Suffering, the state of enduring physical or mental pain, distress, or hardship, is a common theme present throughout the lives of many individuals and may be unpleasantly associated with the perception of harm or threat of harm to a particular individual. Human suffering occurs every single day, all across the world, as it is a natural human sensation that is witnessed and experienced differently amongst each and every individual. Suffering is an essential emotion in the lives of human beings as it provides an opportunity for us to grow and transform ourselves after overcoming life’s hardships. Whether we like it or not, it is essential that we endure some kind of suffering throughout our lifetime in order to progress in the future. However, it is, in fact, our response to the suffering which determines how we learn and grow from these experiences. Although suffering may not always be seen, it does not mean that it is not affecting other individuals, since it is not only experienced physically but mentally and emotionally as well. Suffering is crucial in our everyday modern life, for it may cause an inspiration for personal development by gaining a new inner strength and discovering skills and abilities one never knew they possessed. While it is part of our human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain, culture and religion are both central to how we deal with the sensation of suffering. This theme plays an important role in the lives of many people, as it ties in with religion, regarding matters such as the consolation, moral conduct, spiritual advancement through life hardships, and one’s ultimate destiny. In particular, the state of suffering is a key principle, central to Buddhism, for it is believed that birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair, desire, work, and in essence, human life, are all forms of suffering. Found within the Buddha’s teachings, it is said that life is “dukkha”. According to Buddhists, the term dukkha is a major concept that is commonly known as/translated to the terms “suffering”, “pain”, or “unsatisfactoriness”. However, unfortunately, even good things in life such as happiness and success eventually become dukkha since our lives are constantly changing. It is this term, dukkha, which refers to the painfulness of our everyday, dull lives and is known as the First Noble Truth.
In relation to Buddhism, the doctrine well known as the Four Noble Truths consists of the core principles of Buddha’s teachings and is based on the theme of suffering, which can be translated to the term dukkha in the Dharma. Dukkha includes three forms of suffering — physical, emotional, and mental pain — all of which are experienced differently amongst each and every individual.
“The first kind of suffering is the ‘suffering of suffering’ (dukkha dukhata), the suffering associated with unpleasant feelings, like the pain of a toothache, losing your temper, or feeling too cold on a winter’s day. The second is ‘the suffering of composite things’ (samskara dukkhata). Whatever comes together eventually has to come apart; therefore all composite things are described as suffering… The third is ‘the suffering associated with change” (viparinama dukkhata)… There is no point in celebrating joy, because sooner or later it will turn into suffering” (Hạnh 19).
Therefore, each of these describe how the three forms of suffering differ and may be individually experienced. The Four Noble Truths, however, consist of four principles which state that “life is full of suffering (duhkha), that there is a cause of this suffering (duhkha-samudaya), it is possible to stop suffering (duhkha-nirodha), and there is a way to extinguish suffering (duhkha-nirodha-marga)” (Aich, 2013).
The first of the Four Noble Truths states that suffering exists. Although it may be experienced differently amongst each individual, it is still present. This suffering is known as dukkha and is the viewpoint which states that life is full of dissatisfactions which may lead to different forms of suffering such as physical, mental, and emotional pain. It defines that life is flawed and that nothing in life, including human nature, is perfect. Thus, it is inevitable that throughout our lifetime we will have to endure some form of suffering including: sorrow, grief, wish, despair, old-age, pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, and eventually death (Aich, 2013). Buddha explains that “All existence is characterized by suffering: birth, sickness, death; coming together with what one does not like; separating from what one does like; not obtaining what one desires; and the five aggregates of attachment that constitute the personality” (Christensen, 5). This Truth advises us that nothing lasts forever. Hence, it is impossible for us to permanently attain all that we desire and aim for in life.
Furthermore, the Second Noble Truth establishes that suffering is derived from the attachment to desires and seeks to determine what causes the feeling of suffering. It states that the cause of suffering is known as “samudaya” or “tanha”. In greater detail, this Truth explains how in Buddhism, desire is understood to be the origin of suffering. Buddha speaks of this origin when he states: “It is craving, which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, that is, craving for sensual pleasure, craving for being, and craving for non-being. This is called the origin of suffering” (Christensen, 5). Buddhists refer to desires as the feeling of a mental state of cravings which can never be satisfied since attachments are not permanent and loss is inevitable. Desires may lead to the displeasure of suffering due to the disappointment of self, and perhaps even cause suffering for others who were associated with a particular individual and had certain expectations.
The third of the Four Noble Truths is the truth of the end of suffering, also known as “nirodha”, when the attachment to desire ceases. It is in this Truth that Buddha answers the question: “And what is the cessation of suffering? It is the remainder less fading away and ceasing, the giving up, relinquishing, letting go, and rejecting of that same craving” (Christensen, 5). This Truth suggests that the end of suffering, in either this life on earth or in the spiritual life, is by achieving Nirvana, the final goal according to the Buddhist religion. In fact, it is achieving Nirvana that is understood to be the final liberation from suffering. When one has achieved Nirvana, a transcendent state free from suffering and our samsara (otherwise known as our worldly cycle of birth and rebirth), spiritual enlightenment has been accomplished (Basics of Buddhism). It is the state where the mind experiences absolute freedom, liberation, and detachment of both its desires and cravings. However, this can be difficult to understand for those who have not yet achieved it (Kurtus).
