To live is to suffer – that was Buddha’s First Noble Truth, the truth that he thought was the most obvious and indisputable truth in life, the data on which any quasi-scientific theory of human life must be erected. Pain is the most obvious problem in the world. This is no less true today, for now that our civilisation has succeeded in conquering half of humanity’s physical pains, by anesthetics and medical technology and boogie boards, it has also doubled humanity’s spiritual pains: depression, despair, divorce (which is more painful than death), other betrayals, loneliness, emptiness, meaninglessness, the existential vacuum. Victor Frankl says, quoting Nietzsche, “A man can endure almost any how if only he has a why.” The how is the circumstances, including the suffering. The why is a purpose and a meaning. This is not a theory; this is an observation. Frankl is a scientist. He observed this to be true in the laboratory of Auschwitz.
Now, there are two obvious solutions to physical pain: no and yes. No tries to abolish it, and this is quite natural and good. And the modern West is very successful in doing that. Yes tries to somehow accept pain, but change our inner attitude towards it. This is the answer of the ancient East, especially of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in the ancient West, of Stoicism, which is a kind of non-mystical Buddhism. The modern West prays, “Grant me the courage to change what can be changed,” the ancient East prays, “Grant me the serenity to accept what cannot be changed,” and both pray for the wisdom to know the difference.
If the West’s problem is failure, I think the East’s problem is success. For some people, at least, that is, for the spiritual athletes who practice Raja Yoga or Jnana Yoga, or the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, pain is abolished, by abolishing its root, desire. When there are no desires left, there are no frustrations left. Hindu or Buddhist Yoga can indeed succeed in killing off the desires. The true Buddhist does overcome all pain, but also all pleasure. All fear, but also all hope. All hate, but also all love. All misery, but also all joy. This is a remarkable achievement. But is it worth the price of the abolition of half our human nature? It looks like spiritual euthanasia: killing the patient, the desires, to cure the disease, pain.
I think, however, this is a misunderstanding. I must confess that the Buddhists that I have met have surprised me and impressed me with their peaceful alertness and spiritual aliveness. They certainly are not spiritually dead. But they have also surprised me with the inadequacy of their philosophy, their explanations. I must be as offensively honest with the East as I have been with the West, though, and protest that the freedom from pain is not worth the price. I will take the bitter with the sweet, thank you; the depth with the heights. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.