Pragmatic Response to Suffering

Hello! It’s been a while. I hope everyone is at peace.

I’ve had quite a crazy ride these past few years. In short, I gave up on Buddhism, converted to Catholicism, and now I’m reassessing how different ideologies approach suffering.

Should suffering always be acknowledged, selectively acknowledged, or completely ignored? How should suffering affect us emotionally? Indifference might ease our own pain, but it can lead to detachment and social isolation, and potentially increase the pain of others. On the other hand, filling our lives with distractions to avoid suffering, or assuming all suffering is imbued with a lesson, can diminish the occasional need to intervene.

An aspect about the Western approach to Theravada Buddhism that bothered me was the strong emphasis on the renunciant teachings. How can I find motivation to work and take care of a family if everything is dukkha? Is there no beauty in the world? But as I reassess the Theravada today, it appears to offer one of the more pragmatic responses to suffering through the four brahmaviharas, notably equanimity counterbalanced by compassion. Equanimity prevents emotions from descending into dark places, while compassion inspires empathy and action. I’ve unknowingly been shaped by these teachings, and, even as a Catholic, I still rely on them.

What are your thoughts? How do you respond to suffering?


Dear Tony,

congratulations on your wild ride! Wild rides are always useful if used wisely to reflect as you are doing.

I do agree that the emphasis on the end of the Path can make for difficulties. Personally I think that teaching the Path offers huge challenges. This is precisely because it is a Path of transformation. The views and perspectives, and capacity to see certain points, develop over time. There is an expectation in our culture that intellect alone can surmount this and that if knowledge and logic are powerful enough everything can be understood. Now the Buddha explicitly said that this did not apply to the Dhamma. This is because it is about conditionally or dependently arisen states - that certain causes need to be in place for certain results. This includes Right View.

So there is a dilemma between the expectations and desires of people to be able to understand, that goes against the nature of progression in the dhamma. As an easy example, as a 5 year old, can you know the perspective of a 20 year old? as a 20 year old can you know the perspective of a 60 year old? You really can’t… you can imagine it, speculate about it but you can’t know it. When I reflect back on myself, I was so mistaken in what I imagined the experience of older people was LOL! This is a very simple and superficial example - when it comes to the Dhamma the issues are immeasurably more profound.

The Buddha gives a great simile of this transformation. From milk comes curds, from curds comes butter, from butter comes ghee. The curds are no longer milk… curds perspective is no longer ‘milk’ perspective.

So there is that part of it - the challenge of how people approach the Path and their desire to know the end, which in my opinion can really get in the way - if all the focus is on trying to just get enough knowledge and logic to solve the riddle and get the answer. The answer will come naturally as part of the process if the Path is followed and one undergoes the transformation. In that case the results are inevitable - a natural process :slight_smile:
Note: of course it is good to have an idea of the overall map, but it is a question of where one focuses most energy and not to get tangled in what is unhelpful.

So with regards to the pragmatic alleviation of suffering in the here and now.
This is my favourite part of the Path. The results are immediately visible! I can’t quote you a percentage, but so much of the teachings are about exactly this. It is just that people tend to focus on those other unreachable things at the very end and get caught up in trying to solve the problems (First Noble Truth) as an intellectual problem.

In a nutshell, the way to alleviate suffering comes from changing the focus in life from what one can get for oneself at the cost of others, to operating from a position of win-win for everyone. The underlying principle is kindness and restraint of greed and ill will. It is easy to see the immediate positive effect this can have. Just reflect on how you feel after recieving a random act of kindness… on how it feels after doing a random act of kindness… and compare it to the opposite. Immediately visible.

The Buddha shows in so many suttas how behaving this way is for the benefit of oneself and others, that it leads to a happy life right here and now, and also for future rebirths. The suttas abound with concrete examples of this, illustrating particular problems that cause suffering and also the specific methods, actions and thoughts that resolve it :slight_smile:

As one goes about living in this way, one becomes transformed and begins to see the world in a different way - this is the beginning of the transformation - milk to curds. From this new vantage point other aspects of the Buddhas teaching start to become clearer. I’ve found that the further along one goes, the greater the momentum to keep going along.

Now there is no need what-so-ever to go further than this! I want to emphasise this… it is enough to live a happy fulfilling life where suffering is reduced and happiness and mutual caring is increased.

