True Sufferings and the True Cause of Unhappiness


This evening, we’re going to begin a series of talks on how the understanding of voidness (emptiness) helps us to overcome our uncontrollably recurring rebirths, samsara. Samsara is not some place that we want to escape from and go instead to some transcendent realm or something like that. It is a situation that we all experience; and what we’re experiencing is uncontrollably recurring rebirth. 

Uncontrollably recurring means that it is carrying on repeatedly and is not under our control – in other words, it’s not occurring according to our wishes – but under the control of our unawareness or ignorance about how we exist and how everybody exists and, due to that, under the control of our disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior.  

The Aim of Life

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama is asked, “What is the purpose of life?” he always answers, “The purpose of life is happiness.” This, of course, could be misunderstood as him saying that we should just lead a hedonistic life and try to be as happy as possible. To really understand what he means, we need to translate back into Tibetan what His Holiness understands by the word purpose. The Tibetan word for “purpose” (don) is also the word for “aim,” and so when asked “What is the purpose of life?” His Holiness understands, “What is the aim of life? What is our life going toward? What is it that we all wish to achieve in our lives?” When we realize this, we don’t misinterpret his answer, “The purpose of life is happiness.” 

His answer fits into the general axiom or principle in Buddhism, which is that by nature everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy. This is taken as a fundamental aspect of our very nature. It is manifested in the simple fact that life grows. Why does it grow and what is it growing toward? It grows because of the instinctive drive toward happiness and happiness is what life seeks. 

Buddhism defines “happiness” as that state of mind which, when we experience it, we’d like for it to go on. We don’t want it to end and so growth is going in that direction, isn’t it? It’s what drives an infant to suck its mother’s milk, it drives us to eat, it drives us to find shelter, and so on. I think that everybody would agree that this is a natural drive. And we want to avoid unhappiness or suffering. Put your finger in front of an ant, and an ant will run around it. Why? Because it wants to avoid some sort of difficulty, some sort of problem.

What Is Suffering?

To avoid suffering and problems and attain happiness, we need to recognize what actually is suffering. What are the problems, what are the difficulties that we all would like to avoid? That is what Buddha was teaching about. He was teaching about what the true problems and sufferings are that we face in life and what are their true causes. Buddha taught that it is actually possible to achieve a true stopping of these problems and sufferings by getting rid of their causes so that they never recur. To do that, we need to apply some sort of opponent that will counteract the true cause of suffering. 

Since ignorance is the true cause of suffering, to counter it we need to develop a correct way of understanding. Such understanding is usually translated as a “true path,” but I prefer to call it a true pathway of mind. It’s not talking about some sort of physical path that we walk along. It’s referring to progressive levels and stages of understanding. As we develop them, step by step, they will lead us to the goal. The goal here is getting rid of suffering forever, so that it never recurs, and then eventually being able to help everybody else get rid of their suffering as well. 

That’s the basic idea of the four noble truths, the foundation of Buddha’s teachings. “Noble” is a translation of the word “arya.” They are called “noble” in the sense that aryas are highly realized beings who have seen these four to be true, non-conceptually. Non-conceptually means not through some sort of category, not through some sort of theory or idea of them, but they have actually seen with bare perception they are true. Others, who are a bit confused, might not see them as true, so these four noble truths are unique and quite special.


The Buddhist teachings that we find in the tradition that came to Tibet from the great Indian master Atisha are called the “lam-rim graded stages.” The structure of the four noble truths fits very well in them. 

Lam-rim presents graded levels of aim –  the same word that can be translated as “purpose.” What are we aiming for with the Buddhist trainings? This has to do with our levels of motivation. Again, we need to understand what the Tibetan word for “motivation” means. It is something that drives us toward a goal. 

The Buddhist notion of motivation is made up of two parts. One is a goal or aim, what are we aiming for? Then there is some sort of reason, reinforced by an emotion, that is driving us to achieve that goal. Motivation, then, is specified in terms of these two factors. What do we want to achieve, and why do we want to achieve it, namely what is the emotional state that’s driving us to achieve that?


In the lam-rim graded stages, initially what we are motivated to achieve is so-called “better rebirths.” Why? Because we want to avoid a future life filled primarily with the first type of true suffering, the suffering of suffering, namely unhappiness. 

The Buddhist teachings take rebirth as a fact and assume that practitioners believe in it. This doesn’t make it very easy, I must say, for us Westerners who have not been brought up with a religious or philosophical system that asserts rebirth. Remember, Buddha was teaching to an Indian audience and for the vast majority of Indians, rebirth was taken as a fact. It was assumed that everybody believes in rebirth. But we Westerners, if we have any concept of rebirth, we think of the afterlife. The Abrahamic traditions teach of an eternal afterlife in heaven or hell after we die and are judged. That is a sort of rebirth, but it’s not something that is going to repeat over and again as we are reborn from one lifetime to another. 

I don’t really want to get into the whole discussion of rebirth. That, in itself, is a topic for an entire weekend. But here, on the initial level, we are basically moved to think about unhappiness. Unhappiness is certainly something that we all want to avoid. If we leave aside considering rebirth in the hells or ghost realms and just look at the general idea behind thinking of these worse types of rebirth, it’s to avoid being reborn in a situation in which we are going to be intensely unhappy.

Happiness and Unhappiness

Unhappiness is a state of mind that when we experience it we want it to go away ─ we don’t want that. It’s very important to understand the difference, or the fact that there is a difference between one spectrum, which is a mental state of happiness or unhappiness, and another spectrum, which is a physical sensation of pleasure or pain. Very often people confuse the two, but they’re not the same. 

Pleasure and pain are physical sensations and people experience them in different ways. Some people can be intensely unhappy while they are experiencing some sort of physical pleasure, for instance when they feel they don’t deserve it. On the other hand, some people can be quite happy when they’re experiencing pain, like having a feeling of progress after a hard physical workout. Pleasure and happiness, and pain and unhappiness, don’t necessarily go together. 

I think we can all understand what it means to be unhappy. We can be unhappy while experiencing something on the sensory level; watching a movie, listening to some music, eating a meal, or feeling cold. We can also be unhappy just thinking about something, like an upcoming exam at school, or sadly thinking about someone we miss. Happiness and unhappiness, then, are mental factors that accompany either physical or mental experiences.

In these worst states of rebirth, like the hells and ghost realms, we would really be unhappy all the time. That is something we really want to avoid, so we want to achieve states in which we are going to be happier. Why do we want to be happier? Well, if we think on a deeper, more spiritual level, it’s in order to be able to go further in our development, not just to be “happy.” What drives us to that? Basically, a healthy fear of unhappiness, we really don’t want to suffer.

The Suffering of Unhappiness

Unhappiness is often based on fear. There are healthy and unhealthy types of fear. There is irrational fear of imaginary dangers and rational fear of things like a mad dog with rabies that we want to be careful with and avoid because we don’t want to get bitten. That is a reasonable type of fear. 

Then there’s another variable with fear, which is when the situation is hopeless and we’re helpless and there’s no way to avoid what we fear, like being afraid of death. Then there are other situations in which there is a way to avoid what we fear, like when we’re driving and we’re afraid of having an accident. If we’re careful, then there is a high possibility we won’t have an accident. Or when we cross the street, we can avoid getting hit by a car if we look both ways.

When we speak about fear driving us to avoid unhappy worse rebirths, we’re talking about realizing that there is a way to avoid them. In accord with the four noble truths, the way to avoid that suffering is to avoid its cause. Lam-rim then elaborates what we need to do to avoid this suffering – this unhappiness – and achieve better rebirths. I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of lam-rim here, as it’s not our topic, but that’s the first level of suffering, the suffering of unhappiness, something to get rid of.  

The Suffering of Change

On the intermediate level, we consider our situation in the so-called better rebirth states and the type of happiness that we would experience there. Such happiness, our ordinary happiness, is also problematic; it’s called the “suffering of change.” Why is it a problem? First of all, it doesn’t last. Secondly, it never satisfies. We always want more and if we have too much of it, then either we get bored with it ­– because it’s not stimulating anymore, so we want something new, something different – or it turns into unhappiness, like when we eat too much of our favorite food. If it were really happiness, then the more we ate, the happier we’d become. But, obviously, we reach a point where we’re full and eating any more would be very uncomfortable; so, this is the problem with this type of ordinary happiness. Also, such happiness leaves us insecure: we never know what’s going to come next, when it’s going to end. Our moods are always swinging up and down, happy and unhappy. So that’s our ordinary type of unhappiness. It’s not really the best thing we could experience.

The All-Pervasive Suffering of Uncontrollably Recurring Rebirth

Then we have what’s called the “all-pervasive suffering” of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara. That’s the main focus of Buddha’s discussion of the first noble truth, true suffering. Uncontrollably recurring rebirth as all-pervasive suffering refers to repeated rebirth with the type of body and mind that are going to be the basis for experiencing this up and down swing of feeling happy and unhappy. 

If we get rid of the basis for experiencing this swing, we’ll no longer experience the first two types of suffering. The way to get rid of them, then, is to get rid of this third type of suffering, where we continue to have rebirth with the type of body and mind that will have these up-and-down swings of being happy or unhappy. Of course, in each rebirth there are conditions that support feeling happy or unhappy, like getting sick and growing old, but we experience these because we’ve taken rebirth with the type of body that gets sick and grows old.


What we are aiming for is so-called “liberation.” We want to gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Liberation from it doesn’t mean that we go off to some other place, a paradise or some transcendent realm, as a pure soul with no body or mind, or that we vanish into nothingness. Buddhism asserts that our individual continuum of experiencing things is going to go on forever. It has no beginning and no end. But we don’t want it to continue further on the basis of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, with a type of mind that is just going to experience over and again the up and down swings of happy/unhappy. 

We’re moved to try to achieve that goal by what’s called “renunciation,” which is not a terribly good word for translating the Tibetan or Sanskrit. What it means is a strong determination to be free of this: “I really want out.” The emotion behind it is not anger with our situation or anger with ourselves that “I’m so stupid for causing this,” or anything like that. It much more has the flavor of being bored with it. It’s really boring. Our moods are going up and down, “Sometimes I feel good and sometimes I feel bad, sometimes I’m depressed and sometimes I’m excited. How boring!” If we think about having to be reborn again and once more being a baby – how terrible to be a baby again. We’ll wet ourselves and not be able to express what we want except by crying. 

Not only is that horrible, it’s also incredibly boring. We have to go to school again and make our way in life: find a partner and a job, and from time to time we’re going to get sick and then grow old and die. Boring! We want to get out of that, so that is renunciation, it’s a determination to be free. It’s based on understanding the causes for uncontrollably recurring rebirth and that it actually is possible to avoid it. We understand what liberation means and we’re logically convinced that it is possible to attain it. We don’t just believe it with blind faith. It’s a very rational striving, not just wishful thinking.

Other Religious Traditions

We humans are not unique in wanting to avoid the suffering of unhappiness. Animals want to avoid unhappiness too. Squirrels put away nuts for the winter. Animals do their best to avoid uncomfortable, difficult situations; so, we can do more than an animal. If we look at many of the world’s religions, they also teach a way to avoid so-called “worldly happiness” by teaching methods to go to heaven or a paradise. Renouncing ordinary worldly happiness is nothing new or special about Buddhism. 

Even if we speak in terms of overcoming uncontrollably recurring rebirth, even that we find in many non-Buddhist Indian systems. They also teach about samsara, they have the same word for uncontrollably recurring existence or rebirth, and they also teach about liberation from that, which they call “moksha” in these systems. They too assert that ignorance or unawareness of reality is the cause for uncontrollably recurring rebirth and they too teach an understanding that will counter that ignorance and lead to liberation. 

What is special about the Buddhist teachings is that they identify much more accurately – the non-Buddhists wouldn’t agree – but Buddhists say we identify much more accurately what the true cause of suffering is. Buddha identified more accurately what the confusion and ignorance is that drives this uncontrollably recurring rebirth. 

Buddha was the one that identified this true cause with his teaching of the four noble truths, and the aryas have seen them non-conceptually to be true. Buddha saw that the liberations that these earlier systems claimed to be true liberation were not really liberation. They were only a temporary escape into a higher realm of deep concentration, “samadhi,” but that escape doesn’t last forever. It might last eons and eons in some higher plane of existence, but that’s not true liberation. The true stopping of uncontrollably recurring rebirth will only be gained by a true understanding, the true pathway as Buddha taught it, not what these other masters have taught. This is what makes the Buddhist path special, as opposed to what animals do, as opposed to what Western religions teach about going to heaven, and as opposed to other Indian systems that teach liberation. It’s very helpful to put the Buddhist path and teachings in this perspective.

The Advanced Scope of Lam-rim Graded Motivations

On the initial scope of lam-rim motivation, we are aiming for the so-called better rebirths and their ordinary happiness and want to avoid unhappiness. With an intermediate scope, we are aiming for liberation from these better rebirth states as well and from uncontrollably recurring rebirth all together. We want to be free from the suffering of change – ordinary happiness – and from the all-pervasive suffering of samsara. Now, with an advanced scope of motivation, we think of everybody else. Everybody else is in the same situation of experiencing these three types of true suffering and their true causes. We are all interconnected and interrelated; our very existence depends on the existence of others, and then lam-rim presents the very extensive teachings on how to develop more concern for others, etc. 

What we’re aiming for now is the enlightened state of a Buddha. With that attainment, we would be able to understand fully the personal situations of each individual being, so that we can know exactly what would be the best method to help that person also to attain liberation. We would also know what would be the consequences of anything that we would teach, so that we could choose the correct way to help this person. This is because a Buddha’s omniscient mind does not perceive things in a limited way.

Limited Perception

Our minds, as sentient beings, are limited. This term “sentient being” means a being with a limited mind, and a limited type of body as well. Limited means that our minds, our ways of perceiving things, are limited by – if we can use a computer analogy – the hardware that we have. With our brains and our bodies, we can only see out of the holes in the front of our heads, right? We can’t see behind us, to use a trivial example. There is a physical limitation there.

Even though we can use a mirror to be able to see behind us, still we can’t see all the causes of something and we can’t see the future consequences of things. I won’t get into the very complex presentation of past and future that we have in Buddhism, but to leave it on a simple level, we only perceive the present. Our perception of life at any particular moment is basically like a still photograph, isn’t it, if you think about it. 

But life doesn’t exist like a series of still photographs. It’s constantly going on, but what we see is just what is occurring right at the moment; what we hear is just what is occurring right at the moment. If somebody walks into a room, let’s say our partner comes home from work, our perception if we’re at home is like they’re coming from nowhere. We have no idea what happened to them during the day, which is obviously affecting their mood. We just respond to what we see. 

Likewise, our partner that comes home has no idea what our life must have been like at home, let’s say if we’re taking care of the children. What mood might we be in? They just see us. There are expectations that we should be completely fresh and totally available for them. It doesn’t work, as I’m sure everybody knows from your own experience. But it occurs because of our limited hardware; we just perceive everything like a still photograph. Here they are. They’ve just arrived completely isolated from the past and all the different things that have happened during the day.

Unlimited Perception

A Buddha’s mind doesn’t do that. If we could be aware of the whole background of somebody when we meet them, we would have a much better idea of how to help them, how to respond to them, how to interact. This is what we are aiming for in becoming a Buddha. A Buddha doesn’t have this type of body that we have, which is limited by big hardware problems. Our bodies are like a bottle of milk with an expiration date. Our body is going to expire, but it’s with an unknown expiration date, which is really scary, isn’t it? We never know when it is going to turn bad. At any time, we might start to have dementia, or get cancer or something like that ­– quite awful. Buddha doesn’t have that type of limited body or limited mind. Technically, a Buddha is no longer a sentient being and a Buddha’s body has no expiration date. We’re aiming to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha with an unlimited body and unlimited mind so that we can be of best help to everyone.

Ignorance: The True Cause of Suffering

Let’s go a little bit more deeply into the true cause of true suffering. We’ve seen what true suffering is. What is it that we want to get rid of? We want to get rid of uncontrollably recurring rebirth as the basis for experiencing unhappiness and ordinary, non-lasting happiness, and we want to get rid of that by getting rid of its cause. For this, we need to identify more clearly what is the true cause. What Buddha specified is what is translated as “ignorance.” Ignorance is the true cause. 

In English, at least, the word “ignorance” does not have a very nice flavor to it. If we call someone ignorant, it sounds like we’re looking down on them and saying they’re stupid. That’s not really what we mean by it. What we mean, according to some definitions, is that we just don’t know two specific things. We’ll get to what those two are in a moment. The second explanation of “ignorance” is that we know these two in an inverted manner, a manner that’s opposite to the way things are. To avoid the connotation of “stupid,” I prefer to use the term “unawareness.” 

There are two things specified here that we’re unaware of. We’re not talking about not knowing your name, or knowing it incorrectly. That’s trivial. That could be the cause of some problem, obviously, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about two things that we’re unaware of. One is behavioral cause and effect. In other words, what the effects are on ourselves of the way we behave, the way we speak and the way we think. The second is unawareness of – if we use a general word – reality. Unawareness of how we exist, how everybody exists, how everything exists. We don’t know, or we know in an inverted way that is opposite to reality, opposite to the way things are. 

When we are unaware of behavioral cause and effect – the cause and effect of our behavior – we don’t know that our previous destructive behavior is the cause of our unhappiness and our previous constructive behavior is the cause of our ordinary happiness. Either we don’t know this, or we know it in an inverted way, thinking that if we act destructively we will bring about our happiness. But, when we come under the influence of disturbing emotions – like greed and attachment, anger or naivety – we act, speak or think in compulsive destructive ways and that produces our experience of unhappiness, maybe not immediately, but in the long-run.

Understanding Karma

We need to understand something else, karma. If we look at what the Tibetan word used for karma means in the colloquial language, it means “action.” Often, we hear translators and Tibetan lamas themselves, who have learned the English word from the translators, referring to karma as action, but that’s misleading. If our actions in general were the problem, the troublemaker, then all we would have to do is stop doing anything and we would be liberated, which is clearly not what is intended here. We need to look more closely at the definitions and examples that are used to explain karma. From that we can deduce that what karma really is talking about is compulsion. 

There is a compulsiveness about our behavior. Karma is the compulsion that drives us unconsciously to act in a certain way without any control. It’s that compulsion that is the troublemaker. We act, in this first case, compulsively in a destructive way. Compulsively we say things that are cruel to others, we yell at others. Why? Because of anger. And we don’t know or we’re confused about the result of yelling at somebody. It’s certainly not going to make them happier. It’s not going to make us happier either. We’re not happy when we’re yelling at somebody and, if we have the strong tendency to yell, we’re also not a happy person. Or, compulsively we lie, compulsively we steal. 

Also, we compulsively have negative thoughts or worry all the time. That compulsion is driven by disturbing emotions and, underlying them, is either not knowing what the effect of thinking like that all the time will be, or knowing in an inverted way.

An Example of Compulsive Behavior

For example, suppose we have a partner, or someone that we hope to become our partner, and we feel they’re not paying enough attention to us. So, we yell at them, “Why don’t you show me more affection? Why don’t you call more often? Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?” We think that by yelling at them, they’re going to love us more and want to be with us more. How confused is that? It just drives the other person away. But we think that if we yell at them, “Why don’t you love me?” then somehow this is going to make them love us and make us happy. That’s a clear example of this type of ignorance we’re talking about and it’s based of course on longing desire, “I need you, I can’t live without you,” and anger, that “You’re not paying enough attention to me,” and naivety about what we can reasonably expect from another person.

Disturbing Emotions

We’re naive about the effect of what we’re doing, and it’s compulsive. We don’t have any control over it. This is the definition of a disturbing emotion – what some translators call an “afflictive emotion.” It’s a very wonderful definition. A disturbing emotion or attitude is a state of mind that when it arises, makes us lose peace of mind and lose self-control. When we long for somebody or something we don’t have, or are attached to something we have and don’t want to let go of, or are greedy when we have enough, but still want more, our minds aren’t calm at all. We lose self-control. For instance, we buy something that we can’t afford, then we go into debt and eventually what we bought doesn’t satisfy us anymore and so we buy something else and go further into debt.

This is the mechanism behind our experience of unhappiness. We are compulsively unaware of behavioral cause and effect; we’re unaware of the effect of our behavior. Due to that, then under the influence of disturbing emotions, we act compulsively in destructive ways.

That compulsion is the karma. It’s the compulsion that draw us into an actual action. Acting out our compulsive drives builds up a habit to repeat the action, and so it reinforces the compulsion. It is very important to understand karma properly. We need to identify it as the troublemaker. This is what we want to get rid of. We want all the actions of our body, speech and mind to be driven by compassion and wisdom, not by ignorance.

What we want to get rid of when we talk about getting rid of karma, then, is the compulsiveness of our behavior. Our behavior needs be based on discriminating awareness; to discriminate between what is helpful and what is harmful. Then we can choose – obviously, because we want to be happy – we choose what, to the best of our judgment, would be beneficial. It’s like that. 

Why don’t we take a moment to digest that? When we talk about digesting, what we want to do is try to recognize the compulsive aspect about some of our destructive behavior. Compulsively complaining, compulsively nagging, compulsively speaking in an unpleasant way to people, compulsively putting ourselves down in our minds, or negative thinking about ourselves. It’s compulsive, isn’t it? Being compulsive is the troublemaker.