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Buddhist Interview Questions on Suffering

Here is the final bit of my interview with the South Korean Buddhist editors The Monthly YangWoo Magazine 3/2020.  Not surprisingly they were particularly interested in my views of why there is suffering in the world.  As you know, that is a central component of Buddhist thought.   I know many people who find Buddhist approaches highly satisfying; many others who simply do not think that way.

My own writings about suffering – especially my book God’s Problem — have all been connected in one way or another with the western tradition, rooted in both Judaism and Christianity, especially as these are seen in the Bible itself.  I make no qualms about the fact that these are the traditions I resonate with.  I do not think that is either good or bad, in part because I do not believe it is *possible* to have a neutral position on important questions – any important question (arguably any question at all!).  Even if you try.  And even if you claim you do have a neutral position.

And so I wrestle with suffering from where I am, from what I know, from what I’ve experienced, and from how I think.  So do they – but their world is very different.  In any event, my answers here are short and to the point, as required by the context of the interview…..

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Intimate Relationships: Nonbelievers and Believers
More Buddhist Questions on the Bible

41

Comments

  1. Avatar
    chixter  February 21, 2020

    Suffering has nothing to do with any G~d or Karma or anything else. Suffering is a matter of random events that lead to the particular person suffering. Where they were born, the early life that they had, or just unfortunate circumstance. This fact alone urges us who suffer less to help those who suffer more. If we as humanity can shed this concept of G~d’s will or Karma (which is the same thing), and realize the way to reduce suffering is for us non or less sufferers to help those worse off than we. We would live in a much better place.

  2. Avatar
    drkdowd  February 21, 2020

    Fascinating to read your discourse on Christianity with your Buddhist friends. I try to find harmony between the two underlying philosophies, and I wonder whether too much emphasis is placed on the negative aspects of “suffering”, There can be positive suffering if we let ourselves experience events and then let them pass without attachment. This Universe is clearly not the “best possible world”, but Science is now pointing us toward an answer to the ‘Theodicy problem’. The ‘Multi-Worlds Interpretation’ of Quantum Theory would suggest that all possible events occur, good and bad, with prevalence related to their respective probabilities, being realised in neighboring budding Universes something akin to leaves on a tree.

    This could fit in with other Eastern philosophies, and also be consistent with thoughts of Stephen Hawking. In his last book, ‘Brief answers to the Big Questions, Professor Stephen Hawking contrasted Einstein’s apocryphal dictum that “God does not throw dice”, with his own observation: “All the evidence is that God is quite a gambler. The Universe is like a giant casino, with dice being rolled, or wheels being spun, on every occasion.”

    I agree with Dr Hawking. However, I contend that ‘God’ does not throw dice. ‘God’ built ‘The House’, ‘God’ set the odds, and then ‘God’ gave us the dice. ‘God’ lets us throw them as often as we choose, as no matter how many times we throw them, as ‘God’ knows, ‘The House’ will always win. This would also be consistent with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the Teleological and Cosmological arguments for the concept of some form of creator, and our ability to have a limited form of ‘free will’ within a deterministic model.

  3. Avatar
    amcbean6@gmail.com  February 21, 2020

    Mr Ehrman. I am a newcomer to your teachings and by extension your blog. You can say I was directed to your teachings. I will start with a easy question. You said you were called to teach the truth about christianity and with my inside knowledge of the subject of faith and spirituality, you are teaching truth. So the question is…Who called you?…thanks, would appreciate a response.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2020

      Ah, good question. I was using the term as a metaphor. I meant that this was the direction I felt I should take.

      • Avatar
        amcbean6@gmail.com  February 25, 2020

        Thanks for the response Mr Ehrman. You said you were using metaphor, I know you were not…you were called, you just don’t know it, but I will leave that for another time. There’s something that you cover in your teachings, and debates that I need your vast knowledge, and expertise to help me understand. If you can, could you explain exactly how Christianity exploded in popularity to become the worlds largest religion?…This is something I am trying to understand, why it was allowed to happen, and it was allowed…I just don’t know why. I am hoping with your in depth knowledge of early christianity, and the period when it started to flourish, I will have a better understanding of the logic of the father.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 26, 2020

