In Life, there is always suffering

February 22, 2004

By Michael Jessen

The Buddha's first teaching after his enlightenment begins with the words, "Friends there is suffering."

According to the Buddha, there are four things that we need to understand about suffering:

First, the full extent of its existence.

Second, why we suffer as we do.

Third, that in reality suffering is not what we think.

And, finally, that it is suffering alone that holds the key to genuine liberation.

While we all live our lives with some level of distress be it emotional, economic, physical or psychological, our primary instinct is to escape it. To make "it" go away. We chase after happiness to replace our suffering. Suffering, who wants to understand something so painful?

"Many of us have to endure unresolvable situations -- painful relationships that will not be healed, physical illness or disability that resist treatment, emotional problems that won't go away, the constant pain and sorrow of those around us, and the fear and seemingly perpetual agonies of our world," writes Reginald Ray, Professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University. (See

"Within this context, what is the possible value of affirming the existence of suffering?" Ray asks.

We fulfill our life's ultimate purpose only through our relation to suffering. How we respond to suffering says a lot about our character, especially when the suffering is not our own. Do we willingly stand up and be counted? Or do we decide to go out a buy a new, shiny and expensive toy to amuse ourselves into oblivion?

I write this regular column because I understand the Earth is suffering at the hands of human greed, ignorance, and indifference. Each incidence of suffering can be ameliorated or eliminated by changes in human behaviour. Being at one with our own suffering, someone else's, or that of the Earth enriches our lives, gives us purpose, and grows a sense of accomplishment. "I did something" is so more meaningful than "I did nothing."

In the Nelson locale, there is no shortage of suffering that requires our attention -- the personal suffering of Mary-Jo Fetterly who sustained a serious spinal cord injury while skiing on January 25 (see A fund-raising event for the Fetterly family was held February 21, but donations can also be made online.

The proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort ( has many Kootenay people worried about the plan to convert 5,000 hectares of roadless wilderness into an intensive recreational development capable of entertaining 10,000 people daily. (See,, and for further information.) A public meeting about the project is scheduled for March 11 in Nelson.

On a more global scale, Burma is on my mind after seeing Isabel Hegner's 2002 film Burma: Anatomy of Terror at the recent Second Annual Nelson Amnesty International Film Festival. Amnesty International's ( Pacific Region web site has dates and times for the travelling film festival.

The film investigates the devastating effects of thirty years of military rule in a country once known for its physical beauty and rich culture, and now, is on the brink of collapse. Narrated by actor and activist Susan Sarandon, the film chronicles the rise of the socialist government of Burma (renamed the Union of Myanmar).

Hegnerís documentary relates the experiences of two very different proponents of democracy -- Robin, a freedom fighter who has fought the regime with armed ethnic groups, and National League for Democracy party leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Soo Kyi.

Ms. Soo Kyi spent a decade under house arrest after her party won a democratically held election in 1990. She was released from house arrest in May 2002 and allowed to travel freely in the country, but was placed under house arrest again in 2003. A news report from Radio Australia ( quotes Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra saying he expects Ms. Suu Kyi would be released again before the Asia-Europe summit in Hanoi on October the 8th. Asian and European foreign ministers last year jointly demanded that the pro-democracy leader be released as part of national reconciliation in Burma.

An Amnesty International chronicle of events in Burma in 2002 is available at Like Hegner's film, it details the torture, deplorable treatment of political prisoners, forced labour, and extrajudicial executions of many of the country's 47 million inhabitants. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has stated that Burma is one of several countries noted for "systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom."

Among the grim statistics revealed in Hegner's film are:

 One in 29 Burmese people is HIV positive.

 Only 28 cents per child is spent annually on education in Burma.

 About 60% of the country's budget is spent on the military when the country has had no foreign enemies for years.

 About 60% of heroin on sold on United States streets comes from Burma.

 Many Burmese children are still dying annually of typhoid, cholera, and malaria.

On February 18th, human rights activist Ka Hsaw Wa detailed rampant human rights abuses in Burma at a talk to Georgetown University students in Washington, DC (see He graphically detailed his own experience of torture and abuse at the hands of the Burmese military government.

Throughout the speech, Hsaw Wa singled out multinational corporations, especially petroleum giant UNOCAL for exacerbating the human rights abuses in Burma through sponsorship of the Yadana pipeline. The Myanmar government is forcibly relocating people who live in the proposed path of the pipeline.

A small bit of good news is coming out of Burma. A senior opposition leader in Burma was recently released from prison and placed under house arrest. Tin Oo, vice chairman of the National League for Democracy, was moved from Kale prison to his house in the capital Rangoon, his family members said.

Since the 77-year-old Tin Oo had been held in Kale, in the remote northwest of the country, his family had expressed concern about the effects of his detention on his health. "He was handed over to his family by military intelligence personnel late last night (February 14)," a source close to his family told the AFP news agency. "He is a bit thin but in good health."

Tin Oo was arrested May 30th last year together with dozens of fellow party members, including party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, after an NLD convoy touring northern Burma was attacked by a pro-government mob.

The military government - facing strong international protests - has so far released over 150 people detained after incident, although Aung San Suu Kyi, NLD chairman Aung Shwe and party secretary U Lwin are all still detained in one manner or another.

It has also recently pledged a so-called seven-step "road map" to democracy and a new constitution - a move that has been welcomed by the international community. The plans include drafting a new constitution and eventual elections for a new parliament. The government says it intends to hold a national convention this year that will include representatives from all of Burma's ethnic minorities and political parties, including the NLD.

The NLD won general elections in May 1990 with a landslide victory, but the military prevented the party from assuming power. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991for her pro-democracy work, has been repeatedly jailed or put under house arrest since 1989.

Debbie Stothard, a spokeswoman for the human rights group Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, described the detention of Tin Oo as cruel. She said that despite his partial release, there were few signs of real political reform in Burma. "Essentially the top four leaders of the NLD are still under detention," she said. "They may be detained in the comfort of their own homes but the reality is, unless the regime is willing to release them unconditionally immediately and engage in substantive political dialogue, the situation has not shifted."

Most Burmese citizens are Buddhists, practising Theravada Buddhism (see They are familiar with Buddha's words about suffering, but as a people they still need help from the international community.

Edward W. Said, the world-renowned Palestinian intellectual who passed away recently once observed, "Look at a situation as contingent, not as inevitable, look at them as the result of a series of historical choices made by men and women, as facts of society made by human beings, and not as natural or God-given, therefore unchangeable, permanent, irreversible."

We all make historical choices during our lifetimes to either fight for our beliefs and convictions or to do nothing. It is important for each of us to embark on our own personal journey in search of truth, a journey that begins in our compassionate actions to assist the weak or those enduring hardships and suffering.

RESOURCES - The Interfaith Network for Human Rights is at

The Central Intelligence Agency's World Fact Book on Burma gives all the basic information about the country at

The Burma Project ( is an initiative of the Open Society Institute ( founded by George Soros.

The Free Burma Coalition is at

Free Burma is at It has a link to BurmaNet News with the latest news from Burma.

The Golden Land of Myanmar ( is a government web site.

The Burma Daily is at The Democratic Voice of Burma is at

The Online Burma/Myanmar Library is at

Judith Fearing (250-352-7600) is the contact for Amnesty International Nelson. Don Wright is the Regional Development Coordinator for the BC/Yukon region of Amnesty International. He can be reached at 604-294-5160 or by e-mail at

Post script - the March 9th edition of the Globe and Mail has the following story

Michael Jessen is a Nelson writer and consultant on sustainability issues. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at His Zero Waste Solutions business web site is found at

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