The Theosophical Forum – October 1938

THE MYSTERY OF PAIN (1) — A. Trevor Barker

After more than six hundred years before the beginning of our Christian era the great Sage Sakyamuni, whom we know through our historical records as Gautama the Buddha, lived and died in ancient Hindusthan, and he taught the origin of suffering; he taught what is its root; he taught what is the annihilation of suffering, and what is the means whereby you could enter upon that annihilation, what he called the four noble Truths. Most of the Buddha's teaching and philosophy centers around the explanation of those four noble Truths, and of the eightfold Path which he explained as the means towards attaining the great end, the emancipation from suffering. Therefore right at the outset of our consideration of the subject, we have not only the great ideal of the Buddha himself, but we have the statement which must ever be of the most tremendous encouragement to all who strive upon the upward Path. We have that statement of his that emancipation from the suffering of human misery such as we know it can be achieved even in this life. More, he went still farther in saying that if a man would sincerely enter upon the noble eightfold way, and strive to put into practice, and to make a reality, the eight conditions of that Path, even for a comparatively short while, such a man would receive the fruits of merit of that deed, and thereby would begin to feel the results in his own life.

Now, many of us have heard over and over again the statement of those qualities demanded by the eightfold Path. We are familiar with the noble Truths, and like many things that we have heard so often, sometimes the significance is missed by us, and we do not apply it. The realisation of the practical application of those great teachings does not seem to enter into the very being of us. Tonight we want to examine for a while in the light of Theosophy how we can apply the teaching of the Buddha to our own lives. We must remember that in the time of the Blessed One there was the Order, the holy company of the monks and ascetics, the Bhikkus, who followed in his footsteps; and of course his remarks were addressed largely to his disciples. Today in our own times it is amongst such Brotherhoods as Theosophical Societies that you will find those who are striving to tread that same eightfold Path. It is there that you will find that spiritual companionship that is so necessary as a support, as an encouragement, in all endeavor towards spiritual living.

Let us ask ourselves, therefore, first of all what change comes over the attitude of mind of one who has made a study and an application of Theosophical truth. How does it influence his attitude towards this mystery of human suffering? Well, friends, it is a very large question; but in the first place has it ever struck you how enormous is the amount of human misery that is caused by our attitude of mind to what we call God? Cast your mind back to your own childhood. Think of the amount of misery you suffered owing to the supposed wrath that you incurred of some Deity external to yourself, who was going to punish you. Now we Theosophists do not believe in that personal God of all the orthodox Churches. We do not believe in him because there is logically no room for him. If God, a being, was the omnipotent and omniscient creator and controller of this universe, then how are we to account for the presence of evil in our midst? We must of necessity hold him responsible for it if he is omnipotent, if he is all-wise, and if he is all-worthy. Therefore this is the first great idea that Theosophy gives to us as to the nature of Deity: In essence every man is a God. At the heart of his own being there is that living fire which exists at the heart of every created thing in this Universe.

Now whence, you may ask, are the laws of nature that obviously exist around us? We discover their existence when we break them and reap the penalty of so doing! Are those laws the will of a Creator? What are they? Theosophy gives one a very helpful symbol, a helpful image, whereby we can begin to understand the relationship of man to nature. According to that ancient teaching there exists nowhere in the Universe a Being who consciously controls by means of the laws of nature other created beings — you and me, in other words. We are told by the ancient Teachers that we shall get an absolutely wrong idea, and one harmful to ourselves and to our spiritual growth and progress, if we imagine God as a being somewhere outside of us, who is controlling our destinies.

How can we think about it? How can we begin to understand the problem? Why, first, friends, by studying ourselves. What are we? Look at this body of ours. We see, if we examine the teachings of science that it itself is a vast universe; that it is composed of millions upon millions of tiny lives, atoms, molecules, and structures of living, vibrating matter pulsing with life; and the teaching of Theosophy comes along and says that each of these tiny lives is instinct with the same life that imbues your own consciousness as a Thinker; that each of those tiny lives in vast and age-long evolution proceeds to unfold, to unwrap, the forces inherent in the very being of it, inherent in the heart of it; until it passes through all the stages of progress up to and including the power of conscious and deliberate choice of action and thought; that each of those tiny lives will be raised up to the level of a conscious Thinker.

