There were many reasons that I went to Japan. To have the experience of playing in an orchestra, to learn more about the culture that I had fallen in love with the previous summer, to have the experience of living in a foreign country, something I had always wanted to do and figured the time had passed. And one of the underlying reasons for all of these reasons was a curiosity about common denominators–the common denominator for myself and the common denominator for people in general. Is there such a thing or things? And what might it or they be?
The question is still very open, but when I go back and forth between America and Japan, one common denominator seems to be suffering. In Japan, everyone is very courteous and respectful, there are no guns and there is hardly any crime or violence; surely there should be no suffering in a land where this is the case. And yet the suicide rate speaks differently. There is an exhaustion and repression that is difficult to miss, there is a lot of weight carrying and burden swallowing. And in America, it seems to come out in a more anxious tone, one of distraction that constantly looks for a better way. In Japan, there is resignation that there is no better way. In America there is anxiety that there might be.
Which is better? There still seems to be an underlying suffering in both ways of living. Maybe which one is better is merely a preference, one which is likely based on a person's upbringing. It just seems natural that living is difficult. We have relationships with people, with ideas, with possibilities, and the realization or perfection of those things, or the nonfulfillment of them causes a lot of emotions. If we let them.
It is possible to live in a way that can detach one from these things and perhaps we often do live in such a way. There are many means of distraction. Drugs, alcohol, even television, books and movies. Maybe all forms of living are as much a distraction from suffering as a cause for it. I enjoy reading a blog of an American Buddhist nun living in Japan. She was practicing in a monastery for 5 years in Kyoto, but is currently studying in Japan. It occurs to me that this is also another option for living and removing oneself from suffering. Is it a distraction in the same way as these other things? To me the difference seems to be that it is a very conscious choice.
Another question I've had for awhile is whether it is possible to reduce suffering, in oneself or in others. If suffering seems to be a part of living, is there anything that can be done about it or is it all relative? Who suffers more, American people or Japanese people? Is there a way of living that has "less" suffering? How can such a thing be measured?
I don't know the answer; but I'm a vegetarian and I try to treat people with as much respect as my natural disposition, upbringing, personal reflection and training can allow. Something in me seems to think it is possible to live in a way of less suffering and causing less suffering, whatever that means. And perhaps there is a spectrum. I see people and myself and reflect on the suffering that is there, how much each of us has to carry, its source, a solution, an inevitability. But perhaps stepping away from all the elements that cause suffering–the relationships, the endeavors, the thoughts, the ambitions–could free us. It's a liberating thought. All we need is to believe it and the strength to do it. All we need is the ability to make that choice.
And also the desire. It seems a powerful thing to be able to meditate, to train in some way. It gives one the option to make that choice. And then it becomes a choice. If there is a lot of suffering in this life and we can choose to live without it, is that what we choose? Or if we have such strength, might we choose to live with it? Indeed suffering seems to be a common denominator, but I don't think it is the only one.