Friday, May 1, 2015

The Meaning of Suffering After the Nepal Earthquake, from a Nepalese Point of View

When a disaster like the earthquake in Nepal strikes, people deal with the effects in many ways—including through their faith. Since about 80 percent of Nepalese are Hindu, and many of the remainder are Buddhist, they view the disaster through those lens. I explored how people from those religions deal with disasters after the southeast Asian tsunami in 2004 and the Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

On November 1, 1755, an earthquake devastated Lisbon, Portugal. It devastated the city, killing around 60,000 people.

It not only shook buildings—it also rocked the very foundations of religious belief. It sparked vigorous debate throughout Europe about the nature of the universe (is it really benevolent?) and God (is God really good and loving?). 

In particular, the earthquake challenged the popular idea—promoted by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz—that if God is good, then the world that God created must be the best of all possible worlds.

(To this the French philosopher Voltaire offered a sarcastic reply: “One would have great difficulty in divining how the laws of movement operate such frightful disasters in the best of all possible worlds,” he wrote to a friend.)

The Lisbon earthquake occurred a long time ago. But today, in western countries that are heavily influenced by Christianity, many people still ask how God could allow such a thing as the Nepal earthquake to happen.

But that is not the kind of question being asked by people in Nepal, where most of the population is Hindu and Buddhist.

Adherents of both religions have a more fatalistic and stoic approach to life. It's not that they can't control what happens in their lives. But many things—both good and bad—are beyond their control. It’s how people respond to them that is important.

Nepalese Hindus can see the disaster and the suffering it caused as part of the broader context of a cosmic cycle of birth, life, destruction and rebirth—a process call samsara.

Of course, there is grief over the destruction and loss of life. As Atish Maniar, a Winnipeg Hindu priest, put it following the southeast Asian tsunami: “We grieve over the deaths of all those people killed,” but grief is tempered by the knowledge that they will “be reborn.”

As for God’s role in the earthquake or other disasters, Hindus don’t believe they are caused by God as a way to show displeasure with humans.  

“God is full of mercy—he would never punish anyone,” Maniar said.

Similarly, Buddhists don’t believe disasters are caused by God. Rather, they are part of a cycle of suffering that is to be transcended by followers of the Buddha.

Like Hindus, Buddhists also grieve the loss of life. But as former Winnipeg Buddhist pastor Fredrich Ulrich puts it, “the important thing is how we react to it.” 

Buddhists also believe in a process of rebirth, but they don’t believe people have eternal souls. There essence, or Karma, is passed on to a new human being who is born after they die.

This eastern view of responding to disasters was summed up by Shravasti Dhammika, a Buddhist monk from Australia, following the southeast Asian tsunami.

“How does Buddhism explain natural disasters like the tsunami?” he asked. 

“In a sense it does not have to explain them. It is only belief in an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful God that compels us to try to explain and explain away all the evidence that seems to contradict this belief.”

When God is taken out of the picture, he said, “the answer is really very simple. The universe does not conform to our desires and wishes. It takes no notice of us and our aspirations.”

Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, drought, disease, accidents—all these things just happen, he stated.

“We live in a dynamic universe and sometimes events are to our benefit, and at other times to our detriment. That’s the way the world is.”

Buddhism, he adds, “is not concerned with explaining why this is so. It simply makes the common sense assertion that the universe is sometimes at odds with our dreams, our wishes and our desires.”

For Canadians watching the response to the earthquake, knowing how different religions view suffering can help us understand the way they respond—and maybe even cause us to examine our own responses to similar bad experiences in life.

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