A year ago I wrote an essay called The Buddha’s Eight Simple Steps, which I intended to be my interpretation of Buddhism’s noble eightfold path. I wanted to share what I had learned through Buddhist study and practice, and I also wanted to challenge myself to express this understanding in my own words. I enjoyed writing the essay because the subject was so meaningful to me, but I had a much harder time writing succinctly than I had imagined. In particular, I struggled to define the Buddhist concept of suffering.
I have my own understanding of what suffering is, and I recognize this understanding when I read others’ writing. But I still struggle to find the words to explain what this means to me. Suffering is perhaps the most difficult concept to describe, but it’s also worth getting right: it is the first truth of Buddhist philosophy, and it is the first step on the Buddhist path.
The concept of suffering in Buddhism is notoriously difficult to define, I think, because it is so different from Western ideas of what suffering means. When we talk about suffering in America, we normally talk either about physical suffering: sickness, injury, fatigue, hunger or thirst, etc.; or about emotional or psychical suffering: sadness, despair, anger, anxiety, etc. These examples are all of suffering in the extreme—that is, we tend to think of suffering as an exception to “normal” experience. In my previous essay, I wrote this:
Even though my life seems comfortable enough, there are a lot of times when I’m sitting in traffic, or waiting in line at the Post Office when I think this really sucks. And in those moments, I start thinking about what it would be like to not have to deal with those things. Sometimes it’s something little like having to clean my dog’s vomit, but sometimes it’s worrying about having enough money for rent, or dealing with the death of someone close. All these frustrations, great or small, are an inherent part of life. We are always fighting against them, and this sense of discontent underlies all of our experiences.
In Buddhist philosophy, suffering refers to the rule, rather than the exception—“which is universal, and afflicts all people, regardless of their circumstances.” Buddhist philosophy says that liberation from suffering can only come after accepting its reality.
I am happy with what I wrote a year ago. The problem I’m still having is feeling that I didn’t write enough. Trying to understand and live by the eightfold path has been so helpful for me. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve always enjoyed it, or that I even agree with all of it. I’m still trying to figure out what suffering means—to me—and how I can best practice accepting it as a daily part of my life. There is so much knowledge that we can draw on today—not only from Buddhism—in order to understand what suffering is. The following are some of the things I have been thinking about recently, trying to draw some of these discussions together.
One of the problems I have with the Buddhist explanation of suffering—in others’ writings, as well as my own—is that it is too easy to skip over the question of privilege. When I have conversations about Buddhist philosophy, I feel like I am always ignoring the fact that suffering affects people differently according to their circumstances. To generalize, those who have fewer privileges tend to suffer differently—from hunger, cold, sickness, and mental illness, etc.— than those who have greater privilege. When I wrote my essay, I felt it was important to acknowledge that suffering, in the Buddhist context, is a reality for “the rich and healthy as well as for the poor.” But, of course, this does not mean that all suffering is equal. It was also important for me to acknowledge that I was writing from a position of privilege. Yes, I know what suffering is, but I’ve also never experienced real hunger, or fear, or poverty, etc., the way so many people do on a daily basis.
However, one of the problems I have with the way we talk about privilege, is that it’s easy to make the opposite assumption: that all people suffer differently, but that their suffering is defined by their privilege. It’s impossible to really talk about suffering and ignore the difference that privilege makes, but it’s also hard to talk about suffering if I assume that all people of the same race suffer in exactly the same way, or that all people of the same gender share the exact same experiences. If we define suffering solely in terms of privilege, it can make it difficult to realize that suffering is a universal—a human—problem, and a problem that is not solved by having privilege alone.
I don’t want to say that all suffering is equal. But I don’t want to put suffering into a hierarchy either. What I want to do is create a different discourse—one that can acknowledge the universality of suffering, but also acknowledge that suffering is always personal, unique, and specific.
This summer I have been working on a piece of writing about my grandmother’s life.
My grandmother was born in San Jose, California, the youngest of five children, to immigrant farmers from Japan. During World War II, she and her family were removed from their homes and sent to live at Heart Mountain internment camp in the Wyoming desert. She was eleven years old when she left and didn’t return to San Jose until the beginning of high school. My grandmother didn’t talk often about camp, but I know that she carried the trauma of internment with her for the rest of her life, and it was something that was always present while I was growing up. During the last several years of her life, my grandmother often asked me to help her write her life story. I was young, then, and I didn’t understand why it was so important to her. Even when we asked her about the past, it seemed like she didn’t really want to remember.
For the past several months I have been going over the stories my grandmother left behind—looking through old photo albums and historical records—trying to understand what had made it so hard for her to remember. My grandma struggled for many reasons. Before the war and after, she struggled because she was Japanese, and because she was the daughter of poor, working immigrants. She struggled as a woman, who couldn’t afford college, and who worked the night shift for twenty years while raising her two sons. But she also struggled because she was stubborn. She had a hard time forgiving those who had hurt her, and she had a hard time letting go of the past.
For years, I was frustrated by my grandmother’s requests to help her write her story. I resented her for asking so much of me, but at the same time, making it so difficult. But I also felt guilty. I worried that my resentment made me selfish, and that I could have done more if I had stopped thinking about myself. I still wanted to write—I wished that I could have given her what she wanted—but her request felt like a burden that I couldn’t let go of.
When I started writing my grandmother’s story, I hoped that I might learn to understand her better. But I also hoped that, by writing, I might get rid of some of that guilt—for not having listened as well as I could have while she was alive. The writing I do now can never undo the past—I can’t change how I treated my grandmother any more than she could have changed her internment—but this writing has helped me to accept and express my own feelings, and in doing so, it has helped me to understand hers. Throughout her life, my grandmother felt hurt by the circumstances around her, and what she could not accept or understand became a burden, not only for her, but also for her children and for me. I know that the burden my grandmother passed on to me is not the same burden she carried. But I recognize that the burden I have felt is an extension of her trauma—those wounds from her past which she alone could not accept.
When I say that I want a new way to talk about suffering, perhaps all I mean is that I want to be able to tell these stories. I want to feel free to tell these stories as honestly as possible, as truthfully as possible, and with as much care as possible. I want to be able to share these stories with others, without having to compare, or categorize.
I used to think that my grandmother’s story was exceptional. And maybe—to a middle class, half-white, half-Japanese kid growing up in the Bay Area in the nineties—it was. But her story—of immigration, prejudice, and segregation—is as much a part of today’s story, in America and around the world, as it always has been. And even if it is exceptional, it doesn’t change the reality of it. I think that part of the reason I used to feel guilty was because I felt that my grandmother’s trauma separated me from her—that I could never really understand what she had been through. But I see now that it was the thing that tied us most together.
I am lucky to have grown up with so many advantages that my grandparents didn’t have. I haven’t been spared from suffering—nothing can protect anyone from getting hurt—but I have been given the opportunity, through my education and my community, to speak openly about my experiences and learn to share that narrative with others. I think that what frustrated my grandmother most was that she didn’t know how to tell her own story. For so much of her life she was too afraid to look back at the things that had hurt her. Of all the privileges I have, the opportunity for which I am most grateful is the opportunity to look back, and to tell the story that she could not.