The fourth and final Truth states that it is possible for one to free themself from the cycle of suffering by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path. According to Buddhists, the Eightfold Path is the method, outlined within the Four Noble Truths, that is used in order to attain the cessation of suffering. The word that is used to refer to this freedom of suffering is known as “enlightenment”. The path to the alleviation from suffering is improving one’s self by following the eight elements of the Noble Eightfold Path. These steps consist of: “Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration” (Christensen, 6). Furthermore, there are three additional themes which the Noble Eightfold Path is divided into: good moral conduct (understanding, thought, speech), meditation and mental development (action, livelihood, effort), and wisdom or insight (mindfulness and concentration) (Basics of Buddhism). In fact, this is a long journey which may continue throughout many lifetimes, where individual rebirth is dependent on karmic conditioning — a process by which a person’s nature is shaped by their moral actions (Kurtus). Buddhists place great importance on being mindful of every action they take, for human actions are believed to shape our characters for the future.
Suffering is greatly defined in Buddhism and holds a major role in attaining supreme bliss or Nirvana. Understanding the essence of suffering, its cause, and its cessation is the ultimate practice of Buddhism known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Buddhists who follow the Noble Eightfold Path aim to attain Nirvana through the elimination of suffering by achieving Buddhahood.
Relative to the theme of suffering, the art piece in which I chose to closely observe at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) was Peter Paul Rubens’ painting, The Massacre of the Innocents. The Flemish Baroque painter was born in Siegen, Westphalia (now Germany), 1577 and died in Antwerp, Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium), 1640. Rubens specialized in making altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and history paintings of religious, mythological, and allegorical subjects. This particular painting of his however, now hangs on display as the pièce de résistance at the AGO in an open room, on a wall separate from the other pieces of art. The subject of the painting is the intense massacre of infants, as well as the great amount of physical and emotional suffering that the mothers of those children endured that night. An apparent theme expressed throughout Rubens’ painting is suffering, drama, and chaos between the individuals during their epic struggle for survival. As seen in the image, each individual is fighting to protect themselves as well as the beloved infants who were targeted to be tragically murdered. Physical pain is portrayed and viewed in the central image of the short haired woman whose back is facing towards us, next to the woman who is about to be wounded by a soldier’s sword. The mother is using her left hand to hold and shield her baby while using her right hand to gouge the face of the man who is trying to get hold of her son by grabbing his loincloth. Next to them, on the far right of the painting, we see a man who is holding a child above his head. We are able to infer that he is about to slam the child to the ground in hopes of killing him, in addition to the other infants who lay deceased by his feet.
Emotional pain is also present as we are able to recognize by examining the facial expressions of the women who are trying to protect their sons lives. This picture illustrates the period of time when Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed King of the Jews, instructed that all young male children were to be executed to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews. Rubens impressively uses a variety of shades ranging from light to dark, as seen throughout his painting, bringing more attention to certain areas rather than others. The deathly blue and grey skin tones of the babies evidently represents suffering during the infants’ last moments of life, and the terror on the faces of each individual represents fear, causing the illustration to be so captivating, vivid, and real. Behind all the chaos and dark events, however, is a colourful blue sky with orange streaks running across it. It is evident that there are three main colours that appear within the painting — red, white, and blue — each impacting the meaning behind the painting. He uses white to represent the righteousness and purity of each individual before the occurrence of the massacre, red to represent blood and the suffering being endured during that night, and blue to represent Heaven, where the babies will rest.
Attending the Art Gallery of Ontario helped me understand the contrasts between the religious portrayal and the more secular portrayal of contemporary art. I observed that the religious artwork focused more on biblical stories and used religious inspirations, images, and symbols including those of angels, Jesus Christ, and Mother Mary, while the secular artwork drifted away from sacred art and focused more on self portraits as well as landscapes. Analyzing each piece of art allowed me to realize the different cultural and religious beliefs that many people have illustrated through different forms of artwork over the course of many eras. The painting, the Massacre of the Innocents, is a religious portrayal of contemporary art, which proved the concept of suffering. Although there are no religious inspirations present in the painting, the artwork in fact portrays a religious meaning since it is based on the biblical story of the massacre of the young male children. I believe that the struggle we have today with ancient religious ideas is due to the fact that people no longer tend to follow/practice religious beliefs and rather focus on societal norms instead. Whether we notice it or not, our society has a major influence on our lives and shapes who we are as well as who we will become in the future. We have become so fixated on the insignificant things in life such as celebrities, and would rather forget to focus on what actually matters in life such as our personal well being in addition to our family, friends, and God.
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