Can an individual transcend suffering while surrounded by collective suffering? One of the questions from a meditator.

Around 90 participants joined all or part of four days of Dharma teachings/practices in the Australian time zone between 24-28 September 2021 with Samantha from Melbourne and myself.

Meditators had the opportunity to ask questions either directly on Zoom, via the Zoom Chat column or by writing us an email.

One person sent me an email with five questions to respond to on Zoom. Here is the response. The transcription below includes editing and adapting from the spoken to the written word.

Five Questions on self, no-self and liberation

Questions: The Buddhist view is that suffering exists, and it can end. The Buddhist view is that there is no individual self.

  1. Is there such a thing as personal or individual liberation?
  2. Could any one individual transcend suffering, whilst they are surrounded by collective suffering?
  3. How could a person escape suffering when suffering and its conditions continue to exist in the world?
  4. What is the liberation the Dharma offers the individual?
  5. Is there no individual liberation until all beings are free?      

An interesting set of questions. I am going to go through this with you step by step. It will not be easy. Meditate on several questions I raise to break free from wanting a single answer to a single question. We often have a view. We think there is a singularity to the view. There is no singularity of any view including a Buddhist view. I can say this with authority of more than 50 years of intimate connection with the tradition.

There is no singularity of the political, social, religious, economic, view, nor of the pandemic view, scientific view or view of the global crisis. There will be a diversity of views. This is A response to the questions.

A view states suffering exists and it can end. The person writes: “There is no individual self.” This is a view.

These questions are an exploration. Are there any areas important to you? Do you notice in your language, spoken or written, a tendency towards making a generality of view?

We can assemble a view, such as a Buddhist view and we think this view is THE view. What is the impact of that on you? When is the impact on others? Do you introduce a generalised viewpoint to groups of people?

Let us have a quiet minute or two to reflect on the impact of making generalised statements/views.

Let us say we are not adopting a fixed view. We recognise a range of views about Buddhists, Muslims, political and much more. Are all views equal? If not, why not? In some of our circles, we hear such words as “You have your view. I have my view. That is your truth. This is my truth. Everybody has their own truth”

Do you have a concern with this view? What is your concern? Do we reduce all views down to the view “Everybody has a view.”

Be mindful. Meditate upon the issue. What is the problem with one view, different views and no view? Are you holding tightly to a particular viewpoint? What is the shadow of holding to a view? What is the shadow of a rigid standpoint? What is the shadow of a dogmatic opinion?

Do we hear such dogmatic views? How do we respond? Do we express such views?

A Buddhist view says that suffering exists and it can end. A Buddhist view says there is no individual self. Is there such a thing as personal or individual liberation?

I will make a short response to this. Often Middle Eastern religions refer to personal salvation within the context of religious views and beliefs. Such people of faith might say they feel saved. This is salvation or personal liberation. What might be your concern about the view of personal salvation, personal liberation?

These are not easy questions.

The discourses of the Buddha run to around 10,000 discourses, some of which run to a few paragraphs, a few verses or to several pages. The Buddha did not give teachings, as far as I understand, of no individual self or teachings there is an individual self.

What is the significance of this? What happens when we grasp hold of one position? We keep facing the opposite either within ourselves or with others.

Do we get stuck in one side of a binary – meaning a dualistic viewpoint?

Let us not set up self against no-self. One view claims an individual and another view claims no individual.

Could any one individual transcend suffering whilst they are surrounded by collective suffering?

The first part of the questions takes up the assumption of the self. There is the view of an individual. The individual then takes up a view of being surrounded by collective suffering. Let us explore deeper than such questions with its generalities to support the question.

What is the problem with the view we are surrounded by collective suffering? What is our concern with this generalisation? If we have a generalisation, a stereotyped perception of being surrounded by suffering, what is the impact on our consciousness? Keep repeating the generalisation to feel the impact on consciousness.

How could a person escape suffering when suffering and its conditions continue to exist in the world?

What is your response to the concern that there is no escape from suffering because suffering is all around us?

Is this true?

We must suffer because suffering is all around us? Isn’t this viewpoint fatalistic and deterministic? The Buddha does not use the word escape. He preferred the word exit. Incidentally, he does not use the word detachment in his teachings.

Does a human being have the potential to know the end of suffering despite the presentations from the world – another generalised concept.

Suffering can arise through the presentations of past, present and future.

Is it selfish to know the end of suffering involved in these three fields of time? Is this selfish or does it provide the opportunity for the human being to be of real service? There is an absence of personal neediness, absence of fears, worry and anger. Such a person has no need to engage in denial, repression or avoidance.

One is not requiring help to deal with one’s inner life. Release or an exit from so called personal suffering makes a significant contribution to the welfare of people, animals and the environment.

Do I have to end all my so-called personal suffering first before I can offer anything to the world? What is the concern about this kind of view?

Do I hold to the view that I work on myself first, I give priority to myself to dissolve suffering or transcend it?

When I have done that, then I can offer compassion, offer service. What is problematic with this view, which some people hold to?

What is the liberation the Dharma offers?

 Is there no individual liberation until all beings are free?

Personal liberation and collective liberation manifest in two Buddhist traditions. The so-called Hinayana (Small Vehicle) tradition and the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) tradition have different views.

Why would a human being want to take up either of these viewpoints? Dharma offers a liberation from both viewpoints even if used for more than 2000 years in the Theravada and Mahayana tradition, as well clinging to other viewpoints or fear of stating a viewpoint?

May our practice be mindful, so we do not fall into polarised viewpoints

The Buddha speaks of the causes and conditions bringing about suffering. We know experiences in our day, in which you and I, can put hand on heart and say “Right now, I do not experience any suffering. I am not unhappy. I am not depressed. I am not worried. I am not thinking too much. I am not agitated.”

This experience confirms knowing an absence of suffering revealed as peace of mind, happiness and kindness. That means, the causes and conditions for suffering are not present in such moments.

We cannot then say we are surrounded by collective suffering. We experience a deep harmony with the world around us in such times.

You have the recognition first-hand of the absence of suffering in your heart, states of mind, memory, presence and your regard for the future. You can say truthfully “Right now, I’m not engaged, not caught up, not lost in any kind of suffering.”

What is profoundly significant about it?

What impact does these moments have on generalities of view around suffering?

What does it say about the so-called personal self?

That is worth meditating on for a few years. We are not here to identify ourselves with one view and polarise ourselves against another. We are interested in liberation. Liberation recognises the polarity of views and our relationship to them. We may discover a fresh way of looking revealing deep values, deep kindness and a liberating wisdom.

During my years as a monk in Thailand, I went to talk to Ajahn Dhammadharo, my Vipassana teacher. Via the translator, I said to the teacher. “There is no archaeological evidence to confirm the Buddha existed. Maybe there was not a Buddha. Maybe the account is a romantic, spiritual/religious legend.”

The Ajahn smiled. Essentially, he said: “Who cares? The view whether the Buddha existed or not is not important. Dharma practice contributes to clarity, insight and wisdom. That is what matters. Does the practice work? That is what matters.”

One of these questions posed to you today may resonate. Live the question. There is never a singularity of the answer. We can know constant revelations. It is exciting to discover fresh ways of looking at situations and responding to them.

We do not have to be caught up in a polarity of views or a single view. That is the final word this morning on the important questions posed.

Let us not tie ourselves down and be rigid.

Lots of love to you all.


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