My friend Daijaku Kinst has highlighted the importance of asking the question “What makes Buddhist Chaplaincy Buddhist?” And, in doing so has helped to sharpen my own thinking about Buddhist praxis against the whetstone of practical consequence. Buddhist chaplaincy and Buddhist counseling operate in distinct contexts, however, and this reflection is more oriented toward the latter.
Peter Wehner’s recent essay “After Great Pain, Where Is God?” (NYTimes, 25 March 2017) is a sensitive and self-revelatory reflection on theodicy, though he does not use the technical theological terminology. As indicated by the title of his piece, however, informally we can say that theodicy is the attempt to understand the apparent contradiction between the realities of suffering and the idea that God is both all powerful over and loving of His Creation.
Wehner asserts that what Christianity offers those who suffer is consolation. First, the consolation of community. But (as discussed in an issue of Buddhist—Christian Studies), community is not an exclusvely Christian value.
Next, Wehner calls attention to the consoling quality of the transcedent, emphasizing its centrality for (contemporary) Christian thought:
• It is a core Christian doctrine that what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal, and that what is eternal is more important than what is temporal.
(The qualifying parenthetical “contemporary” is needed because it was not always so. By one reading of the history of theology, pre-Reformation Christianity had a much more imminent understanding of the sacred, the sharp divide between mundane and transcendent being a consequence of Reformation era theological positioning.)
Wehner also highlights the consolations of a personal sense of meaning and purpose that derives from the cosmology of the Creation:
• There is also, for me at least, consolation in the conviction that we are part of an unfolding drama with a purpose. At any particular moment in time I may not have a clue as to what that precise purpose is, but I believe, as a matter of faith, that the story has an author, that difficult chapters need not be defining chapters and that even the broken areas of our lives can be redeemed.
Doctrinally, theodicy is obviously not a Buddhist issue. It is tempting to say: No God, no Creation, no problem. But such a cavalier attitude fails to address the reality of suffering. Similarly cavalier is the idealist/mind science kind of interpretation of Buddhism that makes all suffering a matter of mistaken grasping. Such an interpretation easily leads to distancing oneself from another’s suffering by blaming the victim—and in exactly the same dynamic as an individualistic politics places the blame for poverty on an individual’s lack of initiative. If a person is viewed as suffering because of their own lack of initiative, then I am not responsible. One could construct a Buddhist version of this distancing based on the doctrine of karma.
Such responses would be particularly inappropriate in the context of chaplaincy, which requires a sensitivity to the religious sensibilities of the client. But, they are I believe also inappropriate in the context of Buddhist counseling. The conslations of a supposedly hard-headed realism—everyone suffers, get over it—are perhaps more ego-sustaining to the speaker than the hearer. (And, no Buddhism is not all about eradicating the ego.)
But, speaking personally, I do think that a cosmology that integrates suffering as a natural consequence of impermanence, one that is not constructed around the mundane—transcendent dichotomy, avoids entirely the problematics of a counseling based on consolation. Specifically, the necessity for faith, and the fear and anguish around its loss, which Wehner also discusses with sensitivity.
Wehner closes by noting that an awareness of the universality of suffering, which in his theological reflection includes the suffering of God through the crucified Jesus, leads to mercy and compassion. Here we find an orthogonal point of convergence between the two traditions. While the two conceptual frameworks remain distinct—a dualistic cosmology as contrasted with a nondual one—sensitivity to the universality of suffering lead to a similarly human, rather than doctrinal, response of mercy and compassion.