The Meaning of Suffering


The commonest experience of life is connected with suffering. All men and women suffer; the pang of the heart, the agony of the mind, the disease of the body, are all too common. In ourselves or in others, suffering leaps to our eyes and strikes our ears at every turn. It is said that "the poor already ye have with you," and that saying expresses the fact that suffering is ever present. But it expresses something more, namely, the common belief that poverty is the cause of sorrow and suffering. Further still, a reflection on the saying is indicative of human forgetfulness that not only sorrow and poverty are with us, but riches and wealth are also with us; and if poverty symbolizes suffering, opulence ought to symbolize happiness.

Let us pause for a moment on the universality and omnipresence not only of suffering, but of that which Emerson calls its "compensatory aspect," i.e., pleasure. Each one of us has sorrow in his life, but each also has his share of happiness and pleasure. If we harp on our poverty and misery and forget our joys and happiness, it is because of a psychological reason. We humans are awakened much more by our pains and sorrows than by our pleasurable experiences; we sit up and take notice when things go wrong; happiness for ourselves seems natural to us. Within our own soul there is Bliss or Ananda, and therefore it seems quite natural to experience joy, but this naturalness has bred a kind of apathy. We take our pleasures for granted and do not learn from them; but when pain and afflictions come, they awaken us.

Let us consider the idea held by so many that wealth is the womb of happiness and poverty begets suffering. False as it might seem, there is an underlying truth in this belief. We are apt, especially in this civilization when economics and politics are the dominating forces, to look upon wealth only from the poing of view of bullion and stocks. We tend to overlook the important fact that the real value of money lies in the use we make of it—what we can purchase with it of comfort or what is loosely called happiness. But there are other kinds of wealth. There is mental wealth as there is emotional purchase. For a small amount we can purchase a concert ticket and the joy and uplift we get out of a couple of hours of good music is almost disproportionate to the money we paid. Take a still more striking example: One can purchase a copy of the Gita or Dhammapada for a small amount of money, but the joy and inspiration one derives for days and months and years is almost illimitable. That of course depends on the purchaser's capacity to understand and enjoy such texts. So it is not just money that gives us enjoyment, but the power to use money to secure that which to us means happiness. This is an important idea and it is twofold: (1) Happiness depends not on money but on the use we make of money; (2) the capacity of using the money is within ourselves.

What is true of happiness is equally true of its opposite—suffering. Suffering is the result, not of economic poverty, but of lack of capacity to use that which we already possess and to obtain that which at present we do not possess. Next, the capacity of using our poverty is within ourselves.

We need not delay on this. The very common phenomenon of the rich who are unhappy, and of the poor who are contented and happy, further proves that the real source of happiness and suffering is within ourselves and that wealth is of many kinds—spiritual wealth of the heart, mental wealth of the head, and economic wealth which may be called the wealth created by the limbs of our body. These three kinds of wealth are related to three kinds of happiness and three kinds of suffering; but one thing is common to all three, and that is that the power or capacity to obtain and to use those wealths lies within ourselves. A person earns his living by the "sweat of his brow," it is said; by his efforts he gets his food, clothing and shelter. But it is also said that one does not live by bread alone; one has to learn to create mental and spiritual wealth, and to make the right use of that wealth. To create a wealth is one factor; to make the right use of it is another. There are many who earn good money, but they are not happy, nor have they banished misery and suffering from their body, mind and heart.

The Gita teaches that "light and darkness are the world's eternal ways." Good and evil are terms that can only be applied to the human kingdom. Nature as a whole is neither good nor evil. The light of day is not more or less valuable than the darkness of night; the flow of the tide is as valuable as the ebb; summer is as useful as winter, and so on. Spirit and Matter are not two different realities, but two poles of the One Life. Just as our globe, the Earth, has two poles, North Pole and South Pole, and without both there would be no globe, so also in the universe are Spirit and Matter. They are not good and evil; they are both necessary and useful.

