Posted inDogen, Henry's Messages

Message from Henry: A Basic Problem

February 2, 2016

Suffering is not the same as pain, grief, tenderness, dislike, vulnerablity and so on. Mental well-being doesn’t mean that we don’t experience these feelings.


Scientist David Krakauer, a systems theorist, and director of the Santa Fe Institute, regards intelligence as the ability find simple solutions to complex problems. He sees genius, on the other hand, as the ability to make problems disappear. (And stupidity, as opposed to ignorance, is the failure to solve problems even when there is more than enough information to do so.)

According to the sutras, Buddha took the problem of human suffering head on. He faced it in all its ghastly ramifications, refusing to be diverted by distractions, such as luxury and pleasure, or by palliatives, such as the intense yogic methodologies he mastered, and stuck with it until he found a solution that was fully satisfying. This is what is meant by “soteriology,” or the study of “salvation” as an “ultimate” resolution to the human condition. Buddha found that. Deep within himself he found the source of the problem of suffering, and how to end suffering.

It was a thorough and an elegant solution, which made the problem of suffering go away.

Yet, it didn’t involve turning us into unfeeling robots. It didn’t drug us with unprovable beliefs. Rather, his solution simply asked us to examine deeply the fundamental question of who we really were. It was possible to get to the bottom of that, he discovered, and when we did, the problem of human life – suffering – was solved.

It wasn’t about lotus-filled heavens, or lotus-bearing deities. It was simply about finding out about our very selves. In a sense, his solution was “scientific,” as long as you could accept subjectivity as a legitimate object of study and scrutiny.

Yet the Zen tradition is full of wonderful poetry and art that doesn’t present the world as a place of no grief, no feeling, no suffering. On the contrary, if one can put it like this, Zen is full of feeling. Its great adherents wept when their friends left across the mountains, and when their children died. Some of them even wept when the leaves fell in autumn. They got lonely. They got drunk. They wrote tender lucid poems. Dogen’s brief summation of the Way says (to paraphrase): all things are one, and the one is all things; all things are no thing; but the true Buddha way is beyond all things and no thing. Be that as it may, we still lose things we love, and experience things we’d rather not.

So have these Zen masters “solved the problem of suffering”?

Suffering is not the same as pain, grief, tenderness, dislike, vulnerablity and so on. Mental well-being doesn’t mean that we don’t experience these feelings.

To try to stop grief, for example, may only be to seek another distraction, or palliative — once again turning away from the main problem, which is suffering, its cause, and its ceasing, the first three “noble truths.” Where do they come from? Who we are? What did Shakyamuni find?

Message from Henry taken from our February 2, 2016 Newsletter.

Image: War Refugees, by Alexas_fotos, CC0 Public Domain, from

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