          Yes indeed, it’s the BIG question for me. And it’s what my most recent book tries to explain. Check it out: The Triumph of Christianity (it deals with *precisely* your question)

          • Avatar
            amcbean6@gmail.com  February 27, 2020

            I was directed to one of your older discussions at UC Berkeley and I was very sad to realize that you categorize yourself as an agnostic, and that you don’t believe in the EOD. Mr Ehrman, if you are still an agnostic you need to revisit that belief system, because you are DEAD WRONG. Trust me, my new friend…I know. I am not a religious person, but I know for a fact, with 100% certainty, that there is a God. I believe, because of all the truths you have brought to the world, and the good that you are doing as a true human being that your CREATOR doesn’t want you to be lost to eternity. He led me to you so that I could learn certain truths that I didn’t know before, especially about Christianity. Normally I’m to keep quiet about what I know of him, and just let his process play out, but I think he must think highly of you because he led me to this particular lecture of yours, and it became clear to me that he wants me to reach out to you. You see Mr Ehrman, whether you believe this or not…THESE, ARE, THE, LAST, DAYS. Take a moment to reflect on all the things that are happening in the world, and tell me you still think these are normal times. Your CREATOR is here Mr Ehrman, he has returned. I know this in the same way that I know 2+ 2 = 4. I even think he’s given me the OK to prove it to you, in a literal way…so if you wish for me to do so, I will. In the end you have to make decisions Mr Ehrman, we all have that thing called free will…But if you know, and could see the things that he is showing to me about the coming judgment…YOU, WOULD, CHANGE, YOUR, MIND. God bless you my good friend, I hope you open your eyes, I hope you open your mind.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 28, 2020

            I’m dead wrong not to know? OK then! I do talk about my leaving the faith in my book God’s Problem, and if you search for “agnostic” here on the blog you’ll see a lot of discussions about it.

  4. Telling
    Telling  February 22, 2020

    “Suffering is not good for the soul, unless it teaches you how to stop suffering. That is its purpose.”

    “The interior drama, therefore, is always the important one. The ‘story of your life’ is written by you, by each reader of this book. You are the author. There is no reason, therefore, for you to view the drama and feel trapped by it. The power to change your own condition is your own. You have only to exercise it.”

    “The ego is a jealous god, and it wants its interests served. It does not want to admit the reality of any dimensions except those within which it feels comfortable and can understand. It was meant to be an aid but it has been allowed to become a tyrant.”

    ― Jane Roberts, Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul
    More quotes: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/474304-seth-speaks-the-eternal-validity-of-the-soul-a-seth-book

  5. tompicard
    tompicard  February 22, 2020

    the Q10 question
    does the scholar (or anyone) who has received so many blessings, from parents, from teachers and from the created world itself, have an obligation to help relieve suffering ?
    is a really interesting question.
    the Buddhist perspective with answer to this question in the affirmative is something to appreciate

    I wonder if you would be willing to consider the question from a Biblical or Christian perspective and give us your views, or if it was discussed in you book “God’s Problem” to share that portion.

    [I think all members of blog appreciate your charitable work]

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2020

      My view is that everyone has the obligation to relieve suffering. It’s part of being fully human.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  February 24, 2020

        I think the point the Korean Buddhists were making was that some people, they mentioned scholars, have an extra responsibility, because they have received more.

      • Avatar
        amcbean6@gmail.com  February 25, 2020

        Amen.

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 22, 2020

    The scientific answer to “why do we suffer” is quite simple. It is the Second Law of Thermodynamics – things run down, (useful) energy runs out. Things break but they don’t come together without effort, because there are many more ways for a thing to be non-functional than for it to be functioning. Not very satisfying, but there are some lessons to draw from it. Maybe the question shouldn’t be “why do we suffer?” but “why are we happy?”. That could lead us to find practical ways to increase happiness.

