Rethinking Buddhism: A New Way To View Suffering
By David Sunfellow
One of the prime directives that I sail under — and that I see everywhere in near-death experiences — is that the universe, or God, or Source, or whatever you want to call It, has a plan. There is a reason why we chose to incarnate into this world and there are rules that all of us are subject to it, regardless of what our human minds may think or do. What that means in practical application is that if we get something wrong, the universe will keep bringing us opportunities to get it right. Or, said another way, we keep getting sent back, we can’t move on, we feel a sense of inner (or outer) unrest and disharmony, until we get it right.
Here’s an example of how this process has worked in my life.
I was abused as a child, on many different levels: physically, emotionally, psychologically. I internalized, very deeply, the idea that the world (and the people in it) hurt us and I developed a philosophy that reflected that. In my particular case, that meant I thought a monastic path, away from the troubles of relationships and cares of the world, was the way to go. I spent years living in swamps, forests, abandoned houses, churches, refusing to work for money or participate in the craziness of the culture at large. For years, I meditated eight hours a day and struggled to reconnect with God, and stay connected. I was deeply attracted to eastern philosophies that taught the world was a dream and the solution was to wake up.
Basically, I wanted out. But try as I might, I couldn’t get out. No matter how hard I tried to wake up, connect with God, and maintain a sense of inner peace, issues always surfaced. My inner guidance, mostly via my dreams, eventually turned me around. They insisted that instead of pulling back from the world, I needed to dive in: maintain my inner connection but get back in the world and start changing things. One dream, in particular, rushes to mind.
In that dream, I am in a small dungeon-like cell with my younger brother, who has been one of my main companions this life. The grimy cell is dark, cold, and damp. And we are cold and hungry. There is a feeling of hopelessness in the air and I am struggling to find a way for us to endure this awful situation. Finally, I remember if I quiet down, meditate, and connect with God, I will feel better. All will be well. So I tell my brother that’s what we need to do. “We have been in situations like this our whole lives,” I tell him. “We just need to accept where we are, turn within, and reconnect with God. Then everything will be OK.”
As soon as finish telling my brother this, something primal snaps in me. Feelings that I have suppressed for decades rush to the surface and I lunge for a guard who is standing on the other side of the cell door. But as soon as I slam into the cell door, it swings open and I realize, to my astonishment, that it was open the whole time. I also realize that the guard had no ill will towards us. He was just playing the part of a guard and had no intention of harming us, or keeping us locked up. So we walk out and I wake up, continuing to be amazed that we have been held captive in a cell that we could have left whenever we wanted to.
Since that time, that’s how I lived my life, with the knowledge that I can have peace on the inside AND peace on the outside. Not only does one not exclude the other, but when they are working together, everything — inside and outside — gets better. And everything in my life has gotten better, on every level, inside and out. I still have many issues I am dealing with, but they are all improving, many dramatically, with this two-sided — vertical and horizontal, being and doing — approach.
Which brings me back to Buddha and Buddhism.
The three great causes of suffering that Buddha identified are illness, old age, and death. These are all things that are directly connected to physical, material problems that we encounter in this world. The solution that Buddha offered was this: “Life is suffering. Suffering is caused by desire and attachment. The solution is to eliminate desire and attachment.”
Other people took another approach. Instead of eliminating desire and attachment, why don’t we eliminate the things that are causing us to suffer? Specifically, why not eliminate illness, old age, and death.
All three of these plagues have improved dramatically since the time of Buddha. And they have not improved by accepting these sufferings as universal, unalterable truths of human existence, but by human beings step-by-step challenging these assumptions. Every day now we are learning more about how to live healthy lives. Along with learning how to grow healthy foods and create healthy environments to live in, we are also learning more and more about how our inner life affects our physical well being (and visa versa) and developing ways to integrate these. When all is said and done, the scourge of sickness is becoming less and less of an issue. It is finally possible to imagine a future where all forms of physical illness will be a thing of the past.
Ditto for old age. People are living longer and longer lives and science is close to discovering a “cure” for aging. Here’s one recent example. More examples can be found here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.
And finally, death, the greatest cause of human suffering, is also on its last legs. Along with all kinds of afterlife stories flooding human consciousness (which is diminishing personal and collective fears AND reframing death as an event to look forward to), we are also seeing concrete evidence that the harsh borders between this world and the next are beginning to dissolve.
Tackling the three plagues of human existence directly, through raw persistence, education and science is, however, only the beginning. Things really start to get interesting when you add miracles to the mix. Near-death experiences are full of stories where people successfully challenged the laws of this world. There are also tons of stories of savants, from all over the world, transcending the laws of this world. Esalen and Michael Murphy (check out “The Future of the Body” and this remarkable interview) have examined these kind of stories in depth. And, of course, Christianity is built on the back of a whole series of miracles and miraculous healing that are attributed to Jesus.
What’s my point?
That we no longer need to find ways to leave this world because we can’t handle the traumas that exist here. We can, instead, reshape things in the outer world to reflect more heavenly states of consciousness. We can actually have inner peace AND outer peace. As I see it, these two great poles of life are dynamically connected. And dynamically connected for a reason. Simply put, our souls have come to this world to become masters of the physical. And we do that by using a variety of inner and outer abilities, including guidance from our souls, to transform our imperfect human selves and outer world.
This approach also seems to be an antidote for many forms of panic. Since most of the panic attacks that people suffer relate to real or imagined issues of being in this world, the idea that we can confront and change the earthly forces that are terrorizing us brings us immediate relief. We don’t have to accept whatever suffering we may be faced with. We can step into the fray ourselves and not only understand what needs to change, but work with our inner forces to change them. You know, like walking on water. Or building airplanes that fly. Or space ships that go to the moon. Or communication systems that allow us to talk to one another all over the world, instantly. Or the big one: peaceful, loving relationships with one another, and ourselves.
While many of these things don’t roll over as soon as we turn the full power of our attention to them, there is nothing I am aware of that can’t ultimately be mastered by human beings.
Let me shine a little more light on this by using the Dalai Lama as an example. In 2012, Piers Morgan asked the Dalai Lama about celibacy.
“As a monk, you obviously subscribe to a vow of celibacy. Is that hard?”
I don’t know how accurate the Dalai Lama’s answer represents Buddhist thought as a whole, but it deals directly with issues I have with philosophies that are more interested in leaving this world than transforming it. The Dalai Lama’s response was that one of the ways he deals with the desires of the body was to remind himself how “dirty” and problematic intimate relationships can be. He drove home the point by saying how he has watched how European monks got married to one wife, and then divorced her, and then got married another, and had children. This, he said, was very hard on children. More to the point, he noticed that the mental and emotional state of married people went “up and down” too much. A married, intimate lifestyle, in other words, was a challenge to maintaining inner peace. So in the long run, he concluded, a monastic lifestyle has an advantage.
While immersing ourselves in this world, including intimate relationships, is supremely challenging, I think that’s where we are being called to go. The more we face and master the challenges of this world, the more heavenly states of consciousness begin to infuse us. And that, in turn, brings Heaven, little by little, to this world, here and now.
So I think being and doing, vertical and horizontal, inner and outer, east and west perspectives are both necessary. We need to stop choosing one over the other, and learn how to integrate these two great forces. Healthy detachment needs to be balanced by active engagement in the world. To the degree that we can do this, the more magic, on all levels, begins to happen. That’s how I think we can ultimately bring the heavenly states that NDErs experience to Earth, and ourselves…