Orange Alert

The Problem of Suffering by Sara Swenson

Posted on: Dec. 3, 2018

In April, I joined my monastic friend to visit a four-year-old who had cancer. The family hadn’t had money to visit doctors in time for the little girl to receive treatment. By the time we visited, tumors had grown behind her eyes, causing brain swelling, blindness, and deafness. She was no longer on pain medication, because the quantity she would have needed to be effective would have caused organ damage. Her mother sat the little girl up on her lap and swayed while we chatted. My friend asked several casual questions – could the baby drink milk? Did she sleep at night?

I left our visit with a feeling of profound ineffectiveness and finished a bottle of wine alone over dinner. I couldn’t do anything for this little girl. There was nothing that could be done. Maybe the visit encouraged her mother. I was frustrated by my own desire to feel effective. Hers was not my story. My sense of helplessness was nothing compared to the mother’s slow grief or the child’s pain. Would writing about this visit do anything to raise awareness or compassion for the incredibly high cancer rates in Vietnam? I could describe the details of the sweet girl’s eyes, too swollen to blink anymore, or her Doremon footy pajamas, or how we all agreed – in fragile familiarity – on how tall the girl was for her age. Height: the promise of health. Would writing about her make the real child a shadow of pathos? Is it a kind of violence to her and to the reader to leave the girl this way?

When I was young, I spent a lot of time angry at God over the problem of suffering. From a Christian background, hearing that God has both omniscient power and a plan for each of us, the pain of innocent people weighed heavily for me. I found some reconciliation in the story of Job. Job was a fellow in the Bible who lost everything: family, property, wealth, social status. His neighbors ridiculed and questioned him, asking what he’d done wrong to receive such a punishment. Job hung onto both his conviction that he had done nothing wrong and his loyalty to God. I appreciated this almost absurdist refusal to bend to either grief or bitterness.

The cancer baby was on my mind again when I interviewed a charity organizer for a group that helps children with an incurable illness. I asked the organizer what keeps her going every day. I explained I was asking because I could not do what she does. When they lost kids: how did she cope? She explained that as a Buddhist, she believes in karma. In past lives, these beings had accumulated a lot of negative karma. Maybe they had killed many people with malicious intention. In this life, they suffer a lot. However, when they die, we can be relieved that they do not need to suffer anymore. A large sum of their karmic debts has been paid through one short, hard life.

Given my Christian background, it is hard for me not to hear these kinds of explanations and hear suffering as “punishment.” Karma, however, is not meant to be partial or punitive. The law of cause and effect is often equated to a flame. The flame is not partial to how or where it burns: it is only a natural process continuing according to the laws of physics. What we do returns to us, even as we change bodily forms and lose consciousness of past actions.

This week, I met with a nun to study more about the moral law of cause and effect (nhan qua). I struggled through the example of the child. “Of course we should help her!” the nun encouraged. “Understanding the law of karma deeply can help us to protect our heart while still encouraging charity.” The girl of course should receive visitors, charity, and medicine. We should not judge her or speculate about her past karma. We should understand, however, that if we do something terrible in this life, we will suffer like she is suffering in future lives. I tried to wrap my head around this. (1) Do not blame and judge. Dismissing suffering with the explanation that it is what someone deserves is a cruel misunderstanding of the law of cause and effect. Karma pays for itself through circumstances – it never justifies further neglect or violence. (2) However, we can still take suffering as a moral example and reminder that our actions will have ramifications. Charity does not affect someone’s karmic burden, but it can alleviate suffering. Perhaps giving charity is also a way of tempering a karmic debt which has already been reduced, like a cool breeze sweeping in to settle the atmosphere after a storm. In other words, thinking of suffering from a karmic perspective doesn’t necessarily lessen the urgency of justice.

An important concept in Buddhism is “interbeing” or “co-arising.” Basically, no phenomenon is independent. A person’s suffering is never solitary. By performing more good actions, we create exchanges of good karma amongst ourselves and others. Karma also isn’t a zero-sum game: if we suffer less, it doesn’t mean someone needs to suffer more. By doing good, we can change the very fabric of metaphysical reality. If there is less bad karma to go around, there can be less suffering. Working for justice can still be a karmic good. In stopping a company manager from exploiting laborers, for instance, we help the laborers in this life, and spare the manager from terrible karmic ramifications in a future life.

I am not in the habit of considering justice and morality on such metaphysical terms. At the end of the day, I still default to anger over the failure of governments to ban chemicals that cause cancer, and the meaningless violence of bioweapons like Agent Orange, which continue to distort innocent children’s bodies for generations after the war. Thinking on this karmic scale, however: we are the ones who will be reborn as the children we have harmed. Seeing a child’s suffering in karmic terms does not justify walking past her. Rather, it is a call to action not to further the kind of violence and neglect which have put her in that condition… even if, by this reasoning, she was the one who once perpetrated it.

There is still a lot I don’t understand about karma… particularly the concepts of “flexible karma” or “hereditary environments,” two terms I just met talking with the nun who was guiding me yesterday. Learning about karma requires something of a Copernican revolution in my thinking, but is absolutely necessary for understand what Buddhists do when doing charity in Vietnam. I might see the surface effects of sharing food, building bridges, or subsidizing medicine, but thinking through karma is key for understanding the language of planting seeds for good fruit used by all the groups I’ve interviewed.

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Sara Swenson