The Four Noble Truths: Buddhist vs Christian Views of Suffering
Central to the worldview of Buddhism are the doctrines of the Four Noble Truths. These create the foundation that leads to Buddhism’s more practical doctrines contained in the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths take a view of suffering that is interesting and worth exploring in its own right, but also in comparison to Christian views of suffering.
The Four Noble Truths go as follows:
1. Suffering exists.
2. Suffering is caused by attachment and desire.
3. Suffering is eliminated by eliminating attachment and desire.
4. Eliminating attachment and desire is achieved through the Eightfold Path.
Below I give brief reflections on each of these doctrines before arguing that Christianity offers us a more hopeful solution to the problem of suffering.
Reflections on the Four Noble Truths
1. Suffering exists. This premise seems plausible of course. In fact, it is so plausible that virtually all of the great world religions affirm the existence and ubiquity of suffering in one form or another. Scholars often characterize suffering by calling it the human predicament, and postulate that one of the goals of religion is to solve this human predicament. While Christianity and Buddhism differ in their solutions to the human predicament, they agree regarding its presence and the need for a solution.
2. Suffering is caused by attachment and desire. This doctrine is plausible as well, as it does seem that at least one prominent cause of our suffering is self-induced. At least some of our suffering is brought about by obsession, envy, lust, desire for what we do not have, and so forth.
However, another large portion of our suffering appears not to be self-induced, at least at first consideration: suffering caused by natural disasters, unjust actions by others, harmful genetic irregularities, and more of the like. The Buddhist may define our notion of suffering such that the immediate effects of these causes – pain or death – are not themselves instances of suffering, and hold instead that we only truly suffer when we respond to these circumstances with fear or desire to avoid pain or death.
Suffering could be redefined in this way, but such a definition is not intuitively natural. Hence, it would require further justification, which is beyond the scope of this article.
All that to say, Christianity and Buddhism agree on one point here, which is that the desires of humans are at least a significant cause of suffering, regardless of whether or not they are the only cause.
3-4. Suffering is eliminated by eliminating attachment and desire, which is itself accomplished through the Eightfold Path. Buddhism and Christianity agree that the cause of suffering must be removed if suffering itself is to be removed. Where they disagree concerns how the cause of suffering is to be removed.
Buddhist vs Christian Views of Suffering
According to the Christian view, our suffering is eliminated by God as he saves us from the penalty of our sins – that penalty being a life without relationship to him – and restores creation to a perfect and pure state.
According to the Buddhist view, it is we who must who must eliminate suffering through overcoming our desires.
The Buddhist resolution to suffering naturally follows from its prior postulation that we ourselves are the sole cause of suffering. However, it is natural to think that this is not a very hopeful view of how to resolve the human predicament. First off, totally eliminating human desire appears to be an extraordinarily difficult feat. While devout Buddhists are not likely to regard this as a problem for their view, it is hard for those not already sympathetic to a Buddhist lifestyle to react to this with much hopefulness.
Second and moreover, even if we were to succeed in eliminating our desires and attachments, what sort of life would remain for us? Without fulfilled desires, what could remain to grant us ultimate happiness or fulfillment? It is hard to see how we could attain the ultimately good life without having desires in one form or another. Again, the Buddhist may well disagree with this characterization of the good or purposeful life, but for those of us without a natural affinity to a Buddhist lifestyle, it is hard to find hope in this view.
The Christian view, by contrast, does provide hope for a life without suffering. By placing the responsibility of eliminating suffering in the hands of God, we can be much more confident that suffering will one day be removed from us. Moreover, the life that God promises is not a life without desire, but a life full of fulfilled desires. It is a life where our deepest desires – union with God and all that entails – are finally met.
It is also, consequently, a life where our present harmful desires are removed. But they are not removed along with all of our desires, they are removed and replaced with good and pure desires that are fulfilled by God. In this way Christianity’s resolution to the problem of suffering is eminently hopeful.
This of course does not resolve the question of whether Buddhism or Christianity is true. Determining that requires following the arguments, evidence, and experiences available to us, rather than simply believing the religion that offers us the best future life. That said, it is entirely possible that the Christian worldview is both hopeful and rational.
In fact, there are good reasons for thinking that the Christian worldview does indeed possess this marriage of rationality and hope. Should not a promise like this capture us, and at the very least bring us to seek out these reasons, given what they might mean for our future?
Please let me know whatever thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!