The Four Noble Truths II: The Truth of the Causes of Suffering

by Venerable Khenchen Gyaltshen Rinpoche

June 8, 1999

Ratnashri Meditation Center, Sweden HOME  Dharma talks


It is obvious and clear that there is suffering, different types of suffering. General sufferings for human beings are birth, aging, sickness and death; as well as not getting what we want and getting what we do not want. Everybody goes through those experiences. It is important to know different types of suffering. However, it does not help just to struggle with the suffering or denying the suffering. " Why is suffering happening just to me?" Knowing about the suffering wake us up to find out what the causes of suffering are and what we can do about it. It is like when we have a special type of sickness. It is not enough to just not accept or struggle with it. We have to find out what kind of sickness it is and especially what causes the sickness and what the available treatments are. In the Buddhist cosmology, there are three realms or three worlds: desire world, form world and formless world. In this desire world where we are now, there are six realms: hell realm, hungry ghost realm and animal realm which make up the three lower realms; human realm, demigod realm and god realm which make up the three higher realms. In the form world, there are four different types of meditative states and likewise in the formless world, there are four stages as described in the Buddhist Abhidharma teachings.

You may ask, "What are the causes of all these realms?" There are different names to these causes: the origin of suffering, the contributory cause and so forth. Anyhow, basically, these different types of causes are created by the mind, speech and body. Through positive thoughts or negative thoughts, we create karma causes. When we put the thoughts we cultivated into actions by the body, speech and mind, we create karma. So all these arise through different types of causes or karma. Karma is action, the action we performed by our mind, speech and body. Through that action, it becomes a cause to manifest the result or effect. The action together with its effect or fruit are sometimes known as the Law of Karma or the Law of Cause and Effect. Similar actions will lead to similar results (reaction). Wholesome actions will lead to wholesome effects and unwholesome actions will lead to unwholesome effects. The fruit of karma may ripen at different times: this life, next life or future lives depending on causes and conditions. However, the effect (reaction) of any action will not be lost. So karma is not some special thing. Sometimes when some big thing happens, we say that "Oh! It is just my karma!" That is because we do not think that everything is manifested from the karma causes. In reality, whatever happens in our everyday life, whatever we go through or experience is manifested from the karma causes. For example, when we say something, we will get a response. That kind of response is the reaction to speech. In fact, karma can be explained within the philosophy of interdependent origination. All phenomena in this universe arise due to the coming together of many causes and conditions. They disintegrate when the causes and conditions no longer are present. So all phenomena, causes and conditions, causes and effects are interdependent and interrelated in a complex and yet orderly fashion. It is a very profound subject. Karma is not just from previous lives. Of course, it can be from previous lives, but mostly it is from this life. Whatever we do on a day to day basis, that action becomes a cause that links to the manifestation of certain result. This is basically what karma is. This very interdependence and interconnectedness of causes and results show that suffering itself is not an independent subject. It is something dependent, dependent on causes. Happiness, peace and joy are also dependent on causes. Therefore, it is very important for us to choose the positive causes instead of the negative causes. When we create negative karma, we suffer. What it means is that our own suffering was created by ourselves and there is nobody to blame. Milarepa once said, "We all desire to be free from suffering, but to be free from suffering, we create the suffering." For example, we drink wine or beer to get some relief. But we drink so much and the habit gets so strong that it is difficult to give up. As a result, we suffer, our family suffers, our friends suffer. So our own drinking of alcohol is basically to have some pleasure, to have some fun, to have some happiness, but in reality, it invites suffering. This is what Milarepa meant "To be free from suffering, we create suffering." So in this desire world, we all do like that. We are doing that repeatedly without realizing it. Similarly, some people like smoking because it gives some special pleasure. In reality, smoking ruins our health. But we do not really realize it. So in samsara, the world of existence, we are in that state.

