No Need To Suffer (part 3)

15 March 2015

Let Us Not Promote Suffering

Against the notion of this defence of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence that “we need suffering,” to say we need suffering also resonates terribly in English. If we would say that we need suffering, then this means we should also do all that we can to ensure that we and others suffer, so that they may grow, or at least move finally toward that end of happiness or peace that suffering lays the groundwork for.

A very great deal of political quietism and apathy may hide under this notion, even if someone does not have enough strength of character to inflict deliberate suffering in others that they might grow toward happiness. They can at least stand aside and declare the suffering of others none of their affair but certain something good and necessary.

However, as we also know the Vedic injunction—mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone—one might think that this alone should stop any such understanding of suffering—deliberately or perversely inflicted or not—in its tracks. The injunction should already rule out any apathy by people toward suffering, much less any insistence on inflicting or promoting suffering in others through violence due to the necessity and benefit of suffering. However, it does not always work out that way. In his study of the Śrī Vedānta-Sūtra, Adhyāyas III & IV, for instance, David Bruce Hughes summarises the argument around Sūtra 3.1.26:

The Vedas order:

agnisomīyaṁ paśum ālabheta

“One should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña.”

Because piety and impiety is known only from the Vedas’ statements, the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious. Therefore the orders of the Vedas are never impure. The prohibitions “Never commit violence to anyone,” and “Violence is a sin,” are the general rules decreed by the Vedas; and the statement, “one should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña,” is an exception to that general rule. A general rule and a specific exception to that rule need not contradict each other. There is scope for each (29, underlining added).

One may readily anticipate a reading of “the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious” as simply the Orwellian doublespeak of Power.

I will not engage the manifold apologetics, both disingenuous and sincere, that exist for this exception to the general rule of mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone. I raise the point only to make clear the destructive use that some may and have put the phrase “we need suffering” to use, whether to do harm to others for their own good or to do nothing about harm to others for their own good. I do not read that Thầy Nhất Hạnh intends the phrase to stand on its own, and he provides much more text by which to contextualise his intended meaning, as I hear it. Yet I still hear him saying, “we need suffering” out of a sense of his own experience of suffering as it contributed to his growth toward peace and happiness.

If we seek out the “lesson” in the suffering that befalls us, this occurs only retrospectively. Experiences befall us, and those we experience and name as suffering we may then engage in whatever way we do, even to learn something from that experience. We will see, then: one may only recognise suffering, we re-cognise it; one cannot inflict it, not even the sadist, who may know another human being well enough in advance to know that certain kinds of physical, psychological, or social violence done will instantiate in that person as suffering, that they will experience and name those actions as inflicting suffering. Nonetheless, such a cruel person inflicts only violence, and we may see then in every claim to do harm to another “for their own good” only violence and a violation of the injunction mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone.

In life, if we will less often meet sadists—those sufferers who spread the agony of their experience deliberately to others—and more often those sufferers whose own suffering makes reaching out compassionately to others too onerous or difficult, still the burdensome of this experience does not mean we must overlook the self-serving character of our attempts to solace ourselves by blunting or deflecting or ennobling the evident suffering of others—especially suffering that arises from social injustice and privilege—under the banner of “we need suffering”. Perhaps I decide I need a suffering, that does not license me to decide that you need suffering in general, and even less so any one or more specific suffering: that cancer, sexual assault, the death of your child, a war, your failure to get into college.

Whatever need of suffering we might recognise individually in retrospect, to prevail over the violence that wrought it argues not for the necessity of such violence but rather to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of an inhuman fate.


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