(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.