True Sufferings and the True Causes of These Sufferings
The Buddha taught that although there are many individual problems that we face in life, the true suffering is the fact that we perpetuate the repeated arising of our sufferings. We perpetuate experiencing unhappiness and unsatisfying happiness uncontrollably going up and down, and we perpetuate having a limited body and mind in each rebirth as the basis with which we experience these emotional ups and downs. The Buddha also taught that the true causes of our perpetuating these lie within our own minds.
Our minds project a false reality regarding the effects of our behavior on ourselves and others and also regarding how we, all others, and all phenomena exist. We falsely imagine that we exist as some concrete, self-contained entity, called “me.” And we falsely imagine that our minds are also some concrete entities in our heads that either we identify with, since the voice in our heads seems to be in our minds, or we regard somewhat like a device that we use to understand things and think. We are unaware that neither of these projections corresponds to reality but, even worse, we believe that they do.
Have you ever felt sorry for yourself, thinking, “Nobody loves me; nobody needs me?” Or felt completely stressed and thought, “I can’t handle things; it’s too much for me?” Are these happy states of mind? Obviously not. We might wallow in self-pity and unhappiness, but we also long for these feelings to be gone. The problem is how we conceive of this situation. It feels like a coloring book where this unhappiness is a dark cloud, self-contained within a solid line around it, hanging over a “me,” also self-contained within a solid line. Based on believing that this deceptive appearance corresponds to reality – simply because it feels like that – we then develop disturbing emotions such as longing desire for someone to love us or anger with someone when they don’t show us love. These disturbing emotions trigger a compelling karmic urge to make an unreasonable demand on someone to spend time with us and show us affection. Even if they accede to our demand, any short-term happiness we experience is never enough, and we just demand more, perpetuating the unhappy situation.
In such a loop, our minds are confused and clouded. We do not think straight, and our behavior is out of control. But is confusion part of the nature of the mind? To answer this question, we need to know what Buddhism means by “mind.” Mind is not some self-contained “thing” in our heads, but rather it refers to mental activity. It is the individual, subjective mental activity of experiencing things. It is constantly changing as different things are experienced in different situations, but its conventional nature remains always the same. It’s deepest nature also always remains the same – it is devoid of existing in some impossible way.
There are many impossible ways in which we falsely imagine our minds to exist. For instance, we think of the mind as being a concrete entity that is either identical with a concrete entity “me” or something used by such a “me.” Since neither of these false views corresponds to the actual nature of the mind – they are mere fantasies and so are not part of the nature of the mind – all mental states based on these false views are also not parts of the nature of the mind. These mental states include our misconceptions of “me,” the disturbing emotions that arise to try to make that “me” secure, and the compelling urges that draw us into futile actions to prop up that “me.” Because none of these are parts of the nature of the mind and are based on misconceptions of that nature, they can be removed forever once those misconceptions are replaced with correct understanding. Constructive emotions like love and compassion, on the other hand, are not based on misconceptions of the nature of the mind. Because of that big difference, correct understanding does not displace them.
A true cessation of suffering, then, is not a cessation of our minds. Our minds, with all their good qualities such as love, compassion, and correct understanding go on from lifetime to lifetime. What comes to an end is our uncontrollably recurring rebirth with limited bodies and limited minds under the control of unawareness, disturbing emotions and compelling karmic urges.
The Four Aspects of True Cessations
The third noble truth, true cessation, has four aspects.
- Firstly, it is a true stopping of the true causes that perpetuate the arising of all types of suffering. Any specific episode of suffering will automatically come to an end, because everything affected by causes and conditions is impermanent and inevitably ceases. “A true stopping,” however, means that such episodes will never recur. Because the nature of the mind is pure – in the sense of being totally devoid of these true causes – understanding this fact counters the misconception that there is no way to get rid our perpetuating the arising of true sufferings.
- Secondly, a true cessation is a peaceful state, because all the disturbing mental factors are pacified. This counters the mistaken idea that the attainment of a deep state of absorbed concentration, where, like having taken a strong painkiller and not feeling anything, is a true stopping of all our problems. No matter how long we remain in such states, free of pain and suffering, it does not remove the true causes of our problems. It is only a temporary time-out. The concentration ends, the drug wears off, and our problems come back.
- Thirdly, a true cessation is a superior state. It is superior to any attainment in the worldly sphere. No matter how idyllic a virtual world we create and escape into might be, we cannot escape true sufferings and their true causes by hiding there. Our problems in the so-called “real world” have not gone away.
- Lastly, a true cessation is a definite emergence from all true sufferings and their true causes, and not just a partial or temporary emergence. Although this emergence occurs in layers and stages – because the unawareness and misconceptions about how we, others and everything exist are deeply engrained as habits and tendencies – nevertheless their total removal so that they never recur is possible. This is because they are not parts of the nature of the mind. They are fleeting taints because the mind, by nature, is pure.
When it is possible to rid ourselves forever of the true causes for perpetuating our true sufferings, why would we ever settle for just minimizing them or temporarily suppressing them? Of course, while working to get rid of them forever, we need to progressively minimize their frequency and intensity, but the Buddha pointed out that we can all attain a true cessation of them. Why aim for anything less?