Suffering is Optional but Pain is Necessary
Yesterday I started reading ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ by D.Wallace-Wells and last night I re-watched “Seven Years in Tibet”, the true story of a German mountaineer (Heinrich Harrer) who lived in Tibet during WWII and became good friends with the Dalai Lama. Then this morning I read a riveting and very discomforting article from the BBC news about the concentration camps [officially ‘re-education centres’] filled with Uighurs in western China [see the end for a similar previous genocide during the Qing dynasty]:
Up to a million Uighurs and other Muslims are believed to have been detained in detention centres that China says are for vocational training and necessary to fight terrorism. A young boy tweeted that he’d not seen his parents for more than 11 months and wanted China to “show me they are still alive”. Uighurs in China’s far-western Xinjiang region have come under intense surveillance by the Chinese authorities [ communist party officials live in their homes and all of their cell phone communication is monitored 24-7] Many Uighurs who live outside of China say they haven’t spoken to their family members in years.
It was too much. Too much human created suffering. Too much pointless waste of human potential. Too much loss of joy. So, to refill my soul, I went for a walk in the woods behind our home with our puppy who happily frolicked through the waste deep snow as I trudged along with my snow shoes. It was excellent medicine.
What has this got to do with our theme of ‘what are you doing’? All of us, me and you included, are either increasing or decreasing the amount of suffering of others. Now to be clear, much of it is unintentional and even unconscious. Here is a simple concrete example. Two years ago my ’old faithful’ blackberry cell phone died and I went to Rogers for a replacement – they said the only phone that I could get for ‘free’ with my particular plan was a Huawei phone. While I wanted to not buy Chinese [for a long list of reasons] I thought that perhaps my not-buy Chinese paranoia had gone too far and that it was time to get ‘reasonable’. Stupid me. Six months later I read about the above mentioned ‘re-education’ centres and how Huawei cell phones are being used to spy on the lives of not only the Uighars but also the Chinese people through a new developed ‘social credit score’ program. It was sickening: the Orwellian nightmare come true. So I quickly ditched my Huawei cell phone and replaced it with a Samsung. That was doing.
As I was reflecting upon my cell phone saga I was praying about this human induced suffering in Asia and this question came to me: What about pain? Is it different than suffering? If so, is there anything positive to be found in either?
While I am not officially a Buddhist I feel a great affinity for this path of life. I find many of its teachings very helpful as I struggle with the seemingly unnecessary sufferings and injustices that we create and then impose on each other. Although the title is ‘Suffering’ it might have been better to call is ‘Joy’, as my experience is that joy and suffering go hand in hand, like up and: one without the other seems impossible. As a Franciscan I consider the greatest gift of all a conscious life lived joyfully and to its full potential. However, this gift is often squandered and taken for granted – with the resultant suffering that we see all around us and suffering that we have also probably experienced personally.
A young Dalai Lama saying good-bye to Heinrich Harrer, the German Mountaineer
I have this to propose to you as a way to see both the positive and negative ramifications and differences between pain and suffering. I will label as suffering all ‘unnecessary, chronic and man-made’ actions that have no redeeming qualities. On the other hand pain, which is its sister, is ‘acute and built into all life as a survival mechanism’ and is thus ultimately (at least in potential) life saving and life affirming. How can I make such a bold claim? It is based upon understanding garnished from this particular disease: anhidrosis, or CIPA — a rare genetic disorder that makes her unable to feel pain. This is what a mother says about her daughter who never feels pain: “Some people would say that’s a good thing. But no, it’s not. Pain’s there for a reason. It lets your body know something’s wrong and it needs to be fixed. I’d give anything for her to feel pain.”
So, it turns out, like all the paradoxes of life, that pain the very thing we seek to avoid is necessary for survival. In other words, with a 20,000 foot view of life, it is a good thing. Suffering has no such redeeming qualities.
So, what are to do with this perspective? First, learn about ways that you are unintentionally causing suffering [eg. Buy fair trade] and use your greatest power: – your money, to change the world. Secondly, when you see a friend in pain help them, because I know from time I have had in pain that sharing time with others when in pain [usually] reduces the pain because the distraction of another person and their compassion helps you experience that life is also capable of joy. Third, by joyful, be positive, crack some bad jokes and all those around you will experience less suffering, less pain and more joy – joy that should be the norm in this brief life we have. So, given that this article is about doing something I leave you now with a very silly joke I learned recently that you can try on your friends – enjoy!
A bus driver and a priest died and went to heaven
St. Peter greeted them both and led them to their new homes in heaven. They went to the bus driver’s home first, and saw a large mansion. When the priest saw this, he was very excited because he was sure that he’d get a grander house, because clearly, he had done me good in his life than the bus driver. However, when they reached his new home, all he saw a small cabin. He asked St. Peter, “why is my house smaller than the bus driver’s? I have served God all my life!” St. Peter responded, “well, the way you were preaching, everyone was sleeping. But the way the bus driver was driving, everyone was praying!”
We make ourselves either happy or miserable – the amount of work is the same.
- Carlos Castaneda
An 18th century Genocide in central Asia
The Qianlong Emperor led Qing forces to victory over the Dzungar Oirat (Western) Mongols in 1755, he originally was going to split the Dzungar Khanate into four tribes headed by four Khans, the Khoit tribe was to have the Dzungar leader Amursana as its Khan. Amursana rejected the Qing arrangement and rebelled since he wanted to be leader of a united Dzungar nation. Qianlong then issued his orders for the genocide and eradication of the entire Dzungar nation and name, Qing Manchu Bannermen and Khalkha (Eastern) Mongols enslaved Dzungar women and children while slaying the other Dzungars.
The Qianlong Emperor then ordered the genocide of the Dzungars, moving the remaining Dzungar people to the mainland and ordering the generals to kill all the men in Barkol or Suzhou, and divided their wives and children to Qing forces, which were made out of Manchu Bannermen and Khalkha Mongols. Qing scholar Wei Yuan estimated the total population of Dzungars before the fall at 600,000 people, or 200,000 households. Oirat officer Saaral betrayed and battled against the Oirats. In a widely cited account of the war, Wei Yuan wrote that about 40% of the Dzungar households were killed by smallpox, 20% fled to Russia or Kazakh tribes, and 30% were killed by the Qing army of Manchu Bannermen and Khalkha Mongols, leaving no yurts in an area of several thousands li except those of the surrendered. During this war Kazakhs attacked dispersed Oirats and Altays. Based on this account, Wen-Djang Chu wrote that 80% of the 600,000 or more Dzungars (especially Choros, Olot, Khoid, Baatud and Zakhchin) were destroyed by disease and attack which Michael Clarke described as “the complete destruction of not only the Dzungar state but of the Zungars as a people.” Historian Peter Perdue attributed the decimation of the Dzungars to an explicit policy of extermination launched by Qianlong, but he also observed signs of a more lenient policy after mid-1757. Mark Levene, a historian whose recent research interests focus on genocide, has stated that the extermination of the Dzungars was “arguably the eighteenth century genocide par excellence.” The Dzungar genocide was completed by a combination of a smallpox epidemic and the direct slaughter of Dzungars by Qing forces After perpetrating wholesale massacres on the native Dzungar Oirat Mongol population in the Dzungar genocide, in 1759, the Qing Dynasty finally consolidated their authority by settling Chinese emigrants.