What is the Cause of All Our Suffering?

by Michele Martin on 5 June, 2016

Paris, France – June 4, 2016

The Conference Hall of the Marriott Rive-Gauche has been transformed a shrine hall. In the center of the stage is a radiant throne topped by cluster of golden flaming jewels. Behind a long thangka of the Buddha is flanked by a 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara and, emphasizing the nonsectarian approach to Dharma, a thangka of the Eight Great Charioteers or the Lineages of Transmission in Tibet (nyingma, kadampa, sakya, Marpa kagyu, shangpa kagyu, shije and chö , kalachakra or jordrug, and Orgyen nyengyu). To stage right is a pagoda with two floating roofs. Inside the upper shrine is a statue of the Buddha and below this is enshrined a lovely four-armed Avalokiteshvara.

With a capacity of 1600, the hall is filled to overflowing. Above, the ceiling lights are set in waves of crystal, recalling the waves of blessing a buddha brings. And it was only recently discovered that this hall is quite special: in 1975 the Sixteenth Karmapa had taught in this very same room. At the time it had another name, PLN Saint-Jacques, so the organizers were unaware of the connection when they made their choice of venue.

After his initial prayers, the Gyalwang Karmapa began his teaching by extending his warm welcome to everyone and saying that this was his first chance to come to France and its capital, Paris. He recalled that the great Sixteenth Karmapa was one of the first major Tibetan lamas to come to Europe and that he visited numerous countries to create Dharma connections with many people. Afterward, his heart sons came to Europe and continued his activity.

The Karmapa mentioned that he, too, wished to visit many countries—it was one of the reasons for his leaving Tibet—and finally he has been able to visit the United States, Germany, and Switzerland. He joked that with precognition, he would have come to France first and afterward, Switzerland, thus avoiding all the rain and the strikes in France. Since he has not yet had the chance to appreciate the famous beauty of Paris, he surmised that he would have to return.

Turning to the subject of his talk, the Karmapa mentioned that the Four Noble Truths are profound and vast; they embody the essence of the Buddha’s teachings and relate more to practice and experience than philosophy. We know the Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma three times, but it is difficult to connect them to a particular time, so they are differentiated through their subject matter. Given to the Buddha’s five original disciples in Sarnath, the Four Noble Truths belong to the first turning and marked the beginning of the Buddha’s long teaching career.

All living beings wish to be free of suffering and to know happiness, the Karmapa stated, and the Four Noble Truths condense all aspects of this basic situation of our lives. The first two truths of suffering and its origin deal with the cause and result of the suffering we do not want and the last two truths deal with the cause and result of the happiness we seek.

“First we have to ask ourselves, however, what we really need and what we should avoid,” he said. If we take the Four Noble Truths as the basis of our discussion and look at them in terms of cause and effect, we can discover how to avoid what we do not want and attain what we do want. But we cannot have we want just through wanting, and we cannot avoid what we do not want by simply not wanting; we must understand how cause and effect work. The Buddha taught the two sets of cause and effect that make up the Four Noble Truths on the basis of what we should leave aside and take up.

The First Noble Truth is that of suffering, and in general, we understand suffering to mean “pain” or “the sensation of suffering.” But suffering does not just refer to a headache or stomach cramps. There are many different kinds of suffering, which can be condensed into three types: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and all-pervasive suffering. Most sentient beings recognize the first type of suffering, which is the pain we experience and try to escape in various ways.

We perceive things based on the data our sense faculties send via the nervous system to our brain. Through this signaling, we experience most of the suffering we know. “If we do not directly experience something, however, then even though it exists and is fearsome or dangerous, we do not perceive it,” the Karmapa explained. “If we look at the dangerous environmental problems that exist, for example, we do not take them so seriously because we do not see them,” he noted. We need physical experience, he said, and the ensuing brain activity to know something is dangerous. Without this, then one day, when we finally learn that these problems pose a great danger and will bring untold suffering, it is usually too late.

“So it is important to understand,” he remarked, “that suffering does not just depend on the signals from our sense faculties that arrive in our brain. We need to capacity to think from the perspective of the object that is causing the suffering and come to know its actual nature.”

The Karmapa then spoke of the second type of suffering, the suffering of change. “The Buddha taught that the feeling of happiness or contentment is the suffering of change, so ‘suffering’ does not necessarily mean the sensation of suffering,” the Karmapa remarked. “We need to distinguish between suffering and the feeling of suffering.”

