The meaningful sound of life


When my daughter Erica was about eight years old, she came home and told Lydia and me about an encounter she had with a poor person. She was inside our van which was parked outside our neighborhood supermarket. They were about to leave after shopping with her yaya when a young waif knocked on her window and begged for food. As she told us the story, Erica cried, “She did not have shoes. She was wearing broken slippers and torn clothes.” Tears were running down my daughter’s cheeks. And she told us that she gave all the money she had to the kid.

I felt good hearing her tell the story. It warmed my heart knowing how kids, who at a certain age can be so self-absorbed, can also have moments when they get out of themselves and recognize the suffering of others.

I thought of the young Shakayamuni, or the Buddha who was raised by his king father protected by gates and supplied with good food and all sorts of pleasures so that he may never know suffering. And yet, on his first-ever sojourn outside the palace as a young man, when he saw suffering for the first time in the form of four lepers, his entire world turned around. Not too long after, he left the palatial luxury of his father’s home and went to find the answer to the question of why there is suffering. In the process, he found and gifted mankind with enlightenment.

For sure, there is suffering everywhere. This has been so since time immemorial. In our materialist orientation, we often equate suffering with lack of money or material resources. Hunger, poverty, physical pain and sickness are obvious states of suffering and it is easy to be moved by the sight of people who are living under such conditions.

Yet, even in the richest countries there is suffering. There is alienation, meaninglessness, the death of the spirit, extreme materialism and perversions of different kinds that plague many. We have heard of people who do not eat even when food is abundant, so much so that they are obscenely thin. We have also heard of those who, even when they have more than enough, choose to harm or even kill themselves, or worse, kill others, due to depression.

It is not surprising that from the point of view of many have-nots, the sufferings of the rich are self-imposed. “What reason do they have to suffer when they have everything?” the poor ask, unable to comprehend. And yet the rich do suffer, just like everyone else. Whatever one’s station in life, suffering is part and parcel of the human experience.

A great many people refuse to accept suffering in any form. Society has largely made up its mind that suffering is bad and should be avoided. Our most “comfortable” position on suffering is that some of it must be tolerated. Even in strictly puritanical religious societies, suffering is recognized as undesirable and is used mostly as a punishment for those who commit acts that are anathema to its values.

But whatever we say about suffering being part of being alive, our impulse is to end it when it is there. So perhaps the question we should ask ourselves is, how does one end suffering?

Mankind has tried many ways to alleviate suffering and it has had its successes and failures. We have heard of food programs, medical missions, home-building, education programs, etc., and all that is good.

On an individual level, how does one deal with suffering to get through it in the best way possible?

M. Scott Peck, the writer of the ‘80s best-seller The Road Less Traveled, says that acceptance of suffering is key. He says that the moment we accept it, it stops being suffering. We deprive it of its sting when we welcome it in our lives. It may take a while, but in the end, when we accommodate it as part of our existence, we can live with it better until it doesn’t feel like suffering anymore.

A Zen koan I find very intriguing asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” It sounds strange when one hears it for the first time and the immediate impulse is to say “None.” That would be the “correct” answer on the purely literal level. But koans are not meant to be answered on that level; its very construction defies the logical mind and forces one to dive deeply into one’s experiences to retrieve a decent answer. The answer is not unique, exclusive or definitive but something that is within the territory of the large truth that the koan describes.

In a colorless world, could we possibly have any concept whatsoever of what color is? In a warm setting that is constant all year round, could we ever imagine any other condition, say, like “cold” or “freezing”? How about if every wish we ever had was always granted? Would the granted wishes continue to be special?

The mere fact that an opposite of something exists gives meaning to it, otherwise it would not stand out by itself. As much as we wish to deny it, on this level, bad will always arise amidst good. Black needs white. Virtue needs vice.

We have to develop a mindset that is more accommodating of all experiences instead of just going for only what is pleasurable and completely avoiding pain. No dividing or separating, no rejecting but accepting that even the unpleasant, the horrible, the repulsive has something to teach us all the time.

Life is demanding. I am not saying that because we must accept suffering, we mustn’t do anything about it. We still want to make life easier and that’s okay. But, if it is to be profoundly lived, life must be embraced with all of its unsavory aspects.

If one’s life is to create a meaningful statement, its left palm must meet its opposing right to create a complete sound.

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11 years ago

Thank you! This is very inspiring. I almost feel that our generation today is so spoiled that any form of suffering is incomprehensible. We’re so focused on what we’re “deprived of” instead if what we’re blessed in. And it’s so hard to live truthfully in the reality that there’s good and bad when everything around us tells us that the latter shouldn’t exist at all.

Thank you for knocking some real and profound sense of reality into the blogosphere.

M Rea
11 years ago

It is a good point of view. It is the way we bring up our kids that influence their development of a conscience just like your daughter’s.

Another way of looking at suffering is that, it is man himself responsible for it plus the many forms of religions (be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism,etc) which in one way or another are contributing to suffering.

Greed or man’s insatiable desires are also another factor for the suffering of others. The global economic downturn, who do you think triggered it? Then becomes a vicious cycle and the poor becomes poorer of course.

As for the various religions, they do impose impossible
rules that are not only unfair and unjust that followers get confused and take it upon themselves to give their own interpretations about each religion that will benefit them. Why do people go to Church? Firstly, they are scared to go to hell (I don’t believe it exists anyway!), not because they are praying for others,they pray to win lotto,get a raise, etc.etc ! Why do I think like this? Just try coming out of the parking lot from any Church and these so-called religious people are rushing to get out and not even giving an inch to his neighbour! I don’t blame my hubby for being an aetheist, he is much better than many religious people I know! (He doesn’t smoke, drink alcohol rarely, nor even gamble- vices that cause lots of suffering as well! We give to charity and try helping others without expecting anything in return!)

There are lots of examples – globally, where are the wars and strifes? Jews, Muslims, Christians,etc. they all can’t get along!

If only they will truly follow Jesus’ or Mohammad’s or Buddha’s teachings, then suffering will be a thing of the past! We will have a better world!

Many thanks for providing me with the catalyst to rant, LOL!


11 years ago

Very interesting piece indeed.

May I ask…..
What is your experience on suffering?
What is your own personal story that which surely may have lent wings to your perceptions and insights on the subject?

“When the mind speaks — I begin to understand.
When the heart speaks — I listen and learn.” -Anonymous

Blessings to you and your family.

11 years ago

Its really very inspiring to me, Good post.