    • Lee Ring
      Lee Ring  February 26, 2020

      The best commentary on chaos, viz. suffering, as a product of the Law of Entropy (2nd Law of Thermodynamics) and Ilya Prigogine’s concept of open systems was by Bill Harris in his book Thresholds of the Mind. It is a meaningful read and a good explanation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought that, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
      https://www.amazon.com/Thresholds-Mind-Bill-Harris/dp/0972178015

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 22, 2020

    Very interesting series. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  8. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  February 22, 2020

    It looks like karma only “works” in the context of reincarnation. Hard to explain why children suffer– how can they have done anything in their short lives to deserve any sort of punishment? So one has to suppose that in some prior life they acquired that bad karma, and in this life they are punished. That is really not a satisfactory solution. For one thing, such a belief might kill sympathy, and compassion. No solution there. Invoking some prior life’s deeds to explain suffering in the here and now is just as unsatisfactory as every other effort to rationalize suffering.

  9. Avatar
    dr.bosch  February 22, 2020

    From my own experience I can say that it is really possible to reduce one’s own suffering by changing one’s attitude to life as well as by doing certain practices. Buddhist mindfulness and loving kindness meditation taught me that even in a really difficult situation it is possible to maintain a high degree of emotional stability. I recommend you all watching this documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkxSyv5R1sg You will see dangerous criminals in high security jail transforming into highly compassionate beings within ten days. Not by accepting Jesus as their lord and saviour or through some other cheap supernatural belief, but through a highly scientific method developed by the Buddha over 2500 years ago called Vipassana meditation. According to Buddhist thought minimalizing your suffering/life pain and maximising your inner joy is mainly done by purifying your mind. The mind is the key. As the Buddha said: “Mind precedes all mental states…Mind is their chief (Dhammapada 1) or “I don’t envision a single thing that, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about such suffering & stress as the mind. The mind, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about suffering & stress.” and “I don’t envision a single thing that, when developed & cultivated, brings about such happiness as the mind. The mind, when developed & cultivated, brings about happiness.” (Anguttara Nikaya 1:29-30) Cultivating or purifying your mind is done by practising right diligence, mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness means that you are deeply aware of any phenomena in the present moment. You are scanning your mind constantly. When you are aware of the arising of an unwholesome emotion (craving, hatred, delusion…) you simply recognise it, you don’t fight against it, you embrace it with compassion and tenderness, while generating a wholesome state of mind. By reducing your suffering/life pain you increase your inner happiness since they are inversely proportional. However, your duty is not to keep this recipe for yourself, but to help others. One Sutra says that we should be as compassionate as the bodhisattva who hears all the cries of each being in this world. May all beings find peace. May all beings find happiness. May all beings be safe. sabbe sattā sukhi hontu!

  10. Avatar
    rivercrowman  February 22, 2020

    Thanks so much for the superb series of posts related to Buddhism.

  11. tompicard
    tompicard  February 22, 2020

    Q11 regarding the need for a treatise comparing varying scriptures (New Testament and Buddha’s in this case) is also important,

    I own one book that covers quite a bit
    see here https://www.amazon.com/World-Scripture-Teachings-Myung-Moon/dp/1930549571

    but if anyone else is familiar something similar I would like to know

    • Avatar
      NancyGKnapp  February 24, 2020

      Paul Knitter, a Roman Catholic theologian wrote “Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian.” He began to study just after Vatican 2 opened up the possibility of dialogue with other religions. Each chapter of his short book opens with a problem like “Why would an all-powerful loving God allow suffering?” Then he looks at the problem through a Buddhist lens that often sheds light on the question and leads to a more nuanced understanding. There is a companion book, “The Uniquesness of Jesus ” that sets forth his understanding in the first chapter with each of the following chapters a response from a scholar or theologian from liberal to conservative. I thought the two most powerful chapters were “An Asian’s View of the Uniqueness of Jesus” and “The Treasure in Earthen Vessels.”

  12. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  February 22, 2020

    Eleven good answers. Who would have thought Buddhists could push so hard!?
    Well, . . lately we know the Rohingya people would.

  13. Avatar
    AJ  February 22, 2020

    The questions certainly provide some fascinating insights into Buddhist thinking. Thanks for sharing. I especially liked the unexpected final offer to collaborate on harmonizing the teachings of Christianity and Buddhism. Wow, I would have paid to see your reaction real time.

