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The End of Suffering

By Zach Van Houten

Suffering is one of the constants of life. It may be more acute for some than it is for others, but fundamentally it is shared by all beings.

What should our attitude be towards suffering? Should we despise it? Work with it? Deny it? Medicate it? Blame others for it?

Buddhism teaches that there is a path one can take (the Eightfold Path) that leads to the end of suffering. It is a very prescriptive concept of how we can take practical steps to overcome this ever-present aspect of our existence.

Christianity, especially Catholicism emphasizes the redemptive nature of suffering.; and how trials of many kinds can produce perseverance (James 1:2-4). The example of Christ’s passion is given to show what compassion and bravery looks like in the face of intense suffering.

Theodicy refers to the conundrum theologians face when they try to explain the reason God allows suffering. It is no easy matter to explain away, for example: rape, mutilation, torture, genocide, etc. It is especially difficult to hold that there is an all-powerful, loving being who is watching it all unfold and refusing to intervene to prevent the worst of events from occurring.

I personally find the idea of a all-powerful, all-loving being controlling and governing the world to be a relic of ancient thought, and a needlessly anthropomorphic way to view reality. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when considering the volume and severity of suffering on this planet. Something is obviously missing from the equation.

There are much more sophisticated philosophies regarding the true nature of existence, which can account for suffering in a more rational way. Once we remove the idea of a cosmic being actively controlling it all, we find that it is much easier to see that suffering is simply built into reality itself, not programmed into it by an outside agent.

We may not like that suffering exists, but it is much easier to accept that it is just a brute fact of life, much like physics is a facet of nature. Now the question remains, what is it’s purpose?

The idea of purpose is a tricky one. Because it implies intentionality. Rather than asking what the purpose of suffering is, I prefer to ask ‘how can we work with suffering?’ This gives us agency, and pushes us to form our own conclusions about what it means to us personally.

My life has involved a lot of suffering. I have struggled with depression for almost a decade, and even before that I was never what I would describe as happy. I had enough outlets when I was young to distract me from getting fully depressed, but at some point those distractions stopped working. Then I was faced with suffering in it’s raw form. Not just in myself, but in the world. It was like a car crash you can’t look away from.

I am doing much better now than I was in the first few years of depression. At the time it felt like the world was shaded gray, and I don’t remember any feelings of happiness. Just numb and dull, with a perpetual heavy, sinking feeling in my chest. It was truly hell for a while.

I learned to manage this, and over time worked up the energy to make life changes and grow. Life got a lot better. I still had a lot of emotional and psychological issues, but I was channeling my energy into productive things more than before.

I had decided when I first got depressed that I didn’t want to medicate myself. I wanted to beat depression. I wanted to understand it; to learn the mechanisms of this thing so that I could not only heal myself, but also help others. This journey has honestly made me a much better person than I was before I got sick. I believe that it has refined me. And though I am far from perfect, I feel extremely proud of the growth it has produced in me.

I feel that when the Buddhists talk about the end of suffering, it isn’t merely about suffering being bad. It is more about the completion of suffering; when it exhausts itself.

The truth is, most of the people I deeply respect have experienced a lot of suffering. There seems to be an initiation into the depths of pain and despair, which produces powerful and compassionate human beings.

In Buddhism the enlightened mind is likened to a diamond. Diamonds are formed by intense pressure in the heart of the earth. In the same way, we cannot be made beautiful unless we undergo testing and trials and traumas. The late Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh referred to this truth when he said “No mud, no lotus.” And having been a peace activist in his home country during the Vietnam War, he had seen a lot of suffering firsthand.

I would never tell another person what suffering should mean to them. Their suffering may be too great for me to comprehend, and too tragic for me to properly empathize with. The way we choose to handle suffering is personal. But there is one thing that is obvious: by choosing to accept and work with our suffering, we increase our ability to grow as human beings and to develop our souls. This, I believe, we carry with us, beyond this lifetime.

Thank you for reading.

