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I was thinking about whether the goal of a wholesome action in Buddhist philosophy is to reduce suffering (dukkha) or to "shrink" the roots of suffering, namely craving, desire or aversion (the three poisons). In fact, there are actions that temporarily create more suffering with the ultimate goal of eliminating its roots---This is the case with exposure therapy, where a psychotherapist exposes a patient to the object of their phobia in order to train them to let go of the aversion towards it.

This leads me to three questions:

  1. Is it sometimes wholesome to perform actions that can temporarily lead to suffering with the goal of "shrinking" its roots?

  2. If so, how much suffering is allowed in order to "shrink" its roots? For example, can a Master lead someone towards a path that includes a lot of suffering in this lifetime if they know it to be necessary to eliminate the roots of suffering in the next?

  3. Do wholesome actions always lead to a "shrinking" of the roots of suffering (ignorance, craving, and aversion)? It seems possible to me that this is not the case. Take for example the case of a Master who---with the best of intentions---exposes someone to an advanced insight. Two scenarios:

    • This person was not ready for the teaching and ends up developing more ignorance, craving and aversion. Did he perform an unwholesome action?
    • He didn't realize that five other people were listening to this teaching through the door and they were not ready for it. Unwillingly, he ends up creating more ignorance, aversion, and desire in these five. Did he perform an unwholesome action?
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I take Buddhism in the sense of the teachings from the Pali canon. These are the teachings nearest to the teachings of the historical Buddha.

Accordingly, these Buddhist teachings can be compared with a therapy, which reminds one to today‘s psychotherapeuty. The point – like often in a therapy: It is the client who has to practice for improvement. In Buddhism the therapeut sets the frame, which is the eightfold path. Then it is up to the client to practice and to follow the path. The therapy is not psychoanalysis to decode the client. The client's task is to learn how to interact and to communicate with his fellow persons in a certain way.

My answer considers the Buddhist therapy as proceeding on a different path than your questions assume. I think, from this viewpoint all three questions do not arise.

Like @Joseph Weissmann I recommend to pose your question also on Buddhism SE

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Thanks for the question. You may want to consider asking this on Buddhism SE for a more grounded approach! But here are some quick thoughts (Zen/Mahayana perspective).

  1. Yes, it may be sometimes beneficial to perform actions that can temporarily lead to suffering. For instance it is forbidden for disciples of the Buddha to sell poison, but not to traffic in, say, medicine. But the difference may be a matter of dosage! So clearly prescriptive ethics only takes us so far in terms of following the path. We surely cannot cling to "our" responsibility to help in the long-term, if we are harming others today. We are called to witness the suffering of sentient beings, and to do good, and to cease from evil. Abstaining from harming others is core to the dharma, yet we cannot imagine this noble aspiration absolves us from taking difficult and dangerous actions for the benefit of sentient beings.

  2. Suffering is the result of causation and consequences; it should be endured. Through practice we can learn to relieve suffering and not to create more of it thoughtlessly. There is then only the modicum of stress stemming from the six sense fields and associated with life.

  3. Developing a more wholesome faith in the dharma and taking actions that generate good karma certainly help shrink the poison roots of craving. But "truly alleviating suffering" is ultimately about hearing and helping all sentient beings. The deepest spiritual qualities are necessary here -- this is even perhaps the "secret" of the Mahayana in a way? In developing compassion for all beings, and developing a true desire for their freedom, the controlling ego is suppressed and individualistic cravings/aversion can subside...

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