Dukkha in Christianity

In this post, I’m going to—for now—sidestep the issue of how I think the Christian should consider other religions in relation to her own. Instead, I want to talk about how the study of the theology of other religions can shed insight of our own Christian theology.

I’m going to do that with the specific example of my encounter with Dukkha in Buddhism. Dukkha is a Sanskrit word often translated as “suffering.”

Although Buddhist thought sometimes considers suffering in a broad sense, it has a rich vocabulary for talking about different types of suffering. There is dukkha-dukkha, “true suffering” the suffering that comes from injury, illness, the aging process, emotional hurt and painful experiences; what we tend to think of when we talk about suffering. But there is also viparinama-dukkha, the suffering that arises from the transient and changing nature of things. Also sankhara-dukkha, what the Germans would call weltschmerz, the suffering caused by a knowledge of the way things should be compared to the way things are.

It is the specific interrelated categories of viparinama-dukkha and sankhara-dukkha that most interest me.

Sankhara-dukkha interests me because it points to a fundamental and primal human desire for that which is perfect. Complete happiness cannot be found in this world not simply because the world is not perfect, but because those fleeting glimpses of perfection are so rarely seen and dissipate so quickly, leaving us struggling to remember the sensation they caused. This inherent desire for perfection is our desire for God, our desire for participation in the Kingdom of God, our desire for paradise, our desire for perfection. Naturally within us there is a desire to “become perfect as our father in heaven is perfect” and to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. That we do not readily achieve those things causes us to suffer in a deeply existential way. At the same time, our faith in a God who has promised these things to us brings us hope, from hope, joy. This dramatic tension is surely one of Chesterton’s paradoxes, where Christianity gets “over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious” (from Orthodoxy).

While sankhara-dukkha made me think about God and theology, viparinama-dukkha actually opened up scripture to me. In hearing about viparinama-dukkha, I came closer (I think) to an understanding of Jesus’s admonitions about material wealth.

As is clear from some of my other posts, I believe that we take many of Jesus’s teachings as proscriptive when they’re really meant to be descriptive. We hear a command when Jesus intends to teach, when awareness might do far more for our obedience than authority.

When Jesus warns that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24), the thought of viparinama-dukkha changed my reading. Viparinama-dukkha destroys the happiness that we think we have in material things. Upon acquiring material wealth, we must necessarily lament its transient nature, fear for its loss, and suffer emotionally when it is damaged. Thus, our enjoyment is incomplete.

Viewed through this lens, we can see Jesus’s statements about material wealth as a description of the same idea captured in the Buddhist term. It is not necessarily that wealth in and of itself is evil.[1] On the other hand, the pursuit of material wealth has significant consequences if one is not careful. Such a pursuit is the chasing after a joy that will never be complete because of its transience, a false joy that leads us only to seeking more in hopes of recovering that fleeting joy first found. Worse, viparinama-dukkha has a strong propensity to lead to sin. The fear of losing material things has led many a man to his perdition when he finds the lengths to which he will go to cling to wealth. Our own times are replete with examples, from the common criminal to the Bernie Madoffs of the world.

And so we find in Buddhism—a religion as far from Christianity as it might be possible to be—ideas of value to our own understanding of our faith and the world. No religion can shy away from the problem of suffering (the field of theodicy is devoted to said problem), so why confine ourselves to our own tradition and history when exploring an issue that is so present in our everyday lives?


[1] Chaucer’s quotation is often misremembered as “Money is the root of all evil,” though it is actually “The love of money is the root of all evil. The original is found in Canterbury Tales, The Pardoner’s Prologue, where it appears in Latin, “Radix malorum est cupidatis.”

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