“Suffering in the mystical traditions of Buddhism and Christianity” (Jakub Urbaniak)

HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 70(1), Art. #2117, 9 pages.

This article seeks to explore the mystical approaches to suffering characteristic of both Buddhism and Christianity. Through the analysis of the meanings, the two traditions in question ascribe to suffering as a ‘component’ of mystical experience; it challenges the somewhat oversimplified understanding of the dichotomy ’sage-the-robot versus saint-the-sufferer’. Thus it contributes to the ongoing discussion on the theological–spiritual dimensions of the human predicament, as interpreted by various religious traditions. It also illustrates (though only implicitly) in what sense – to use the Kantian distinction – the mystical experience offers boundaries (Schranken) without imposing limits (Grenzen) to interfaith encounter and dialogue.

Man [sic] is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering, as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it. (Frankl 1967:56)


Throughout the ages, religions and philosophical systems have formulated a myriad of explanations of the human predicament. Buddhism looks at our existential situation mainly through the prism of a concrete experience marked by a common painfulness: a burden from which a human being should simply be liberated. Christian faith interprets it in reference to God’s plan regarding humanity: the plan spoiled (and being spoiled continuously) by human sin but ultimately accomplished by Jesus-the-Son.

For Buddhism dukkha is simply a ‘state’ of all living beings; suffering – in all its aspects – is identified with existence. Therefore, the only positive meaning of suffering a Buddhist can be interested in is its didactic meaning (i.e. the experience of suffering as a motivation to follow the Dharma). As for the Christian passio, one has to distinguish between what is in a certain sense inscribed into God’s vision of creation, and what – being the result of sin – is actually a curse that humanity has brought (and is still bringing) on itself by misusing its freedom. In view of that distinction, eliminating or overcoming every form of pain certainly cannot be considered the superior aim of a religious practice. A Christian ought rather to accept the mysterious character of suffering and be able to assume an adequate attitude depending on circumstances: the particular manifestations of suffering should be surrounded by compassion and possibly relieved, whilst trying to regard those which evade human forces as ‘good in time’, and to bear them in unity with Christ dead and risen.

The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, one of the leading Christian existentialists of the last century, made a significant distinction between problem and mystery. Put simply, unlike problems which can be explained exhaustively and solved once and for all, mystery does not allow easy solutions. As Marcel (1949) explains:

Mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and initial validity. (p. 117)

In light of Marcel’s distinction, it can be assumed that for Buddhism suffering (dukkha) constitutes an original fact and the universal problem of humankind which needs to be understood (illusion and desire as the sources of dukkha) and then practically solved (liberation). For Christianity, in turn, suffering is most of all a mystery, at least to some extent rooted in mysterium iniquitatis – a mystery whose salvific sense is to be found by a personal participation in passio Christi. However, despite this general categorisation which emerges from the doctrinal understandings of suffering in Buddhism and Christianity, a number of rather surprising approaches may be found in both traditions. These approaches, though seemingly exceptional, bring an essential novelty to the panorama of religious meanings ascribed to suffering. My thesis is that these subtleties become most visible and graspable in the field of mystical traditions of Buddhism and Christianity.

This article is arranged in two sections. Firstly, I will show how the mystical approaches to suffering characteristic of Buddhism differ from those which can be found in Christianity. Secondly, through the more nuanced analysis of the meanings these two traditions ascribe to suffering as a ‘component’ of mystical experience, I will challenge the somewhat oversimplified understanding of the dichotomy ‘sage-the-robot versus saint-the-sufferer’.

My underlying intention is to contribute to the ongoing discussion on the theological–spiritual dimensions of the human predicament, as interpreted by various religious traditions. Through my critical examination of the meanings of suffering inherent in the mystical traditions of Buddhism and Christianity, I will also attempt to illustrate (though only implicitly) in what sense the mystical experience offers boundaries (Schranken) without imposing limits (Grenzen) to interfaith encounter and dialogue (Kant [1781] 2002:142).