Photo by THÁI NHÀN from Pexels

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The Sunny Side of Nihilism

By Zach Van Houten

Merriam-Webster defines nihilism as:

a: a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless
\\ Nihilism is a condition in which all ultimate values lose their value.
— Ronald H. Nash

b: a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nihilism

Now could there be any value to a viewpoint such as this? Does it not seem a little bit… bleak?

I would argue that, despite the reputation it has garnered, nihilism is more or less the pessimistic Western version of an Eastern spiritual tradition known as zen. What is seen as tragic to us, with a slight shift in perspective and emphasis, is actually great freedom and liberation.

Nihilism is considered to be the implication of Friedrich Nietzsche‘s declaration that “God is dead“, and the aftermath of the destruction of belief in traditional religion in the West. The picture painted was very tragic. Contrary to popular opinion, Nietzsche was not himself a proponent of nihilism, but rather a prophet predicting it’s arrival. He predicted the horrors of the 20th century quite accurately, as in his own view, a natural consequence of the collapse of religious ideals.

Nihilism extends beyond simple rejection of religion to a deeper mistrust of all societal values and concepts. The nihilist gazes at the horrors of life and doesn’t provide an excuse for it. He or she does not see hope or deeper meaning, just the brute facts of the situation. This outlook is deeply related with the depressive tendency.

So, if this philosophy is so depressing, what good could there be in it? Well, I would argue that nihilism is in some ways the dark before the dawn for the spiritual/philosophical seeker. The end of the line for all buffers against the cold reality which faces us.

Society is built around a sort of repression of the hard truth that everyone will suffer and die. Life is a constant uphill battle, offering no clear answers to why we are here or what we are doing. Some people happen to have a sunny disposition and are able to repress these aspects of life and enjoy their time. But for many, if not most, the actual experience of living is not easy at all.

Before we can find true freedom we must first take complete responsibility for our beliefs and ideas about life. Nihilism involves a ruthless deconstruction of false ideas and fake positivity. It sees through the futility of human concepts in the face of mortality. In the end everyone suffers and dies. What point is there to it all?

Buddhism shares a similar focus on suffering and death. Buddhists believe that life is full of suffering, and that the only way out is the attainment of enlightenment, or liberation. Everything changes, and grasping onto anything will only end in suffering. So the Buddha taught his followers to learn nonattachment: the art of dying before you die.

Society wants you to follow its rules and play its games. It convinces you by appealing to your sense of morality and reason. Yet the values of society are often superficial, and not well thought-out. Nihilism, in it’s rejection of societal values, has a degree of wisdom, as ultimately, all external values have to be dropped in order for a person to become completely free. A liberated being does not base their morality off of society, but rather their own inner sense of compassion and internal moral compass, which can’t be put into rigid doctrines.

Zen buddhism is an attempt to throw off all conceptual knowledge and return to the simplicity of the human heart. It involves a deep trust in the compassion and wisdom of our true nature, rather than the distrust of nature that society has instilled in us.

Zen is a means of transcending the idea of meaning in life, instead preferring direct experience. In this way it is similar to nihilism, except that nihilism is more of a response to loss of meaning, whereas zen is focused on transcending meaning. Seeing things as they are is the goal of both approaches. The main difference is in the actual experience of this meaninglessness. For zen buddhists it is an ecstatic experience to reconnect with their true nature apart from mental concepts. Nihilism does not seem to offer such consolation.

Zen Buddhism is practice-based. It is rooted in the practice of meditation, and the contemplative lifestyle. And in this way it is a fully formed way of life rather than a philosophy. It is based in a worldview which is fundamentally optimistic about life after death, even though a zen buddhist would be very reluctant to speculate on such topics. Nihilists on the other hand tend to be pessimistic about the possibility of life after death and spirituality in general.

So in conclusion, nihilism is for many a symptom of a deep spiritual need. A yearning for the transcendent, which cannot be filled by external ideas and moral injunctions. Zen buddhism on the other hand shares a lot of the same deconstructive tendencies with nihilism, but offers a fundamentally positive, practical, and optimistic path forward. I am not a zen buddhist per se, but it has been a fundamental part of my spiritual path, and may offer something of value to anyone with nihilistic or depressive tendencies.

Thank you for reading.