The Society

Beyond Suffering

Svitlana Gavrylenko – Ukraine

The Society BS 2 Svitlana photo

In the middle Svitlana, on her left Nancy Secrest and on her right Karolina Maria Kotkowsk (Hess). Photo was taken in Krakow, Poland during a trip to the birthplace of Nancy's grandparents. Karolina wrote dissertation about the history of TS in Poland

Dear Brothers and Sisters, it is a great privilege and honor for me to have this opportunity to address to you at the TOS Session of the 143 annual Convention.

First of all, I would like to point out that TOS efforts reflect the Theosophical Society's worldwide spiritual maturity and altruistic devotion, just like selfless devotion and service for the sake of common good is a measure of spiritual maturity and disciple qualification or efficacy of each individual aspirant, including each of the TS members.

Certainly, we perform our service not only as a part of ТОS activities, and this, by the way, should not be ignored. For example, currently, in our country, the voluntary movement associated with long military and humanitarian crisis has widely spread. However, there is a tendency not to present such TS voluntary service activities as TOS.

Now, I would like to talk about what the suffering means. According to Wikipedia, "suffering" is a set of extremely unpleasant, burdensome or painful sensations experienced by a living being which are associated with physical and emotional discomfort, pain, stress or torments. According to Explanatory dictionary, suffering is a physical or moral pain or torment.

Suffering is familiar to each person. It's unlikely that someone succeeded in escaping it. Many people think that the suffering is never-ending, that it is an endless labyrinth. In the course of suffering, the person makes efforts to get rid of sufferings. However, very often, these efforts bring in even more sufferings subsequently, both to the person himself/herself and to other living beings. We beat about the bush as long as we place the blame for our sufferings on external circumstances and other people.

The Biblical myth maps the source of suffering back to the eating of the Apple of Discord and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. The first discomfort they felt was their nudity which made them hide from God. Thus, the suffering is a tool of evolution which allows to get trained, to get experience on how to overcome this unpleasant condition. What is the nature of suffering? We will try to categorize information about the nature of suffering. If we take a look at animal or at early men, the basic sources of their sufferings were illness, physical trauma or threats to their very life. These conditions generated pain and fear. These were the dominating factors of suffering. After the individualization of man, in the process of the development of psychic sphere of life, mental experiences began to prevail over the physical ones.

Even in the foreseeable period of history, we see how the medieval customs led to disrespected honor and dignity of a person which became a source of sufferings, torments and grief. We are familiar with a genre of French romance novels describing sufferings due to unrequited love, infidelity or jealousy. Contemporary youth perceives these stories with irony. Times have changed. Today it is possible to define the broken self-respect or hurt false pride as the dominating tone of suffering. The sufferings associated with so-called "creativity torments" are increasing.

We can see that the evolutionary progression of a mankind is associated with the change of the dominant in the very nature of suffering. Is there any consistent pattern in such a development? Can we say that the suffering makes us moving to a certain direction?

When I was informed that the topic of this session is "Beyond Suffering", I first looked the meaning of the word "BEYOND" up in the dictionary. The word "suffering" was familiar to me. However, I would like to thank the English language for the variety of nuances provided by the word "beyond" which is especially pronounced in a combination of words "beyond suffering".

[BEYOND = Further away than-On the far side of Later than / After Greater than-In addition to In the distance Above / Over Outside /Outward]

Let's take a look at the Christian concept of suffering. The Doctrine of Christ teaches us that the suffering inevitably accompanies man in the course of his/her life and that it is a result of his/her sinfulness. The suffering is inevitable because the sinfulness is not only an acquired, but also inherited quality of man. The Christianity teaches us that the suffering purifies the soul and considers the suffering to be a ladder for a spiritual ascension. Christianity teaches us to be merciful to those who suffer, calls for giving alms to the needy. It offers individual relief from suffering and sins through repentance and forgiveness. These recommendations have powerful transformation potential; they are able to awaken the conscience, the internal moral code of a person, to awaken its latent internal divinity.

This is the way out to the position out of suffering which is just being dissolved and disappeared. Why the results achieved in two thousand years are so modest? Maybe because despite the deep truth which is embedded in this formula, the Christian church makes money from selling the indulgences.

Now, let us turn to Buddhist tradition. Buddha also taught us that the suffering is inevitable in man's life. Desires, passions as well as ignorance, lack of knowledge of the true nature of things are the reasons of sufferings. Compassion towards the sufferers is a duty of each true follower of the Buddha Doctrine. In order to get rid of sufferings, it is recommended to get rid of desires and to acquire the ability to distinguish various manifestations of the surrounding world. These recommendations also possess an internal transformation potential and induce the person to establish control over his/her lower nature, to shift the consciousness focus to the mental level, to the level of observer. And to take the position outside or apart from things that delivered sufferings.

