Must we all suffer?


The last article, What is the root of all evil according to Buddha?, looked at how self-grasping — thinking that our I or me is real, solid, independent — naturally leads to self-cherishing, which believes that same I or me to be the most important.

Self-cherishing thinks that holding onto ourselves and other things, finding pleasure for ourselves, protecting ourselves, serving ourselves, will make us secure, will make us rich, will make us happy. But this is a lost cause from the get go because we are busy cherishing an independent self that doesn’t even exist. It’s a phantom. There is no real me. If there was, everyone who looked at us would see ME, but they don’t. Not even slightly. They see “you”, “other”, “she”, “it”, and maybe on a good day “we”.

No wonder we tie ourselves in knots and don’t know who we are most of the time. A friend uses this analogy – a sleek black limo turns up at the Oscars, and a hefty bodyguard emerges from the driver’s seat and runs around importantly to open the back door… who could it be, everyone is wondering? The bodyguard is scraping and bowing, the crowd is on tenterhooks, and out steps…. nobody.

That bodyguard clearly has to engage in some elaborate tricks to keep serving and protecting a celebrity who doesn’t even exist and to convince the public that it does. It is the same for our self-cherishing – it has to engage in contorted mental acrobatics to sustain the illusion of a real self, telling constant stories to ourselves and others about who and what we are, needing our reputation and status even though they are hollow, grasping at permanence, and constantly trying to bolster up our flimsy self-image with seemingly solid props such as material security, a career, validating friends, etc.

This futile, misleading attitude also causes all our other delusions and their resultant suffering. Geshe Kelsang says:

It is impossible to find a single problem, misfortune, or painful experience that does not arise from self-cherishing ~ Transform Your Life

Self-cherishing thinks: “I am more important than others. My happiness matters more than your happiness. My suffering matters more. My problems are more interesting, for a start, and certainly more significant than yours.” Who exactly is this fascinating, important, unique I or me that self-cherishing is so keen to serve and protect? It is the I or me that feels independent and unrelated to everybody else, the REAL me! I’m me, you’re you, I’m self, you’re other, I’m over here, you’re over there. There’s a gap between us. The self-cherishing protecting that fake turf gives rise to all our problems, misfortunes, and painful experiences.

How? More coming later. Meantime, comments welcome!

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Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 35 years' experience, I write about applying Buddhist meditation to our everyday lives. I try to make it accessible to everyone who wants more inner peace, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

25 thoughts on “Must we all suffer?”

  1. Thy Luna for sharing,

    But I can’t figure out whether I’m self-cherishing, or real love or attachment or egoist.
    I just lost my 6 years old son. I feel it’s easier to let go & be happy again, but I don’t want to do so, because if I do so I feel that I don’t show him enough my love or I’m betraying him. My mind telling me that I promise to him & myself never stop loving him no matter what. So if were about to stop remembering him or missing him everyday (sounds like attaching to him), i find myself very egoist, that after he has gone, there’s no need to miss him or cry & feel sorry that I wasn’t able to accomplish my job as a mother, to grow him up until adult, nor I could have chance to thank him & repay him being in my life by supporting him in his life. Now that he is not here, how can I continue showing him my love &
    how can I express him my gratitude, not only in words. How can I maintain my eternal love for him. If I continue living happy, as if I’m forgetting him, as if he is no longer part of my life. I told myself I prefer to suffer than stop remembering him in his good & difficult moments of his life. In my mind keeps worrying, if he is happy, if he is healthy & free from suffering now. I heard a lot that one free from suffering & in peace after gone, but how do I know this. And so on

    Would be great to hear other point of view

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    1. Dear Tristan,

      I am so very sad to hear this, that you lost your little boy.

      Of course you won’t and must not stop loving him. And of course remembering him will hurt like hell for a while because it feels like a great loss.

      It is possible to love without pain, but it won’t happen overnight. You never need to forget him but you could learn to move on from grasping at him as how he was, because he is no longer that little boy, he is somewhere else. You will never forget him but you don’t want to think that he has gone for good — he is alive somewhere else, and you can continue to love him in the present moment, wishing for him, and praying for him every happiness and freedom from suffering wherever he is now. And feeling an immense gratitude for everything he has given you.

      This is the opposite of self-cherishing, wanting him always the way he was, for your sake, when this is not possible and will only cause you pain. Loving him deeply while letting go of the attachment is not a betrayal, it is better for him, it will help and protect both of you. Buddha called love “the great Protector”.

      I think that grieving and healing involves letting go of the past, and one of the best ways to do that is to learn to live in the present, day by day, full of love today for this precious person, and eventually allowing this love to spread to everyone else in the same situation.

      Do you happen to live near a Kadampa Budhist center? (Here is the website of all of them: http://kadampa.org/en/map/). You might want to ask them if they will do a transference of consciousness puja for your son — it is a beautiful, powerful practice and will help him (and you) a great deal. Here is a book about the subject too: http://kadampa.org/books/living-meaningfully-dying-joyfully/

      Please let me know if I can be of any more help. I feel for you deeply and pray your son is very loved and protected, wherever he is, and that you find a heart of peace, acceptance, and love for all beings.

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      1. Thank you Luna for replying & advice. Tristan actually my son who passed away. You may call me Ohana. Like the saying, Ohana means no family left behind. Again, I’m confused. Buddha teaches compassion to others, but how is it a compassion in a family, without as it seems as an attachment? When we see beggars asking for food &we could have pity on him & give him some money & food, and that the live that we show for someone that we have never met, but what about love & compassion that have been grown for almost 7 years? I can’t figure out if it is wrong to shed tears, is it also called as negative? Since attachment is not good.

