The first of the Four Noble Truths is the Truth of Suffering.
The various philosophical schools of Buddhism interpret the word ‘truth’ in different ways. For example, there is a fundamental difference between the Prasangika-Madhyamaka school and the Shravakayana schools in the way they distinguish ordinary beings from Arya or superior beings. The Shravakayana makes the distinction on the basis of whether or not a person has gained direct intuitive insight into the Four Noble Truths. The Prasangika-Madhyamikas do not accept this criterion, because they hold that even ordinary beings can have direct intuitive realizations of the Four Noble Truths. However, I will not go into these arguments here because it would complicate my explanation.
Instead, we will turn straightaway to the meaning of duhkha or suffering. In this context, duhkha is the ground or basis of painful experience, and refers generally to our state of existence as conditioned by karma, delusions and afflictive emotions.
As Asanga states in the Compendium of Knowledge (Abhidharmasamuchchaya), the concept of duhkha must embrace both the environment where we live and the individual beings living within it.
THE THREE REALMS OF SUFFERING
In order to understand the environment in which unenlightened beings live, we must look briefly at Buddhist cosmology. According to the Buddhist teachings, there are Three Realms of existence: the Desire Realm, the Form Realm, and the Formless Realm.
The difficulty here, for most of us, is how to understand these Three Realms. In particular, how should we conceive of form realms and formless realms? It is not enough to simply say that Buddha talked about these in the scriptures - that alone is not a sufficient reason for a Buddhist to accept their existence. Perhaps the most helpful approach is to understand these realms in terms of different levels of consciousness. For example, according to Buddhism, the very distinction between enlightened existence and unenlightened existence is made on the basis of the respective levels of consciousness. A person whose mind is undisciplined and untamed is in the state of samsara or suffering; whereas someone whose mind is disciplined and tamed is in the state of nirvana, or ultimate peace.
We also find that the Buddhist distinction between ordinary and Arya beings is made on the basis of their respective levels of consciousness or realization. Anyone who has gained direct intuitive realization of emptiness, or the ultimate nature of reality, is said to be an Arya according to Mahayana, and anyone who has not gained that realization is called an ordinary being. In relation to the Three Realms, the subtler the level of consciousness an individual attains, the subtler the realm of existence he can inhabit.
For example, if a person’s ordinary mode of being is very much within the context of desire and attachment - that is to say that he tends to develop attachment to whatever he perceives, like desirable forms or pleasant sensations and so on - then such attachment to physical objects, thought processes and sensory experiences leads to a form of existence which is confined within the Desire Realm, both now and in the future. At the same time, there are people who have transcended attachment to objects of immediate perception and to physical sensations, but who are attached to the inner states of joy or bliss. That type of person creates causes that will lead him or her to future rebirths where physical existence has a much more refined form.
Furthermore, there are those who have transcended attachment not only to physical sensations but to pleasurable inner sensations of joy and bliss, too. They tend more towards a state of equanimity. Their level of consciousness is much subtler than the other two, but they are still attached to a particular mode of being. The grosser levels of their mind can lead to the Fourth Level of the Form Realm, while the subtler attachment towards equanimity leads to the Formless Realms. So this is the way we relate the Three Realms to levels of consciousness.
On the basis of this cosmology, Buddhism talks about the infinite process of the universe, coming into being and going through a process of dissolution before again coming into being. This process has to be understood in relation to the Three Realms of existence. According to the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma literature (the Buddhist discourses on metaphysics and psychology which serve as a reference in Tibetan Buddhism), it is from the Third Level of the Form Realm downwards that the world is subject to the continuous process of arising and dissolution. From the Fourth Level of the Form Realm upwards, which includes the Formless Realm, the world is beyond this process which we could call the evolution of the physical universe.
This infinite process of evolution is very similar to the modern scientific notion of the Big Bang. If the scientific cosmological theory of the Big Bang accepts only one Big Bang as the beginning of everything, then of course that would not fit with basic Buddhist cosmology. In this case, Buddhists would have to bite their nails and come up with some way of explaining how the Big Bang does not contradict the Buddhist idea of the evolutionary process of the universe. However, if the Big Bang theory does not entail only one Big Bang at the beginning, but accepts a multiplicity of Big Bangs, then that would correspond very well to the Buddhist understanding of the evolutionary process.
The Sarvastivadin Abhidharma also discusses the precise ways in which the universe dissolves at the end of each cycle. When the physical universe is destroyed by fire it is destroyed only below the first level of the Form Realm; when it is destroyed by water it dissolves from the second level of the Form Realm downwards; when it is destroyed by wind, it is destroyed from the third level of the Form Realm downwards. In Buddhist cosmology, therefore, the evolution of the physical universe is understood in terms of the four elements of fire, water, wind and earth. In general, we usually add space to this list, making a total of five elements. A complex discussion on the elemental mechanics of dissolution can be found not only in the Abhidharma but also in the Uttaratantra. These explanations seem to be very similar to modern scientific theories.