In the nature of karma world, roughly, there are ten non-virtues and ten virtues which create the positive and negative karma. The ten non-virtues are divided into three groups: physical, verbal and mental non-virtues. Physical non-virtues include taking lives (both human beings and non-human beings like animals and so forth), stealing and sexual misconduct. Verbal non-virtues include telling lies, giving divisive speech, using harsh words and engaging in idle talks. For example, we tell lies in order to protect something or to get something, but when people find that out, we create the suffering. Divisive speech divides people. Using harsh words can destroy other people’s hearts. Engaging in idle talks not only wastes time and energy, but also gathers a lot of non-virtues since mostly we talk about somebody. Mental non-virtues are covetous thoughts, harmful thoughts and wrong views or ignorance. Covetous thought is related to attachment. Harmful thoughts can be from hatred, jealousy and resentment. Wrong views or ignorance includes not believing that suffering and happiness are caused by non-virtues and virtues, not believing that one can attain the Truth of Cessation when the Truth of the Path to the cessation of suffering is practiced, not believing in the three jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and instead slander them. So these are the ten non-virtues which create the cause of the three lower realms: the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm and the animal realm. These realms are created by these ten non-virtues depending on levels. If we created very heavy non-virtue then it can become the cause of the hell realm. Hell realm is not necessarily a special place. It can be experienced by any individual. So in order not to experience these lower realms in this human life, we have to free ourselves from these ten non-virtues. Now, let us talk about ten virtues. The ten virtues are just the opposite to the ten non-virtues. They are also divided into three groups: physical, verbal and mental virtues. Physical virtues are protecting others’ lives, practicing generosity and keeping moral ethics and disciplines. If you perform these virtues, people respect you, trust you and would like to get close to you. This becomes the cause of peace and harmony. On the other hand a person who has slaughtered or killed others, people in general would generate some special bad feeling towards him even though he has not done any special harm to them. Four virtues from the speech are speaking truthfully, giving harmonious speech that bring all people together, speaking peacefully and politely, and lastly talking meaningfully. If we perform these four aspects of virtuous speech, it becomes a cause of peace, harmony and happiness. The virtuous thoughts of the mind are the cultivation of contentment, loving kindness, compassion and the engagement of the perfect meaning. Contentment means that whatever we have, we just rejoice and be happy with that. It does not mean that we do not work or not make effort. It simply means that whatever we achieve, we rejoice and be satisfied and happy with that. It does not matter how much you have, but it matters how much you appreciate. If you do not know how to appreciate, even if you own the whole world, there is no peace and no satisfaction. If you know how to appreciate and be content with what you have, this brings joy and peace in the mind. Every sentient being wishes to be free from suffering and to have peace and harmony. The moment we have sincere loving-kindness and genuine compassion, at that very moment we experience peace, joy and harmony in our mind. Further, when we have the right view, the mind is free from ignorance and delusion. So these are the three virtues from the mind. When we have these ten virtues, that becomes the cause to be born in the higher realm in the next life. Even in this life, we are already in the higher realm, higher state or higher consciousness. This is not just a Buddhist culture and belief. This we should see as the universal law. Through the ten non-virtues, no matter who we are, whether we believe it or not, that becomes the cause of suffering. When we practice the ten virtues, no matter who we are, that becomes the cause of peace, joy, happiness and harmony. This is the universal law of cause and effect The basic cause of suffering is the practice of non-virtues and the basic cause of peace and harmony is the practice of virtues. Above the ten virtues, if one has powerful mind and meditative concentration in equipoise, then comes the four form god worlds with four meditative concentration states and four formless god worlds with another four meditative states. In the formless worlds, there is no physical form, it is all mental state, mental formation. The meditative states in the formless worlds are the state of limitless space, the state of limitless consciousness, the state of nothingness and the state of neither perception nor non-perception. All these eight meditative concentration states are based on one-pointed virtuous mind. So this is how all these realms are created through different types of causes.

