Rachel D’Cunha- The Concept of Suffering- Nov 3 class 22

(As stated on the syllabus this blog is supposed to be about Gananath Obeyesekere’s work “Buddhism and Depression” and Jason Throop’s work “Sacred Suffering.” However, I could not find the article by Obeyesekere on canvas/in the book and looked it up and found an article abstract called “Depression, Buddhism and the Work of Culture” by the same author which I attempted to analyze instead.)

                      In Jason Throop’s work, Sacred Suffering, we learn more about the link between sacred and suffering that are a part of human existence. Throop begins with some powerful questions which I will address later on that make us ponder the unconscious relationship between the entities of sacred and suffering. “What could be considered sacred about human pain?” or “What is it about suffering that evokes the sacred? (68). Before answering these questions, Throop gives us insight into the Durkheimian and Geertzian approaches to understanding suffering. Emile Durkheim explains that “the sacred… is experienced in the context of participation in ritual practices. (69). One concept that was brought to my attention was the diversion between sacred and profane. My understanding of Durkheim’s definition was that profane is a realm of existence that maps social reality while sacred is almost like a social transformation of reality. While Throop notices some deficiencies in the reasoning of Durkheim, he also recalls similarities to the work of Clifford Geertz. Geertz goes on to explain that sacred suffering is related to religious perspectives which give meaning to our experiences so that we can make sense of “suffering, pain, illness and death (70).” Throop draws attention to Geertz’s central idea of perspectives which is crucial to his idea of sacred suffering. I agree with Geertz’s definition of perspectives that can shift throughout one’s life. I believe that suffering can happen on a personal level and to understand the suffering of others, perspective is key. Religious perspectives give us insight into “other modes of seeing” and different social experiences (70). One main difference between Durkheim and Geertz was the way in which they experienced the sacred and the scope of experience. After revealing Geertz’s and Durkheim’s position on sacred suffering he goes to explain his own. Throop differs from Geertz where he believes that sacred experience is not bound to single perspectives but can be gained through shifts in perspectives. He aligns his views partly to the phenomenological approach which highlights sacred experience’s connection to everyday life that can arise from different moments. Throop draws an emphasis on the transformation that is endured when experiencing the sacred (73).

                      Throop draws attention to the concept of “phenomenological modifications” whiich relates to our cultural understandings and norms around us and how they are constantly shifting. According to Husserl, the complex “field of experience is transformed by various attitudes” that provide us with the phenomenological modifications (76). The idea of differing perspectives is similar to the differing attitudes described by Husserl which give rise to meaningful experiences. Throop alludes to a famous image when describing the “varieties of phenomenological modifications” which I remember from my childhood. We are asked to determine if we see a rabbit or a duck in an ambiguous image (78). What is so interesting is how our brain can rapidly shift between the two perspectives to see both. This incredible allusion goes back to the idea of multiple perspectives defining our perception. The main takeaway from Throop’s understanding of the sacred and suffering is that sacred arises from the experience of transformation or modifications. The experience of suffering is based on a perspective of the experience of pain. This experience of pain can bring us closer or father from others in times of hurt or loss. “The sacred moment of suffering is a moment where our own assumptions fail” or when individual suffering is spread to others (85). It involves a transformation or phenomenological modification that provokes an experience.

I want to go back and attempt to address the question which Throop proposed in the beginning. “What could be considered sacred about human pain?” I believe that the experience of suffering  and endurance of human pain provides brings a sense of vulnerability to a person. It also brings people together who endure a transformation or change in perspective when they find someone who is suffering. This sacred encounter allows us to give meaning to our experience of suffering. My question to you all is which definition of sacred suffering do you all agree with? I find myself accepting parts of both Geertz’s and Throop’s explanations who all provide unique understandings on the concept of the sacred. I believe that a sacred experience can arise from a multitude of perspectives and that perspective is key to understanding possibilities and orientations of everyday life. Throop’s final sentence especially strikes me as he mentions how “a sacred transformation… reveals the uniqueness and singularity of our own and another’s being (85). This is so powerful, the concept that a sacred moment in suffering provides us with a sense of vulnerability that leads to a sacred transformation in understanding our own human nature.

Finally, I want to draw attention towards Ganath Obeyesekere’s work regarding Buddhism and Depression and highlight aspects which are similar to Geertz’s definition of sacred suffering. Obeyesekere begins to explain how depression is perceived and treated by the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and then provides stark contrast to the western approach to treating depression. In western culture, depression is seen as a bio-medical disease that can be treated with therapy and medication. Depression can have many roots such as genetic or psychological stems which contribute to a lifestyle of suffering. However, in this article we learn that in Sri Lanka, the Buddhists believe there is no cause to depression and the only cure is meditation or detachment from materialistic possessions. After reading this article, I came to a realization how perspective can completely change how we approach an illness. The concept of suffering may not be universal to each person undergoing hurt, loss or pain. In Sri Lanka, depression is a cultural conception that is not correlated to severity of symptoms; however, we know that in the US that doctors may have a separate approach. This reminds of Geertz’s definition that I mentioned earlier. He explains that religious perspectives are key to giving meaning to experience and helping us understand the suffering. In this article, that is exactly what Obeyesekre alludes to: the idea that religious perspectives can give rise to a sense of unique suffering.

