The first teaching the Buddha delivered after he attained enlightenment was on the “Four Noble Truths” - these form the foundation of Buddhism.
The Truth of Suffering
The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
The Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering
- The Truth of Suffering
We should have a joyful, optimistic, and positive outlook on life. We should not constantly talk about suffering, walk around with knitted eyebrows and sad expressions, and be consumed by depression and misery. Once we know the true nature of suffering, we can find a way to end our suffering.
Some people may think, “Why does Buddhism say that life is full of suffering?
I am not hungry for fame and wealth, nor am I hampered by love and emotion. My life is filled with happiness. According to the Buddhist sutras, there are many forms of suf¬fering, both physical and mental. Some people have less desire for material comforts; they are able to withstand the hardships of extreme weather and accept the pain of poverty. There are those who can rise above the attachment of emotions, handle the agony of being separated from loved ones, and tolerate the hassle of dealing with people they do not like.
No one, however, is free from the pain that occurs at the end of one’s life. Therefore, it does not make a differ¬ence whether or not we discuss suffering; everyone will experience some kind of suffering during his or her lifetime. If we can fully understand the sources of suffering and find ways to overcome them, then we can free ourselves from the deep sea of suffer¬ing and enjoy real happiness.
What are the causes of suffering?
- Material Things
The first cause of suffering is the disharmony between material things and oneself. For example, if we live in a small house with many people, we may feel cramped and our crowded living conditions can be¬come a source of suffering. If a pillow is too thick or too thin, we may not be able to get any sleep, causing us to become restless and then short-tempered. To a student, even the height of a desk or the brightness of a light can be a distraction and a source of discomfort. Therefore, dissatisfaction with such material things in our everyday lives can give rise to suffering.
Not only can external material things be a source of suffering, but one’s skin, hair, and nails, if not taken care of properly, can also become filthy and become a source of distress. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Our hair is like three thousand strands of trouble.”
Our lives are inextricably connected to material things.
The disharmony between other people and oneself can be the greatest cause of affliction.
For example, we cannot always be with the people we love, yet we have to deal with people we dislike. Due to differences in our views and the ways in which we handle situations, conflicts arise and suffering ensues. Sometimes, even when we are careful and try not to offend others, we still feel insecure when we see people whispering because we assume that they are criticizing us behind our backs. Disharmony in our relationships with other people can diminish our aspirations and result in a sense of dejection and apathy.
Thus, it is essential to establish harmonious relationships when we deal with others.
- The Body
Some people say, “Health is wealth.”
Even if we possess all the treasures in the world and have un¬paralleled talents, we cannot accomplish anything without a healthy body. The body’s cycle of aging, sickness, and death is a natural phenomenon that no one can escape.
A healthy person will become weak one day. A beautiful complexion will wither with age. Although we may flaunt our strength when we are young, our bodily organs will nonetheless start to deteriorate with the passing of time. Our eyesight will degenerate and our movements will slow down. Even a minor cold can confine us to bed for several days. A minor toothache can make us toss and turn in our sleep.
Due to the disharmony between one’s body and oneself, all manner of suffering occurs one after another.
- The Mind
The mind likes to take control and be like a king, ruling over all his subjects.
It is also like an untamed horse running wild, not willing to be con¬trolled. When greed, anger, and ignorance appear in our minds, though we try hard to keep them under control, they resurface time and time again. Our efforts seem so futile. Suffering arising from the disharmony between one’s mind and oneself can exceed the suffering brought about by disharmony of the body. When the body becomes ill, we can cure it with medicine, but when the mind is sick, even the best physician may not know what to do.
We often hear people complaining to others: “You’re not listening to what I am saying!” Actually, the one who is not listening is not someone else, but our own mind. We often cannot stop our mind from wandering or creating mental afflictions. In this sense, our own mind can be our most formidable en¬emy.
If we are constantly at odds with our own mind, suffering is inevitable.
As human beings, it is impossible for us to be completely without desire, but desires can be wholesome or unwholesome. Wholesome desires are those such as wanting to become a sage or a Buddha, to excel in one’s career, to serve one’s community, or to ben¬efit one’s country and fellow human beings.
On the other hand, coveting material comforts, grasping for power and position, or craving the pleasure of a love affair are unwholesome desires and can lead to our downfall.
Even wholesome desires, when not managed properly, can become overwhelming burdens and give rise to great suffering. Unwholesome desires are even more damaging!
Thus, an important ingredient of success is knowing how to transcend one’s material desires.
“View” refers to our way of thinking and our perceptions.