Phenomena arise due to the coming together of many causes and conditions, and disintegrate when the causes and conditions are no longer present, therefore, when we no longer create the causes and conditions for suffering, suffering will eventually cease. In order to be free from samsara, first, we have to work with our own mind because mind is the one who creates all this. Then from that mind, come physical and verbal actions. We create more and more causes, one after another, constantly in this way. Therefore, we have to look back into our own mind. First, we have to purify the ten non-virtues which are the causes of suffering; the non-virtuous thoughts as well as non-virtues of body and speech. Abandon and discontinue those actions by practicing the ten virtues which are the causes of peace, harmony and happiness. On the basis of ten virtues, we study more about interdependent origination and emptiness. Causes and conditions are connected, interdependent. It functions in the following manner. Dependent on A, arises B. Dependent on B, arises C. When there is no A, there is no B; when there is no B, there is no C. Because of ignorance, one fails to recognize the clear, intrinsic awareness of mind which is unborn, unoriginated. This loss of consciousness gives rise to an anxious state of apprehension. Then from the successive solidifying of habitual patterns comes the evolution of cyclic existence in the usual progression. First, dependent on ignorance, arises rebirth producing mental activities or karma. Dependent on mental activities, arise rebirth consciousness. Dependent on consciousness, arise mentality-materiality. Mentality refers to factors of the mind–feeling, perception and mental formation. Materiality refers to the physical body, that is, all its organs, body system and functions. Dependent on mentality-materiality, arises the six-fold base which includes eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body (the five sense organs) and mind. Dependent on the six-fold base, arises contact. Contact is the interaction between the internal six-fold, the external six-fold base (which includes form, sound, smell, taste, tactile objects and mental objects) together with consciousness. Dependent on contact, arises feeling which can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Dependent on feeling, arises craving. Craving can be sensory craving, craving for continued existence or craving for self-annihilation. Craving manifests in numerous forms through the combination (interaction) of the three types of craving, the internal and external six-fold together with the three times (past, present or the future). Dependent on craving, arises clinging or attachment. There are numerous forms of attachment–attachment to sensuous pleasures, attachment to wrong and evil views, attachment to merely external observances (rites and rituals) and attachment to self or a lasting soul-entity. Dependent on clinging, arises becoming or karma-resultant rebirth process. Here comes the appearance of the five aggregates–form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness in the mother’s womb. Dependent on becoming, arises birth. Dependent on birth, arises aging and death. Dependent on aging and death arises sorrow, grief, lamentation, pain and despair and thus arises this whole mass of suffering. Thus, ignorance, mental activities (karma), craving, clinging and becoming (karma) constituted the five causes of the past. These five causes of the past set conditions for the five effects of the present, namely, consciousness, mentality-materiality, six-fold base, contact and feeling. In the same way, ignorance, mental activities (karma), craving, clinging and becoming (karma) of the present set conditions for the five above effects of the future. This process of cause and effect continues ad infinitum. Only when ignorance is completely replaced by wisdom, then comes the entire cessation of rebirth producing mental activities. Through the entire cessation of mental activities, rebirth consciousness ceases and so on until the cessation of this whole mass of suffering. This is a brief discussion on the interdependent origination or the twelve interdependent links. Buddha once said, "When we really know the interdependent origination, it is the same as knowing the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha." It is because by knowing the interdependent origination, our delusion is dispelled. When we are determined to purify and remove our obscurations: obscurations of our habitual patterns, obscurations of karma, obscurations of mental afflictive emotions, we are already practicing the Dharma. Through studying and practicing the Dharma diligently, patiently and with perseverance, one day, we dispel our ignorance completely and we become Buddha. Once people know that everybody has the opportunity to become Buddha, people study and practice the Dharma and in this way, we become the Sangha. Therefore knowing the interdependent origination is the same as knowing the Buddha, the Dharna and the Sangha.