    The interview did get me thinking a bit about the Buddhist conceptions of karma and reincarnation….clearly alternative psychological reactions to deal with the uncertainties of death and how to live a “good life”. I for one have not seen enough evidence to suggest that consciousness can exist separate from the brain or that it can simply float about waiting to inhabit a new brain…..or go off to a “final destination”…..though some deep thinkers like Max Planck…the father of Quantum Theory….believed that matter derived from consciousness…a proposition that is a bit beyond my pay grade. My question is: in your spiritual journey, do you think it is harmful for humans to use these psychological levers….reincarnation or heaven/hell…..to compel better or more thoughtful behavior?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2020

      I think it certainly *can* be harmful — psychologically, e.g., — to promote certain views, yes. There have been suicides over the years by people who couldn’t stand not knowing if they were going to hell, as senseless as that might seem….

    • Avatar
      RICHWEN90  February 24, 2020

      I’ve noticed that my very earliest memories, and I do mean EARLY, have a kind of vagueness as to point of view. In some cases I’m seeing myself and my surroundings as though I’m not located in my body, but in some sort of space outside, like a floating camera. That effect diminishes as I grow older, until, at about six or seven, I seem to be seeing things through my own eyes. This is probably just an artifact of the way our brains mature, or the way memories become degraded over time, but it becomes suggestive when we consider out-of-body views when people report near death experiences. It would be interesting then if our lives are bounded by out-of-body experiences, first, as consciousness “congeals” into a specific location, as a distinct person, and then as consciousness disperses and becomes supra-personal as death approaches. Flimsy evidence, but at least something to consider…

  14. Avatar
    doug  February 22, 2020

    That’s a good conclusion that suffering is the result of being material creatures in a material universe. I used to think it was an uncaring universe, but then I decided that’s not entirely true – because *we* care.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2020

      Yup good point. On the other hand, even though *I* care, that asteroid that is about ready to hit the earth doesn’t….

  15. Avatar
    seahawk41  February 22, 2020

    This is not about your interview with Korean Buddhists (although that is fascinating; there are Korean students studying music in the US singing in my church choir, and one is directing it!). Rather, it goes back to your discussion of Mary Magdalene a week or two ago. The facts are that Paul does not mention Mary or indeed any women among those who “saw” the risen Christ. Yet the Gospels written years later make a point of having women among the earliest witnesses. Add to that the generally negative view of women as witnesses in Roman times. Then there is the fact that Paul seems to have had a high regard for women, even calling one of them an apostle! Finally, add to this the trend in 2nd Century and later Christianity to downgrade the role of women; e.g., making Mary Magdalene into a prostitute, and you have, at least in my mind a conundrum: Why did Paul not report (or know of) women who saw the risen Christ? Was it a late tradition? If so, how does that mesh with the other info re Roman attitudes? If not, why did Paul not report it?

    Fascinating stuff here!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2020

      I don’t think Mary was identified as a prostitute until the early sixth century. Butmy sense is that Paul didn’t mention women seeing the empty tombe becuase he hadn’t heard that one…..

      • Avatar
        seahawk41  February 24, 2020

        Ah, thanks for reminding me that the “mary-as-prostitute” thing came quite a bit later. But the church *did* start downplaying the role of women by the 2nd century, didn’t it? So do you think the stories about women seeing the risen Christ came later than Paul or were just circulating in different communities than the ones Paul visited?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 24, 2020

          Yup, before then. 1 Timothy 2:11-15!! And yes, stories were randomly circulating. And Paul, in any event, spent most of his time with pagans and his own converts, not other established Christian communities. We don’t know wehre the stories were in the 50s, or even if they existed yet.

  16. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  February 23, 2020

    ,,, similarities ,,,, between Buddhism and Christianity ,,,, an exciting question. To address this, one (in my mind) must reorganize some basic assumptions and assessments first. Let’s say that Christianity was a continuation of Judaism in some way, which should be a pretty fair assumption in my mind. This can be shown everywhere, and a few examples are the early “Jerusalem Christians” and how they view themselves in relation to Judaism until they appear to be forced out (ie when they introduced it on 19). The synagogue blessing, Birkat HaMinim, largely disqualified early Christian Jews, even Paul continuing his identification with Jewish culture (ie when he visited Jerusalem in 58 when he returned to celebrate a Jewish holiday, etc., etc

