Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Buddhism and Suffering: A Tale of Death

There is a Buddhist tale that the prominent meditation teacher and American Buddhist Lama Surya Das tells in his book “Letting Go of the Person I Used to Be” (I tried that, by the way, and it’s not all that easy):

The Buddha was once approached by a grieving mother whose little child had just died. She pleaded with him for a miracle: She begged him to restore the child to her alive and well. The Buddha listened to the bereaved woman and finally said that he would be able to do what she asked if she could bring him a mustard seed from a home that had never lost anyone to death. The mother traveled far and wide, day after day, trying to find such a home, and of course she couldn’t. Finally she returned to the Buddha and said that she had come to realize that death visits everyone. It was a reality she had to accept. And in that acceptance she found strength and consolation.


I’ve been contemplating that story ever since I ran into Sandy, a fellow preschool mom who lost her son to SIDS less than eight months ago. A day later, while vacationing with my sisters in Cedar, Michigan without high-speed Internet, we all learned about another little boy, the son of a friend of mine and my twin sister’s from high school, and the grandson of my mom’s good friend, who was killed in a boating accident. For the entire week that sad and traumatic event hung over us; much as we tried, all of us had a hard letting it go.
“I just can’t stop thinking about it,” one of us would say as she poked her head in the frig.
“I know. Me neither,” the rest of us would chime in.
“How can you possibly recover from that?” my sister said the night we heard the news. “I’d be so tempted to check myself out.”
“Considering that I was close to checking myself out for most of last year (when my kids were healthy and cute), I sure as hell hope God doesn’t pull that one on me,” I said. “I’m not sure I could handle it.”
“A Buddhist wise guy’s rendition of the First Noble Truth of dukka (dissatisfaction) is that in life pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional,” writes Lama Surya Das. He continues:


How much we suffer depends on us, our internal development, and our spiritual understanding and realization. Our pain and suffering point out to us where we are most attached to ourselves—our body, for example, or our loved ones; it shows us what we are holding on to the most. By recognizing this, we can learn to use loss and suffering in ways that help us grow wiser and become at peace with ourselves and the universe.

I suppose the Christian equivalent of this philosophy is Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when the disciple says, “Um … Excuse me? God? Helloooo? I don’t appreciate this THORN in my flesh!” And the faithful one hears in return, “Um …. Excuse me? Get over it! Because anything good you got going on is courtesy of that prickle. And if you haven’t noticed … everyone has one (some are just covered by tattoos).”
Translation: “Your strength is made perfect in your weakness.” And I threw in the part about everyone having one … because that, in essence, was the point of the Buddhist tale, even though I still think some have it much worse. And losing your boy in his sleep or in a boating accident, according to me, fit into the “worse” category.
Both of you, young moms, are in my prayers. God bless your boys.

  • Wendi

    Good posts today, Therese. But wow! If I wasn’t depressed before I surely am now. LOL. :-)

  • Nancy

    Therese – This post touched me. Yes, we all do experience pain in life, but that suffering is optional – well I take exception to that when it comes to the loss of children. On Monday, August 27th, it will be the 4th anniversary of a dear friend’s death of her oldest daughter at the age of 20. She died in her sleep at home on the couch. The story is a nightmare; however, there are no “good” stories to share in these instances. She was a beautiful, delightful, vivacious young woman, just coming in to her own. She babysat my boys when they were younger. Her siblings are my children’s ages. The last opportunity I had to speak with her was when she was working the counter at an Underwear Plus store, and we were catching up on life – hers and my boys. I walked away thinking how wonderful it was to see her doing well, and that I was grateful for the good care she took of my sons when she was with them. It was shortly after that she died. The viewing and funeral were beyond sad. Her favorite song was Lynrd Skynrd’s “Free Bird” which was played during the meditation. I can’t play it on my IPod very often, even 4 years later. I watched her mother, my friend, continue to exist. To my amazement, she continued on. She persevered for the other 2 children. She has no spouse – divorced. I watch her in church as being a part of the bell choir, the Guild President and numerous other endeavors in awe of her ability not to crawl inside herself and die. She belongs to a support group for parents with grief and has attended their last 2 national conferences. The last one her surviving daughter joined her. Her pain runs deep. We “spoke” via e-mail last night about people just not getting how difficult this still is for her. I guess what I can say about pain versus suffering when I reflect on Ann is that her pain is there, but her faith is strong, along with taking the action of self-responsibility to reach out to others who can identify with the same loss and live with it each day. She is not sitting in the corner having a pity party and unwilling to do anything to help herself. Having said that, with all of the action she has taken these last 4 years, it has not diminished the hole in her soul left by the absence of Clarissa. I do not ever want to know if I could meet such a challenge. I pray that is never my lot in life. CFIDS/ME/FM, Clinical Depression and recovery from Alcholism has been enough of a challenge – and I’m leaving a lot of others out. So, although I am always in pain – sometimes I do “suffer” and if that is a character flaw – so be it – I’m human and have shortcomings. I will never arrive at that place of perfection where I am a spiritual guru. I strive to do my best, and I believe if my motives are pure, that’s all God requires. Thank you for writing this post today. There are no coincidences, and this family has been on my mind and in my heart. God bless.