Again it is this, dare I say it, competitive aspect to people who are not satisfied unless they have reached the ultimate, the pinnacle, the bestest!! LOL this is quite a negative aspect of craving and desire that causes a whole heap of suffering unnecessarily. Contentment, is the key.

As one lives in this manner, one can’t help but progress along the Path.

The Truth of life though is that there will always be suffering of some degree at different times. It is just nature. To want what is impossible - to expect it - is a recipe for suffering.

We as humans with bodies and minds are just a part of nature, there is illness, catastrophe etc etc… it is impossible to live life without being subject to the vicissitudes of life. Life is not fair or just etc etc - The Disneyland myth is really very harmful as it bears no relation to reality. To expect that life should somehow be ‘perfect’ is just ensuring we have mental suffering. To expect the impossible is totally unrealistic and doomed to disappointment.

However, even though this is the case, it doesn’t mean that living the Path doesn’t reduce the inherent suffering. There is also joy :slight_smile: In cases of tragedy we are there to offer compassion and care. We learn to focus on the positive things. We learn how to make things better not worse through developing skillful means of dealing with the challenges in life :slight_smile: The way the Buddha teaches these skillful means is an absolute treasure. I have a background in Psych and have worked for a long time in the service of helping people overcome difficulties and I don’t know of a better set of tools.

It is wonderful

So there are a few rambling thoughts for you this morning.

With a whole heap of metta and best wishes. May you be happy and well and content :slight_smile: :pray: :sunflower:


For Theravada practitioners apart from the lesser response of the brahma-viharas, there is an even more fundamental responsibility, the duty to comprehend suffering which is the stipulated action appropriate to the first noble truth (Samyutta Nikaya 56.11).

The types of suffering:

Samyutta Nikaya 45.165

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“Suffering is to be comprehended.” That’s the Buddha’s instruction with regard to the first noble truth. That would include knowing the cause of the suffering, which is in our mind, not outside. When that is seen as it really is, we naturally drop the cause, and thus the effect—the suffering —ceases.

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Hi Tony,
That’s a great ride. I know how it feels. I once got to that stage when I felt confused regarding religion. Whether I have to choose to be a Buddhist or another religious adherent. Even I once made a farewell sentence to my Buddhist fellow that maybe I wouldn’t go to the Vihara anymore. Nevertheless, it still doesn’t work. My mind was still uneasy for several years. Somehow Dhamma still sticks in my mind. The more I contemplate the Dhamma, the more I got that Dhamma doesn’t belong to any particular religious group on the earth. Dhamma is like the law of gravitation, the universal truth, whether people acknowledge it or not, those law will always run and has an impact toward all people. Then, when I realized it, the burden in my chest drop up. Since that, as for me, religious issues isn’t a big deal anymore. I can find Dhamma anywhere. I can find Dhamma in all religious organization. I can feel comfort in all religious community. It’s so relieving!
I love a passage which come from Pahārādasutta, Aṅguttara Nikāya 8.19.
Seyyathāpi, pahārāda, mahāsamuddo ekaraso loṇaraso; evamevaṁ kho, pahārāda, ayaṁ dhammavinayo ekaraso, vimuttiraso.
‘The ocean has just one taste, the taste of salt. In the same way, this teaching and training has one taste, the taste of freedom.’

If it’s a Dhamma, it will always lead to freedom. No matter where we can find it.


Is sorrowing, wailing, beating my breast and falling into confusion an option? :stuck_out_tongue:


I have a secret technique which I call “laying on the couch or in bed crying for a good 20 minutes” :female_detective:

But it’s only for hardcore meditators, so be careful :3


Thank you for your replies and kind words.

I agree. Though, at this point, I’m ready to transfer from this rollercoaster to a slow moving boat.

Beautiful sutta. I’m reminded of the Ogha-taraṇa Sutta (SN 1.1).

Dhamma is the reality that we don’t aways want to face.

Lol certainly. I’m due for one of these myself.


But to give a more serious answer, the practice of metta (and the brahmaviharas) has really transformed my relationships to my friends and family, because it has made me be able to be vulnerable and share my inner world & feelings with them.

Leaning on family and friends to deal with suffering is pretty basic I guess, but I think it’s important not to miss the basics in Buddhist communities.

Maybe this is controversial, but IMO, sometimes a good cry and a good hug is what people need rather than to contemplate suffering alone in meditation.

And yes, I think this is true even for monastics (especially the monks).

