by Michael Maciel
“I teach suffering, its origin, cessation, and path. That’s all I teach.” – Buddha
Sometimes, the best way to understand your religion is by understanding someone else’s. Because if it’s universal truths we’re talking about, then those truths will show up everywhere. No one has the corner on the market when it comes to truth.
Easter is the highest holy day in Christianity. Within its symbolism, all of Christ’s teachings can be found in a single story. But to understand those teachings, it is first necessary to see yourself in Christ’s shoes. The story of Jesus is the story of us.
This, of course, is only one level of analysis. But, it’s an important level, because it’s the one that enables us to grow spiritually. After all, he did say, “Follow me.” The inconvenient truth is that he meant that we should follow him all the way to Calvary.
It’s obvious, however, that this doesn’t mean that we should actually be crucified. Perhaps the word “follow” also means, aside from doing what he did, that we should look at the patterns of his life, as though they were a map, a map that describes the movement from ordinary consciousness to divine consciousness.
Unless we believe that the only reason to get spiritual is so that we can enjoy a heavenly afterlife, we have to admit that how we live in the world is as important as how we live in our hearts, that Jesus’ teachings are every bit as much about life in this world as they are about life in the next.
And the fundamental truth about life, as Buddha so wisely pointed out, is that we are going to suffer and die. Nothing new there, right? How then are we to consider this as wisdom? Seems more like a mundane fact, not a spiritual truth.
But, if it is indeed wisdom, then it must hold a deeper truth, one that is practical on every level, including our understanding of the nature of the world. What does it really mean, then, that we are going to suffer and die? And what is Jesus trying to teach us by mapping out in excruciating detail his (and our) journey from cradle to grave?
Is Jesus, like Buddha, trying to show us how to reduce our suffering? Is there wisdom embedded in the story of his suffering and death, a higher understanding of the nature of this world? Well, it would hardly be a wisdom teaching if there wasn’t. We can rightly expect that whatever that teaching is, it holds the answer to, well…everything.
So, what is it?
The truth that life on Earth is bounded by suffering and death is telling us that this is somehow an integral part of the structure of reality. No one is doing it to us. It’s just how it is. Everyone, no matter how rich or poor, is subject to this brutal curriculum. As the saying goes, “No one gets out of here alive.”
When we really grasp this about nature, it makes world peace possible, because when we realize that suffering and death are an integral part of life, then it’s hard to take it personally. In other words, it’s nobody’s fault. Even if someone deliberately hurts us, it’s not them that’s doing the hurting. Hurting is going to happen whether they do it or someone else. “It’s not personal; it’s just business.”
Therefore, we can’t blame them. They aren’t perpetrating violence, they are simply participating in it. Why would anyone do that? Because they, like us, more often than not, believe that someone else is causing their suffering, instead of knowing that suffering is a natural feature that besets everyone. They, as do we, want someone else to blame.
It’s as though we lived in Seattle and blamed the local government for all the rain. But, hey, it rains in Seattle. That’s simply what happens there. It’s no one’s fault. No one is purposely setting out to ruin our parade. We’re not being victimized by anyone. When we live in Seattle, the fundamental truth of reality is that rain happens.
The same can be said about this physical plane of reality that we all inhabit—if you’re here, you’re going to suffer. Period. What does it matter, then, if someone else appears to be causing it? You might as well blame them for breathing! Because, if you’re in a physical body, you’re going to cause suffering to someone or some thing. It’s as inevitable as rain.
What’s the takeaway? Stop blaming other people for your problems. It’s nobody’s fault that suffering is an unavoidable fact of life. Does this mean that when we deliberately cause suffering that we’re off the hook, that we aren’t accountable for our actions? Of course not. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!”
We hurt ourselves when we hurt others. But why would we hurt them if we didn’t first believe that they hurt us? Believing that we are victims, then, creates the sense we have that there are evil people in the world. They’re not evil; they just believe that they, too, are victims and that it’s your fault, the same as you believe about them.
We are not victims; we are simply alive. If anyone is a victim, then all of us are victims. To be here is to be a victim, a victim of a finite and fragile life. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just how it is. When we believe that someone is evil in and of themselves, then we perpetuate…no…we create the evil we see. This is how the cycle of violence continues.
When we know this about the world, we can then set about reducing the effects of suffering altogether. But we can never fully eliminate it. Why, then, blame others for our problems? The best we can do is bear up nobly under the circumstances. If we know we live in Seattle, we buy a raincoat to protect us from the rain. When we understand that suffering is an integral part of life, our understanding will keep us from going insane.