Dukkha ("suffering") is distinguished from pain, which can also be a kind of neutral feeling. What we call "physical pain," is defined by not simply its physical, but the aversion to pain. A Buddha, from what I remember, is said to feel physical pain but does not experience it mentally. Recognizing the physical interaction, but not labeling it, "I" or "mine", the pain has no existential meaning for him; in a sense, it does not exist. An analogy might be Arnold Schwarzanegger as the Terminator -- in one scene of the movie, when asked if he feels pain, he says coldly that he detects injury, but does not experience the emotional response humans call pain. Is this similar to the Buddha's own experience of pain?
But still, this doesn't negate the fact that scientific progress has an impact on suffering, because it removes various contexts in which craving might occur. I have heard descriptions of the lives of Egyptian laborers or those who built the Great Wall of China, or of the tribes in Africa today, and these kinds of primitive societies do not seem like they would make a person as happy as modern, prosperous nations. This coheres to what I've heard of psychology's view on the relationship between happiness and wealth: although extravagant wealth has no impact on happiness (the existence of luxuries does not remove craving, so no suffering reduced), but a basic subsistence, which could even be measured in dollars, does contribute to happiness. I think it's pretty naive, for instance, to actually believe the myth that Tibetans or Bhutanese can be dirt-poor, face political oppression, famine, disease, etc., and yet still be happier than average.
However, collectively it's a different matter. Nobody, as I see it, can deny that advancements in medicine, consumer technology (refrigerators, air conditioning, food canning, etc.), and economic advances has not reduced aggregate or collective suffering. Although a person in medieval times did not crave these things, if we could give them these things, it would make life better for them and possibly give them an opportunity for happiness (if they exist as slave laborers, etc.).
So, is science and the physical context in which suffering occurs not also important? If a scientist finds a cure for a major disease, does this not alleviate suffering at least as much as a Dhamma talk? Shouldn't monks contribute to science, too, because of this?
Lampang wrote:I think we (humans) have a marked tendency to inflate our experience of suffering to whatever the bounds of existence will justify, and we're very inventive at finding reasons to suffer. We might think that our privileged first-worlder sitting in therapy, dosed up on Prozac, crying his/her eyes out with the injustice of it all is a moaning old crybaby because, look, here's some real suffering in Darfur but that's not the point of suffering. It's a measure of our felt experience, not of the facts of our experience.
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