2020-05-14: The Four Noble Truths: Samudaya (4 of 5) The Origin of Suffering
3:13PM May 14, 2020
four noble truths
second noble truth
Then we continue with the fourth talk on the second noble truth. And I'm offering different interpretations of the second noble truth, of the Four Noble Truths in general. And the value of these different interpretations is that each of them is a different pragmatic or practical way of exploring and being and freeing ourselves from our suffering.
Rather than seeing the Four Noble Truths as a doctrine, a fixed doctrine that has a fixed interpretation, fixed understanding. It's possible to see it as a framework that can be applied to understand our life in different ways - all for the purpose of becoming freer and freer of suffering. And sometimes the first interpretation, Monday's interpretation is really useful. The causal interpretation, that there's a cause to suffering. And if you can understand that cause, you can maybe do something about the suffering by changing the cause, letting go of it.
Sometimes it's useful to look at the conditionality of suffering, the conditions for why suffering is there, and all the different pieces that come together, add together, build up together, to create suffering. And sometimes we don't take care of the cause, but we change the conditions.
And then a third interpretation yesterday is the inconstancy interpretation, that looking at how thoroughly and completely things are constantly shifting and changing, appearing and disappearing. And somehow in the inconstancy of experience, it's clear that the grip of clinging begins to release, we start seeing freedom, because the inconstancy, as we go through these three interpretations, it's like, it's really going deeper and deeper in the mind, is stiller, quieter, more attentive mind, that's not overlaying a lot of ideas on top of things.
And when we start seeing the fundamental, inconstant flow of experience in deep meditation, it's really clear that there's freedom in that flow, freedom in between the things that exist. And that flow helps really release some of the deepest kinds of holding we have. It's the liberating insight, the liberating interpretation.
Today, the fourth interpretation I'm going to offer is the interpretation that talks about the origin of suffering. And some people, some translators, actually translate this word, 'samudaya,' which means 'arising' in the second noble truth, as the noble truth of the origin of suffering.
So why did they do 'origin?' So this has a lot to do, I believe, with the Buddha's, so called, first discourse. After the Buddha was enlightened, he went out to find his six previous companions in the ascetic life, because he thought they were ready to hear the deeper teachings he had now about liberation, enlightenment. And it said that when he came to them, he taught them the Four Noble Truths.
And then the second noble truth in the kind of simple Dharma teaching, maybe, I don't know if simple is the right word, but will often say that the second noble truth, the cause of suffering is craving, the condition is craving. And that comes from that idea comes from that first sermon of the Buddha, and it begins this way (this is Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation): "Now, this bhikkhus is the noble truth of the origin of suffering. It is this craving."
So, there it is, it is this craving. But I think many times when Dharma teachers and even scholars are writing about the second noble truth, they stop there. It's craving. It's useful to look at craving, the thirst, clinging - this craving, this strong desire, compulsive desire.
The passage goes on further, and the rest of it is often not discussed so much. "It is this craving, which," - so here we go the craving, which... We're talking about a particular kind of craving now. So what is the origin of suffering in this translation? What is the origin? It is the craving which... which what? It's the craving which leads - it's going to go somewhere. So, it's kind of like a cause: it leads someplace. So, where does it lead?
So, a particular kind of craving that leads someplace. It is the craving which leads to renewed existence, to be reborn. Accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there. That is craving, or to say it in different words, that is what that craving is. Craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, and craving for extermination, for non-existence.
So this is an intense passage. And some people, trying to understand what the Four Noble Truths are about, are surprised to come across this particular explanation for what the second noble truth is. Because it focuses on rebirth. It's the particular craving, which leads to rebirth. And the craving that human beings have in a previous life, the craving to be reborn, is the origin of the person's next life, and it's also then the origin of all the suffering that person has in their next life.
So in this interpretation, this understanding of rebirth in multiple lives, all the suffering that you have in this lifetime has its origin in craving to be reborn. And the solution to not being reborn again and again into this world of suffering, is to let go of a particular kind of craving - the craving of wanting to have rebirth. And that's where we get this idea that the second noble truth has to do with the origin. Even though as I keep saying the word 'samudaya' means arising.
