No island or castle can hide us from the reality of suffering, including sickness and death. That was true for Gautama Buddha over 2,500 years ago and it is true today. When we pay attention, we realize that our own lack of awareness, isolation, separation, oppression, greed, denial of change and clinging to things and ideas not only increase our suffering but also lead us to harmful decisions. We come to understand that suffering is beyond pain. Can it then be transformed into the source of our awakening, spiritual growth and liberation?
Human life and spiritual practices show us that our ability to engage suffering has the potential for resilience and transformation. When we learn how to face our fears with courage and respond with grief and compassion, we begin to see meaning in the most difficult situations. Compassion literally means “co-suffering” or “suffering with.” It has the power to heal our brokenness.
Examining the value of co-suffering I find a particularly engaging parallel between the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, as understood by Mahayana Buddhists, and the four phases of Christian spiritual development by South African liberation theologian Albert Nolan. While Mahayana Buddhism is an ancient development and Liberation Theology was first formulated in the 1970s by Peruvian Catholic Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, their concern for liberation of the world’s people from suffering are based on the radical teachings of the Buddha and Jesus. Both stress the interdependence of our actions.
The first teaching of the Buddha, known as the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, elucidates that there is suffering (dukkha) in life; the cause of suffering is ignorance, attachment and aversion; there is cessation of suffering; and the way to liberation is through the Noble Eightfold path of wholesome view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. For Mahayana Buddhists it is skillfully achieved through cultivation of Bodhichitta, the mind that strives toward awakening and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings.
In parallel, Albert Nolan, in his first phase of Christian spiritual development, exposes us to the suffering and inhuman conditions of millions around the world, asking believers to mindfully “bring home” the complexity of such suffering by participating with the “God of Compassion.” In his second phase, Nolan urges us to discover the structures of injustice and importance of anger, admitting that the cause of suffering is not “God’s Will.” The third phase is the realization that victims are not “helpless objects of pity,” but rather “necessary agents for change”, endowed with wisdom and virtue. In his last phase, Nolan affirms that there is no “us” or “them” and that we must work together toward change.
In the past, certain regimes and the church hierarchy criticized Liberation Theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as Marxist. Today Pope Francis shows a promising sign of reintegrating Liberation Theology into our faithful engagement with the teachings of Jesus. If we do it with a greater focus on engaging suffering with compassion by moving beyond political labels that separate us, then we can bring more balance, justice and love in our lives.
The good news is that the contemporary research shows that compassion is our innate human response. We are born with it, or one may say, endowed with it. Yet, for our compassion to become a true instrument of change, it must be cultivated and nourished so it can be, as Stephen Batchelor, a Buddhist scholar-practitioner, says, “at the heart of responsibility … not merely for ourselves but for all that lives, for everything that is capable of calling out to us.”
Our compassion, like suffering, is immeasurable and our cultivation of co-suffering is the key to the meaningful awakening and liberation in this lifetime. It is not something that is separate from us; it is within us, always ready to be engaged and embodied.
Image Credits: Enver Rahmanov. Image is in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
 Albert Nolan, Hope in an age of despair: and other writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009). See also Stephen Privett. “Like a Bear Robbed of her Cubs,” Issues in Ethics 9, no 2 (Spring 1998).
Thich Nhat Hanh, Path of Compassion: stories from the Buddha’s Life (Parallax Press, 2012), 81.
 Stephen Batchelor, The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty (Parallax Press, 1990), 4.