If you identify the cause of a problem you can then find the solution

May 23, 2024

The Four Noble Truths – the four truths for the noble ones – is Buddha’s very first teaching. And it’s all framed in terms of suffering.

The first one is: “There is suffering.” There are different presentations, but the one we’ll look at here is the three levels of suffering. 

The second noble truth is: “There are causes of suffering.” Now, it’s really evident, isn’t it, that if you’ve got a problem and you want to solve it, you need to first identify the problem and then, crucially, you need to identify the causes of it. 

The third one is: “There is such a thing as the ending of suffering and its causes.” This is pretty radical: I think you’d pay a million dollars for that if you heard about it. Well, Buddha’s been telling us about it for two and a half thousand years.

And then there’s the fourth one: the method – how to do it. It’s a very practical presentation.

The first kind of suffering Buddha calls the “suffering of suffering.” It’s in-your-face suffering. It’s straightforward: it’s when the bad things happen; in other words it’s when attachment gets what it doesn’t want.

The second kind of suffering is called the “suffering of change,” a subtler, more nuanced kind of suffering, which we actually refer to as happiness: it’s when the good things happen, in other words it’s when attachment gets what it wants. 

Basically Buddha explains how the pleasurable experiences we have don’t last and inexorably turn into the suffering of suffering. And if we look carefully, we can prove this to be true.

The third kind of suffering is even more subtle, and it’s called either “conditioned suffering” or “all-pervasive suffering.” Basically it’s referring to the fact that as a result of attachment we’re born with this body of the five senses into a realm of the five sense objects, and to survive we have no choice but to ingest them. 

Let’s just look at the suffering of suffering: when the bad things happen. And we all experience it: monkeys, ants, humans. Nobody can stand bad things happening, whether it’s a pain in the knee, being hungry, or the most intense suffering you can imagine. This is the grossest level of suffering, which is the only one we think of as suffering.

If we want to stop future suffering – you can’t stop the present suffering: it’s already happened, but we can learn from it – we need to identify the causes. Without analysis, we’ll go, “Well, my boyfriend’s the cause, and the weather’s the cause, and the bad food is the cause, and my mother’s the cause.” That’s the view of the world, isn’t it, and that’s what we think instinctively. 

Not for the Buddha. They’re certainly part of the problem but not the main cause; they’re merely a catalyst. He identifies two main causes of suffering: karma and delusions. That’s what he says: the negative actions we’ve done in the past driven by the delusions in our mind. They are the main causes of our present suffering. 

Nobody on the planet would say it’s actions they’ve done in the past that are the causes of being bad-mouthed, getting stolen from, getting lied to, your boss sacking you, the bank not giving you credit – it’s too shocking to hear this! 

But Buddha’s view, remember, is that our consciousness, our mind, doesn’t come from outside us: it’s a continuity of mental moments that goes back and back and is programmed by what we put in it. 

And that, of course, also includes all our past virtuous actions driven by our positive states of mind: these are the two main causes of our happiness: the same law applies. 

For Buddha, this is a natural law that runs the universe, that runs minds; or, a natural law within which our minds run – put it like that. It’s not created by anybody; there’s no concept of a superior being creating the universe, who is the boss, who is, therefore, the punisher and the rewarder, which is the usual view we tend to have. There’s no punisher and there’s no rewarder because there’s no creator.

According to this law, every millisecond of what any being thinks or says or does –animals, humans, everyone – sows seeds in the mind, or, if you think more simply – and Buddha would have liked this analogy – programs the mind.

These seeds eventually ripen as our experiences. So it’s in this sense, as the Dalai Lama says, “The law of karma is like self-creation.”

So if my suffering is the result of my own past programingwhat’s the solution to stopping future suffering? I need to stop causing it! You stop killing, stop stealing, stop lying, stop harming, you live in vows of good ethics and you purify your mind. That’s it: and you can guarantee when you die you’ll get a decent human body, you’ll have good tendencies, you’ll never think to lie, steal, kill, you won’t get stolen from, lied to or harmed, and you’ll have good health and a peaceful environment. You’ll have a really good life.

This is the very first level of practice. Forget nirvana, forget buddhahoodjust make sure you get another good human body and good conditions so that you can continue to practice your spiritual path – fantastic!

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