Interdependent or interconnected has a very subtle meaning. Everything is interdependent and interconnected. For example, left and right are interconnected. Without right there is no left and without left, there is no right. Good and bad are interconnected in a similar way. There is good because there is bad, there is bad because there is good. If there is no good thing, there is no bad thing. Not knowing this interdependent nature of all phenomena, we are so attached to the good things and we hate bad things. It is because we are so habitualized, but in reality, for some people the good is bad and for some other people, the bad is good depending on how individuals are habitualized. It shows that there is no one designated or permanent good or bad. It is all interconnected, in a relative state. There is no absolute good existing and there is no absolute bad existing either. They all exist and function in a relative state non-substantially. In this way, all phenomena exist and function just like an illusion, a magical display. Illusion is not something we create as illusion but rather, everything functions like an illusion. When we realize this, our perception is closer to how phenomena in reality function. Otherwise, there is a big gap between the way we perceive and the way phenomena actually function. When we perceive phenomena as real, concrete or substantial which, in reality, do not function at all in that way, we suffer. We try to create something, which is real, solid and permanent, but it does not exist. Thus, we struggle in between. And then everything changes upside down. When everything changes upside down, we get upset. So what we have to do is to know and realize how in reality all phenomena function. They function connectedly, interdependently and impermanently. Everything changes momentarily depending on the coming together and the disintegrating of the causes and conditions. There is big change, small change and subtle change. All phenomena basically exist only in one single instant. They arise, function, decline and disappear momentarily, simultaneously. When we see this nature, you see really how everything functions as illusion. Thus, dispel our delusion. There is a story about a woman who wanted to have a child. Because of her strong mental desire, she had a dream one night. In her dream, she gave birth to a child. She was very happy. "Oh! I got a child!" In the dream, she stayed with the child for several years. After some time, the child died and she was very upset. She cried and cried. When she woke up from the sleep, literally, her clothes were wet from the crying. Now, did she really give birth to the child or not? What do you think? In the dream, she really got a child and was really happy. After some time, the child died and she was very upset. Is that true or not? What do you say? It was true until she woke up, because it was true that she gave birth to a child and she was very happy. When the child died, there was true suffering. When she woke up, she realized, " Oh! I had such a strange dream!" So, it was not true. In fact, the manifestation of all phenomena is like that too. The state that we are in now is like living in a dream world. When we wake up from that state, we say, "It was just a dream that I had and that dream was not true." We may think that this world is true. But this world is also a dream. For one month, you work very hard, make lots of effort and have a hard time. When that month has passed, you become very happy. So the hard time that you had does not exist in this month, so it was a dream, just an illusion. When the causes and conditions are present, we experience this and that and as soon as the causes and conditions go, they no longer exist. This is how all phenomena are impermanent, interconnected and interdependent.

This shows that phenomena do not have any substantial existence. In other word, any existence is only an illusory existence arising due to causes and conditions. Although it exists, it does not exist substantially. "All dharmas (phenomena) exist due to the coming together of the four great elements. They are earth, water, fire and wind elements. The four great elements are fundamentally empty and the five aggregates – form, consciousness, feeling, perception and mental formation are non-existent." This was Buddha’s explanation of the nature of all phenomena of this world and universe after he attained Enlightenment. Emptiness means that phenomena has no substantial, independent and permanent self, but rather everything exists temporarily, interdependently in a relative state. In particular, as discussed above, our body, consciousness, feelings, five aggregates are the coming together of many ever-changing causes and conditions. Failure to see that due to our ignorance, all phenomena, particularly oneself, are perceived as permanent, unique and real. Dualistic grasping of self and others develops. Because of that, attachment to oneself and the things that one desire develops. Anything that arises which is contrary to what one desires is received with aversion and one becomes very protective. There is endless dualistic grasping at subject and object. When the fruit of clinging ripens, rebirth occurs in the realm of pretas afflicted with cravings, experiencing frightful hunger and thirst. When the fruit of aversion ripens, there comes the terrible suffering of burning and freezing in the hell realms. As one’s mind becomes swollen with arrogance, the ordinary attitudes of competing with and belittling others give rise to powerful mental states of pride, so that the suffering of strife between self and others is experienced. When the fruit of that karma ripens, rebirth occurs in the realms of gods who will experience the eventual fall from that state. We struggle constantly in these unending realms. Therefore, numerous sufferings arise due to the attachment to our ego. When we cherish it so much, sacrifice so much to please the ego which in fact does not exist, we suffer tremendously. Fear comes from ego since we are so afraid to lose it. Ego is just mental projections which come from dualistic grasping thoughts of self and others. Opposite to this is selflessness. Selflessness does not mean to deny the meaning or the value of life, it simply means that self does not exist independent of causes and conditions. It frees us from self-attachment and all other sufferings that follow. It dispels the ignorance which veils the true nature of mind which can be described as non-discriminating, openness, boundlessness, non-substantial, impermanence, non-conceptual, penetrated with wisdom, loving kindness and great compassion. Since afflictive emotions have been habitualized for a long time, the seed of inveterate propensity has grown so large, that we feel they are natural. They arise effortlessly when we encounter the proper conditions. Therefore, we need to make great effort to purify and release the bad habits and to practice the ten virtues which are the causes of peace, harmony and happiness and to avoid the ten non-virtues which are the causes of suffering.

