For centuries Catholics were discouraged, and even forbidden, from reading non-Catholic works lest their faith be undermined. Such precautions were reasonable when the laity were largely uneducated and even illiterate. Though that is no longer the case, it remains prudent to exercise care in what we read and view. Yet even so, learning about other beliefs can deepen our understanding of our own faith.
I recently read a slender volume on Buddhism by Ajahn Sumedho titled The Four Noble Truths. Buddhism, of course, differs in fundamental ways from Christianity, the most important of them being, as Sumedho acknowledges, that it is not theistic: “Thus the Buddhist approach is quite unique with respect to other religions because the emphasis is on the way out of suffering through wisdom, freedom from all delusion, rather than the attainment of some blissful state or union with the Ultimate.”
Some Catholics may be inclined to respond, “The man’s own words prove that Buddhism has nothing to teach us.” But this response assumes that we can learn only from those who share our religious perspective and that is not so, as I will show.
The Four Truths mentioned in the title all concern suffering: suffering itself, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to that cessation. The author refers to suffering not merely in the macro catastrophic sense, but also in the micro sense of frustration, annoyance, discontentment with little things such as rudeness or insensitivity—in short, whatever interrupts our peace of mind. “Even when life is at its best, there is still this sense of suffering—something yet to be done, some kind of doubt or fear haunting us.” For example, if someone you love or like is criticized, “you feel angry and indignant.” Moreover, “having to be in situations you don’t like is also suffering.”
“Everyone suffers,” Sumedho says, and this fact he believes is a bond among people that makes compassion possible. Only by ignoring that bond can we consider people non-human, brand them as enemies, and oppose them with violence. Such “ignorance in the moment,” he says, leads to “human anguish and despair.” Understanding this enables us to recognize when people are trapped by ignorance and thus respond with pity rather than hatred.
This idea is very similar to the Catholic concept of “invincible ignorance,” which significantly reduces, or eliminates altogether, a person’s culpability for sin and evokes in us feelings of compassion rather than condemnation. More importantly, Sumedho’s observation offers another way to appreciate Jesus’ admonition to love one another.
Buddhism stresses the importance of depersonalizing suffering. Doing so entails acknowledging what is troubling us without saying “poor me” or “why do I have to be experiencing this”—in other words, removing self and personal feelings from our consideration, and focusing instead on investigating and understanding the cause of our suffering.
As an example of this process, Sumedho describes a time when he was performing the task of raking leaves at the monastery. As he worked, he felt that the chore was a waste of time, and he began to hate having to perform it. The moment he became aware of those feelings, he moved beyond them and examined the chore itself and his attitude toward it. This led him to see the activity as beneficial to the monastery and to realize that he was privileged to be performing it. His insight, as he explains, was, “There is nothing really wrong with anything, except me.” In other words, that he had created a problem where none really existed.
Reading this passage recalled for me the experience that a relative of mine, also a Buddhist monk, shared with me about twenty years ago. He had left home at age 18, traveled to Thailand, and became a forest monk largely because of the resentment he harbored toward his parents. One day while walking and meditating, that old resentment surfaced again and with it the habit of wallowing in self-pity. This time, however, he put aside self-pity and, as his Buddhist instructors had taught him, took a fresh, honest look at his relationship with his parents. There immediately came to his mind many examples of his parents’ loving kindness toward him. By the end of his walk all his anger and resentment was gone and in their place was a warm feeling of gratitude.
Much of our suffering comes from fixation on the past as well as blaming someone or something else for it, according to Sumedho, and avoiding both can relieve our suffering. This calls to mind Jesus’ admonition to be less concerned with the splinter in our neighbor’s eye than the beam in our own and it does so in an unusual way, by suggesting that the action Jesus warned against is not only sinful but causes us suffering.
A key to relieving suffering, Sumedho says, is to realize that fixation on past grievances is a burden that weighs us down, and the most positive course is to stop indulging it and trying instead to understand it. By doing this with all the problems in our lives—simply letting go of them—he explains, we can avoid becoming overwhelmed and depressed, and exhausting ourselves in futile efforts to escape our state of mind.
“The whole aim of the Buddhist teaching is to develop the reflective mind in order to let go of delusions,” first by investigating or looking into—contemplating.” To do that requires having the mind “willing to be receptive, pondering and considering.” This is very meaningful and timely advice for this age, which denigrates mindfulness and exalts emotion and impulse. This view resonates with Catholic teaching about the importance of “sufficient reflection and consent of the will” in moral living.
Sumedho notes that the Buddha praised the idea that “all that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing” and that it is foolish to trust or take refuge in such things. As Sumedho puts it, “Out of ignorance we attach to desires for sense pleasures,” [but] “when we identify with what is mortal or death-bound, and with what is unsatisfactory, that very attachment is suffering.” This perspective has much in common with the Catholic teaching that sensual/sensory things please more in contemplation than in actuality, whereas spiritual things do the reverse. Both ideas help us keep us aware of the lure of impermanent things and to maintain our spiritual focus.
“The earth is not a place for our contentment,” Sumedho says. “It is not supposed to be. When we realize that [reality], we no longer expect contentment from planet earth; we do not make that demand.” This idea of expecting suffering in life complements the Catholic idea that life is a “vale of tears” in which we are challenged to “bear our crosses” as Christ did His. It also reflects Alexander Pope’s famous observation, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
Sumedho goes on to say, “Well-being is just knowing things as they are without feeling the necessity to pass judgment upon them,” and that it’s all about getting to “abide in emptiness” with “clarity, awareness, peacefulness and purity.” (Perhaps he misspoke in questioning the importance of judgment. After all, the very purpose of the reflection and careful consideration he advocates is to judge thoughtfully.) He then adds the qualification that Buddhism does not recommend being “indifferent to success or failure and [not bothering] to do anything.” Instead, it recommends that “we do things because [they are] the right thing to be doing at this time and in this place rather than out of a sense of personal ambition or fear of failure.”
Sumedho also explains Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, which consists of: Understanding, Right Intention or Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood [these last three meaning “taking responsibility” for what we say and do], Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. The result is liberation from “self-view” and “selfishness” and achieving pureness of heart and peace of mind. The Eight paths “work together,” “support one another,” bring balance a “sense of bliss,” bring “harmony between the intellect, the instincts and the emotions.” Instead of conflict, tension, or anxiety, there is emotional balance, “clarity, peacefulness, stillness, knowing.”
Buddhism’s Eightfold Path encompasses much of what Catholicism has traditionally called virtue. And Sumedho’s explanation of it is especially timely for modern western society. For decades we have been told that nothing is more important than loving and esteeming ourselves and indulging our desires. He advises FREEING ourselves from the tyranny of self, saying and doing not what we wish but what is RIGHT, and thereby taking responsibility for our lives.
Far from creating doubt about my Catholic faith, Ajahn Sumedho’s book on Buddhism has reinforced some important lessons in it. In that sense, it has been a blessing for which I am most grateful.
Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved