The Dawn of the Dhamma

Illuminations from the Buddha’s First Discourse

by Sucitto Bhikkhu | 76,370 words

Dedication: May all beings live happily, free from fear, and may all share in the blessings springing from the good that has been done....

Chapter 6 - The Second Noble Truth

Getting Burned

Circles can be peaceful, but they can also be vicious when they represent, as these do, the regenerative aspect of the suffering that they describe. In the last frame, the man holds onto his chains which are symbolic of the world of the five aggregates. The more he feels burdened by it, the harder he holds on, imagining all the while that, by this effort, he is preventing himself from being overwhelmed. The circle in this picture is fire, and its repetitive cycle is caused by the three forms of desire rooted in self (tanha). These three desires chase each other in circles and are preoccupied with trying to eliminate each other. This is represented by the three violent creatures emanating from the central fire. The monkey at the bottom symbolizes the untrained mind that always darts hither and thither, and the hand at the top, as in the last painting, is the hand of the Buddha held in the symbolic teaching gesture (mudra). The little vignettes in the loops of fire I"ll explain later.

If you felt dismayed by the First Noble Truth but were determined to get to the heart of the matter, as was the case with those five bhikkhus, you"re probably ready to go through the fire of the Second Noble Truth, which is about the origin of suffering and, by inference, of grasping. The Buddha points out:

Idam kho pana bhikkhave … kamatanha, bhavatanha, vibhavatanha.

Bhikkhus, there is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering. It is desire, which gives rise to fresh birth, bound up with relish and passion, running here and there, delighting in this and in that: in other words, sense desire, desire for existing and desire for extinction.

First of all, I"m going to say something about tanha, generally translated as “desire.” These translations are difficult, because the words don"t exactly correspond to the same meaning in the two languages. Dukkha is almost impossible to catch in a single word, khandha doesn"t mean much as an aggregate, and tanha as desire gives rise to some misinterpretations. What about the desire to realize Truth, is that suffering? Actually tanha means “thirst,” and, as the context explains, is purely the kind of desire that wants something for me. At another time, the Buddha defined tanha simply as:

Desire for sights, sounds, for fragrance, for tastes, for things to touch, for ideas.

(Samyutta Nikaya: [II], Cause, Buddha, 2)

Tanha, then, is the desire that pulls things inwards, not the desire that radiates out—like aspiration or compassion. These are all aspects of spiritual Truth; it is a Truth that cannot be grasped selfishly. In fact, you could summarize spiritual training as the transformation of selfish desire into selfless desire, zest and aspiration. The desire that acts as a motivation to know how things really are, beyond the grasp of the gratification instinct, is the needed vigor to carry one through the rough patches. So it"s important that, in abandoning the fantasized and deluded objects of desire, one doesn"t sink into an apathetic fatalism; or into believing that the putting forth of energy in spiritual practice is another form of craving. Then consider the following reflection: isn"t the desire to extinguish desire an aspect of the desire for extinction? Sometimes you wish you didn"t have any desires, and feel really depressed by the inability to get rid of them—that"s suffering, isn"t it? When it comes down to it, a lot of the gratification instinct is about getting rid of itchy, hankering feelings.

The First Noble Truth seems to say that life is suffering; but more accurately, it states that there is a range of feelings that we have to bear with through the experiences of birth, aging and death. This is experienced as suffering as long as the way things appear to us is taken as an absolute truth. The heart of the matter is that life is not a flawed experience; rather it is made that way by an unconscious activity of the mind. We don"t realize that we"re doing it: we"re simply not aware at the level of the mind where the activity is born. These two Truths (and a good deal of Buddhist mind training) help to focus our attention deeper in our heart so that we can stop the seeds of suffering from being planted.

Suffering arises, it has an origin. We can recognize that the feeling of emotional dissatisfaction begins; we were feeling pretty good, and then—we got offended, or the good time came to an end. In a little while, we feel upset or we hanker after some new way of enjoying ourselves. The fact that the arising of suffering can be noticed means that it arises from something other than suffering, and that there is something other than suffering that notices it. Whatever arises has a cause, is created. Simply to recognize that suffering arises is the beginning of opening the mind to a deeper understanding.

If we neither contemplate suffering nor wish to understand it, suffering is not so noticeable. Instead of looking at it, we keep shifting away from it to absorb into something else. This is the birth habit I mentioned earlier. But what that causes is an underlying sense of dis ease, denial, and even cynicism in the psyche—the “get it while you can!” syndrome. A natural state of joy or contentment is considered impossible, and happiness arises only when we have our security, our creature comforts, our best friends. Then we say, “I don"t suffer, life is great!” At such times—which we assume to be the norm—we easily forget our frequent disappointments and irritations, or try to ease the chafing of life with some balm of comfort or bluff heartiness. Also we unconsciously assume that calamities won"t occur—that our partner won"t get run down by a truck or that our child won"t be crippled by disease. Most incredible of all, something in us is shocked by death: we still feel that sickness, death, betrayals, breakdowns and failures are an outrageous deviation from the smooth flow of life. This is what the Buddha called “unknowing” or avijja—the mind"s contraction to a level where the full range of birth"s potential is not accepted. Although this avijja is a buffer that the psyche uses to protect itself from suffering, it actually drives the dukkha deeper into our hearts, affecting our ability to be open and easeful with life.

For example, what happens when we try to recover from suffering? We often find something else to distract our minds; or perhaps we repress the pain. During a lifetime of many small disappointments, betrayals, threats and the rest, we develop a tough skin over our sensitivity, and a feeling that happiness is something we have to seek out. Eventually, there is so much hide protecting the heart that the innate joy of being alive becomes inaccessible. Many people would not even guess that happiness is an innate state of being, independent of circumstances. The Buddha found that happiness in the purity of his heart, and called that innate purity of being the Unconditioned. It is unconditioned because it is not dependent on conditions and one who realizes that experiences Nibbana, the highest happiness.

But for the average person, happiness is dependent on circumstances. They don"t see suffering—because they have created the circumstances to avoid it. But the avoidance of suffering is not the cessation of suffering. Suffering remains a distinct possibility, and we take every step to prevent it. We tend to settle for guarded security. However, that too is suffering—the defensiveness and anxiety that someone might rob or attack us; or that some insidious virus might be gnawing its way through our immune system. The average comfortable Westerner living with material adequacy is still always prone to anxiety: the possibility of losing one"s partner, one"s job, one"s health, one"s standing in the community, one"s dignity or sense of well being. When our happiness is dependent on a fragile tissue of circumstance, no one can afford to relax and be at ease. Societies where people have a lot of opportunities and possibilities for pleasure are generally frantic, anxious or neurotic. And people who depend on fortunate conditions for their happiness become quite selfish and deluded, refusing to accept that there might have to be some constraint on how they use the planet, their bodies or other people. The right to pursue one"s own happiness easily gets distorted into the right to do whatever turns you on, no matter what the effects might be on others; the right to use as much of the earth"s resources as one likes, to have whatever one wants immediately and live a life of ever renewing pleasure and vitality. Just as for an alcoholic, the gratification of desire only leads to more and more thirst, not to its quenching. That"s the circle of fire, and it often begins with a pleasant, warm glow.

By our inability to relate and respond wisely to the down side of life, or even to accept that it might exist, we have taken dukkha deep into ourselves and buried it there—where it is difficult to extract. From not living in accordance with the changing rhythm of life, from expecting it always to be bright and positive, we create a spectre that haunts the heart, and affects the ways we view and live our lives. We make dukkha an ultimate truth that we run away from for as long as we can, by absorbing ourselves into the up side of the sensory world. But we can"t commit ourselves for too long to any one thing because, like the waves of the sea, the sensory world has its down side. And remember the sensory world is a lot more than beer and parties: now we have all kinds of refined things to watch or taste, and the mind especially offers a vast potential for sensory enjoyment. There are so many things one can study, though this is hardly considered a sensory activity. But in the Buddhist analysis it is; we delight in intriguing ideas or in being aroused by tales of stirring adventure. Then again, one can alter one"s consciousness completely with drugs. So the sensory world allows us to get absorbed into many states—into each of which we are propelled by kamma or volition, and each is experienced as the arising of the five khandhas. They are births—we experience “being born” into the sensory realm. And since we do it over and over again, no birth satisfies us for very long.

We try to become something in order to feel that we are making progress. This is another kind of thirst: it is the desire for existing or “becoming” as it is also translated. This means the desire for some “position” in the temporal or spatial world that consciousness projects. We “feel” ourselves to be immaterial things regarding experience, affected by it, even imperilled by it. And we seek to become in control of, or able to understand and direct, the life experience. “Becoming” is very powerful: we do things now so that we can “be” in a better situation in the future. We study in order to qualify for a good job, to have a stable family life, or to have love and security and an adequate supply of sensory happiness. This is reasonable enough; but it often entails overriding the experience of the present. People work themselves hard and become very stressed chasing the dream of ease in the future. And the amount of stress that one undergoes in order to achieve one"s goals makes it necessary to raise the expectations of what the future will provide.

People do certainly lie and cheat to get ahead, and after years of cheating and manipulating others, may feel disappointed that life doesn"t live up to their expectations. How can it? There are the laws of cause and effect (kamma vipaka) at work, and they operate according to the state of your intentions and actions. The way you act in the present determines how you"re going to feel and the kind of situations you"ll tend to find yourself with in the future. If you are an aggressive unscrupulous go getter, you"ll associate with the kind of people who fit into that way of operating. Naturally enough, such companionship will reinforce the drive to get something in the future. And the stress. The aggressiveness comes back to your own mind and body—until you find yourself “born” into an untrustworthy circle of associates, an ulcer or a coronary. This is how becoming leads to birth.

The process of becoming operates on a subtler level than big business competitiveness or desire for fame. The “inner self” that is the experience of becoming projects values and wishes onto everything. Notice when doing a mundane chore that the attitude is frequently one of wanting to get it done, wanting to have finished it in order to be peaceful, to relax or to enjoy oneself…. That, too, is dukkha. Rushing along to get to the next moment, we fail to open and appreciate this moment. The laws of kamma are that if you operate in that way in this moment, the same momentum takes you through the next moment, coloring your awareness of the present with its moods and perceptions. You want to go to a show, so you hastily take a shower, change your clothes, abruptly cut off a friend who just phoned, leap into the car, find out that you left the keys in your other jacket, rush back to the house, trip over the dog in the hallway … the scenario proceeds to the traffic jam, the lost temper, the minor accident, and then finding out that the show has been cancelled anyway—which was what your friend was phoning you up to tell you. Just notice, a mind filled with desire does not appreciate anything. And most people hardly investigate the quality of the present moment, because as a sensory experience, it may be nothing special. However, to one who cultivates attention to the present, in whatever form the present moment takes, the mind begins to reveal its treasures: sensitivity, joy, confidence and serenity.

When we get tired of running around and sensory stimulation, then the third kind of desire operates: the desire for extinction. These terms are not to be taken as absolutes. They apply to mind movements that may be momentary or only vaguely perceived. Vibhavatanha is the desire to get rid of something, to get out of it all. This is often a repressive influence, or simply an attitude of not wanting to be bothered: “I don"t want to see this.” It is also that force in us that denies our pain and sorrow, or makes us want to annihilate ourselves in sleep, drugs or with suicide. It often results from the other two forms of desire: if they are followed blindly, they leave us in states of mind that we dislike and therefore avoid being aware of. So we try to annihilate that awareness, even if it means destroying ourselves. What people don"t realize is that Vibhavatanha leads to birth too; birth in a negative state of repression or self denial in this world—or in another life.

These three motivating influences of desire continue to operate on subtler levels of activity too. Even with a spiritual inclination, the mind can be motivated by the desire to get out of it all—Vibhavatanha. The desire for spiritual attainment can be a form of bhavatanha—desire to become—when it is to enhance one"s self image, even just in one"s own eyes. This can actually hinder and bar progress towards purification of the mind by making one unwilling to fully understand the various unenlightened habits that one has to work through.

Sense desire (kamatanha) in terms of spiritual aims, is the desire for refined and blissful states of mind to absorb into: sit padded up with an elaborate system of cushions (so that you won"t have to be aware of bodily feeling) in a retreat centre where nobody bothers you and there"s no untoward sensory impingement. Then … use a meditation technique that gets you into a state of absorption and cruise on refined mind states for a while. This doesn"t always work for Westerners who have such overstimulated minds that to get them to quieten down through withdrawal often requires such manipulation and stressful effort that it is self defeating. Being thwarted in this way, they then have the chance to develop insight into the Four Noble Truths by investigating suffering and realizing the wisdom that goes beyond desire.

The mind moves extremely fast, and desire creates so much movement that it is difficult to see what is really going on. Sometimes desires augment each other: you want to become something so that you will have more happiness on the sensory plane; you want to get rid of your habits so that you will become a more productive human being; you would like to have a really comfortable meditation cushion so that you can become a wiser, more compassionate being. Sometimes they fight with each other: I want to get rid of my disgusting sensual appetites, or maybe I should get into beer and T.V. to get rid of my attachment to purity, and show that I"m not obsessed with becoming enlightened. And so on … I want. This is the way it is. Such is the promotion of suffering.

Notice that the Buddha makes no moral judgement here. He does not tell you not to be this way or to cut it out; in fact, he doesn"t say you are that way. He just says that there are these energies at work. Remember, the First Noble Truth points to the suffering which arises from grasping existence in terms of self. As soon as you start saying you are this way, and you should be another way, self desire has slipped into the mind. So the language of the Buddha"s teachings is deliberately impersonal. This way, we don"t get ashamed or defensive, and have the encouragement to investigate the way things are in a more open and objective light.

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