The Truth of the Cause of Suffering

Why we do what we do: Having recognised the problem or suffering of the world through understanding the first noble truth of suffering (སྡུག་བསྔལ་འཕགས་པའི་བདེན་པ་), the next step in the Buddha’s strategy of problem solving is to trace the second noble truth of causes and agents of suffering (ཀུན་འབྱུང་འཕགས་པའི་བདེན་པ་). Just as one identifies and eschews the cause of an illness in order to recover good health, the Buddha taught in his first sermon that the causes and conditions of suffering and dissatisfaction must be removed in order to reach the cessation of suffering. Thus, he expounded the formula that suffering must be recognised (སྡུག་བསྔལ་ཤེས་པར་བྱ་), the causes of suffering must be abandoned (ཀུན་འབྱུང་སྤང་བར་བྱ་), the cessation of suffering must be attained (འགོག་པ་མངོན་དུ་བྱ་) and the path to the cessation must be adopted in one’s mindstream (ལམ་རྒྱུད་ལ་བསྟེན་པར་བྱ་).

The second truth of the causes of suffering is thus defined as the origin, agent, factor and condition which brings about suffering, pain, grief and lamentation in the world. The Buddha elaborated the causes of suffering by explaining the chain of twelve links of dependent origin. He pointed out how from the state of ignorance, we give rise to action which leads to consciousness and, then in a knock-on effect, to existential features of psycho-somatic aggregates, senses, contact, sensation, thirst, grasping, becoming, birth and old-age and death. He explained the process of how suffering arises from a complex combination of causes and conditions, highlighting the point that the main cause of suffering is within, in the state of the mind.

Later Buddhist masters commented on the second noble truth of the causes of suffering by dividing the causes into the two categories of afflictive emotions (ཉོན་མོངས་པ་) and actions (ལས་). Afflictive emotions refer to the negative states and engagement of the mind and include negative impulses such as attachment, aggression, stupidity, pride, jealousy, embitterment, deception, covetousness and laziness. These afflictive emotions, some thirty types, are said to arise from the false sense of dualism of oneself and others. Dharmakīrti summarised this process: “From the notion of self is conceived the notion of other. While distinguishing self and other, attachment and hatred arise. In connection with these two, all defects come into being.” Candrakīrti similarly lamented: “First, we grasp at ‘I’ thinking ‘this is me’. Then, we grasp at things thinking ‘this is mine’ and then sway without self-control like a paddlewheel.”

The Buddha and his followers consistently pointed out that it is the negative state of mind and the afflictive emotions arising out of the notion of ‘I’ and “my’ which trigger the second category of the causes of suffering: defiled action (ཟག་བཅས་ཀྱི་ལས་), in particular negative action (སྡིག་པ་). Action or karma, the Buddha declared, is mainly intention and that having intended one acts through body, speech and mind. The Buddhist masters classified actions into many categories and types. In the most important and popular classification, actions are divided into negative/non-virtuous and positive/virtuous actions. Negative or non-virtuous actions (མི་དགེ་བའི་ལས་) are motivated by afflictive emotions such as greed, aggression, stupidity, arrogance, jealousy, etc. The most popular enumeration of these is the list of ten non-virtuous actions including three physical actions of taking life, taking what is not given and sexual misconduct, four verbal actions of speaking falsely, sowing discord, harsh words and idle gossip, and three mental actions of covetousness, maliciousness and wrong view. The second noble truth explains the Buddhist genesis of existence and the Buddha advised his followers to eschew and eradicate the two causes of suffering (afflictive emotions and negative actions) in order to escape from the cycle of suffering.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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