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Musings on the Problem of Evil, Suffering and Desire: The Christian and the Buddhist Approach Musings on the Problem of Evil, Suffering and Desire: The Christian and the Buddhist Approach
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-08-26 11:28:45
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When I taught comparative religions at a prep school in Boca Raton I always included in the syllabus’ list of required reading Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. The reason was not to do apologetics for Christianity but because in some way the book can be seen as a comparison of the most important world religions as still vibrantly practiced by millions and even billions of people, namely Judaism, Christianity, Islam (the so called Abrahamitic monotheistic religions), and Hinduims, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism.

In his treatise on Jesus the Christ Chesterton compares those religions and discovers many affinities and much common ground especially in the field of ethics and morality. He says that if an alien from outer space were to land on earth and observe those religions for a while he would soon discover many common features, but he would also notice that there is one that stands out from the others, namely Christianity.

How so? Well, because this religion makes two astonishing claims that the others refrain from making. In the first place, its founder went around saying things such as “I and the Father are one” or “Before Abraham was I am” or “your sins are forgiven you,” forgiveness of sins being one of God’s prerogative for the Jews; meaning that he claimed to be God incarnate, not just one with God as Moses or Abraham could have claimed. The incarnation is what is celebrated at Christmas time, not pretty carols, and gifts from Santa, and wonderful church rituals with pretty red poinsettias which many fallen away Christians still enjoy from time proudly but misguidedly reducing their faith something dead, a caricature and an historical anachronism of sort… Secondly, this religion makes another astonishing claim, that its founder actually resurrected from the dead after dying on a cross.

Chesterton points out that if somebody goes around saying “I am god” as Caligula did, there is a good chance that he is certifiably insane, as in fact emperor Caligula was. But if one goes around saying and implying the same thing but then acts perfectly normal and sanely as a human being and in fact acts wisely, that ought to give one some pause at the question that he posed to his followers: who do you say that I am? To get the full import of these powerful intimations, one needs to read the argument in its entirety written in a wonderful English prose, as only Chesterton was able to accomplish. 

Which brings us to this intriguing passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19). What exactly is Paul driving at” Simply this: Christianity as he understands it is not the best way to maximize pleasure and minimize pain and suffering, if this life is all there is. Paul tells us the best way to maximize our pleasures in this life: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32).


When Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink,” he does not mean “Let’s all become lechers and hedonists.” He means there is a normal, simple, rational, comfortable, ordinary life of human delights that we may enjoy with no troubling thoughts of heaven of hell or sin or holiness or God—if there is no resurrection from the dead. The Epicureans have shown us the way, and if we are dissatisfied with the Epicurean philosophy of life we can always storm out of the Church in protest and resort to Buddhism which advices us to kill our desires and thus diminish the pain of not being able to attain them.


What is astonishing about this train of thought is that many professing Christians seem to aim at just this—and then call it Christianity. Kierkegaard calls it “a life of quiet desperation.” Paul certainly did not see his relation to Christ as the key to maximizing his physical comforts and pleasures in this life. No, Paul’s relation to Christ was a call to choose suffering—a suffering that was beyond what would make atheism “meaningful” or beautiful” or “heroic.” It was a suffering that would have been utterly foolish and pitiable to choose if there is no final resurrection. Here is how he put it: Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…. I share his sufferings… that by an means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-8, 10-11)


This is a conscious choice for Paul: “If the dead are not raised…. Why am I in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day!” (1 Corinthians 15:29-31). He does not have to live this way. He chooses to be “in danger every hour!” “dying every day!” This is why he says he should be pitied, if there is no resurrection from the dead. He chose a path that leads to trouble and suffering virtually every day of his life. “I die every day.” This is quite different from Epicureanism or Stoicism or Buddhism, or Taoism which encourage meditation as a way of quieting desire, of avoiding extremism and of diminish pain and suffering. The problem is that sometime the desire to eradicate evil and unfairness from the world is not only quieted but killed. One remains in Plato’s cave thinking oneself enlightened because one is staring at the fire within the cave.

