Every spiritual tradition contains, at its core, profound human truths. Indeed, I learned this as part of my religious education in Catholic schools, as the curriculum included exploration of many religions.
Buddhism, in particular, reduces the complexity of human suffering to the Four Noble Truths, and its Eight-Fold Path offers an elegant prescription to escape suffering and attain enlightenment.
For the past two years, I have found myself drawn to the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. Vedanta and Buddhism, incidentally, are both schools of Hindu philosophy: the former being one of six orthodox schools; and the latter, one of five heterodox schools. Of course, these very branches have further sub-branches.
Vedanta, as its name would imply, pertains to the Vedas, sacred Hindu texts. The term Advaita means “non-dual.” Advaita Vedanta illuminates a path to a powerful and transcendent experience of the world.
Like Buddhism, Vedanta has an elemental framework for understanding suffering. The Five Kleshas, or poisons, explain how suffering comes about.
The first of the five, Avidya, ignorance, represents a failure to understand the true nature of reality. The second, Asmita, denotes self-absorption and an individual’s misconception of who and what he or she is. Raga, or attachment, causes us to crave or grasp for things that are ultimately only transitory. Conversely, Dvesa, represents aversions to things that we fail to understand as insubstantial and impermanent. Finally, Abinivesah is a dread of death. Many teachers of Vedanta add the fitting coda that the latter four kleshas are merely particular manifestations of the first.
Without doubt, many complexities lie beneath the simplicity of this list, as well as in our very nature as human beings. Still, we can associate nearly every negative feeling–every unnecessary strain on our being–to these five concepts. Our capacity to transcend suffering comes directly from our ability to understand the underlying reality of everything, including ourselves.
An important clarification helps here: suffering and pain are not the same phenomenon. Pain is a natural and necessary part of life. Suffering, however, is a harmful spiritual response to pain. An author and teacher who is local to me, Swami Tadatmananda, aptly explains that we feel pain when we watch sad movies, but we do not suffer for this experience because we are detached from–but clearly not indifferent to–the action we witness on the screen. Similarly, a proper understanding of our own nature and of our world facilitates a detachment that enables us to experience pain without suffering.
While I am not trained nor even well read in the teachings of Vedanta, I see the Five Kleshas as a gateway to a faithful conception of our reality and a healthy empathy with everything in it.