While a lack of material things is tolerable, iso¬lation due to one’s views and solitude of the spirit are the most difficult to bear. Since ancient times, many seekers of truth have found themselves having to travel the path of Truth alone. In fact, the Buddha almost considered entering nirvana immediately after his en¬lightenment due to concern that living beings may not be able to understand the Truth he had realized.
What makes us suffer most are those views and concepts which seem correct but are actually wrong. During the Buddha’s time, there were ascetics who practiced all kinds of self-mortification. Some stood upside down in the forest; some sat dangerously close to fires; some submerged themselves in water; some refused to eat; and some went about naked. They tried to use every type of method to torture their bodies so that they might be liberated from their bodies. Because of their wrong views and understanding, these ascetics inflicted physical pain on themselves unnecessarily.
Wrong views and understanding can cause us much suffering; they are the main stumbling blocks to our realization of the Truth.
In human history, our first struggles were between ourselves and the natural world.
Since ancient times, the amount of suffering brought upon us by natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires, has been incalculable. When there is too much rain, flooding occurs, when there is too little rain a drought occurs.
The suffering we experience because of the disharmony between nature and ourselves are clear and direct.
- The Self
The real root of suffering, whether caused by ex¬ternal factors such as material things and nature, or by internal factors such as the mind and our views, can be traced to our attachment to “I” and “mine.”
According to Buddhism, the source of all suffering is the illusory self, the “I.” This “I” is a combination of what the Buddha called the “five aggregates” - form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. When the five aggregates come together, they result in life, but they can only exist to¬gether as long as the proper conditions are present.
Nothing can exist unless the conditions for its existence are appropriate. Ordinarily, we live as if the body, which is made up of the five aggregates, can exist eternally. We cling to the body as the real self, creating all kinds of cravings, which in turn lead to endless suffering. If we can see through the illusion of the “self” and realize the wondrous truth of emptiness, then we can transcend all suffering.
How can we realize the emptiness of the five aggregates and overcome all suffering? If we can realize the “selfless” nature of all things, (i.e., all things do not have an independent, permanent “self”), then we can realize the emptiness of the five aggregates. Once this is realized, suffering will be overcome. For example - soccer is a very popular sport around the world, and spectators at soccer matches often number in the tens of thousands. Among the spectators at one of these matches was a man who was smoking while watching the game. He was so absorbed in the game that he did not realize his cigarette was too close to the man next to him and it burned a hole in his neighbour’s clothing.
“Ouch, that hurts!” the neighbour yelled. The smoker then realized what he had done, and quickly apologized. The person whose clothing was burned was so caught up in the excitement of the game he said, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll buy another one later.” How would you describe the neighbour’s state of mind? He was so focused on the match that he was in the state of “non-self.” At this particular moment, watching the match was all that mattered to him. Even having a hole burned in his clothes was not worth a fight. If he were not so caught up in the game, such an incident would have developed into a big fight. But, when both parties focused all their attention on watching which side was winning or losing, the concept of “self” no longer mattered.
Imagine: something as simple as a soccer match is enough to capture our attention, so much so that we can forget the “self” and pay little heed to a burning pain. If we can realize the emptiness of the five aggregates, we can definitely overcome all suffering.
The existence of suffering is an undeniable truth. Buddhism not only emphasizes that we understand that suffering exists, but takes the next step and looks for a way to overcome this problem. All modern studies, such as economics, medicine, and politics seek to improve our lives and minimize human suffering. But ordinary social welfare endeavours, such as aiding the poor and needy through the provision of food and clothing, can only give mo¬mentary relief. These cannot eradicate the roots of suffering.
Buddhism not only emphasizes the eradication of our present suffering; more importantly, it teaches us how to eradicate the roots of suffering. Suffering in Buddhism is not pessimistic acceptance; it is something we must actively overcome and transcend.
Some may say, “I am not a Buddhist, and I am not free from the suffering of birth, aging, sickness, and death. But even Buddhists are still subject to those same kinds of suffering. What then is the point of Buddhism?” This is true; believing in Buddhism cannot prevent birth, aging, sickness, and death. But, when faced with such suffering, we will have greater strength to overcome it. When we come face to face with death, we will be able to accept it more openly and gracefully.
If we can accept with equanimity when others are either nice or hostile to us, and if we can look at all worldly matters, be they good or bad, in the same way, then we can confront suffering with ease and calmness. The root of suffering is “self”—attachment to the self, love for the self, and our self-centered viewpoints. Because of “self,” we seek nice things to sat¬isfy our needs, and this pursuit gives way to greed. When our greed cannot be satisfied, anger arises. When we cling to our deluded views without un¬derstanding the truth of the facts, ignorance arises. Because of “self,” the fetters of greed, anger, and ignorance follow us like shadows.