Afflictive emotions like attachment and hatred are very difficult to release. Since all phenomena are empty, non-substantial in nature, it shows that the nature of our delusion is also empty depending on causes and conditions. For example, suppose that we would like to know about a mechanical machine. First, we do not know. This not knowing is called ignorance. Now we study it and we get to know the machine. "Now, I understand what it is made up of, its functions and how to operate it." Now, the ignorance of not knowing is gone. Where has it gone? It has gone nowhere and this is called emptiness. As long as we do not know, we have ignorance. Ignorance obscures the clarity of the mind. It is like when there are clouds in the sky, we cannot see the sun, moon or stars. As soon as the clouds disappear, they manifest. Likewise, the clarity of our mind is obscured by the ignorance, delusion. Knowing the machine, that knowing quality is within our mind and it does not come from outside. We just have to study it diligently to bring out our wisdom to dispel the ignorance. Therefore, when we know the dependent arising, like the right and left, of all things, there is nothing to attach. When everything is interconnected, it is just a matter of labeling. We just put labels on the phenomena and there is nothing to attach. When there is nothing to attach, there is nobody to hate. Through that, our ignorance is dispelled and mind becomes free. So this is how to achieve freedom. In particular, when anger comes, look into the mind and recollect the emptiness nature of anger and there is nothing to attach. It is just temporary, momentary depending on the causes and conditions. At one moment, somehow, it pops up so strongly that you are completely dominated and enslaved by the anger, you feel miserable. Then when it disappears, we feel good again. It is like morning dew on a blade of grass, evaporates like an illusion. Rather than getting upset or worrying about it, just see it as the true nature of that phenomenon. Accept the change and allow it to happen. Release the attachment. Try to build the strength of the mind in this way. At the same time make effort to create the causes of peace, happiness and harmony by developing loving kindness and compassion for all sentient beings (Bodhicitta). This altruistic mind is so precious and powerful that it transcend and purify all the negative thoughts and delusion. In fact, we can use anger in positive ways. When you cannot control your anger, may the anger that you have be sufficient strong to purify the anger of all sentient beings. May all sentient beings’ anger be completely purified. In the beginning, it is very difficult to practice in this way in the beginning. But if we practice mindfully and diligently, our anger becomes powerless. To practice Dharma well is not easy, not because Dharma is not easy. Most people understand Dharma easily. But when it comes to real practice, real applications, then because our negative thoughts and emotions are so strong and so stubborn that they would not like to listen. So they are the ones that are needed to be purified and uprooted. We have no other choice. We have to learn to replace our non-virtues by practicing virtues, our habitual negative thoughts and afflictive emotions with boddhicitta (the mind of Enlightenment). Negative thoughts and afflictive emotions are the real enemy within us, the causes of suffering. They destroy our peace and happiness. No matter where we are, even though we stay in a beautiful, luxurious place, eat delicious food and have wonderful, beautiful, expensive clothes to wear, as long as we have enemy inside, we destroy our happiness and peace. It goes with us wherever we are and finally flows us into the hell realm. The outer enemy, the person who make you upset, you can just ask him or her to get out of sight. Now he or she is no longer there but the enemy within us, the negative thoughts and emotions stay within your mind and there is nowhere to escape, nowhere to hide. It does not matter who you are, spiritual or not. So Dharma practice is not a spiritual or religious practice but rather a method and path taught by Buddha to free us from our enemies, to free from suffering and delusion and to attain the Enlightenment, Buddhahood.

