The central teaching of the Buddhas Four Noble Truths is that “there is suffering.” But what is suffering, really? I think it’s time we developed some kind of realistic definition of what suffering is. Did you eat today? Do you have some kind of secure roof over your head, warmth and decent clothes to wear? Do you have people that care about you? Do you have access to health care? Then you’re not suffering.
Have you been locked up in a psyche ward or a prison? Are you constantly harassed by police at gun point because of your race or poverty?Are you and your family members subject to kidnapping, torture and rape? Do you live in a war zone like Gaza or Syria? Or have you been fortunate enough to be safe from all this war and brutality? Then you’re not suffering.
Do you have a chronic disease or disability that causes constant pain and dysfunction? Do you have mental disorders that cause total disability? Do you live in an environment that is so toxic that you have to buy water from a store or wear a gas mask? Are you facing an early death? Then you’re not suffering.
Are you dealing with chronic underemployment? Harassment at work? Long hours and brutal working conditions? Are you threatened with eviction and homelessness? Then you’re not suffering.
We in the western developed world, even in the lower middle class, have achieved such a level of relative wealth and comfort that we don’t even have a realistic sense of what suffering is. When Gotama Buddha was teaching about the truth of suffering in his day, he was talking to an audience of people who knew what suffering was. These were mostly herding and farming communities in northern India whose chances of survival depended on the monsoons, this years’ crop, escaping high rates of infant mortality, overcoming chronic disease with no medical treatment, and the constant threat of war and domestic violence. The average person in his time, and even now in India, could barely eat enough calories to get through a day. Most people suffered chronic malnutrition, disease, war and homelessness. Buddha defined “suffering” as fear. For the people of his time and place, “fear” meant living in the constant fear of immanent death and disaster.
By contrast, we in the modern west hardly know that kind of deep, chronic suffering. We eat so well every day, and have so few physical challenges, that “suffering” consists in being in a constant battle with obesity, which causes it’s own disease, known as “affluenza.” We have, if anything, too much entertainment, too many things to do, too many opportunities to achieve in ways that boost our egos, too many people to attend to in our daily lives. We suffer, if you want to call it that, from “too muchness.”
The kind of “suffering” this causes are, by comparison, are nothing more than minor aches and pains in our bloated egos: egoic suffering. The kind of people I see in Buddhist meditation halls and expensive retreats and in exotic locations experience primarily egoic suffering, the suffering that comes from “too muchness.” I don’t feel so good today; I don’t like myself; I’m anxious or depressed because I can’t achieve enough to satisfy my ego; I don’t have the latest gadget or lifestyle that “everybody else” has; I’m too fat and out of shape; I’m too stressed out from too much stimulation from everywhere; I’m tired because I have too much to do in a day. Too muchness.
Instead of focusing on our so-called “suffering,” how about being grateful? Where are the Buddhist teachings on gratitude? [Suggested sadhana]: Thank you that I ate today; thank you that I have a roof over my head and clothes to wear and heat in my home; thank you that I don’t live in constant fear of police brutality, violence and war; thank you that I have people that care about me; thank you that I have a sound mind and body; thank you that I have access to health care; thank you that I can work at some kind of dignified job; thank that I have moments of fun and recreation; thank you that I live in a relatively clean, safe environment; thank you that I have the luxury of meditation and spiritual development; thank you that I have opportunities to learn the dharma and the support of many wonderful teachers and friends. And may all beings be free of all of these forms of suffering.
How about just thank you? Focus on gratitude, and then you’ll realize you’re not suffering. Congratulations, you’ve achieved nirvana, as much nirvana as one could hope to have in this lifetime.
But what really irks me the most is that most western Buddhist organizations are run by and cater to the needs of the wealthiest of the wealthy in the wealthy developed world. These are not the overworked, underpaid contingent working class, who work three part-time jobs at low wages, no benefits and no days off. These are the affluent professional class, the neo-liberals—we used to call them “yuppies” back in the 80s—and above them, the investment class who live off the casino wealth of the global financial system, the One Percenters. The “peace” that they think they achieve through Buddhist practice is nothing more than the privilege of never having to worry about issues like racism or poverty. Their wealth and whiteness has bought them that privilege and peace of mind. The irony is that the neo-liberals are the ones who can afford to “hire a professional guru” as Dzogchen Ponlop quipped about himself on his 2013 teaching tour. The wealthy can afford to fly half way across the world to attend retreats with the guru in exotic locales, stay for weeks in expensive hotels and hushed retreat centres in pristine natural environments.
The neo-liberals attend retreats because they are “suffering” (see above) and they practice meditation to “relieve their suffering.” These are the wealthy who, despite their advanced educations, psychotherapy and “happy pills” are still so neurotic that they do indeed “suffer” from their distorted, bloated egos, and yet still cannot figure out their own shit. So off they go on retreats with professional gurus who are supposed to figure out their shit for them, even though Buddha said that, to achieve awakening, we are the only ones who can do that for ourselves. The professional gurus who cater to the egoic aches and pains of the wealthy have, with their keen minds and high level of spiritual attainment, become the nannies of the snivelling upper classes, doing their best to make them feel even “better” than they do 90% of the time—one must always shoot for 100%, what Pema Chodron calls “the dream of constant okayness.”
The fact is that the neo-liberals are wealthy enough to afford to fly half-way across the world because the other 3/4 of the world’s people are desperately poor, so poor they experience the kind of grinding, chronic, and inescapable suffering that Buddha was talking about back in the day. The neo-liberals are buying a stairway to heaven, an escape from suffering, by benefitting from the system of wealth that robs billions of people of a decent way life and causes them immense suffering, and funnels that wealth into the bank accounts and credit cards of the neo-liberals who go on retreats with professional gurus to relieve their so-called “suffering”.
Worse, the upper class who chase gurus around the globe to “relieve their suffering” are the frequent flyers whose lifestyles have the largest carbon footprint, whose lifestyles emit the most C02, and as a result, are chiefly responsible for the ravages of global warming. Relieving the so-called “suffering” of the upper class results in the catastrophic suffering of climate disruption, as the lives of millions of people are destroyed by typhoons, floods and droughts, causing global crop failure, mass starvation, mass migration, war, the extinction of millions of species, and the irreparable devastation of the global environment. In other words, real suffering. How’s that for an awakening?