And I think renunciation and monasticism often can have this very tough guy vibe, when actually meditation requires a lot of emotional intelligence and sensitivity, and not bypassing or rejecting parts one’s inner experience.


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It’s an interesting question, because when I was living in Japan, one thing I did realize is that they lacked the “good samaritan” ethos that is fundamental to Christianity. They were actually just in the middle of a shift at that time. All sorts of different social aspects of suffering were emerging into attention - nayami - itself became a public and government rallying cry. So.

Myself, I don’t think in the West we are short of understanding the human condition, which is, roughly, dukkha. Life is beautiful … well maybe if you’re living in Sudan it’s not.

Sādhu sādhu sādhu. Thank you so much. :pray:t3:

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Hi @tonysharp. Nice post, questions and issue spotting! This may be too much information. You’re probably familiar with MN 141 The Exposition of Truths which seems to address these questions pretty squarely. For example, it teaches that Right View is “Knowing about suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering. This is called right view.” Based on the sutta as a whole, it sounds like the Buddha and Ven. Sariputta are teaching that suffering should be acknowledged and understood in term of its origin, causation, and ending. The good news is, as you know, the Noble Eight Fold Path leads to the end of suffering, and we can get glimpses of the ending in meditation, especially in samadhi (you may like the Piti/Rapture Sutta).

The word renunciation never resonated with me either till recently studying MN 141 more thoroughly with a sutta study group. That sutta seems to make clear that what we’re renouncing is craving because it’s the cause of suffering. For example, the sutta says about the ending of suffering the following: “And what is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering? It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not clinging to it. This is called the noble truth of the cessation of suffering.”

It also seems like the other things the Buddha taught us to let go of support and help our letting go of and renouncing craving. For example, I have renounced or rejected certain foods because they increase my cravings so much they often cause me to overeat and feel sick. That’s the only reason I renounced them for puritanical reasons.

After recently reviewing the definition of renouncing, I noticed that rejection is often included in its definition. Rejection of craving makes sense because I know how much suffering craving causes.

The key seems to be replacing the pleasures of the mundane with the pleasures of Dhamma, which again involve samadhi practices as the Piti Sutta mentioned above discusses.

Great question that I have often asked myself. Sometimes, I still use desire for the mundane to help me get out of bed and tend to my duties. However, there are lots of suttas where the Buddha teaches the value of taking care of our families and our householder duties, and that motivates me. Ajahn Cha often used mundane work to teach his disciples, as can be seen in his biography, which is on apple podcasts. So, work can be a great Dhamma practice.

I’m also not sure that the Buddha said everything is dukkha, but this is a huge topic as I’m sure you know. The good news is the Buddha teaches the way to the end of suffering, so at the very least the culmination of the Noble Eight Fold Path is not suffering.

Interesting question! To me, Dhamma and many of its facets are beautiful, including the Brahmaviharas you mention.

For me, the most direct way to deal with suffering is usually to practice some sort of samadhi meditation. However, when that’s not possible for one reason or another, pardoxically, I find recollecting the fact that I, like all beings, am subject to aging, sickness, death, and being separated from everything I love. These recollections often lead to deeper states of meditation.

Also, regarding Catholicism and Buddhism, there is a documentary about people who practice both. IMO, modern Theravada Buddhism seems to go too far in negating deities in comparison to what is taught in the suttas. For example, the Buddha mentions Brahma (God) over 500 times in the suttas, and even converses with God in at least one sutta. God and Dhamma is a very big topic, and a book could be written about it (I hope one day that it is).

You may find Ajahn Mun’s biography interesting. Apparently, Ven. Mun conversed with and taught deities almost every night during certain stages of his life. Moreover, the Buddha teaches in multiple suttas to recollect the deities and the qualities of the deities, and in DN 13, the Buddha taught the path that can lead to being reborn in the company of God (Brahma).

I hope this is helpful. Metta:-)


Thank you for your thorough and thoughtful reply, Brooks! It’s good seeing you around here again. I’ve actually been listening to Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah on Audible recently. I didn’t know there was a Ajahn Mun biography as well. I’ll check it out!

With Metta

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Hi Tony. Great to see you on the forum again, and I hope you are feeling peaceful and relaxed too.

There’s been some lovely replies above, but I just wanted to add a few thoughts. I was baptised at birth, brought up as a Roman Catholic and even had a brief skirmish with junior seminary, when that was a thing. I note your other thread on “overcomplicating lay Buddhism”, and I am probably going to be guilty of doing that right now! :slight_smile:

Even though you are looking for the ‘pragmatic’ responses to suffering, I think that maybe we need to look at the differences in the theoretical (or theological) framework within which they exist to make sense of them.