    If I should try to reconcile Christianity and Buddhism, I would have followed the trails back on the “Jewish Trail”, looking at what some of the Jews (a lot of schooling, which included a more “mysterious endorsement of Judaism itself – just look at the old Kabbalah concept, which talks about the souls descending and becoming an inner process.The language here is not very different from the opening of the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation .. even if the book of Revelation would be translated as a book influenced by this Jewish understanding, the revelation (revealing the deepest truth about ourselves and God ??) might have talked about our journey back to our spiritual source (New Jerusalem). The seven churches in Asia (just one of many examples) would be something like ,,, center, / meeting point, / spiritual wheel, / Charkas who fall within the Buddhist concept and need to be exalted / spiritualized. This is also the Jewish spiritual / mystery our concept is about spiritualizing / spiritualizing parts of our being / our “heart”. This, they also claim, is the basic consept of what the Torah is all about (though, using Language of Brances). Then one is far from unifying any basic concept that will close the gaps between Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism .. And within this concept, Jewish assumptions include rebirth – reincarnation as a natural element since the concept is a basic spiritual concept and not a basic material. concept.

    So if one dare to open your mind for a moment and look into it, we might find some fundamental similarities between these religions.

    Kjell Tidslevold

    • kt@rg.no
      kt@rg.no  February 23, 2020

      correction,,,to the above,,,”,,,,,,,just look at the old Kabbalah concept, which talks about the souls descending and ascending and describes an inner process,,,”

  17. Avatar
    veritas  February 23, 2020

    Dr.Ehrman, questions 9 and 10 seem very personal and pointed directly to you. This journalist feels/them that it is your duty, along with other scholars, to provide solutions for sufferings in our world. I am not sure you answered it, unless “finding your own path” is the answer. This only suggests survival of the fittest. In that case, only half the world will have this chance because the other half lives in extreme poverty and virtually no opportunities, so their lives will be cut short due to illness, disease, hunger, violence and thus finding meaning means surviving. My question is also of a personal nature. Are you totally convicted, today , that there is * NO GOD* and we came into existence by chance taking into consideration your religious experience at fifteen and how it shaped part of your character/belief ?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2020

      Yes, that’s my belief. But I’m always open to changing my mind. I think ultimately there is suffering because we live in a cruel, capricious, and uncaring universe. But some of us get it lucky. Lucky us. But awful for the mass of humanity throughout the history of the world.

  18. Avatar
    Boltonian  February 24, 2020

    Mmm – cruel and and capricious are words that imply agency. The world just is. My view is that we know very little and what little we think we know will one day be overturned (with the possible exception of the second law of thermodynamics – at least according to Einstein). My wife is a Therevada Buddhist and believes in re-incarnation and karma. I am a determinist and, therefore, cannot accept karma as anything other a human attempt to explain suffering (not least because of the problem of infinite regression). As for re-incarnation – it is possible but so are lots of things for which we have no evidence. What will we come back as? A human being or something else? A biologist friend once said to me: there are genes; the individual organism; and the species; and the individual is the least important of the three in the great scheme of things. In that case why does the organism appear to have such a thing as consciousness? Why indeed! So many questions and all answers are facile, which is why I am agnostic.As Socrates is supposed to have said,’ I know nothing but I know that I know nothing.’

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2020

      Yes, cruel and capricious are from the human’s oint of veiw, not from teh universe’s. It’s how it seems to us.

  19. Avatar
    jkk65  February 24, 2020

    Toward the end, they asked if you would collaborate with them to write a book on the Sutra and the New Testament and you politely declined. There is an increasing number of books about Buddhism and Christianity but I noted that specialized books with a more narrow focus on the Sutra and the New Testament are, admittedly, harder to come by. I would suggest that the editors could approach, among others, the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies (SBCS) . I am actually also part of this society’s governing board. I’m sure we can look for someone who could and is willing to collaborate on such a venture. See: https://www.society-buddhist-christian-studies.org/ . Contacts are under

  20. Avatar
    mtavares  February 24, 2020

    Your first response made me curious (particularly the part about finding our own meaning). Has Existentialism impacted you at all? I don’t think I’ve ever heard/read you discuss it. Curious if you have any thoughts on that school of thought and its major contributors.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2020

      Yes, I was very intrigued by existentialism for a while, and still am a big fan of Camus and Sartre.

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