  • Larry Parker

    On Bnet’s Depression Support and Mental Health discussion boards, I read koans like this all the time from self-described Buddhists that infuriate me (and, in fact, seem designed to infuriate me).
    They still do; but thanks to your post, at least I think I’m beginning to understand why.
    You’ve made several references to parents losing children — the worst thing that can happen to us on this earth (of course worse than even depression), in the mold of Rabbi Kushner’s book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
    But if I’m reading your post correctly, to Buddhists (and I guess Christians too if one contemplates the mystery of the Cross in depth), “bad things” = “pain.” So there is a purpose to these outside events. “Suffering” is what we do to ourselves — sin, in the Christian mindset.
    There has been much discussion in the past few years (and in the past few days, thanks to Mark Lilla’s opus in the Sunday New York Times) about how the Western philosophical tradition has separated from the Western theological tradition over the last 400 years — not coincidentally, the time settlers have been in the United States. So this is the ultimate tradition I’ve been raised in (and most people have been raised in), even if I was also raised Catholic (a tradition I am now lapsed from).
    In that Western philosophical tradition, “bad things” (generally) don’t have a purpose. They just ARE — they are random. And “pain” = “suffering” — there is no distinction, unlike that Buddhists and many believing Christians make.
    Now, I might take all this as a call to be more religious, but there’s still one slight problem:
    If depression is a brain disease from the inside that inevitably causes us problems on the outside (maybe less, certainly, if we are proactive in our care as you so heartily encourage on BB, but problems nonetheless), then “pain” does in fact equal “suffering” in our case.
    So if we switch to the Buddhist perspective instead, and take it to its logical extreme that we must not escape the lessons from our “suffering” (IMHO), we should ditch our meds and aim to let our already altered brain chemistry flow (rather than wrongly stymie with Prozac and lithium the gift we have been given), to become mystics and get closer to a higher state — no different than how Native Americans intentionally go into altered consciousness with peyote (or, I would say, no different than the flower children and hippies of the ’60s did with LSD, magic mushrooms or at least marijuana).
    And some Buddhists (and non-Buddhists), in my experience, in fact do just that — with or without help from hallucinogens. (In the Western philosophical and medical tradition, of course, this would be called either refusing treatment or having a “double diagnosis” of depression and substance abuse.)
    One reason, being raised Christian, I have trouble with this thought process is that, even if “pain” is different from “suffering,” it also requires one to believe that the VERY ACT of being born with synapses misfiring, and not just failing to avoid bad behavior whenever humanly possible, is a “sin” for which we must accept “suffering” — which is against everything Jesus stood for in healing the sick. (Though some self-described “Christians” still believe it anyway, of course.)
    In any case, while some acting from that Buddhist perspective may accomplish their purpose of higher consciousness, IMHO, if most people with depression do that, they will also become closer to G-d, all right, but in a different way — just like those poor children we are mourning today.

  • Larry Parker

    A curious follow-up:
    A Buddhist author has a piece on the front page of Bnet today about how to live a better life.
    There’s nothing inherently wrong with anything she advises, of course. But it is very clear from some of her headings — “Let Yourself Be Afraid,” “Cheer Up,” (!!!!!!!!) “Relax,” (!!!!!!!!) “Stop Talking To Yourself” — that it is not in the least written from a sympathetic perspective for someone with depression.

  • Anonymous

    greetigs ,
    I am new to all of this, so bear with me. I have just been so extremely depressed since the death of my husband…(12 years now). He committed suicide leving me with our 8 year old dayghter. I had to live with a mother in law who pointed her finger at me ever since the death of her son. …You see, we were actually on the verge of getting back together,
    however ….it just did not work out for me …I was so angry about the fact he left me for my own sister and the fact of knowing they were living together. For several months after our breakup, I had to hand deliver my little girl to my own sister for his weekend visits…I just could not find the love for him again, so I called it off by telephone one Sunday evening, as he wept, I told him to get another life (in so many words) . The next morning I received the call , “Terry is dead!”, it was a suicide, he left 2 notes. One for my daughter and a very nasty one to me that was just about unreadable because the morpheen had begun its work ,and he just faded away.”
    Thank you teresa for this post! It is now on my wall so that I can start ea. day with a little more dignity, and perhaps one day I will be able to confront the ones who punished me thrughout the last 12 years, with a confident outlook on life, and also, what really occurred, and why.

  • Lisa

    This prayer hangs on a wall that is as old as I am.
    God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change,
    change the things I can and
    the wisdom to know the difference.
    Growing up Catholic, as I would come and go it was always there, seeminly to have any impact. It would puzzle me that it would stare at me as a reminder to me, but, it had resonence. I guess in many ways would think that God was talking to someone else, generically.
    Although, it was a prayer to God to help “me” be a more accepting and loving person. Unconciously, I quess I thought God would wave His hand and it would be done, change everything and everybody else. I finally realized the “me” in the prayer, was me. Actually, the “me” was a “Hey you” from God.
    I have found that this prayer is the synopsis of life and finding peace and joy in it. It’s there but, it depends where we are looking. In the acceptance is where we find it.
    Acceptance requires stepping into our own shoes and walking in it. God gives us opportunities to reach out and take that step by showing us what it would be like to walk in anothers. The wisdom in the acceptance, there of, is a stepping stone to what we will never know unless we take the first step ourselves. First, with our hearts and then, with our whole self.
    I think it is important to pray for all people, if only to reach out and make a difference in this world.
    Especially, giving thanks to God for ALL of the things that He has kept us from which we know not.
    Jesus said I have a new commandment for you to love one another.
    He came that so we would have Joy, and that it might be full til overflowing. I think it is in the absence of Joy, we find it.
    Sometimes in the things that don’t make sense, defy all reason,
    in our hearts we find the love to reach out to another.
    Without love we have nothing at all…

  • Laura-Renee

    What I appreciate about this post is the teaching that although suffering is a way of life (some in more agonizing ways than others)… we can determine how much it debilitates us and we can learn to use it as a source of strength and not defeat. I am sure some life circumstances will challenge our ability to do this more than others, but I like the focus on survival despite it. Thanks for the reminder!

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