We live in difficult times. Whether we are watching the news, reading our social media feed, or simply having coffee with a friend, suffering is always lurking: disasters near and far, difficulties at home and abroad, pains minor and chronic. As the Buddha told his disciples, “All things are burning” (Samyutta Nikaya 35.28). Try as we might, it is difficult to escape the suffering of this world, and even when we get a moment’s reprieve, somewhere deep in our mind we know that suffering will soon return. Whether we are old or young, rich or poor, powerful or helpless, religious or secular, suffering will find us. Whether we run “to the sky, the middle of the ocean, a cave in a mountain, or anywhere else” (Dhammapada 127) there is nowhere we can hide where suffering cannot find us.
Yet this seemingly grim realization should not lead us into despair. It is true, at least from the Buddhist perspective, that suffering is all-pervading, but that doesn’t mean we need to succumb to it. Suffering exists, yes, but with it necessarily comes its antidotes—freedom, peace, and joy. Within every misfortune, downturn, and disappointment there is an opportunity to stand up and make the world more like the world we’d like to see. If we see someone suffering, we can be their comfort. If we see some injustice, we can work to address it. Sometimes even a wordless smile directed at a stranger can make a world of difference. We do not need to be superheroes. We do not need to be powerful beings living on Mt Olympus to make a difference. We just need to be there for others, and ourselves, when suffering rears its ugly head. Through kind words, warm thoughts, and skillful actions, we can transform the worst of scenarios, even if for a moment. We can be lamps for each other in the darkness of this world.
In Buddhism, these qualities—loving friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity—are known as the “divine abodes.” When we experience them, we are quite literally getting a taste of heaven. And even better, we can train ourselves to cultivate and deepen them. After all, it is easy to experience loving friendliness for someone we already like. Such love can almost be seen as transactional: “I like them because they like me; I’m nice to them because they’re nice to me.” But what about strangers? What about those people we find difficult? What about our enemies? If we truly want to dwell in the divine abodes, we need to cultivate these qualities towards them too. They, like us, are trapped in the world of suffering. If their lives were different, if their sufferings were eased, would they truly be our enemies? Deep down, in some fundamental way, are they really that different from ourselves?
In the Culamalukya Sutta (MN 63), the Buddha tells the story of a man struck with a poison arrow. He only has a short amount of time before the poison’s effect are irreversible, but luckily a doctor is nearby. Knowing the danger, the doctor offers to pull out the arrow and begin treating the stricken man. But the stricken man asks him to wait. Before the doctor removes the arrow, the man wants to know the name of the man who struck him, and his age, and the names of his parents, and the location of his hometown, and the kind of tree that wood for the arrow shaft came from, and the kind of bird that the feathers for the arrows fletching came from, and the kind of metal that the point was made from, and the kind of plants that the poison was made from… Perhaps these questions were very important, but the doctor knew that if he waited to answer any of them, his patient would die. Sometimes love requires us to be patient, to truly understand what a situation needs, to fully explore the dynamics of the problem. Sometimes, however, love requires us to act without being distracted by extraneous problems. It takes wisdom to determine the difference between the two, but we shouldn’t fear unanswered questions when the path of love is clear. With treatment, the arrow-struck man might live long enough to answer all those questions and more. Without it, he would never learn anything at all.
This is not an easy way. But as we’ve already established, this is not an easy world. Suffering is always willing to embrace us
Matt Regan (Rev. Bup Hee) is a Dharma teacher in the Taego Order of Korean Buddhism. He serves as the secretary of the International Buddhist Committee of Washington DC, which promotes cooperation among Buddhists of different cultures and traditions in the DC metropolitan area.