Tuesday, August 09, 2005

dragonflies and suffering

One of the cool things about my side of Smoo campus-- aside from the newer buildings-- is the current preponderance of dragonflies, many of which like to float above the concrete plazas at about waist height. In my younger days, this sort of insectile daring would have been rewarded with a kick or a slash with a badminton racket. These days I practice compassion toward the little creatures in the form of forbearance. Billions of insects are alive today because I didn't pinch off their bloodlines. If you're annoyed by dragonflies and sundry pests, you probably have me to thank for your present misery.

It's not easy to contemplate the problem posed by the ahimsa ethic (nonviolence, no-killing) found in strains of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and elsewhere. If you get too caught up in the notion of phenomenal interconnectedness, you might end up concluding that, no matter what you do, you're always harming something, somewhere. I suppose this is true, to the extent that we happen to inhabit a planet fairly exploding with life. Naturally sterile environments are hard to come by on this earth; even the frozen polar regions and searing volcanic fumaroles host hardy, tenacious life forms. A walk on the moon probably isn't as deadly as a walk through your garden, for what entities are there to kill on the moon? (I do wonder, sometimes, whether we've seeded the moon with terrestrial-- American!-- microbes.)

My own conclusion, quite unlike that of many Jains, is that killing is an unavoidable, even unremarkable, fact of existence. If I have to choose between being thankful for a meal and being apologetic that something had to die in order for me to live, I'll choose thankfulness every time. (As a nontheist, I won't answer the "thankful to whom?" question, which Robert Aitken roshi deals with quite ably in The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian.)

Does the question of killing become more complex as we move from non-sentient to sentient forms of life-- i.e., from microbes and plants to animals great and small? I can't say I've given the question as much deep thought as other folks have. I'm no vegetarian, but I do agree that there are humane and inhumane ways to treat animals destined for the slaughterhouse. (Whether the notion of "humane treatment before slaughter" is ironic is another issue I'd like to chew over sometime. My gut feeling is that it's not. Perhaps I'll blog on this later.)

Killing is part of creaturely existence. We're told that suffering is, too, but we have to be careful how we approach the problem of suffering. First we need to note that people of different traditions or orientations will have different ideas about what that word means. Is life suffering? Does suffering include only the dramatic (e.g., mortal agony), or does it also include the pedestrian (e.g., a brief twinge of envy about someone else's cupcake)?

If we agree that "birth is suffering, old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, and death is suffering," then the inescapable conclusion is that all sentient beings suffer, because all sentient beings experience these conditions. The semantic field of the word dukkha casts a wide net. The only way to challenge the notion that "life is suffering" is to dispute the definition or reframe the problem of suffering in a significantly different way.

Personally, I don't see my life as basically suffering (and I'm not implying that all Buddhists who claim sarvam dukkham are being reductionistic, though some obviously are). I would say, in tune with common sense and what I consider the "normal" range of human experience, that my life boils down neither to suffering nor to not-suffering. My life is punctuated by suffering; it isn't dominated by it. Whether this is how Buddhists also view the issue is something for my Buddhist commenters to discuss.*

It's a fact that most beings that fall in the "normal" range for their species will, when exposed to circumstances that generate suffering, attempt to escape those circumstances. I previously mentioned using a magnifying glass, as a kid, to kill insects with focused sunlight. While I don't know whether ants count as sentient beings, I assure you that they do exhibit avoidance behaviors when you caress them with a death ray. It's not hard to see that suffering-avoidance is an empirical reality.

Is it, however, legitimate to move from such specific behaviors to the general idea that "life should be about the avoidance of suffering," or that suffering is somehow undesirable? This gets complex, too: Buddhists certainly don't claim that suffering is something you avoid; to the contrary, they'd say it's something you transcend, which can't happen if you're avoiding it. Suffering, then, has value.

For me, it's simply a matter of putting suffering in perspective. It doesn't dominate my life. Like all physical and mental phenomena, suffering is characterized by impermanence. It comes and it goes. I'm currently suffering a bit of a knee problem-- my first ever. It's inconvenient, but I know that, given proper care, it'll go away. Given improper care, it'll change states and intensify. Either way, it won't remain in the same state.