Just for a moment let us think of ourselves as bearing the same relation to the unknown Deity that those tiny lives of our own bodies bear to the consciousness of the personal man. Here is a great thought for us, because actually if you consider that relationship, you can see it is most unlikely that to those tiny lives any complete consciousness is possible of the man who lives and uses the body which they compose and build up. All that they know is that there is a central will, a central force, and certain laws — call them laws of nature if you will — which work. Can they possibly have any conception of the God within who uses that body of flesh and blood as a means of locomotion, as a means of action, as a means of thought and feeling and service to other human beings? Not at all. Such an idea must be for them merely an inferential possibility, if they can think at all.

Now that is exactly our relation to the unknown Deity. His conscious power to control anything, anywhere, must be for us a mere inferential possibility, and therefore we rid ourselves once and for all of the bogey of a conscious Being controlling and directing our destinies, and we look for a grander, truer, more spiritual teaching which will enable us to realize ourselves in the sense and meaning of the ancient Delphic Oracle: "Man, know thyself." Man know yourself to be what you are in your innermost spiritual essence. That is our problem, and that ultimately must hold the meaning and explanation of suffering; for after all what is it that suffers? Man is not only a body. We know that the body suffers, but there is something more permanent, more real — the Eternal man transcending the body: the man that passes from body to body and life to life, and even from planet to planet, and world to world, and solar system to solar system, in the age-long pilgrimage upon which he is bound.

That brings us to the second thought that I want to put before you: that the change that takes place in a man when he studies Theosophy in regard to the problem of human suffering is tremendously influenced by the great doctrine of Reimbodiment, or Reincarnation. We do not believe that man has only one short life to live on this planet, because such an idea is an absolute denial of all justice. Do we not often see the sinner dying in his sin and from our point of view never having received any adequate punishment — to use the term — for all the evil he has done? On the other hand, as we look about us and study ourselves, do we not ask: although the purpose of life is not only progress but perfection, how many of us reach perfection at the end of one short life? Obviously so few that it is not worth considering. Therefore when we hear for the first time that great doctrine of Reincarnation by which the eternal, inner, real man comes again into tabernacles of flesh to take up his life, take up his task where he left it off, then we get another key which will help us to understand human suffering.

And the third key that I want to put before you is that other doctrine, Karma, as they call it in the East: the doctrine by which that eternal man, that reincarnating entity, does represent every single result of every cause that he created during any one particular earth-life. We do not admit the possibility that man does actually endure suffering which is unmerited. Unmerited from his point of view it may be, yes, because we do not bring back to this life, as you know, a recollection of previous lives. Why is that? Simply because we have now a new brain, we have a new mechanism of consciousness, which has not received the impress and record of the previous lives that have been led; and therefore the man in his new body does not remember. But the real man remembers and sees the essential justice of his human experience.

Bearing these three main ideas in mind: the nature of the Deity, the law of Reincarnation, and the law of Karma, what would you teach a child about the idea of pain? It is a very fundamental question that. What would you teach a child? Well, perhaps it is not a question that is very easy to answer, but I think the first great lesson that any child should learn is to gain the habit and power of not identifying itself with discomfort, with pleasure, as a matter of fact, or with pain. You will say perhaps that is a bit of a counsel of perfection for a tiny child, but it is not so: tiny children do respond in the most wonderful and impersonal way if you go the right way about it and teach them, to use the ancient Eastern simile, to regard pain for themselves with indifference; to be to themselves in regard to pain as the stone of the mango. At the same time inculcate the idea that, while they are hard and indifferent to the pain which comes to them they should be soft as the fruit in the pulp of the mango to every cry of pain and every cry of distress that they hear from another outside of themselves. You will find that even a tiny child will respond to that idea, and will learn the first great lesson: that for it pleasure and pain are equal and opposite; things to be experienced merely, but never to be identified with to the point of losing hold of the calm spirit within their own heart as a guiding light in their own lives.

Remember that directly pain or pleasure gains the power over us to distract our spiritual meditation, then it begins to represent evil for us; and therefore the earlier that we can get hold of the impersonal idea towards pain the better it is for us. Some people may think that it is not possible to apply this principle with a tiny child, but I will give you a little example because it shows you how the great teaching of Theosophy can be applied in life. Little children are always tumbling about, always hurting themselves, always bursting into tears, are they not? — as they learn to walk and so on. Well, what are you going to do about it? A tiny child will respond to the idea that he may have hurt that which he bumped up against, and in distracting the attention of the child to the consideration of the damage that he has done to his father's furniture, for instance, lo and behold! you find the child has forgotten all about the bump that he has received. And so with the Spirit of man: while his thought is turned ever and eternally away from himself he forgets the personal, as he forgets the bumps and bruises and the unpleasantnesses of life; and he becomes detached from objects of sense, and his heart begins to enter on the Way of Peace. That after all is the meaning of all teaching, of all Theosophy.