Saint and sage: The two models of mysticism

What first grips our attention when we look at Buddhism and Christianity is the distance which divides (in almost every respect) Banaras from Jerusalem. Spelled out briefly, within the general category of religion:

Buddhism and Christianity appear to occupy opposite poles: over against a religion of enlightenment, a religion of faith; on the one hand a religion of experience, on the other a religion of dogma; a religion of wisdom facing a religion of love; a religion centred on the human self over against a religion centred on God; on the one hand, a religion of introversion and equanimity and on the other, a religion of extraversion and desire. (Mommaers & Van Bragt 1995:28)

What is more, the teaching of multiple Buddhist traditions and schools is considerably more varied than in the case of Christian denominations and churches; indeed, the univocal criterion for determining what is ‘Buddhist’ and what is not is a point of argument. Needless to say, this ambiguity makes talking about Buddhism in general very problematic (Hubbard & Swanson 1997). And yet for the sake of my study, I must venture that methodologically challenging perspective so that the wide scope of mystical meanings ascribed to suffering by the diverse forms of Buddhism can be captured.

It seems that in the face of this doctrinal diversity (both on the inter- and intra-religious plane), mysticism can offer, if not a common denominator, at least a possible platform for dialogue. However, also in this regard one is confronted with the bewildering variety of interpretations of mysticism in general and mystical experience in particular – of its nature and the role it plays within religious experience broadly understood. For the purpose of my study, I adopt the Routledge encyclopaedia of philosophy’s definition of mysticism, namely, ‘a form of consciousness involving an apparent encounter or union with an ultimate order of reality, however it is understood’ (Craig 1998:620).

In light of this working definition of the term, one cannot fail to notice that Buddhism and Christianity are not ‘mystical’ in the same sense and to the same degree. The Buddhist approaches reality precisely through the ‘silent non-rational path of mysticism’ (Stevens 1973:97–98).4 In other words, mysticism is congenial to the Buddhist way of thinking and practical for the Buddhist way of living (Stevens 1973:161).5 Christianity instead, as a prophetic religion, has never made mysticism central and essential to salvation, although it developed its own rich mystical traditions. That being said, I can now turn to the issue of suffering.

At first glance, the experience of suffering plays totally different roles within each of the two mystical traditions in question. On the one hand, a Buddhist sage, not attached to favourable conditions and not repelled by unfavourable ones, seeks first and foremost liberation from suffering. Even when afflicted with bodily pain, he or she endures such a feeling patiently, with equanimity, as for him or her dukkha is nothing but an external object of contemplation (Bodhi 2005:21). As D.T. Suzuki (2002:113) accurately puts it, in Buddhism ‘there is no ego to be crucified’. On the other hand, looking at the writings of great Christian saints one may reach a conclusion that an intense experience of suffering is a sine qua non condition of being a Christian mystic. The Cross seems to be the only way of uniting with Christ, which is so impressively reflected in the cry usually inscribed as a motto upon images of Teresa of Avila (1957:312), ’Lord, either let me suffer or let me die!’ (author’s paraphrase).

This gives us two contrasting images of mystical experience with regard to suffering. Emile Cioran (1970), a 20th century Romanian existentialist who spent most of his adult life in Paris writing rather pessimistic and yet surprisingly stimulating aphoristic texts, achieved a real mastery in stressing this contrast:

After twenty centuries in which convulsion was regarded as a sign of spiritual advancement … accustomed to a racked, ruined, grimacing Saviour, we are unsuited to enjoy … the inexhaustible smile of a Buddha plunged into a vegetable beatitude. (p. 139)

Such a caricature and hyperbole of Western (Christian) and Eastern (Buddhist) attitudes towards suffering may of course be reproached for being too simplistic. Nonetheless, it rightly indicates the two opposed tendencies represented by the passionate saint eagerly plunging into suffering and the indifferent monk detached from all earthly miseries.

However, stopping at this stage, that is, confronting sage-the-robot’ with ’saint-the-sufferer’, (or even ’saintthe-masochist’) would be a serious mistake. This scheme can be challenged by numerous testimonies of mystics, both Buddhist and Christian. Taking this diversity into account is critical for understanding how suffering is embraced and integrated in the two mystical traditions under discussion… [PDF]