Because our habits are so deeply rooted within us, in order to completely dispel our three afflicting emotions (the three poisons): attachment, hatred and ignorance, it is not enough just knowing intellectually the causes of suffering. We have to practice meditation and at the same time, practice the ten virtues which are the causes of peace, happiness and harmony, and avoid the ten non-virtues which are causes of suffering. For instance, even though we do not like to manifest anger but somehow it just pops up without our control. Similarly, other afflictive emotions such as greed, pride, attachment and jealousy etc rise up effortlessly one after another. In order to uproot and purify our deeply rooted habitualized propensity, we have to do meditation practices, that is, to work with our mind since mind is the one who create the causes of suffering. Meditation practice is a method to change, purify and uproot our ignorance. Meditation does not mean to just close the eyes and blank you mind. Meditation practice, in particular, analytical meditation means to contemplate thoroughly on much of the above-discussed subjects such as karma (causes and effect), interdependent origination, suffering in the six realms, selflessness, loving kindness, compassion, boddhicitta, impermanence, emptiness, precious human life. Human life is precious because it gives us opportunity to transcend and go beyond the causes of suffering, to uproot our ignorance, to bring forth our Buddha nature, the enlightened seed within us and to attain Enlightenment. Contemplate and bring those subjects in the mind and be one with that, and try to habitualize those and at the same time, purify our negative thoughts, negative emotions such as hatred, greed and so froth. This is kind of replacing the negative thoughts, negative emotions with positive thoughts, loving kindness and bodhicitta . Realize that negative thoughts and emotions are simply the manifestation of our deluded dualistic mind and they do not exist independently. Just because the nature of the negative thoughts and emotions is empty, non-substantial, impermanent, they have no foundation, they are groundless and baseless and we can completely purified them and replaced them. When we practice more and more, our wisdom develops and we realize more and more the emptiness nature of our negative thoughts and emotions. Thus their strength becomes weaker and weaker. On the other hand, when our wisdom develops, the realization of the wisdom and the compassion as the ground of being becomes stronger and stronger until we realize the true nature of all phenomena. Even though the waves in the samsaric ocean may be strong, but when we look into our mind, we see how much we are changing, changing momentarily, our courage is strengthened. This is the way to develop courage, the way to cut our negative thoughts and emotions with the razor of wisdom. We need indomitable courage and the indomitable courage should be based on the well-developed, unconditional bodhicitta mind – the mind of achieving Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. With this view, the meditation practice becomes very effective. Another form of meditation is stabilizing or calm-abiding or shamata meditation. One simple and effective way to calm our mind is to watch our breath. Analytical together with stabilizing meditation help us to bring our mind in one place and stabilize our concentration. It is because without a calm mind, it is difficult to analyze and without careful analysis and examination, doubts and anxiety would arise, which become great obstacles in sustain a calm and stable mind. When the mind is well-trained, well-organized, concentrating at the right place, it becomes very powerful. It gives us confidence and power to dispel our ignorance by penetrating directly into the true nature of all phenomena which is unborn and unoriginated. With stabilizing and analytical meditation, and the practice of ten virtues as foundation, we study and practice the Dharma diligently and sincerely with indomitable courage and unshaken will. Gradually, step by step, we can purify all our negative thoughts, afflictive emotions, dispel our delusions and ignorance and finally attain the complete Enlightenment with maximum ability to benefit others. Thank you.



May all sentient beings gain the supreme flavor of ambrosia;
may all sentient beings gain the supreme knowledge of truth, and comprehend the function of all flavors;
May all sentient beings obtain the flavor of infinite truths, know the realm of reality,
and abide at peace in the great citadel of truth in ultimate reality;
May all sentient beings produce great clouds of teachings throughout the cosmos,
shower the rain of truth everywhere, teach, edify, and civilize all sentient beings;

Last updated on 2000-12-23.