So I'd disagree with people who reduce life to suffering. I'm more in line with those who see life as a dynamic push-pull of opposites: suffering is simply part of the mix, and not undesirable at all, when viewed from a remoter perch. As with anything, there can be too much suffering, and what constitutes "too much" will depend on the person. Of course, it's very difficult to distance ourselves from our own suffering or from the suffering of those we care about, but all that means is that the problem of suffering becomes immediate for me, not cosmic in nature.

Here's something else: CS Lewis made an interesting point in his The Problem of Pain**: suffering isn't mathematical. If one person experiences suffering, and another person experiences similar suffering, it's not legitimate to multiply these out as "2x" the suffering. It may be legitimate to view widespread suffering as "enormous" in terms of the logistics required to combat it, but there's no linear metric for collective human pain.

Finally, the Buddhists link dukkha (suffering) to tanha, craving/thirst. I think this makes sense. The Third Noble Truth, to me, seems to be saying that suffering is a function of our approach to reality. If you see reality through the lens of desire-mind, then suffering is your reward. So perhaps the Buddhist isn't advising us to avoid or not-avoid suffering, but merely to see truly, at which point the problem of suffering-- my suffering, at least, but possibly the suffering of others as well-- begins to take care of itself. When I say that suffering is simply part of reality, I'm not saying that I never take steps to avoid or escape suffering. The only point I'm making in this post is that life doesn't reduce to suffering-- a claim with which Buddhists, as nonessentialists, should have little problem agreeing.

*To all you Johnny-come-latelies: the Hairy Chasms is now hosting comments until the end of this coming Sunday, merely as an experiment. To post a comment, hit the time stamp for this (and all future) posts, then find the "Post a Comment" link and hit that, too. See this post for my comments policy. Be an asshole at your own risk.

**An eloquent theodicy with whose larger argument I happen to disagree, but an interesting and enriching book all the same. Even if you're a rabid atheist, you can't help but appreciate the smoothness and eloquence of Lewis's writing.



Hecknoman said...

please define nontheist and ahimsa in precise terms using small, easily understood words. I tried to explain them to a friend that I directed to your article, but wish thier understanding to be more precise.

Kevin Kim said...

I suppose "nontheist" might be thought of as a nondualistic take on the question of whether there's a God.

Let's put it this way: in religious circles, people talk about what is rational, what is irrational, and what is nonrational. If "rational" and "irrational" are the horns of a dilemma, then the nonrational approach passes between the horns.

Same goes for nontheism. It's not outright theism, nor is it outright atheism. It's a nondualistic perspective that seeks to transcend the yes/no nonsense we normally attempt to apply to ultimate reality.

I doubt I can explain the stance any better than that, except to add that I envision my own nontheism as NOT subscribing to the God of the classical theists (i.e., the God of the monotheisms, be that God the Jewish YHWH, or the Christian Jehovah, or the Muslim al-Lah).

I take nontheism to be a dynamic stance not rooted in any fixed conception of the divine.

As for ahimsa-- this is the doctrine of nonviolence or no-killing, most famously embodied in the conduct of Mahatma Gandhi in his campaign against the British Raj. It's a principle found in the major traditions arising from India.

For more on ahimsa, see here.

hardyandtiny said...

The only point I'm making in this post is that life doesn't reduce to suffering.

What the hell do you know?

Maven said...

Thought I'd share this... it's been around a while but thought it appropriate to affix it hereto:


Anonymous said...

If life reduced to suffering then where would there be room for pleasure? Just as life does not reduce to suffering, neither can it be nothing but pleasure.

One of the characteristics of suffering appears to be that it is a mental state. It is the mental response to the perception of pain. This implies that it is possible for SOME lives to reduce to suffering, if the person is in constant pain. However, if a person can transcend pain then they might never suffer. However, it would seem to me that in transcending pain one would also transcend pleasure. A life without suffering would also be a life without joy (assuming that joy is the mental response to pleasure.)

Kevin Kim said...

Bill brings up an interesting point for consideraton. Does pain equate to suffering? I.e., does a life of constant pain reduce to a life of suffering? Here again, we enter the morass of definitions.

Personally, I agree that there are people who live lives of constant misery-- be that in the form of physical agony or psychic anguish (caused by, say, oppressive govt/society) or some combination.

I also agree that suffering and joy help define each other. Can't have one without the other.


Kevin Kim said...

What the hell do you know?

Yes, indeed.