SOMEONE ONCE TOLD me he considered Buddhism pessimistic and unscientific because it focuses on suffering; he didn’t agree with the idea that ‘Life is Suffering.’ This is a common misconception. I replied that the Buddha never said there was no happiness in life because of course, there is, as we can all see; if there were no happiness, we might as well all give up in despair and commit suicide now, rather than go on suffering. The Buddha said: Nibbanam paramam sukham, meaning: Nirvana is the highest bliss. ‘Highest’— paramam— implies other forms of happiness beneath it, or lesser than it. The happiness that most of us know, however, is imperfect or incomplete as it changes and becomes otherwise; it therefore holds within itself the seeds of suffering. When we are happy, we try to grasp, prolong and perpetuate it, so that it won’t end; we want it to go on and on. But this is futile, and only wears us out; the very effort to grasp it results in frustration and disappointment.

Understanding that happiness is impermanent, like all else, we will not be so sad when it changes and becomes otherwise, for will know this is the nature of things, and that whatever it has changed into will also change.

Indisputably, life involves pain, and can never be separated from it; all living things feel pain. However, there are different ways of looking at and experiencing pain. A baby feels pain, of various kinds, but is unable to reason about it; it has no way of knowing whether or not it is the norm, and so perhaps accepts it— though not without some crying and other reactions— as just the way things are; it cannot speak and say: "I’ve got pain here," or "I’m sore there."

As we grow older, however, we soon realize that pain is not constant, and that there are periods of no-pain, so we have something to compare pain with. Naturally, we prefer to be without it, as it is unpleasant, and if we could choose to be without it, we surely would. But pain does not respect our wishes and comes to us, unannounced and unwanted. We usually view this unwelcome visitor with fear and hatred, and this not only prevents clear seeing, but also increases the pain, because we set our reason— which is faulty and incomplete— against it, and complain, saying: "Why me? What did I do to deserve this? It’s not fair!" We have never learned to look at pain except subjectively, and so our pain is distorted and magnified out of all proportion.

Some animals behave instinctively to pain, seeking out herbs and roots that might alleviate it, or ceasing to eat as a remedy, thus giving the body chance to heal itself, but only man has developed a medical science. Because we refused to reconcile ourselves to pain and pitted ourselves against it, we developed a medical science. Yet still we suffer. Even common ailments like toothache, rheumatism or colds cause us anguish. Our bodies are battlefields, and we live in conflict, in fear of pain.

Because of the advances of medical science, many people live with a dream that, eventually, we shall be able to live totally without pain and sickness; but this is unrealistic and unwise, and only causes more suffering.

If only we would drop the vain hope that life can somehow be pain-free. If only we would realize that it is natural for the body to age, sicken and die, we would not be so surprised when it happens to us. Nor would it prevent us from striving to overcome and lessen pain; in fact, it would better enable us to do so, for we would view pain with wisdom instead of with fear and hatred.

When we look through a telescope, we see things bigger than with the naked eye. But there is not just one way of looking through a telescope. We can, if we wish, turn the telescope around and look through the large end so that everything appears smaller. If we view pain with fear, it is like looking through the small end of the telescope: it becomes magnified; but if we look at pain with wisdom, it is like looking through the large end: it diminishes.

Some years ago, I came down with pneumonia, and had quite a rough time; but I didn’t let it interrupt my speaking-appointments. I wished to give one last talk, before leaving Malaysia, to a group of people who had been kind to me. Aware of my condition, however, some tried to persuade me to rest and not talk. I told them not to feel sorry for me because I was sick, but to be attentive to what I would say, as I would be speaking from the center of the storm, from direct experience, with authority, and not from mere theory. I said that I didn’t feel sad because my body was sick, and therefore was not suffering, and actually, they should feel happy for me, as I was lucky. Lucky? How come? Lucky because it was the worst sickness I had ever had, but instead of feeling sad about, I used it to compare and measure how fortunate I’d been to remain healthy and free from serious sickness for so long until then; that sickness reminded me about this and about how everything is impermanent. The Dharma enabled me to turn it around.

We probably all have ailments of some sort, things that cause us to complain and wish we didn’t have, but if we were to make a list of all our aches, pains, sicknesses and diseases, it would probably not take longer than one or two minutes. If we were to make another list, however, of all the things we might suffer from but don't, it would probably take us many hours. To then compare the two lists might help us understand that we are really very fortunate.

You have been born, so accept the woes of birth instead of living in conflict with them. How shall life be for you other than impermanent, ultimately unsatisfactory, and not-yours? Work with what you have; make something positive of it, and give up your ranting and raving at things that do not and will not conform to your desires. Life provides us with ample opportunity not only for self-development, but also to improve the world.

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