2020-05-11: The Four Noble Truths: Samudaya (1 of 5) The Cause of Suffering
3:08PM May 11, 2020
four noble truths
second noble truth
With this Monday, we begin the second week on the topic of the Four Noble Truths. And this week the topic is the second noble truth, the noble truth, of the arising of suffering. So there's the noble truth of suffering, the noble truth of the arising of suffering, the noble truth of the cessation of suffering and the noble truth of the practice leading to the cessation of suffering.
So, these four noble truths are often considered to be central teachings of Buddhism, maybe even the central teachings of the Buddha. The myth or the lore of Buddhism is that the first sermon, the first teaching the Buddha gave was on the Four Noble Truths. And there's a long history in all the different schools of Buddhism, to make a claim about what is the first teaching of the Buddha as being probably what's very important for that school of Buddhism. And so for Theravada Buddhism, these four noble truths are really kind of at the center of it all. And I take that with a tremendous appreciation and respect that there's this Buddhist tradition, Theravada tradition that has this wonderful, dynamic teaching of the Four Noble Truths which we can use as a framework to understand our lives better.
And then one of the advantages of this framework, especially as a kind of foundation of a whole religious tradition, is that it doesn't assume or posit or require one to believe in something that cannot be proven, cannot be seen and experienced for oneself. That's not a supernatural belief. It's not an abstract metaphysical belief that we have to believe in something, a tenet that comes down from the Buddha or from Buddhism that this can't be proven, but you have to believe this.
This is something that we can really discover for ourselves in our experience. These are eminently practical frameworks, the Four Noble Truths, with which we can then look at our lives at the place where the Theravada tradition says it's most essential, most simple. It's kind of like pared down to where the heart of it is. And the heart of it really has to do with a third noble truth, the topic for next week. The possibility of the cessation of suffering, the nirodha of suffering. And one of the meanings, we'll talk about this next week, of nirodha is non-obstruction, to come to a place where we're no longer obstructed by suffering, no longer obstructed by all the different aspects and ecology of suffering that might exist. So that who we are and how we are, can unfold, can move, can develop, can grow on the path to greater and greater freedom. That's the core aspect of Buddhism.
So it's like the good news of Buddhism. And it does it by this very simple framework that doesn't require a lot of study, doesn't require a lot of, as I said, metaphysics or supernatural things. It's just: this is the essence of it. And if you stay close to that essence, all of Buddhism will unfold. One ancient teachings is that all the footprints of all the animals in the forest can be placed inside the footprint of an elephant. So all the teachings of Buddhism can be put inside of the Four Noble Truths. Everything else follows from this.
Now, the Four Noble Truths, being such a very important central teaching, has been interpreted in many, many ways. It's changed now, but 10 years ago, I looked at Wikipedia on the Four Noble Truths. And there was some eight different modern explanations, definitions of what the Four Noble Truths are, and they were wildly different from each other. Some of them I'd never even recognize as part of Buddhism. And they're all modern explications and so I was surprised by this, and then a little bit surprised; they didn't attribute any of them to anyone, but of them was mine. And I thought that was interesting, that something I had said in some little paper would end up in Wikipedia.
So it's been interpreted in many different ways. And probably all the different interpretations have value for the people who have come up with them. And down through the centuries, in Asia, there's been many interpretations.
I'll talk over the next few days about some of the interpretations or some of the applications of the second noble truth: the truth of the arising of suffering. Sometimes a literal meaning is 'arising', but probably one of the most common understandings especially in the modern world, but maybe also in much of Theravada Buddhism, is that the second noble truth has to do with the cause of suffering. And we want to understand what's causing it, what's bringing it about, what's the source of it. Some translators have called it the origination of it. But often modern books will say, there's suffering and there's a cause of suffering. And now this is also a very practical and useful teaching. In some ways, it's applicable to so many different areas of our lives that are available to us in everyday experience. It doesn't require meditation, doesn't require the mind getting still.
