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Buddhism and the Challenge of Addressing Real Suffering

Buddhism, as a philosophical and spiritual tradition, has long focused on the fundamental aspects of human existence, particularly the issue of suffering and how to transcend it. The core teachings of Buddhism, encapsulated in the Four Noble Truths, provide a framework for understanding suffering and finding a path to liberation from it.

However, as people grapple with the complexities of real-life suffering, the question arises: Can Buddhist tenets like the Four Noble Truths serve as genuine remedies for individuals experiencing profound personal pain and anguish?

The Buddhist Suffering versus the "Real, Personal" Suffering

Buddhist teachings emphasize the universality of suffering as a fundamental aspect of human existence. The First Noble Truth acknowledges the presence of suffering in our lives. The subsequent Noble Truths outline the origin of suffering, its cessation, and the path to end it.

While these teachings provide profound insights into the nature of suffering and its transcendence, there is a significant distinction between intellectual understanding and experiential knowledge.

When individuals engage with Buddhist texts to learn about suffering, they gain an intellectual grasp of the concepts, but this understanding often falls short when compared to the lived experiences of those facing real suffering such as feeling lost, struggling with depression, or coping with other mental and psychological issues.

The "suffering" as in four noble truths is not the same as "Hi, I'm suffering (now), need help!". It is in this gap between theoretical understanding and being in the front line of battling depression itself that the limitations of applied Buddhist teachings become apparent.

This discrepancy becomes even more evident in the context of communication with Buddhist-trained bots such as NORBU. Bots such as these has become the first "go to place" for those with psychological challenges as it guarantees privacy. They do this because they believe that getting help from a trusted but anonymous source is preferred to that of a human contact simply because of the fear of shame for exposing one's weaknesses.

While these bots may be well-versed in Buddhist tenets and principles, they may lack the essential qualities and skills required to function effectively as counselors or psychologists. The nuances of human suffering often demand a personalized and empathetic approach, something that automated systems may struggle to provide.

Here is a real case study of the interaction of someone asking questions on the "real suffering" he/she is experiencing versus how NORBU responded.

Q: Buddhism teach non-self, but my suffering is real. How to bear with my suffering? I feel like giving up.

12:09 pm - Sept 1, 2023

NORBU: Dear friend,

I understand that you're going through a difficult time. The teachings of the Buddha indeed emphasise the concept of non-self, but this doesn't mean that your suffering isn't real or valid.

The Buddha taught that suffering arises from attachments of many kinds in this world. When we unknowingly make attachments, we may find ourselves going to suffering again and again. This is a part of the human condition, and it's something that we all experience.

However, the Buddha also taught that there is a way out of this suffering. By understanding the nature of our attachments and observing how suffering comes to be, we can begin to free ourselves from the cycle of suffering.

A monk who meditates diligently, ardently, and resolutely may expect one of two results: final knowledge in this very life, or if there is anything left over, non-return. This means that through diligent practice and understanding, we can reach a state of enlightenment and freedom from suffering.

I encourage you not to give up. The path may be difficult, but the Buddha's teachings provide us with the tools to navigate our suffering and cultivate mental well-being. Remember, it's okay to ask for help and seek support when you need it.


Q: Talk is easy. But what if my suffering is caused by others being attached to me? I want to let go but they don't want to allow me?

12:10 pm - Sept 1, 2023

NORBU: In such a situation, it is important to remember that we each come and go according to our kamma. We do not ultimately belong to each other. We meet temporarily and then part, going our separate ways. It is crucial to understand that undue clinging and attachment can lead to more suffering.

If others are attached to you and causing you suffering, it may be helpful to communicate your feelings to them. Explain that their attachment is causing you distress and that it would be beneficial for both parties to let go. Encourage them to reflect wisely and reconcile with the change.

Remember, the Buddha taught that the way to end suffering is to end all forms of craving, which leads to rebirth. The end of craving is the end of rebirth, and thus the end of suffering.