In The Voice of Silence, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky describes seven gates through which the traveler should pass who has the courage to follow the spiritual way. It's just the middle, the fourth gate, Vairagya which opens a way to acquiring the indifference to pleasure and suffering. Certainly, in this fragment, the internal way is described and the indifference concerns first of all the personal suffering of man. The point is that in order to develop the wisdom of perceiving various life lessons and the understanding of causal relationships, the person should drain the cup of his/her grief and should reach the threshold of suffering. Such indifference is a consequence of the apperceptive life experience; thus for such a meaning, the word combination "after suffering" is more appropriate. In addition, we should not forget that it is only the middle of the Spiritual Way.  

What does the overcoming of sufferings and going beyond the suffering limits bring about? First of all, compassion, mercy and sympathy. The suffering refines the soul of the person and makes his/her heart open. 

The suffering allows the person to clear and pacify his/her personal nature in order to enable the manifestation of his/her divine qualities, the higher merits and virtues. It is only then when we can help others to rise above themselves. In today's world, a lot of people are ready to demonstrate their compassion to the needs of a mankind and to other kingdoms of nature on our planet; they unite for joint actions, and the influence of such associations steadily increases every year. It is a kind of one of aspects in the modern globalization process. Our planet is called a vale of grief; however it is also a forge for Bodhisattvas.

On the one hand, the suffering can be understood as the manifestation of person’s weakness, lack of ability to control himself/herself, to soberly evaluate the circumstances and his/her own capabilities, to take over the responsibility for his/her deeds. In addition, it often happens that a person succumbing to such weakness runs into depression or apathy. He/she accuses the entire world, begins drinking or taking drugs because he/she is unable to cope with himself/herself.

It means the loss of control over himself/herself when strong-willed efforts cannot make a way through a veil of gloomy thoughts and feelings. The Atman does not have a power to affect the personality. To be more exact, the personality becomes unreceptive to the own higher nature. Sometimes, a short-sighted and willing to help person starts consoling a friend and takes over the responsibility for solving the problem that causes the suffering to the dear. For example, what is the reaction of parents in the situation when their child does not know how to fasten his/her shoelaces? Often, being in a hurry, the parent himself/herself fastens the shoelaces. Because it's easier for him/her. He/she thereby offers his/her help to the dear which only makes the child weaker and more dependent on other people and circumstances.

Under the circumstances, in case of strong emotional outburst, the best option for the compassionate help is to wait quietly and kindly, and then to follow with a friendly discussion. In case of chronic depression, it is recommended to gradually return the person to the positive perception of the world through dialogue with the Beautiful – arts, music, nature or poetry.

On the other hand, the suffering can be perceived as the manifestation of strength of the person. It is a kind of a check of his/her virtue of stability, indestructibility or firmness. By overcoming the suffering, the person becomes more human, more loving and wise. He/she apprehends his/her strengths and weaknesses better and becomes a master of his/her personality. It goes without saying that it is possible and necessary to help him/her in such an effort. What could be the compassion in such a case? I would like to refer to classics. The Bible provides a perfect example. God tested Job and delivered a terrible blow to him. All Job's children have died. His body became covered with ulcers, and he appeared sitting on a mound of manure. Then, his friends arrived to console him. However, what did they do? They sat down at a distance from him, and they have not said a single word to him for seven days. It was the manifestation of the compassion containing the power. In this case, we can use the following wording: to rise over the suffering.

Such compassion is demonstrated by the surgeon, experienced psychologist or lawyer. Such strategy is often applied by spiritual guides to their disciples.

Now, my dear friends, I would like to establish the association between what I’ve just said about the suffering and the activity of ТОS. Charitable activity is an internal need for many of us. Moreover, at a certain stage of a spiritual way, the selfless disinterested aid for the sake of common good becomes the natural life style, the line of the least resistance. Such activity is rather art, than just work or fulfillment of duty. We should always focus our efforts on the elimination of causes of sufferings, and not just on the correction of consequences. The causes are in the sphere of person's perception of the world. We should learn how to make our charity, both individual and collective, not indulging weaknesses of a person, not creating his/her dependency on other people or circumstances. Our aid and participation should promote the finding the power of love by those for whom it is assigned.

I think that the priority directions of charity include nurturing and education, enlightenment, public involvement in joint creative or charitable activity.

In summary, it is necessary first of all to emphasize the following:

  • The suffering of man is inevitable; it is associated with the very nature of our self-being. This is the way our personal nature is reacting to the impact of the surrounding world and is apprehending this world and itself.
  • Suffering experience develops the spiritual sphere of person by opening his/her heart to love, compassion and mercy.
  • To show compassion to other person or to the nature is an uneasy task which requires experience, wisdom, patience and ingenuity.

I would like to wish each of us to develop such qualities and skills for implementing them successfully in our work for our Order of Service.

Let's master this art of compassion together.

I wish a lot of success to all of us!

[Svitlana Gavrylenko delivered this talk at the 143rd International Convention of the Theosophical Society in Adyar (2018-2019), during the Theosophical Order of Service (TOS) Session]

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