Monotheistic theology faces “the problem of evil” and the related “problem of suffering” - the task of defending the Christian, Judaic, or Islamic good, just, all-powerful and loving God against accusations of unjust suffering and evil in the world. This is the famous question of Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamozov: if your God is so powerful and good why does he allow little children to suffer? Buddhist teaching, however, grounded in the classical Buddhist doctrines of impermanence, non-self, interdependent co-origination and the Law of Karma, faces a different challenge. Buddhist teaching explains the presence of suffering as a result of individuals attempting to cling to permanence in a fleeting universe. The difficulty for Buddhism, however, lies in how to address, from a worldview grounded in non-violence, the suffering that results from oppression institutionalized in social systems. Institutionalized injustice cannot be defeated by contemplating one’s navel in a lotus position, whether it is done in India, China or California.

The issue of suffering is not approached anywhere in Buddhist thought as a ‘problem of evil,’ since, given the non-theistic character of the Buddhist world-view, the problem of theodicy which in the West begins with the Greeks’ natural theology of Aristotle cannot even occur. Furthermore, Buddhist reflection on unmerited systemic suffering has occurred only within the last thirty years, mostly inspired by Buddhist dialogue with Christianity.

Which bring us to another glaring misunderstanding of the ongoing dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism. It is often said that Buddhism is preferable to the theistic Abrahamitic religions since it does not postulate a God that is transcendent and personal and separate from the individual self, postulates no duality and therefore postulates no God.  And yet according to Professor Robert F. Thurman, of Columbia University, who is also a Buddhist monk, this couldn’t be furthest from the truth. He passionately emphasizes that: “Buddha not only believed in God, he knew God. There were numerous atheists in Buddha’s time – the Charvaka materialists – and the Buddha specifically critiqued their lack of belief in any spiritual reality.” So, if the good professor is to be believed there definitely is theism in Buddhism.

Moreover, in a chapter entitled: “The Differing Viewpoints of Buddhism and the Other World Religions regarding Ultimate Reality” William Stoddart, in his book, Outline of Buddhism, explains that the true Buddhist belief is really theistic, but that the existence of Ultimate Reality (i.e. God) who is both immanent and transcendent, has been misunderstood because of the emphasis of the immanence component. It is easy to see how the emphasis of the Buddha on the non-corporeality of God has led to many erroneously believing that there is no God in Buddhism. This is of course the problem of immanence and transcendence in the concept of God. Actually even within Christianity there is no duality: God is not either transcendent or immanent within the cosmos, a la Karl Sagan, but is both immanent and transcendent. It would be enough to read Vico’s New Science to be convinced of this seeming paradox.

In many respects, Zen's response to suffering and the problem of evil is the same as that of Buddhism in general. Zen's understanding of these issues is best expressed in Xinxin Ming, or "On Faith in Mind," a prose-poem that is traditionally attributed to Sengsan, the third patriarch of Zen. Little is known of the historical figure Sengsan, but according to legend, he approached the second patriarch of Zen, Huike, and told him that he suffered from a terrible disease). Sengsan asked Huike to absolve him of his sin so that he could be healed. The patriarch responded, "Bring me your sin and I will absolve you." When Sengsan replied that he could not get at his sin to bring it, Huike told him, "Then I have absolved you." Xinxin Ming proposes that all suffering and unhappiness are caused by dualistic thinking. It begins, "The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences." For many, having no preferences at all may seem like a most difficult attitude to attain. Nonetheless, according to the text, the moment the smallest distinction is made, "heaven and earth are set infinitely apart."

This is not simply a proposal of a psychological state of mind to aim for; it is a description of the nature of reality. Things are neither real nor not real, neither empty nor not empty. From this point of view, to see things in an either-or fashion is to be deceived by delusion. In an analysis similar to that of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, which indicates that suffering is caused by desire, Xinxin Ming states that the process of creating distinctions and preferences causes human suffering. Discriminating between "coarse or fine" leads to "for or against" thinking, which leads to notions about right and wrong, which lead, in turn, to mental confusion. There is confusion because there is no agreement about what is right or what is true. These are not characteristics innate to human existence; they are illusions caused by dualistic thinking. But the problem persists and the dialogue goes on and the journey continues. E la nave va!


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