How can we eradicate the root of suffering?
“Non-self” means to free oneself from attachment to the self, the love of self, and the desires of the self. It does not mean we should destroy everything, or give up everything. In Buddhism, the teaching on “non-self” encompasses the teachings on wisdom, dependent origina¬tion, compassion, and emptiness. It is through letting go of the attachment to “self” and wrong views that we can realize the Ultimate Truth. It is only when we can eradicate the “small self” of the ego that is associated with greed, anger, and selfish desires that we can manifest our true, pure, and joyous nature.
The noble men and women who realize the true nature of “self” do not leave the multitude. They still drink tea, eat meals, deal with other people, and handle matters; they still live normal lives. The only difference is that they have a pure state of mind in their daily and spiri¬tual lives. They have given up all kinds of obsessions and have realized the real nature of things. They are free from the suffering caused by impermanence and have experienced eternity.
The “self” that we cling to so dearly is like a dream: it is an illusion. Our life lasts only for a few decades; it is illusory and changes constantly. The real “self” transcends time, space, and relativity. It is free from afflictions and is pure. The key to free¬ing ourselves from suffering and attaining joy is to expand the “small self” and realize the boundless life of the true self.
- The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
In Buddhism, “karma” refers to all that we do, say, and think. Throughout our lives, we create a lot of unwholesome karma because of our urges and cravings. Unwholesome karma is like a seed that bears the fruit of suffering. Thus, our suffering is caused by our own karma, as we are subject to the ef¬fects of whatever actions we have done. Karma does not disappear; it only accumulates. However, karma is not all bad. There is also good karma.
Whether we taste the fruit of suffering or of joy depends on the karmic seeds we sow. Karma and the Law of Cause and Effect are both concepts that are common to many Indian philosophies. Karma is also one of the great teachings of Buddhism. The teaching on karma is what allows us to create a bright future for ourselves, and can be a source of hope.
There are some who will ask, “Didn’t you just say that karma is the cause of suffering? Now, why do you say it gives us hope? Isn’t this contradictory?” The essential teaching of karma is that everyone is responsible for his or her own actions.
Throughout history, there has always been one inexplicable question that has confounded philosophers and religious thinkers alike: What is the origin of life and the uni¬verse? Various theories have been proposed to explain the origin of the universe and human life, such as the theory of natural elements and the theory of evolution. The Christian religion maintains that the world was created by God. Brahmanism in India holds the view that everything evolved from Brahma. These religions, and others, attempt to explain the initial creation of life and the universe, and to establish a set of laws in which everything is controlled by a god.
Alternatively, Buddhism teaches us that human beings themselves, not someone else, are in charge of their own destinies. Even God or Brahma cannot escape the Law of Cause and Effect. In Buddhism, karmic retribution is created by oneself, not by deities. The happiness or suffering in one’s life and the brightness or darkness of one’s future is not bestowed by gods, but determined by the effort that we have made. Wholesome fruit is produced from the seeds of our wholesome deeds. Likewise, unwholesome fruit is produced from the seeds of our unwholesome deeds. No one can give us fortune or misfortune. We create our own good and bad actions; no one else controls us. Thus, we can see that Buddhism has a great deal of respect for free will. It is a religion that believes in self-discipline, and that one will reap the results of one’s own actions.
Dr. Hu Shi, the great modern Chinese Scholar, said, “Whatever harvest one wants, one must first plant accordingly.” Karma is like a seed. We have to sow the kind of seed that will produce the type of fruit we would like to harvest. Similarly, our actions will determine our karmic effect. Karma presents equal opportunity and is perfectly accurate. No one is exempt from the effects of karma, even the rich and powerful. The effects of karma apply equally to everyone regardless of position, gender, status, or wealth. Everyone will receive what they deserve and render their own karmic outcome. No one can take someone else’s place, whether it be husband or wife, father or son, teacher or student, or our friends. Our karma is a clear record of our actions, so accurate that not even today’s supercomputers can be compared to it.
When everyone understands the concept of cause and effect, the morals of society will improve, crime will decrease, and we will be able to easily establish a joyous and peaceful society. Therefore, the concept of cause and effect plays a very important role in purifying our minds and raising the morality of society.
