Dukkha Versus Anfechtung

When studying Buddhism, one word comes up repeatedly.  It is the word Dukkha. This word has a wide variety of meanings.  When studying Luther, one word also comes up frequently that has a wide variety of meanings.  It is the word Anfechtung.

Dukkha is often translated as suffering.  When the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha are discussed (see the blog post “The Aha Moments of Buddha and Luther”), the word Dukkha is translated as suffering.  Luther’s use of the word Anfechtung can also be considered to include the concept of suffering.  Both words involve much more than this.

In the Buddhist canon of teachings called the Tripitaka, the section called Sumyatta Nikaya contains a discourse of the Buddha called Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (SN:56.11). We find these words of the Buddha trying to explain to his students what Dukkha is:

Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.[1]

Dukkha encompasses a much larger concept than just suffering.  Likewise, David P. Scaer in his article The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther’s Thought stated Luther’s use of the word Anfechtung can be translated into English as temptation, trial, affliction, and tribulation.[2]  Each of these words could include an element of suffering.  He then quoted from Paul Buehler, Die Anfichtungen hei Martin Luther the following definition of Anfechtung:

Through the Gospel the Christian has come to learn of a
gracious God in Christ Jesus; however his life experiences
present to him a God who is still wrathful and who not only
refuses to forgive sins, but reminds him of them. The hard,
concrete experiences of life contradict what he had learned
by faith. God on his side through the Anfechtungen
drawing the Christian closer to him and throughout the
Anfechtungen always intends that they should be beneficial
to the Christian. The Christian, however, interprets them as
forms of God’s retribution for sins and as signs of his wrath.
In desperation the Christian flees to Christ for salvation. In
this God has accomplished his purpose of bringing the
Christian closer to himself. Though the Christian can
through faith conquer one Anfechtung – and indeed he
must if he is to survive – he must face a lifelong series of
Anfechtungen. Resurrection is the only permanent solution.
Anfechtungen are an aspect of faith, not as that faith trusts in
God and totally relies on him for all good, but as that faith
faces realities in life and in the world different from those
offered in the Gospel?[3]

The Buddha goes on to explain in the same text the origin of Dukkha:

And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of Dukkha: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.[4]

According to the Buddha, Dukkha has its origin in emotions and desires of the person.  In other words, we are the source for own Dukkha.

Luther, on the other hand, saw Anfechtung as having an origin outside of ourselves.  Luther saw the main source of Anfechtung to be the devil.  The devil uses everything at his disposal to cause us to despair and turn our back on God.  We are attacked on three fronts.

God tempts no one.  We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.  Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.[5]

But even as we are attacked by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, Luther saw one mastermind behind these coordinated attacks: the devil.  Luther saw all unbelievers (those who do not believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior from sin) as being under the control of the devil.

The Buddha based his whole system on how to avoid Dukkha.  Points 3 & 4 of the Four Noble Truths state this:

3) The overcoming of suffering (To eliminate suffering, you must eliminate desire.)

4) The way leading to the suppression of suffering (The way to eliminate desire is to follow the 8-fold path.)

For the Buddha, Dukkha was not beneficial but rather harmful toward achieving enlightenment. It was only by eliminating Dukkha that true enlightenment could be achieved.

Luther viewed Anfechtung differently. Anfechtung was not pleasant to experience, just like Dukkha.  In contrast, Anfechtung was beneficial to the follower of Christ.  To quote Paul Buehler again:

God on his side through the Anfechtungen is
drawing the Christian closer to him and throughout the
Anfechtungen always intends that they should be beneficial
to the Christian. The Christian, however, interprets them as
forms of God’s retribution for sins and as signs of his wrath.
In desperation the Christian flees to Christ for salvation. In
this God has accomplished his purpose of bringing the
Christian closer to himself.[6]

Luther believed this because he believed Scripture (The Bible) to be God’s inerrant (without mistakes) Word.  Luther read passages like Romans 8:28 (GW) 28 We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God—those whom he has called according to his plan.

Because Luther believed that the Bible is God’s Word, he took at face value this passage.  He didn’t enjoy the Anfechtung, but he did see the benefit of it in his relationship to Christ. Luther’s experience taught him that the Buddha’s first Noble Truth, 1) The universality of suffering (All of life is suffering.) is true to the extent that while one lives here on earth, one cannot avoid Anfechtung.

Summary

Both Buddhism and Lutheranism employ words that are hard to translate into English because of their many different shades of meaning.

Dukkha for the Buddha was something painful.  It originates from within the person.  It is something to be avoided. His system was designed to eliminate it from one’s life.  Dukkha, according to the Buddha, is harmful regarding one’s enlightenment.

Anfechtung for Luther was something painful.  It originates from outside the person.  It cannot be avoided in this life.  But it can be beneficial for the Christian.  Anfechtung can draw one closer to God.  God can and does use even the painful things (Anfechtung) in one’s life to bring about a greater good.

[1] Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html#fn-1 https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html#fn-1  Note: Thanissaro Bhikkhu translated this from the Pali (the original language of the Buddha) and used the word stress for Dukkha.  I have replaced “stress” with the Pali word Dukkha.

[2] David P. Scaer, The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther’s Thought http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/scaeranfechtung.pdf  p 15.

[3] David P. Scaer, The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther’s Thought http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/scaeranfechtung.pdf  p 15-16.

[4] Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html#fn-1  Note: Thanissaro Bhikkhu translated this from the Pali (the original language of the Buddha) and used the word stress for Dukkha.  I have replaced “stress” with the Pali word Dukkha.

[5] Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation. CPH 2005. p 20.  This is part of Luther’s Explanation to the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

[6] David P. Scaer, The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther’s Thought http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/scaeranfechtung.pdf  p 16.

 

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