Shall we be always subject to pain? In answer, you have the teaching of the Blessed Buddha, who won complete enlightenment in this life, and lived in imperishable and eternal bliss while walking the ways of men. He gave it as a promise to all who followed in his footsteps: that they should realise here and now, when they had gone through the necessary steps of purification, that life was no longer a mystery of pain; they would then experience right in the core of their own being the ineffable joy and bliss that actually are at the heart of all existence. Do not think that that is merely a figure of speech. I do not mean it so. If Theosophy means anything at all, it means just that profound realisation in the lives of individual Theosophists that they have an understanding, that they have a peace, that they have a joy in spiritual living which takes them in consciousness away — literally away — from all the unpleasantness of life, and turns it into one endless progression of lessons and experiences.

Think what the Theosophical conception really means! Probably a true understanding of the mystery of pain is not realised, and cannot be understood, until the age-old Path is entered and the man begins to take hold of his own lower nature, and studying it he begins to realise the blessing of pain. After all, all entry into new life is caused through pain or through death. Death of what? Why, the death of the lower elements of being. All growth and progress is a turning away of mind from that which has been, to that which is to be; and what does this mean? It means a parting from the habits of mind, and the states of being, and the modes of action, to which we are accustomed. It means that we are prepared, having seen the light, and something more and better, to relinquish our old methods and old habits of mind and being. In that moment we die: the spiritual life is a constant dying, a constant death upon the cross of our material being. Is that a miserable thing? Is that an unhappy thing, as the Christian scriptures have rather taught us to believe? Not at all, because it simply means a giving up of the things that are not essential in our lives. We give up that which for the time being we think important, which we think has significance for us, because we realise that this giving up is in accordance with and in harmony with the higher law.

Then what happens? In a little while, after we have passed through the strangeness and the quietness that succeed an entry into a new state of being, we realise that the suffering that we have gone through has merely brought forth blossoms and buds of spiritual life in ourselves, and we realise that there is not one single experience of pain that we pass through in this small life of ours but has a peculiar significance to the man who is treading the noble eightfold Path. And I speak particularly to the one who is a spiritual aspirant — because the meaning of pain is missed, is passed by, by those who have not got the conscious spiritual guidance by which to direct their lives — that until you have learned to subordinate every single action in life to your inner spiritual purpose, you won't understand the meaning of the pain; but directly you have learned that lesson, then comes the realisation that those things in your life which have been the hardest, the most difficult to cope with, are the very things which have given you the power, the capacity, the knowledge, the sympathy, and most of all the understanding, with which to help your fellow pilgrims upon that same Spiritual Path that you yourself are beginning to tread. It is one of the deepest mysteries of the great subject of pain, how every experience of life tends towards the development of some faculty, some power, of the inner Spiritual being, which will enable you to help some brother one step farther upon the Path.

Let us turn back for a moment with that thought in mind to the inner nature of man, because Theosophy has such a sublime teaching, and it is this: that the very progress of the inner nature of man towards perfection is dependent upon the effort of that inner man to raise first of all his own material being to the condition where that lower man is a fit tabernacle for the God that exists within; and as a further stage beyond that: progress of the inner man depends upon his identification with the God who broods over him and in his own heart. Now the progress of that inner God also depends — and here is one of the great teachings of Theosophy — the progress of that God depends upon its power, its effort, to raise the lower man, to raise the inner real man, to the conscious recognition of its oneness with that inner God. How does it come about? As that inner Spiritual being is always ready, if we turn the polarity of our minds upward to the inner Spiritual nature within us, that beam of light that exists there will grow stronger and stronger until it blazes as a lamp within the heart of that inner man; and he knows without any argument, without any reasoning or help from outside himself, he knows that his own next step on the Path of Spiritual progress will be a step towards truth; and he then can bring that light of knowledge that he has won to the knowledge of those who as yet tread the path in darkness. Is it not a sublime thought that as we ourselves — and we can all of us do it, friends, at any rate to some extent — as we look out from ourselves, and leaning down for a moment stoop to help someone who needs that help, in that moment the doors of the soul open, and the light of the inner man grows stronger and stronger; and so the inner God raises the inner man, and the inner man raises the outer man, and all three together work in the service of the one cause and the one life and the one light that exist in the heart of all creation. Don't you see how it works? It is a wonderful idea.