        Probably, I’ve been restless because I did’t get the chance to tell him I live him for the last time, I didn’t have the chance to tell him not to fear because he is now free from suffering. As I arrived, I saw him passed away tragically in the hospital emergency room. I was too late. I could not forgive myself for leaving him & went for doctor myself (I was afraid that I had severe flu virus that could harm him, since he had his chemotherapy & lost his body immune).

        Is it also wrong to pray for another chance to be his mother to finish my mission as a good mom. A mission sounds like desire & desire is attachment. But I’ve promised him to bake together again angry bird pizza & promise him to be his mom forever. Everything is like good times, which is also attachment & desire of happiness, but is it wrong for wanting to fulfill & give happiness to my son? Isn’t it the Buddha goal to give happiness to the others & free them from sufferings?

        I also know what you are saying, but I’ve been still questioning myself, how is it to love without pain; theoritically by letting go attachment, but I ask myself again. How is it to love without attachment? I pray everyday for him & told him, I won’t stop loving him & I want him to be happy.
        If destiny meets us again in the future, I would repay him in his next life. But again, I’m desiring & hoping something for the future. Is it also wrong for affirming my son my love & gratitude? Somehow, I can’t figure out the pros & contras.

        I live in Luzern, Switzerland. I found something very near, but it’s a meditation center

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        1. Dear Ohana, nothing about the way you are feeling is wrong, nothing at all. Your love for your son is very precious. Wanting to be a mother is perfect, Buddha holds up mothers as the paradigm of selfless love. Of course you have some attachment too, but that is not harming Tristan, so don’t feel bad about it. At the same time, come to recognize the difference between attachment and love so that you can reduce the grasping and pain while not losing any of the affection and closeness.

          We have fantastic Buddhist meditation centers in Switzerland with a really beautiful teacher called Gen Losang. I know he will be able to help you so please find him. Here is a link to your center: http://www.nalanda.ch/

          Sending you and Tristan love.

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  2. It’s kind of ironic that we sometimes compare animal intelligence by the ability to recognize ‘self’ in the mirror. Perhaps animals that don’t experience ‘self’ have less suffering because there is no object of that suffering. Suffering itself is an object and if animals can’t impute it, does it appear to them? Since my cat gets so angry when I make her get off the table she must experience some sort of kitty self-grasping.

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  3. There is a line in a film called Devil’s advocate where someone says *The devil’s greatest trick was making people think he doesn’t exist”- and in the same way I think the greatest trick of self cherishing is making us think it is our wisest counsellor and best friend.

    Where in fact it causes the very suffering which it whines about, and sneakily lays the blame on anyone but itself.

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  4. Suffering is what humans and all living beings do. We wish to run from suffering but we actually run towards the causes of our suffering, like a moth to a flame. Why can’t we just enjoy the idea of the flame without grasping at it and getting burnt up? First, I studied Dharma and learned about wisdom, then I learned about suffering being a first class moth, now i have compassion for all the moths! To paraphrase JFK at the Berlin Wall – “we are all moths.”

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  5. Would like to know more about suffering with illness, why some people are healthy and strong and vital while others get sick and miss out on doing many things and going to many places due to their illness.

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    1. Mary, this is a good question.

      Right now, interestingly enough, I am staying with an old friend who was healthy and strong but now has stage 4 cancer and is indeed missing out on doing many things and going to many places due to her illness. However, she has spent many years meditating and so her mind is peaceful and positive, and not experiencing the same suffering as someone who is angry and upset at their illness.

      In general, all of us are subject to sickness, ageing, and death — sooner or later — until we manage to remove all the causes of suffering (self-grasping and self-cherishing, the subject of this article). When and how we get sick depends on our individual karma. You can check out this article if you like: https://kadampalife.org/2011/06/08/what%e2%80%99s-karma-got-to-do-with-it-2/

      As we are all in the same boat, we can have compassion for all those who are currently experiencing illness, and if we are one of them we can also develop compassion for all our fellow sufferers. That helps alleviate the pain.

      I hope this helps as a start. Thanks for your comment.

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  6. Luna what a great analogy about the limo and the bodyguard,
    i just loved the part where you said:” there is no real ME….
    If there was, everyone who looked at us would see ME, but they don’t. Not even slightly. They see “you”, “other”, “she”, “it”, and maybe on a good day “we”.”
    You just gave me a precious clear and substantial full of wisdom class !!
    Thanks : )

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  7. Sometimes our suffering has many good qualities — we just need to realise that we are just one in many who are suffering. I have suffered very much in my life and when i look back now i see that this has brought me closer to wisdom. I know it can be difficult at that time but we relate to much to our delusions and again give them power over us. We need to suffer to realise the truth — without knowing true suffering we can not even begin to walk the path of liberation. We need to look beyond our minor problems in life and realise it is our future lives that are more important. Therefore, by understanding the reality of the situation we can begin to do something about it. The me me me attitude is our real enemy. I pray all the people, animals and all other living things find permanant liberation. Thank you Geshe-la for all your wisdom always.

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  8. This reminds me of the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. We ALL believe there’s a real self, and we ALL play our part in upholding the myth. Then along comes a little boy (now 80 years old) and points out the truth.

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    1. Thanks Luna Kadampa. The answer to your question (Must we all suffer?) is “no.” Geshe-la says in Understanding the Mind: “Unfortunately, ordinary beings do not know the real causes of happiness and suffering, and so in the pursuit of happiness they often bring suffering upon themselves, and in striving to avoid suffering they often increase it…What we accomplish depends on what we wish for…We need to cultivate virtuous aspirations such as the wish to seize the essence of our human life, renunciation, and bodhichitta…Training in this way is the very essence of Dharma practice.”

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    1. Shantideva gives a great explanation of this in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life in the section on exchanging self with others, and I’ll happily do an article on it at some point, thanks for the suggestion.

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