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Jesus and Buddha on Suffering: A Lenten Meditation

It's Lent, the season of honesty. And the honest truth is: I hate suffering. I want it to go away, but it doesn't, so I try to get away from it.

Here in Atlanta there's a long straggly fellow who's always hanging around a particular exit ramp. He holds up signs asking for help. He doesn't walk up to my car. He just stands there looking at me. I don't look back. I sit and stare at the light, praying for green and despising his suffering because it suggests my own. I despise him because he is a mirror. When the light finally changes I hit the gas and turn the corner and immediately I feel better. But suffering -- his and mine and the world's -- has only increased.

In seminary I had a New Testament professor who said something I will always remember. He said that of all the world's religions he preferred Buddhism and Christianity because these two alone are sufficiently pessimistic about the human condition. Both, he said, turn toward suffering and look it in the eye without flinching. Buddhism does so through its hard-as-nails philosophy of detachment and Christianity does so by placing suffering at the exact center of its narrative. And although they do so differently, both insist that something -- something unspeakably good -- lies beyond suffering.

Suffering is everyone's problem. Jesus knows it and Buddha knows it, and they suggest a solution: invite suffering in. Be hospitable to it. Offer it a meal. Look the tall stranger in the eye, they say. But if I do I'll die, I say. Yes, they say, but the only thing that will die is what you think you are: your ego.

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Yes, suffering is certainly an ever-present reality in our world...it is hard to avoid it...hard to just "hit the gas and turn the corner" and put it behind us, as this writer so aptly phrases it. Whether it is a personal kind of suffering that we experience in our lives, or whether it is the considerable suffering of the world-at-large, we always have a choice: be a part of the problem, or be a part of the solution.

Jesus taught the triumph of good over evil, the triumph of love over hate, the triumph of truth over falsehood...and yes, I'd have to agree with this writer that the main thing that can stand in the way of these victories is pandering to, and over-indulging, our little selves.  When we forget to see the big picture, when we look through the eyes of ego, when we have too narrow a view of reality, we can get wound up in suffering, and lose the lesson altogether.

I was raised a Catholic, where I was taught that suffering is redemptive, that even little children can "offer it up," or use suffering for the good of another. As an adult, I still use this strategy at times, as it really does seem effective at assuaging the pain of physical problems, and even other kinds of pain, such as emotional or psychological...

The Urantia Book gives us some food for thought as regards suffering...quite unique ways of viewing what we think of as suffering: for example:

Some of the amazingly fortuitous conditions occasionally prevailing on the evolutionary worlds may be due to the gradually emerging presence of the Supreme, the foretasting of his future universe activities. Most of what a mortal would call providential is not; his judgment of such matters is very handicapped by lack of farsighted vision into the true meanings of the circumstances of life. Much of what a mortal would call good luck might really be bad luck; the smile of fortune that bestows unearned leisure and undeserved wealth may be the greatest of human afflictions; the apparent cruelty of a perverse fate that heaps tribulation upon some suffering mortal may in reality be the tempering fire that is transmuting the soft iron of immature personality into the tempered steel of real character. ~ The Urantia Book, (118:10.9)

The universe view that is offered in Urantia Book teachings tends to put all of life's problems into a new a fresh package...taking the sting out of much of suffering's barbs by providing a goal that can definitely help the believer to transcend life's suffering, even while being in the midst of it...being thankful above all for ALL of life's circumstances is always a good perspective.

Here's a short vignette from The Urantia Book, where Jesus instructs Nathaniel about suffering:

At another of these private interviews in the garden Nathaniel asked Jesus: "Master, though I am beginning to understand why you refuse to practice healing indiscriminately, I am still at a loss to understand why the loving Father in heaven permits so many of his children on earth to suffer so many afflictions." The Master answered Nathaniel, saying: "Nathaniel, you and many others are thus perplexed because you do not comprehend how the natural order of this world has been so many times upset by the sinful adventures of certain rebellious traitors to the Father's will. And I have come to make a beginning of setting these things in order. But many ages will be required to restore this part of the universe to former paths and thus release the children of men from the extra burdens of sin and rebellion. The presence of evil alone is sufficient test for the ascension of man—sin is not essential to survival.

"But, my son, you should know that the Father does not purposely afflict his children. Man brings down upon himself unnecessary affliction as a result of his persistent refusal to walk in the better ways of the divine will. Affliction is potential in evil, but much of it has been produced by sin and iniquity. Many unusual events have transpired on this world, and it is not strange that all thinking men should be perplexed by the scenes of suffering and affliction which they witness. But of one thing you may be sure: The Father does not send affliction as an arbitrary punishment for wrongdoing. The imperfections and handicaps of evil are inherent; the penalties of sin are inevitable; the destroying consequences of iniquity are inexorable. Man should not blame God for those afflictions which are the natural result of the life which he chooses to live; neither should man complain of those experiences which are a part of life as it is lived on this world. It is the Father's will that mortal man should work persistently and consistently toward the betterment of his estate on earth. Intelligent application would enable man to overcome much of his earthly misery.

...good food for thought in this season of preparation for the Master's powerful declaration of liberation from the wages of sin and death - the resurrection. Even though suffering may be a given in this life, we have the ability to overcome completely the doom and gloom - simply by  entrenching ourselves fully in the kingdom and using our God-given capabilities to use it - or temper it -  for a higher good. Knowing that evil may be our natural estate, and also knowing that evil can be overcome by goodness, and by intelligent application of kingdom principles, is freeing indeed.

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