You may find solace and guidance in the teachings of the Buddha as found in the Sutta Pitaka. For instance, the Upaadiyamaano Sutta teaches about the dangers of clinging to anything at all, as it leads to bondage (Upaadiyamaano Sutta).

The Khajjaniya Sutta provides insights on how to gain release from identification with the five aggregates (Khajjaniya Sutta).

Remember, it is not easy to let go, and it may take time for others to understand and accept this. Be patient and compassionate with them, as well as with yourself.


Q: If i tell them this, they will curse me and say that I am cruel. That I only think of myself and don't care about them.

12:11 pm - Sept 1, 2023

NORBU: In such a situation, it's important to remember that we cannot control how others react or feel. We can only control our own actions and responses. It's not about being cruel or selfish, but about understanding our own limitations and the need for self-care.

If the other person reacts negatively, it's crucial to maintain equanimity and not let their reaction dictate our actions or feelings.

Remember, we are not responsible for everything, and it's not healthy to carry the whole burden. It's okay to wish for more capabilities to deal with the situation, but we must also accept the situation as it is.

In dealing with difficult situations, it's important to not react each time the other person does something. Reacting to them is not solving the situation, in fact, it's making it worse. It's common sense logic. If the other person does it that way, it doesn't mean we have to follow suit.

Sometimes, people can't be changed, so instead of keeping on at it, it's best to have a healthy attitude and not let their reactions affect us. We can try to help the other person, but a lot of the time it doesn't work. So, instead of having two stubborn people, it's best that there is only one.

Remember, the only thing we can truly change is our own mind. So, focus on cultivating loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity, and altruistic joy within yourself. This will help you navigate through such situations with grace and wisdom.

From the conversation above, it indicates that there were clear dissonance between expected needs (from the questioner) and the actual response from NORBU. From the Buddhist aspect, NORBU has done admirably well. But from the counseling aspect, it has clearly fallen short.

Time for "Wellness Guardians"?

To bridge this gap, it is essential to consider the necessity of training Buddhist bots specifically in handling individuals with mental, social and psychological issues. Such training should encompass not only the theoretical aspects of Buddhism but also the practical skills required to address the diverse and complex nature of human suffering.

One potential solution could involve the establishment of an ethics committee comprising trained psychologists, counselors and psychiatrists. We could call this group "Wellness Guardians". This committee would serve as a resource for guiding the development and operation of Buddhist bots, ensuring that they are equipped to handle sensitive issues related to mental and psychological well-being.

This could mean coming up with disclaimers to inform the person interacting with it to seek qualified help even if the bot is providing satisfactory answers. An important contribution would be to establish language policies relating to signs of distress by identifying keywords that trigger the bot to respond in a wellness manner. Or perhaps at the end of the conversation, a contact list is provided that contains important information such as the phone number of Befrienders.

Collaboration with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the Befrienders, which specialize in providing emotional support and crisis intervention, is particularly critical as they could offer valuable insights into improving the capabilities of Buddhist bots. These organizations have extensive experience in dealing with individuals in distress and could provide valuable guidance on how to enhance the effectiveness of automated systems in addressing real suffering.

Feedback from these "Wellness Guardians" could then be used to train the bot to spot nuances in conversations that could indicate mental distress. The bot could then use Buddhist teachings to counsel the visitor, engage positively with him or her while keeping options open for enabling intervention by professional helpers.

NORBU, first touch to the end of suffering

From NORBU's experience this far, it is clear that ultimately, the role of Buddhist bots should extend beyond merely disseminating Buddhist teachings. They should actively open up avenues for individuals to access the help they need to navigate and overcome their personal suffering.

While Buddhism has long proclaimed the clarion call to overcome suffering, it is clear that its approaches to providing assistance to those in need are currently far from satisfactory.

Much more must be done to bridge the gap between theory and practice and to ensure that the principles of Buddhism can be effective tools in alleviating the genuine suffering experienced by individuals in today's world.


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