But there are still questions that remain. One may say, “I know a person who has done many bad things in his life. He has not only gone unpunished but enjoys honour and wealth. On the other hand, another person I know has done many good things, but misfortune seems to follow him. How does the Law of Cause and Effect work in these situations?”
Actually, this, too, is the Law of Cause and Effect. Why? As mentioned earlier, the Law of Cause and Effect is like planting seeds. Some plants will become lush and green in one year. Some will take several years to grow. Likewise, some karmic results will ripen in this lifetime, some will ripen in the next lifetime, and some will not ripen for many lifetimes to come. The effects of karma may be immediate or delayed, but we cannot refute their existence. There is a proverb in Buddhism that says, “Good begets good, evil begets evil. All causes will give rise to re¬sults; it is just a matter of time.”
The Law of Cause and Effect is absolutely fair. It is only a matter of time. This is why we talk about cause and effect in terms of past, present, and future lifetimes. Some readers who have received a higher education may react by saying, “This is the 21st century; our technology and civilization are highly advanced. Why should we believe in superstitions like cause and effect?”
Actually, the Law of Cause and Effect is the most scientific and accurate of all the natural laws. The Law of Cause and Effect controls every single minute of our lives; we cannot live apart from it. For example, when we are hungry, we eat. After we eat, we are not hungry anymore. When we are tired, we rest. After we rest, we will be full of energy. Every little part of our lives, even our mental activities of perception, emotion, and volition, play out according to the Law of Cause and Effect. Therefore, if we wish to be happy, we should sow good seeds. Then we will taste the sweetness of our own good fruit.
When the first child conceived through in vitro fertilization was born the entire world was shocked. Although the child was not conceived inside the mother, the child still required the father’s sperm and the mother’s ovum, together with the support of science, in order to grow. Even a child conceived through in vitro fertilization still requires all the right conditions to be present; thus this method of concep¬tion is totally consistent with the Law of Cause and Effect.
There is nothing in this world that can escape the Law of Cause and Effect. Once unwholesome karma is done, a bad effect will surely follow. Although the arising and the accumulation of bad karma can bring us suffering, after it reaches fruition there is still room for hope and a bright future. It is similar to a person who borrows money from many people and is heavily in debt. After he repays all his debts, he will be free. It may also be compared to a criminal who is freed after serving a prison term. A person who has committed many bad deeds can still have a beautiful future after he has borne the fruit of his karma.
According to the Buddha’s teachings, all phenomena are impermanent. Bad karma is also impermanent and empty, without an innate self-nature. If we stop creating unwholesome karma and instead create wholesome karma, we will be free from suffering one day and can be truly happy. Thus, the Law of Cause and Effect is neither pessimistic nor fatalistic; rather, it is optimistic and progressive.
If we want to free ourselves from the depths of the sea of suffering, we must first eradicate the cause of suffering and then cease to generate any more unwholesome karma. Then a life of joy will not be out of reach. Therefore, a full understanding of the original cause of suffering is absolutely necessary to achieve a life of joy.
- The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
If someone were to ask, “Why be a Buddhist? What is the purpose of Buddhism?” How would you answer? If you ask me, my answer may frighten you, because I am a Buddhist for the sake of seeking “cessation.”
The word “cessation” may make people think of annihilation, extermination, or nothingness, and make people fearful. In the history of Buddhism, there have been many cases in which the meaning of the Buddha’s teaching was misinterpreted due to incorrect translations, and these mistakes became obstacles to the propagation of Buddhism. Ordinary people may hear the word “cessation” and think of annihilation or extermination, but the real meaning of the third noble truth is to rid oneself of the affliction of delusion and discrimination so that one’s true nature is revealed just as it is.
Thus, cessation in this case is not pessimistic nor destructive, but positive, creative, and constructive. “Cessation” is the ideal state in which greed, an¬ger, and ignorance have been completely eradicated. The quiet, peaceful state of nirvana will appear only when the fire of sensual desire is extinguished. The Buddha’s teachings on wisdom and emptiness also point to the same goal: we should empty out our delusion, greed, and craving, so that we can uncover our wisdom.
When the concept of “emptiness” is brought up, there are some who object and say. “I suppose then that heaven and earth are empty, and that the self and others do not exist. This ‘emptiness’ pulls people into an aimless world of nothingness. It sounds horrible!” Actually, the doctrine of emptiness in Buddhism does not mean nonexistence or nihilism. The infinite expanse of existence is contained within emptiness; there would be no existence without emptiness. Our typical conception of existence is inaccurate, but the Buddhist idea of emptiness allows for true existence and all the wonders of reality.