In these times when the stress of economic life is so tremendous, we are forced to realise that men and women, by the very privations that they are forced to go through, enter into one of the classes of beings who begin to study spiritual truths, who begin to long for an explanation of the sufferings of material life; and so it is that during the times of adversity the spiritual life of men is actually quickened. During the times of tremendous prosperity all their attention is turned outwards in identification with the very things that will lead them away from the search that we are all really and truly, however misguidedly, engaged in pursuing.

One of the troubles that many people have to face is the loss of some individual with whom they have spent some part of their lives; the loss of some loved one who passes into the Great Beyond; and that for them brings about an anguish and suffering that is very real. Now Theosophy does work a great change in a man's life even in such a case as that. Why is this? Simply because the man who has learnt to tread the Spiritual Path within himself has found a Divine companion. He has found a Divine companion that he can never lose; and therefore, while he becomes more sensitive, more loving, more compassionate, and more sympathetic to the needs of those around him, the personal loss takes on an altogether different aspect, because he knows the laws of nature, he knows that the great rhythm of life that brought the loved one to him must inevitably take the same one away beyond into a further life, and he knows that that is not something to cause sorrow to anybody except the one who is left behind. He realises that it is only a personal and selfish idea, he renounces his personal sorrow like other things of the personal life. He gives it up because he knows that the loved one has gone to a region where there is no more sorrow, where he will enter into a realm of Spiritual bliss and living which is beyond the mystery of pain altogether. He is free from the shackles of the flesh and all that it means until he returns once more into earth life.

What is the message of Theosophy to those whose business it is to minister to the sick? They indeed are brought constantly into this problem of pain in every moment of their lives. I think the answer would be this: that in all pain and all disease, although every individual receives naught but what he himself has sown, yet he is in need very often — and most of the time — much more of Spiritual comfort than of material assistance; and therefore the great idea that Theosophy would give to every physician of the body would be to see if you cannot light in the patient's mind and in his heart a faith, a conscious recognition, of the spiritual power that is lying dormant within his own nature. Think, if everybody, if every physician, were also a physician and healer of the soul — why, friends, the world would quickly be a different place. It is because in most cases physicians and others, do not know how to minister to the needs of the soul that the needs of the body become so very pressing.

Sometimes the question is asked: Are disease and pain a mere figment of our imagination? Will a change of mind, a change of thought, cure them? Is it my fault, can I cure them by merely taking thought? That is a big question, a very important one, because, as you know, there is a whole school — what shall I call it? — Scientists, Christian Scientists, Mental Psychologists, I do not know what you would like to call them — those who believe, and so teach, that there is no such thing as pain, that there is no such thing as evil. But turn to the record of the lives of the great Teachers that have been in past ages, and see what their attitude to the problem of pain and disease is. Did they say it did not exist? Not at all. On the contrary, every single case of suffering that any one of the great Teachers came across invariably called forth their human pity and compassion, showing that they realised what it meant; and they gave a spiritual remedy, quickening the spiritual life in that individual so that he should learn how to heal himself.

What is the healing that Theosophy recognises and considers permissible? — because, friends, it is a fact and a very potent and spiritual fact, that a change of mind and heart of the individual does affect the physical and bodily health, and even his circumstances. It is a fact, but does that mean that where a man has got a serious physical disease, or even a simple ache or pain, he shall deliberately deny it in his mind and his consciousness, and tell himself that he has only got to go on thinking that way and it will disappear? Well now, it is a fact that probably if he goes about it strongly enough he may lose that particular ache or pain. It is not a very happy thing for him if he does, because he has merely deflected it for future use. He has forced it back into the mechanism of his own consciousness where it came from, and in the fulness of time it will work out again. It had its root in a thought, in a feeling, in some wrong action; and until it has worked itself out it cannot be got rid of. All the individual can do is to learn, simply as the Buddha taught, to give up the practice of evil, to enter the noble eightfold Path, and in so doing he ceases to create future causes of evil. That is why the Bhagavad-Gita states: "Even a man of very evil ways, once he is devoted to me, crossing over every evil in the bark of knowledge, will verily come to me." That is the truth. All we have to do is to consider that ray of spiritual light in ourselves, and faith in that connexion and aspiration are a tremendous force for good, not only in our own lives but in everything that we try to do for others.


1. Report of a lecture given at the London Lodge, T. S. (return to text)

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