Sufferings, Problems, and Delusion

by Rev. Marvin Harada.

My article this month is based on an essay in a book in Japanese that I have, titled, “Buddhist Words That Stick To Your Heart” (Kokoro ni nokoru Bukkyo no kotoba). The following is my translation of the short essay:

                                                          Suffering in life,
                                                   Can lead to awakening.
                                                To be a victim of suffering,
                                                   Leads to no awakening.
                                                        -- Soga, Ryojin

Sometimes in conversations with temple members, they say the following: Sensei, since your job is to serve the Buddha, you don’t have any problems do you? My response is, ‘Are you crazy? I might have more problems than you.’ In reality, from our life as individuals, to our life in seeking the Dharma, in sharing the Dharma, in the affairs of our religious organization, to matters of our country and the world, problems in life abound. In the search for the way, problems are inevitable.

However, there is a huge difference between having problems and saying that ‘I am a victim of problems.‘ If we say, ‘I am suffering unfairly because it has been caused by others,’ or, ‘That guy causes me all kinds of suffering,’ or, ‘Because things are that way, it’s causing me all kinds of problems,’ this kind of perspective leads to no progress on the spiritual path. It has nothing to do with the problems of life that are involved in seeking the way. As a whole, problems are okay to have, but to say that I am a victim of problems, is something that we do not accept or receive into our life. p. 43. Kokoro ni nokoru Bukkyo no kotoba

This short essay was written by the Shin Buddhist scholar, Rev. Ryojin Soga. It is a very challenging essay. Don’t we often feel like the victim of our circumstances? A colleague at work stabs us in the back and they get the promotion instead of us, or at the very least, get all the credit for something that was our idea or efforts. We might feel a victim in terms of our relations. Why did I have to marry into this family and have such a terrible mother-in-law? Or, we might even feel a victim in terms of having an illness. Why did I of all people have to get cancer? What did I do to deserve this terrible fate? I live a good, decent life. How come the criminals never get cancer? Why did it have to be me?

Such thinking is to consider oneself as the victim, as Rev. Soga describes above. He states very harshly, that such an attitude or perspective has no place on the spiritual path. It leads to no progress on the spiritual journey.

However, if we embrace, take in our sufferings and problems of life as a springboard to our spiritual journey and seeking, then such sufferings and problems have great meaning. They might lead to our deepest insight. They might lead to our spiritual awakening. In that sense, they must be accepted, taken into our life, even embraced.

Perhaps the key to this perspective is that the individual must be on the spiritual path. You have to be seeking something....truth, the meaning of life, even just trying to make sense of Buddhism and the Dharma in terms of your own life. With a seeking mind, sufferings and problems take on a different meaning. Without a seeking mind, we cannot find rhyme or reason to our suffering. It seems to come out of nowhere at us. Why me? Why now?

But to the seeker, every suffering or problem that one encounters is like a Zen Koan of life, challenging us to break through to something deeper and truer.

In Shin Buddhism, everything is “go-en” or karmic conditions. Meeting a good teacher is go-en. Meeting the love of your life is go-en. But also, meeting suffering and problems is also go-en. They are neither good nor bad. They just are. They must be faced and accepted.

Shinran Shonin reflects that kind of spirituality in which sufferings and problems are not to be rejected but embraced in the following wasan or poem:

                                 Obstructions of karmic evil turn into virtues;
                                         It is like the relation of ice and water:
                                        The more the ice, the more the water;
                              The more the obstructions, the more the virtues.
                                          p. 371 Collected Works of Shinran

Here “karmic evil” in today’s language would be “sufferings and problems.” Imagine being able to say, “The more sufferings and problems I have in life, the more joy and happiness I will have.” Isn’t this what Shinran Shonin is saying in a sense? The more ice, the more water, the more sufferings, the more happiness. The more challenges, the more insights. The more delusion that one sees in oneself, the more wisdom and compassion one will also come to see.

As Soga Sensei and Shinran Shonin point out to us, we are never a “victim” of our circumstances, no matter how terrible they might be. Our sufferings and problems are the fertile soil that a beautiful flower might bloom from. Our sufferings and problems are the source of our insight and awakening on the spiritual path of the Buddha-Dharma.

Namuamidabutsu, Rev. Marvin Harada