5 thoughts on “Rachel D’Cunha- The Concept of Suffering- Nov 3 class 22

  1. ^ Forgot to add the works cited:

    Jason Throop, “Sacred Suffering,” In Kapalana Ram and Christopher Houston editors, Phenomenology in Anthropology (Indiana University Press, 2015), 68-88.

    Obeyesekere, Gananath (2017). The Buddha in Sri Lanka Histories and Stories. London: Taylor and Francis.

  2. Hi Rachel,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog post! It was especially insightful when you point out the difference between Throop and Geertz’s way of thinking. Throop’s view on sacred suffering is more connected to everyday life and interactions, and how one is transformed after experiencing sacred suffering whereas Geertz’s view is focused on religious perspectives providing meaning to these experiences. I think that suffering has the ability to evoke sacred and spiritual aspects because it forces us to understand what we truly believe and value. In moments of extreme hardship, we seek something that can offer us some refuge or support through this time. Additionally, the reason for suffering may be linked to some sort of deeper, spiritual loss – such as a lack of love, hope, or purpose. Therefore, I believe spiritual suffering is experienced when these needs are unfulfilled. People don’t feel this void when things are going are right in life. When all is going well, there is less of a need for spirituality because material acquisitions such as money, property, friends and family fill any internal voids. However, when these aspects of our lives are threatened, there is a sense of uncertainty and panic. Since the aspects of life which provide a sense of purpose are now uprooted, people turn to another way to fill this void. In fact, suffering is an important emotional guide for spiritual enlightenment in several religions. Those who have experienced suffering are able to unlock a greater truth about life. In an effort to find an escape from torment, they now realize that there is more to life than what they were previously conditioned to believe.

  3. Hi Rachel!
    I really enjoyed reading your post, you brought up some insightful connections between Jason Throop’s work and Geertzian religious theory and its intersections with Obeyeskere’s outlook on suffering. I found it interesting how Throop seemed to reconcile Durkheim’s dichotomy of the sacred and profane with Geertz’ religious symbolism. To Durkheim, religion relies on the distinction between sacred and profane, where sacred represents religious aspects that benefit the group and the profane involves mundane and everyday occurrences. By separating the sacred from everyday occurrences and observations, Durkheim’s view of religion fundamentally differs from a Geertzian phenomenological definition of everyday symbols and experiences of suffering as religious.
    You also bring up the idea of religious perspectives in your post, and how the different authors portray them. Durkheim’s view is more limited in the scope of experience, where Geertz identifies more individual experiences as religious, and Throop differs from both in connecting experiences associated with Durkheim’s scared but in the context of everyday life, as Geertz proposed. I found this to be an interesting reconciliation of two very different ideologies on what religion means, especially within the context of suffering, which is a universal aspect of the human condition.
    Another reconciliation of religion and suffering is described in Obeyeskere’s work, in which he presents the Buddhist outlook on depression and how it is seen to have no cure aside from Buddhist practices and beliefs such as meditation and detachment from material possessions. While we can universally recognize depression as suffering, the cause and treatment of depression have very different cultural implications. In Western culture, while there is a taboo surrounding mental illnesses, it is still generally viewed as a disease with medicine and clinical intervention being the solutions. However, as Obeyeskere describes, in Sri Lankan Buddhist culture, depression is not regarded as a biomedical disease, and instead the cure is thought to be found within religion. You bring up an interesting point about religious perspectives giving rise to a sense of unique suffering, which I think would challenge Geertz and Throop’s views about the universality of suffering leading to religion, as we can see suffering is not universally understood or managed, however it does generally seem to cause people to turn to a form of religion within their unique cultural contexts.

  4. Hi Rachel! Your post was really interesting to read!

    I also noticed the inclusion of the rabbit/duck illusion in Throop’s writing and thought that was a really insightful way to look at the sacred and profane as well as their relationship to suffering. The transformation of suffering surrounding Durkheim’s principles of religion as a matter of perspective was really seen in Throop’s studies in Yap. He notes that although ascetic practices and thus one form of suffering have explicitly disappeared from the culture, it is very much still in the foundation of society. This shift encapsulates how suffering exists in all places in life, even if not explicit and truly is a matter of perspective. In addition, Throop notes how in Yap, suffering can be something that opens a person up to compassion and helping others or can be something that isolates and harms which is also indicative of a shift which you recognize in your post.

    Obeyesekere’s examination of depression in Sri Lanka and in the west also highlights the transformation of perspective. In the west, because depression is seen as a common medical concern, it lies in the profane according to Durkheim’s definition, whereas Buddhists in Sri Lanka view depression as something that can be approached through practicing Buddhist practices and therefore places it in the sacred realm of life. By viewing the same thing in different ways, these two views reflect how much perspective and modification can determine something’s role in the culture.

  5. Hi Rachel!

    I found your post incredibly interesting and perceptive. Although I read “Medusa’s Hair: an Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience” instead of “Depression, Buddhism and the Work of Culture,” I feel that you explained and synthesized your points very well. After my own readings of Throop’s work, I felt that the quote you used “The sacred moment of suffering is a moment where our own assumptions fail” really captured the main points. Suffering is based on certain perspectives and involves a transformation.
    I also really enjoyed your final points as well. In one of my other classes yesterday, Reflections of Neurodiversity, we discussed very similar ideas! I agree that perspective does determine our approach to treating an illness, or not! We read about a town in Belgium called Gheel where individuals with “mental illnesses” are not officially diagnosed or medicated. The town was painted as very successful, and I think it is largely because of their perspectives on mental illness. Thanks for sharing that!

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