Recently I visited a member of our congregation who was in the hospital. After leaving his room, I stepped onto the elevator and noticed two women standing quietly at the back of the elevator. Each was carrying a bag that displayed a local Buddhist temple. Politely, I said to the woman standing closer to me: “Hello, I see the bag you’re holding with the Buddhist temple on it — are you a Buddhist?” With some hesitation in her voice, she responded, “Yes, I am.” Having received her affirmative response, I asked another question: “I have studied Buddhism and the teachings of the Buddha, and if you don’t mind me asking — do you believe the traditional teaching of Buddhism that all of life is suffering?” Before she responded she looked at me, looked at her friend, and then looked at me again and said, “Yes, we believe that.” I replied with a simple, though intentionally provocative, “thank you, have a pleasant day” as they stepped off the elevator. I was left standing with two innocent bystanders who were forced to endure the conversation I initiated in their presence, and I thought I would provide some sort of conclusion to the “religious” conversation by saying, “Well, I suppose it is appropriate that they, believing all of life is suffering, are in a hospital.”
The orthodox Buddhist teaching called “dukkha” is the first principle in the fourfold path. Buddhism affirms that suffering is caused by desire, and in order to overcome the suffering we face in all of life, we must eradicate desire from our lives by following the “middle way” (magga). The middle way consists of the “noble eightfold path” through which the Buddhist attains nirvana, a condition beyond the limits of one’s mind and feelings in which one is enlightened to a state of personal bliss — and Buddhists admit that there are very few who have ever reached the state of nirvana.
The first principle of Buddhism is consistent with its denial of a creator. In Buddhism there is no single, almighty God who created the world. It is completely appropriate, then, for Buddhists to assert that all of life is suffering. Indeed, without the existence of God, not only would all of life be suffering, life simply would not be. For the Buddhist, truth is found in himself as he tries, with all his might, to attain nirvana. He has no foundation of truth, nor does he have a way of confirming that which he thinks is true. Rather, only those who, by selfish desire, try to reach nirvana so they that can do away with desire so that they can do away with suffering, can be sure of the fact that truth is definitely uncertain. Such confusion is not exclusive to Buddhism. Indeed, any system of thought that is devoid of God Almighty as the Creator and Sustainer of all things, has no foundation and, therefore, no place for truth. Those who affirm such a system must necessarily admit that, without God, all of life is suffering. For without God in one’s understanding of life and the after-life, the reason for existence itself is vague, at best.
At the outset of God’s special revelation, God Almighty establishes the fundamental truth that He is the Creator of all things. With magnificent simplicity, we read these words in the opening lines of Genesis: “In the beginning, God….” And just a few lines later, we read the repeated refrain: “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
In glorious splendor, the eternal God of glory spoke the heavens and the earth into existence — light and water, plants and animals, the moon and the stars. Where nothing existed, God manifested His sovereignty and created life. Carefully forming human life, the Lord God omnipotent breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (2:7). The covenant God of creation gave man dominion over all the earth, and He blessed man with the gracious mandate to be fruitful and multiply. He placed man in the bountiful garden of Eden, surrounded by God’s provisions of splendor and beauty. Indeed, all of life was good. However, that all of life was in fact “good” was not a diagnosis made by created man. It was good precisely because God said it was good.
By virtue of being created in the image of God, man knows inherently that God is the foundation of all that is good. Moreover, man knows inherently that God is the foundation of all truth. Before suffering entered the world as a consequence of the fall, God created life and proclaimed all of life to be good, indeed “very good” (1:31). As a result of the sin of Adam, sin flooded the world through the minds and hearts of those made in God’s image. Without question, in this fallen world, as a result of sin, we suffer in this life, sometimes miserably. Nevertheless, if fallen man knows God, he knows the truth, for the Word of God is truth (John 17:17). And if we know the truth of God and abide in the truth as defined by God — not defined through our own enlightened pursuit of self-maintained truth — the truth shall set us free (John 8:32). Though we will continue to live with hearts and minds corrupted by the fall until Christ returns and establishes the new heavens and new earth, we will live as a free people in Christ our Savior, our great Shepherd, who came and gave His life for us so that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).