.
It can also come from being with someone we dislike or even hate. We don't want
to meet someone or even be with that person but we must do it. We should not let
perceptions such as dislike or hatred affect our mental state as it will give
rise to an unending cycle of vexations feeding upon one another. This can affect
our mental and physical health as well as affect the people and environment around
Human beings from time immemorial have grasped with these problems and
have tried to eliminate these problems through study, medicine, education, religion
and technology. The human response so far has been to eliminate or minimize threats
from our natural environment and attempts at solving part of the problems arising
from human relationships. Just as it is easier to alleviate physical suffering
when compared to mental suffering, it is also relatively easier to minimize threats
from our natural environment when compared to solving problems arising from human
The challenges of minimizing threats from our natural environment
is relatively easy because it depends on principles which when realized, can be
applied; and therefore we can control and make use of our environment. But the
same cannot be said for human or social relationships. Different people will have
varying attitudes, understanding and relationships. But even this is not that
difficult to deal with.
The most difficult of all human sufferings is mental
suffering. On the surface it seems that mental suffering is the most amendable
and the easiest to resolve. However in actuality, mental suffering is much more
complex. After all how many of us actually know who we truly are? How many of
us can say with absolute certainty what is going on within our minds? Those things
are not easy to know. One of the members of the Meditation Center had a son. He
constantly complained about his parents spending time at the meditation center.
His parents later asked him to sit down and write down all the thoughts he had.
The son was surprised and shocked by what he wrote down. He later agreed with
his parents that he had to go to temple to meditate.
And if we don't truly
know what is really going on in our minds, how is it possible to truly control
ourselves, much less control or affect other people or alleviate their mental
suffering. That's why people who try to better themselves and fail often say,
"I can't help it." That's why it is so important that we understand
ourselves. And that is what Buddhism teaches. Namely, Buddhism shows us the way
and tells us how we can enlighten ourselves; how we can change ourselves and cut
off vexations and be liberated. Buddhism shows us how to be our own masters, how
to eliminate suffering by transforming ourselves no matter the situation and even
in adverse environmental situations.
The Third Noble Truth states that all
of the above mentioned problems of suffering can be resolved. That is suffering
can end. The Fourth Noble Truth states how we can end suffering or the methodology
of ending suffering. Thus the Fourth Noble Truth is the cause of the Third Noble
Truth and the Third Noble Truth is the effect of the application of the Fourth
Let's now discuss how suffering can be ended. We should all know
the law of cause and effect. Namely things are the way they are because of a prior
action or cause. In Buddhism we do not only talk about this life but also the
causal seeds we planted in our previous lives since time immemorial. These seeds
will eventually ripen either in this life or the next. That is why people should
learn how to face and accept whatever situation they are in, even those situations
when one is suffering greatly.
We should also realize the reality of causes
and condition. Certain causes and conditions are necessary in order for certain
causal seeds to sprout. Causes and conditions can be likened to the water, fertilizer
and sunlight necessary for causal seeds to sprout. Without the causes and condition
of this hospital, the audience here, the coordinator Dr. Alan Astrow and Professor
Keenan, my speech to you today would not be possible. Likewise the end of this
dialogue will be the causes and condition for cleaning up this conference room,
namely this room cannot be cleaned until this conference has ended.
comes to facing death for a sick person, he or she must realize that death is
inevitable and therefore they should accept the eventuality of it. All things
are temporary. And therefore this body too is temporary. In this way, the sick
person facing death can minimize the mental suffering that comes from wanting
to live on and can concentrate on the reality of living this very moment. On the
other hand if the sick person is in pain, the realization that all things are
temporary allows him or her to know that eventually this pain too will end. That
is, the sick person can begin to deal with the reality of his or her situation.
It is also important for the sick person to realize that the end of this life
does not mean the end of this world or even of his life since Buddhists believe
that depending upon one's karma, one is bound to be reborn in the next life.
should also cultivate compassion by understanding our own conflicts, by developing
inner peace, by having empathy for others' shortcomings, by forgiving others'
mistakes and by being concerned with the suffering of others. We develop these
qualities through the practice of formal meditation, mindfulness in our every
thought and action, chanting and prostrations. The goal of these practices is
to develop Wisdom and Compassion so we can handle all things with this in mind
and to treat others with kindness and compassion.
And lastly, we must learn
how to let things go. We should realize that what is possible is possible and
nothing more. We should not have unrealistic expectations or hopes. As long as
one has tried one's best, that should be satisfactory. We do not need to worry
about gaining or losing something or being better or inferior to someone or whether
we are a success or failure. As long as we can honestly say we have tried our
best to live realistically, we should be completely satisfied. And even if we
haven't tried our best in the past, the realization that we can change the course
of our lives through our everyday thoughts and actions, should urge us to take
charge of our lives and to make the remainder of our lives the best that it can
Published: March 20, 2002