Yesterday I talked about these four liberating insights into: this is suffering; this is the arising of suffering; this is the cessation of suffering; and this is the practice leading to the cessation of suffering. And I offered that interpretation here, which I think is well, representing what the Buddha was teaching over and over again, that little formula, without the words "noble truth", appears hundreds of times in the suttas. People often think the Buddha is talking about the Four Noble Truths, because it's so similar in wording, but he's talking about inconstancy - the immediacy of experience here and now.
This explanation here, in the first discourse of the Buddha, is much more abstract. It's not about the immediacy of present moment experience. It's about a story, an idea, a belief in rebirth, and an idea of how rebirth happens. It's a theory about rebirth. And now we've left the world of direct experience - at least in terms of a reader of this and what's being pointed to - to kind of a belief, kind of a tenet, kind of a creed, that this is the problem of suffering - the fact that we want to be reborn. And then we do get reborn.
So now it's like some people are maybe reeling to hear this. "What? This is getting more complicated. I thought practice and mindfulness were just about present moment experience - seeing it here now, deep insight into how things are here and now. And now we're talking about this fundamental teaching of Buddhism that of the Four Noble Truths, that in order to understand it, you have to understand rebirth and believe that there's craving that causes rebirth. And how do I get to this root craving - this origin of suffering?"
For some of us it's not so satisfying. For some of us it's very inspiring to hear this, "Ah, people who believe in rebirth really want to see how to get off the wheel of life and death." People who don't believe in it so much, it's like, "What?" It's a little bit confusing or a little bit, maybe even off-putting to have this wonderful teaching of the Four Noble Truths interpreted in this way.
One way of understanding this, and I received this from one of the great scholar monks, this idea, is that this discourse of the Buddha's first sermon is not meant to be the definitive teachings on the Four Noble Truths, but rather a very particular elaboration of how someone, when somebody becomes fully awakened, like becomes a Buddha - how it then, that they no longer get reborn? And then the idea is, well, how does that happen? How do they no longer get reborn?
They're explaining that for this person, that particular craving for rebirth has been uprooted, has been stopped. So rather than the Buddha's first sermon being the the universal teachings on the Four Noble Truths that we can understand for our lives, it's rather a very particular application of this framework to look and explain how someone who becomes fully awakened has been changed, a particular mechanism for that thing.
And so it's irrelevant for someone who's fully awakened, not necessarily for someone who's just trying to become free in this lifetime itself, as they go through their lives. So this is a little more complicated. This whole idea, but I think it's important to for those of you who are engaged in Buddhism, and trying to reflect on the Four Noble Truths, you're trying to go back and see the teachings of the Buddha to try to make sense of these teachings, the first sermon of the Buddha and to contextualize it, and to really understand the particularity of what the focus is on here. So we're not confused or think we have to now adopt a tenet and all that, a belief, or apply this particular teaching to our practice.
So in the origin of suffering, the origin means the original place in the past life that gives birth to the suffering here. Some translators will translate this word 'samudaya,' meaning 'arising', as 'origination.' Some of you reading the different translators will see this. I'm not sure what this means: origination. I know the dictionary definition. I think it maybe just means origin. Or maybe it's a hybrid, or a vague way of kind of talking about conditionality, kind of talking about origin, kind of talking about, not the fundamental original origin, but rather where suffering originates, any place you can see it originating in, the conditions for it, the more immediate cause, today or in current times.
So, whichever way it is, these interpretations, it's all material to swim in, to work with, to apply to our lives. And the test of all this, the purpose of all this, is to be able to be present with clear eyes, looking clearly into our life, understanding what we're doing, how we're living, where the clinging, the craving is. And then to understand how it's useful to work through that to come to the other side of suffering. Sometimes it's useful to see cause, sometimes condition, sometimes inconstancy. And maybe sometimes seeing the origin is useful or important to understand that this is part of it.
We'll review all this again in a hopefully practical way next week, when we talk about 'nirodha,' the cessation of suffering. But for now, we're still looking at this second noble truth. And we have one more talk tomorrow.
I look forward to making efforts again to explain this to you, and hopefully you're finding it practical. Thank you.