Everywhere in Nature, in all things and all beings, Spirit and Matter exist. Representatives aspects of both are present in every god and in every atom. Only the proportion of these aspects is different: in a god or deva, the Spirit aspect is more active than the matter aspect; in the mineral, the matter aspect is more active. In man, Spirit and Matter are both equally represented, are exactly balanced. As a result of this, there springs into being that which we call the thinking, reasoning, self-determining human soul. The Spirit aspect present everywhere is consciousness; the Matter aspect present everywhere is form or body. There is consciousness present everywhere in nature, as also matter in some form or another. But in man alone they reach a middle point, a balance position, and so the consciousness of man becomes self-consciousness. Spirit acquires the faculty of reflection, and thus man obtains that which we call free will. Because of the presence of free will, man has the power to choose and to determine. Being in that middle position, he can go in either of the two directions; he can soar spiritward or drift into the abyss of matter. It is man, and no one else, who is the creator of that which we call good and evil, happiness and suffering.

Man himself creates his own suffering. Why should man who desires happiness create suffering? The answer, simply put, is—because suffering is necessary. To understand and appreciate light, we need to experience darkness. To evaluate beauty, we need to contact ugliness. Similarly, to experience the supreme and sublime bliss of Nirvana, we need to experience the sorrow and suffering of material existence. That is why we create suffering for ourselves.

How do we create suffering? Whatever suffering is ours today, was created by us in the past. We are reaping today the effects of seeds sown by us earlier. Weaknesses and ailments of the body, defects of character, limitations of the mind, are all the results of our own thoughts, feelings and actions. Past deeds, past desires, past ideas have produced our present body, character, mind, and also our circumstances and environment. By what precise method do we create these limitations? The Buddha answered that, and so does the Gita; and the answer of Theosophy is the same. The Buddha said that the cause of sorrow—the second of the Four Noble Truths—is desire; and the cause of desire is tanha or trishna. Kama, the force of desire, creates evil and suffering. Theosophy gives a full explanation. The very first idea to grasp, and which is often neglected, is that if Kama, desire, produces suffering and sorrow, its reverse must producre happiness and joy.

The force of desire is not wholly bad. In Hindu mystical philosophy, Kamadeva is the highest and noblest of manifesting or creating powers. Kamadeva is the first conscious, all-embracing desire for universal good, love, and for all that lives and feels, needs help and kindness, the first feeling of infinite tender compassion and mercy. "Desire first arose in It"—the Brahman—says the hymn of the Rig-Veda. In our minds some confusion arises because the Kama that is known to us is low and evil. Passions and desires of weak and wicked men and women are recognized by us all, but there is the higher aspect of desire. Let us call it Aspiration. Good, noble, unselfish desires elevate a person, just as low desires drag him down to hell. If Kama, Krodha, Lobha—desire, anger, covetousness—are the gates of Hell, as the Gita teaches, then Compassion, which is the reverse of passion, Patience, the reverse of anger, Generosity, the reverse of greed, are the gates to heaven.

So we create suffering by the force of desires, and we create happiness by the force of aspirations. Desires and aspirations are our two forces. Low desires the Greeks symbolized as Cupid. Cupid, the god of love, is blind, so it is said that love is blind; it stands for lower desires or passions. But the Greeks had another god of love, Eros, and Eros is the compassionate Kamadeva; he is not blind. Aspirations have eyes; desires alone are blind. We create suffering by low desires, because of our ignorance and our obstinacy. In the life of each one of us there are two types of suffering—one kind due to ignorance, Maya; another kind due to obstinacy rooted in Moha. Maya is illusion; Moha is dilusion. We make a mistake ignorantly and bring suffering upon ourselves. When we refuse to learn the lesson of our mistake and obstinately persist in it, we bring upon ourselves greater misery and suffering. Take an example: We come upon an experience which brings us pain; we come upon it because of our ignorance, but unless we find out and learn its meaning, we are bound to come upon it again. Alas! human beings go through the same experience and suffering a hundred times because they do not seek the meaning of their painful experience. This kind of suffering is the result of ignorance—Avidya and Maya.

