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Jesus and Buddha on Suffering: A Lenten Meditation

03/27/2014 12:30 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2014

It's Lent, the season of honesty. And the honest truth is: I hate suffering. I want it to go away, but it doesn't, so I try to get away from it.

Here in Atlanta there's a long straggly fellow who's always hanging around a particular exit ramp. He holds up signs asking for help. He doesn't walk up to my car. He just stands there looking at me. I don't look back. I sit and stare at the light, praying for green and despising his suffering because it suggests my own. I despise him because he is a mirror. When the light finally changes I hit the gas and turn the corner and immediately I feel better. But suffering -- his and mine and the world's -- has only increased.

In seminary I had a New Testament professor who said something I will always remember. He said that of all the world's religions he preferred Buddhism and Christianity because these two alone are sufficiently pessimistic about the human condition. Both, he said, turn toward suffering and look it in the eye without flinching. Buddhism does so through its hard-as-nails philosophy of detachment and Christianity does so by placing suffering at the exact center of its narrative. And although they do so differently, both insist that something -- something unspeakably good -- lies beyond suffering.

Suffering is everyone's problem. Jesus knows it and Buddha knows it, and they suggest a solution: invite suffering in. Be hospitable to it. Offer it a meal. Look the tall stranger in the eye, they say. But if I do I'll die, I say. Yes, they say, but the only thing that will die is what you think you are: your ego.

There is an undeniable connection between suffering and the ego. I mean, isn't there? The ego, as I understand it, is what we can see: Our social location, our education, our knowledge, our religious convictions, everything about us that we can point to and say: That is me. The ego is exactly equal to our self-concept.

The ego is precisely the empirical self.

The empirical self is what Meister Eckhart called the false self. It's what we think we are, but it's a lie. It is illusory. It does not exist.

The false self can be displayed, measured, and demonstrated. The true self cannot be displayed, measured, or demonstrated. The true self can be known in a way, and discovered in a way, but it cannot be laid out on the table and made evident to any rational observer. The true self is not empirical. In fact, its lack of empirical-ness is the true self's distinctive feature.

Therefore "self-esteem" does nothing and goes nowhere. Saying "I'm a good boy" is just as ego-feeding as saying "I'm a bad boy." They are equivalent moves in the tiresome game of ego-preservation. Both serve the ego by locating it and feeding it. Humility is not thinking of oneself as a small dirty object. Humility is not thinking of one's self, whatever that is, at all.

Suffering, when it can be accepted, burns off the ego and separates the false self from the true self. But when we fight it -- by insisting everything's fine; by ignoring the fact that death waits just around the corner for each of us; by thinking we are all decent, well-mannered people who don't use and abuse each other every single day -- we fight it because, if these are lies, where does that leave us?

Exactly nowhere, and that's the point: The false self's fight against reality is a fight for its very survival. What's more, the more the false self fights, the stronger it gets. The less illusory it appears. And here's the worst of it: The intensity of suffering is proportional to the strength of the ego. This is a law. So the whole thing feeds on itself. It's crazy but I'm telling you it's true.

But if we can let the false self die by letting suffering do its work on us -- think of Jesus' silence before Pilate -- then we might discover our true selves and enter a new life.

As the false self goes, so goes one's illusions. They are one and the same. And both my favorite illusion and my greatest fear are that I am exactly what I appear to be. That I am equal to my empirical self. That my ego is it, so far as my self is concerned. It's a favorite notion because if I am what I appear to be then I'm in control. It's a great fear because if I am what I appear to be then I'm nothing but my own worst problem.

I don't know what will happen the next time I'm stuck on the off ramp and the tall man's eyes once again threaten my false self. My prayer is that I'll remember I have nothing to lose but my illusions.

I'm not romanticizing suffering, which is as much a mistake as running from it. But here at Lent it's worth remembering that Buddha and Jesus are right: suffering is not the end. There is a way out of suffering, and that way is straight through it.

May you find your way through it, in whatever way you do that, today.

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