One of the main differences between Christians and Buddhists is the nature of existence. In Buddhism we have the three characteristics: impermanence, suffering and no-soul.

So I have two comments on this:

Firstly ‘suffering’ here is not individual suffering detached from the suffering of others. The world (suffering) is to be found in the body-mind (“fathom-long carcass with its perception and mind” - sn2.26).

Secondly, the Buddha does not differentiate the human into the body on one side, and the soul on the other - with the body being impermanent (created via pre-existing living matter via evolution - although this is of course a little moderated by the Assumption of Mary) and the soul being permanent (immediately created by God) as it is understood by the Catholic church.

So with that I would like to address some of your questions/observations:

I think that suffering will affect us emotionally however it affects us. I don’t think we have any control regarding that. But I also think it is useful to acknowledge suffering wherever it manifests in our world. We might not be able to do anything other than sit with another person, to listen to them or to maybe pray/chant/brahma-vihara for them. Of course we should also treat any suffering we perceive in ourselves in a similarly kind, gentle and compassionate way.

Indeed, but because in Buddhist theory there is no differentiation between the suffering of ourselves and the suffering of others (sn47.19), it’s just suffering (in our world), this should not be a Buddhist response, although “your experience might vary”, as they say. :wink:


Not if the lesson is to intervene in an appropriately kind, gentle and compassionate way :wink: Which of course may just be a wish or a prayer.

I may be out of date, but isn’t there similar strong renunciation emphasised in Catholicism? I’m thinking of things like the standards in Humanae Vitae here.

This is really odd for me, because this is precisely why I am motivated to take care of every aspect of everyone in my world. If there were a permanent aspect (like a soul), and hence some part of a person that didn’t suffer then I wouldn’t need to take care of that aspect, but if there is nothing permanent, then every aspect of every being is fragile and subject to suffering, I need to care for every being in my world. And this turns out to be such a joy.

There’s plenty of beauty in the world, but it’s fleeting. Every moment of happiness is sandwiched between two moments of sadness, every moment of sadness is sandwiched between two moments of happiness making this world unreliable and leading us to search for peace, each in our own way.

I feel confident that you can find peace through God on your new journey. Take care and all good blessings :anjal:

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Hello again, stu! :wave:

Thank you for your mindful reply.

My faith in Christianity is extremely weak. I’m open to the idea of there being a God, and to Jesus being one of several ways to that God, but I probably practice mindfulness more at this point than the Rosary.

I agree. In some cases, if a loved one died, it’ll be difficult, if not possible, to maintain equanimity. That said, I believe the Buddha discourages replaying the despair and anger over and over in our minds.

Lol, touché.

Yes, but it’s not the central focus. Frugality is occasionally encouraged, but engaging with the world as a witness to God is encouraged more. Faith and holy works are a means to earn God’s grace. It’s similar to Karma Yoga in Hinduism.

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Yes. Agreed. Or to put a more positive spin on it, the Buddha encourages us to let these things go.

Ah, well. On the other hand we have Ephesians 2:8-9. You’ve already been saved. Nothing more is required. The standard of forgiveness (Letting off / Letting go) that God displays here is the standard that every Buddhist and Christian is encouraged to subscribe to I think. It’s really awesome. Forgive immediately like in Iti88:

Those who have given up hate,
don’t get angry even when provoked.
Hate falls off them
like a palm-leaf from its stem.

Or if we can muster it, like Ven. Puṇṇa in sn35.88. :wink:

But yes, those corporal acts of mercy are great and something we can all also subscribe to I think: food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, shelter for weary travellers, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners, and burying (or cremating) the dead. All good stuff.

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Catholics don’t read Ephesians 2:8-9 :smile:


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It sounds like you’re interested in the Thai Forest tradition, too, Tony! A living Thai Forest meditation master is Ajahn Dtun – you may find his autobiography interesting. Here’s a link to it and some of his other writings. In This is the Path, it looks like he discusses how to develop the Brahmaviharas: I plan to check it out!

The link is to Abayaghiri’s book section. You can sort by author. Ajahn Mun’s biography was written by Ven. Maha Boowa, and it is on that site. I look forward to hearing about your journey continues to unfold.

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