But the second kind, rooted in Moha, comes upon us in a subtle way—"like a thief in the dark of night." Because of ignorance of our own nature and of our human constitution, we are deluded by that which we call pleasure. Most men and women think of pleasure and happiness in terms of their five senses. For instance, what tastes good is eaten without any consideration of the value and virtue of the stuff; we indulge because it gives a thrill to our palate—then pain comes; we know it and yet continue to indulge in it. Thus evil tendencies are confirmed and roots of misery are strengthened.

The meaning of suffering has to be traced by us, every time, to ignorance or obstinacy. This vice of obstinacy is subtle. An obstinate person thinks he has a strong will; he is apt to make his vices look like virtues. Theosophy teaches that he has to acquire knowledge and give up his obstinacy in terms of knowledge and he will understand the meaning of suffering and be able to overcome it. It is this force of obstinacy that manifests as conservatism, as habits, as set modes and methods which obstruct. "This is my way of life," says the person, and he does not analyse if it is the right way, or inquire if there is a better way.

How to overcome suffering? To put it positively and constructively—by acquiring knowledge and by adaptability. Knowledge helps us to overcome the force of evil within our own blood, and in that force of evil suffering resides. Adaptability enables us to control the forces which act as irritants and arouse the evil in us—the evil we are trying to curb and control. Every student-practitioner of Theosophy knows that when by study and meditation he has composed himself, something happens and his equipoise is shaken. Our resources are within ourselves and by knowledge we learn to use them in outer life—that is adaptability.

So the first lesson is that suffering is necessary; it awakens the soul, it educates the real man. Suffering results from ignorance, from failure to learn from a previous experience of suffering. Obstinate persistence in old and outworn ways which no more can teach us, and which we know to be wrong, brings us the bitterest suffering.

Secondly, by the force of desire in us we ourselves make our own suffering. It is not foisted upon us by some god outside, or by the people we contact.

Thirdly, because we ourselves create our own suffering we alone can overcome it. By the power of aspirations, the higher aspect of desire, we frustrate ignorance—illusion-Maya and delusion-Moha.

Fourthly, the womb of suffering is Kama-lust, Krodha-anger, Lobha-greed. The root of bliss and happiness is also triple—compassion or universal love; Kshanti, patience sweet, that nought can ruffle, and generosity which expands into altruism. We require knowledge to fight lust with compassion, to overcome anger by patience, and to defeat greed by developing generosity. Thus is misery ended, thus suffering is vanquished, and the Light of Joy burns steadfastly in our hearts. This practice is necessary for everyone.

The voice of flesh brings misery, the voice of conscience brings warning, the voice of the soul brings happiness. One more thought: without deliberate practice no one can overcome pain and suffering; no one can bring about real joy of the heart and peace of the mind. We must work for our spiritual wealth which is Ananda, Joy, as we must labour to earn our livelihood. Theosophy gives us adequate knowledge for this great task; we must avail ourselves of that knowledge.




The key to the spiritual life is the transmutation of Karma into Dharma. It is the ability to make of the past a prelude to a noble future. Evil is essentially the refusal to move toward the future. The ultimate meaning of Karma must be identified with an interconnectedness and interpenetration of all there is. Anything is possible because all there is, is a network of multidimensional relationships....

In the overview of life implicit in much of modern thought, the acceptance of Karma seems almost inevitable. In the emerging understanding of the universe as a living, dynamic self-organizing system, Karma definitely can find its rightful place as the dynamic and creative process that produces order out of chaos incessantly. The ramifications of the Karmic law might be endless and complex. But in its ultimate simplicity, the law is harmony, the perfect relationship that obtains between all things everywhere.

—Prabhath P.


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