Some of the other deeper interpretations of the second noble truth really require a depth of meditative experience. But here looking at the cause, in everyday life, you can see that we get impatient, you can ask, "What's the cause of that impatience? Oh, I'm in a hurry to get somewhere. Maybe I don't have to be in a hurry. That desire to get somewhere quickly is making tension in the system." So the very question, "What's the cause of this distress I'm feeling?" -- whatever is going on. And that question, simply a question, opens the field, reveals something that we can do something about, sometimes. We can have a different relationship with, the causes, we can let go of it, we can let it be, we could not pick it up. We could put it aside so that whatever the causes is no longer becomes a cause. It just becomes something.
Now, it's very popular also to say that, in modern interpretations, that the cause of suffering is desire, and that makes all desire seem like being a problem. It could be that we understand that not all desires are the problem. But if there's going to be suffering, there is some desire behind it. And there can be desire, perhaps without any suffering. But if there's suffering, the cause is some kind of desire. That maybe is more interesting, rather than making all desire a problem.
In the teachings of the Buddha, it seems that there's a word that is used to characterize the kind of desire that is the emphasis. And this is a metaphor. As I said, last week, a lot of Buddhist teachings are metaphoric. And the metaphor that's being used, literally in English means thirst. So it's a kind of desire that has occurred characteristics of being thirst. Imagine someone's parched, someone's really thirsty, really desperate for water. And the compulsion that drives the preoccupation with getting something to drink can be quite strong, could be all that the person thinks about.
So this thirst is the cause of suffering. So 'thirst' means the suffering has some kind of compulsive quality. There's a drivenness where it's not "I'll take it or leave it. It doesn't really matter to me." It's like there's a force, an addictive force, that is sometimes very impossible not to give into, when desires are really, really strong. It's an addictive, compulsive kind of force. And that's part of the reason of why there's suffering involved. Because the desires have tension, have a loss of freedom, this kind of compulsive desire. And anytime we lose our freedom, we suffer, we feel less, we're limited, we have a burden. There's a challenge. There's an inner-burning, that's not pleasant at all, painful burning going on, that we have to have this.
And so, in mindfulness practice, then we learn to look at the nature of desire. Look at the nature of our suffering, we look at what is the cause. Can I identify anything that's conventionally called the cause? And then if it's desire, or whatever it might be, we learn to look at it more carefully. And this is where the meditation this morning of letting things be, is so useful because when you learn to let it be, you learn to see it more clearly. And you let it evolve and show itself.
Not all cravings are only problematic. Sometimes what we crave and what we're addicted to, represents a deeper need we might have, a deeper desire for something good even, that's directed in the wrong direction. But the deep need we have gives it compulsion, we have to have this. If we let go of the unwholesome desire, without taking our time to let it be and study and see it, and let it relax, then we might not discover the deeper things going on -- the deeper, maybe wholesome, desire that's there, not always but sometimes.
So to stop and take a good look, to ask the question, "What is the cause of my distress, my sorrow and my grief." Appreciating that there might be multiple causes, multiple reasons. And the causes of the four noble truths we are interested in, is our contribution to our suffering, by how we thirst, how we have compulsion, how we have very strong desires for something to exist, to have or to want, or very strong compulsion, to have something not exist, to push away to get rid of. That deep, deep drive of desire that human beings have, takes many forms, some of them quite beautiful and necessary and profound.
That Buddhist practice, the freedom from suffering, the cessation of suffering, the non-obstruction of suffering, has this beautiful thing where it releases more and more of the wholesome desires within us. The Four Noble truths are not an abandonment or release of all suffering. But as we go through our lives and live our lives, it does purify our desires so that anything which is compulsive, anything that's addictive, anything that we have, any desire we have in which we lose our freedom, is shed, and it's such a beautiful thing.
So the first task with the Four Noble Truths is to just carry with us the question. As we recognize our suffering, recognize our stress and distress that we might experience, to ask ourselves, "What am I contributing to this suffering? What is my contribution?" There might be other people, who conventionally can be said are the cause of your suffering. But the place where you can have the most impact, not to ignore that, but the place of Buddhist practice is to ask, "What is my contribution to it?" And then to take a good look at that and hold it in awareness and understand it deeply. And in doing so, find your freedom.
So, tomorrow we'll continue with other meanings of the second noble truth. Thank you.