It could be said that all feelings of happiness come down to suffering. A classic example is carrying a heavy load on one of our shoulders. If we do this for a long time, it will become uncomfortable, so we shift the load to the other shoulder and feel relieved. But after a while, it too will be come uncomfortable. This illustrates the suffering of change: at first we do not experience something as suffering, but then it comes later. Sometimes we can also experience a decrease in tremendous suffering as happiness.

The Karmapa next gave an example from his homeland, where in the beginning they did not have many things, but then motorbikes, cars, and new houses came along and traditional ways felt more difficult. This new lifestyle also brought competition and feeling that one had to keep up with the neighbors. “The more things people had, the more problems they experienced. So at first these new things brought a feeling of pleasure and then they brought more problems,” he remarked. Sometimes people in underdeveloped countries are happier. Now in my homeland, people are not as content as they were before because they are preoccupied with things and experiencing the suffering of change.

Finally the Karmapa explained all-pervasive suffering. “We have seen,” he summarized, “that what is pleasant and unpleasant both create suffering. And it is also true that suffering is created by what is neutral as well–the defiled aggregates (form, feeling, discernment, mental formations, and consciousness), which arise from the afflictions. It is this third, all-pervasive suffering that serves as a basis for the first two types of suffering.

Some of the suffering we seek to avoid we are able to recognize and some not. This is a danger we face because not identifying clearly what suffering is makes it difficult for us to find happiness. The Karmapa added that the situation is compounded by the fact that we take suffering to be happiness.

The Karmapa has noticed that in wealthier countries, some Dharma practitioners
feel there is not much meaning in the pleasures and luxuries available to them. They have a neutral kind of feeling resembling boredom, but this does not mean that they have recognized the meaning or nature of suffering. Usually what makes us wish to be free of samsara is the first type of obvious suffering, but to truly liberate ourselves from samsara, we need to be free of this third type of all-pervasive suffering, which is more subtle.

As we saw, the first Noble Truth is the result of the second one. “And in terms of the result,” he stated, “we have some choice, but we usually do not understand the causes, which relate to what we should leave aside and what we should take up.” Since these are more difficult to deal with, this second Truth of the Origin of suffering is important.” “What is the actual cause of suffering?” he asked. Karma and afflictions. Since karma is too vast a subject, the Karmapa focused on the afflictions of ignorance, excessive desire, hatred, pride, and jealousy, and described the root of the afflictions as the ignorance that takes things to be concrete and real. This reification functions as the basis for all the other afflictions; for example, thinking that the object of our hatred is truly existent.

“We project, or superimpose, a reality onto an object that it does not have and our clinging to this can be quite strong,” he noted. For example, in a crowd of people, there is someone named Tashi. Another person calls out this name and says negative things about him, and a person named Tashi thinks he is being attacked and gets angry. But the name is just a label, which we understand to be the case, and still take to be true or real. The usage of the word “true” here is not the opposite of “false” but a clinging to something as if it were real.

If we understood the real situation, the Karmapa remarked, we could see that the “I” to which we cling is not real nor is the object of this “I.” First we cling to a self, understood to be independent and self-existent, and then to the other, which automatically arises since self and other are established in dependence on each other. “There is nothing in this world that does not exist through relying on something else,” he stated. We do not need philosophy, however, to understand this; we can look at our lives and see how our food, clothing, and so forth, all depend on others. The Karmapa summarized, “We need to reverse this clinging to things as real and find true freedom and a spacious mind.

Questions and answers followed.

One questioner asked how to become free of additions like sugar, caffeine, and alcohol even when we know they are harmful. The Karmapa replied that it is not easy to face the afflictions; however, we should look for the solution inside ourselves as Buddhism primarily teaches how to tame our mindstream. We could devote our whole lives to this process and only be partially successful because our habits are rigid and ancient. The afflictions are difficult to identify; difficult to see as faults; and difficult to see as something we should oppose. It is difficult to develop the courage to work against them, and difficult to make the decision to do so. Therefore, we have to deal with them step by step: first identifying them, then understanding how harmful they are, and so forth.

The next question asked “What prayers should we say before we eat?” and the Karmapa expanded it to talk about our attitude toward food in general. “We should see food as medicine,” he explained, “taking it in the proper amount and at certain times.” Food is the main way we sustain our body, so like medicine we need to take it properly. In Buddhism we make an offering of the food we eat and this is especially important for the ordained Sangha because what they eat is offered by faithful disciples and should not go to waste. When we eat it with care and mindfulness, it becomes meaningful. At the beginning of the meal, we make an offering to the three jewels, and at the end we dedicate the merit. In this way, eating food becomes an important practice. With this advice, the morning session came to an end.