Having said this, what is stated in the Abhidharma literature does not always have to be taken literally. According to the Abhidharma, for example, the structure of the universe is based on the model of a Mount Meru in the centre, surrounded by four ‘continents’. We also find that many of the Abhidharmic descriptions of the size of the sun and moon contradict modern scientific explanations. Given that scientific experiments have proved these claims to be wrong, we will have to accept the conclusion of the scientists on these points.
So here I have outlined very briefly how Buddhism understands the evolution of the physical universe, or, in a broad sense, the environment. As for the sentient beings that inhabit these environments, Buddhism accepts many different types. There are beings with bodily forms and beings which are perceived as formless. Even in the world with which we are familiar, there are many beings which are perceptible to our senses and some which are not, like those of the spirit world for example.
Generally speaking, the Buddhist understanding is that birth as a human being is one of the most ideal forms of existence because it is conducive to practising Dharma. So compared to human beings, spirits would in fact be considered inferior because that form of existence is less effective for pursuing the practice of Dharma. Spirits may have certain abilities that are not open to us, like certain powers of precognition or some supernatural powers, but the fact remains that they are part of this world where human beings also live. All beings in this world are under the control of delusion and afflictive emotions. In some sense one could say that they are actually the products of delusion and afflictive emotions.
Lama Tsongkhapa describes very vividly the unenlightened existence of sentient beings in samsara. He uses the analogy of someone being tied up very tightly by the ropes of negative karma, delusions, afflictive emotions and thoughts. Encased in this tight net of ego and self-grasping, they are tossed around aimlessly by the currents of fluctuating experiences, of suffering and pain. This is what samsaric life is like.
THREE TYPES OF SUFFERING
So now the question is, what is duhkha? What is suffering? Buddhism describes three levels or types of suffering. The first is called ‘the suffering of suffering’, the second, ‘the suffering of change’, and the third is ‘the suffering of conditioning’.
When we talk about the first type, the suffering of suffering, we are talking in very conventional terms of experiences which we would all identify as suffering. These experiences are painful. In Buddhism there are four main experiences of this type of suffering which are considered to be fundamental to life in samsara: the sufferings of birth, sickness, ageing and death. The significance of recognizing these states as forms of suffering, and the importance of this recognition as a catalyst of the spiritual quest, is very strongly demonstrated in the Buddha’s own life story. According to the story, when he was the young Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha is said to have caught sight of a sick person, an old person, and a dead person being carried away. The impact of seeing this suffering apparently led him to the realization that so long as he was not free of the infinite process of birth, he would always be subject to these other three sufferings. Later, the sight of a spiritual aspirant is supposed to have made the Buddha fully aware that there is a possibility of freedom from this cycle of suffering.
So in Buddhism there is an understanding that so long as we are subject to the process of rebirth, all other forms of suffering are natural consequences of that initial starting point. We could characterize our life as being within the cycle of birth and death, and sandwiched in between these two, as it were, are the various sufferings related to illness and ageing.
The second level of suffering, the suffering of change, refers to experiences we ordinarily identify as pleasurable. However, in reality, as long as we are in an unenlightened state, all our joyful experiences are tainted and ultimately bring suffering.
Why does Buddhism claim that experiences which are apparently pleasurable are ultimately states of suffering? The point is that we perceive them as states of pleasure or joy only because, in comparison to painful experiences, they appear as a form of relief. Their pleasurable status is only relative. If they were truly joyful states in themselves, then just as painful experiences increase the more we indulge in the causes that lead to pain, likewise, the more we engage in the causes that give rise to pleasurable experience, our pleasure or joy should intensify; but this is not the case.
On an everyday level, for example, when you have good food, nice clothes, attractive jewellery and so on, for a short time you feel really marvellous. Not only do you enjoy a feeling of satisfaction, but when you show your things to others, they share in it too. But then one day passes, one week passes, one month passes, and the very same object that once gave you such pleasure might simply cause you frustration. That is the nature of things - they change.
The same also applies to fame. At the beginning you might think to yourself, ‘Oh! I’m so happy! Now I have a good name, I’m famous!’ But after some time, it could be that all you feel is frustration and dissatisfaction.
The same sort of change can happen in friendships and in sexual relationships. At the beginning you almost go mad with passion, but later that very passion can turn to hatred and aggression, and, in the worst cases, even lead to murder. So that is the nature of things. If you look carefully, everything beautiful and good, everything that we consider desirable, brings us suffering in the end.
Finally, we come to the third type of suffering, the suffering of conditioning. This addresses the main question: why is this the nature of things? The answer is, because everything that happens in samsara is due to ignorance. Under the influence or control of ignorance, there is no possibility of a permanent state of happiness. Some kind of trouble, some kind of problem, always arises. So long as we remain under the power of ignorance, that is, our fundamental misapprehension or confusion about the nature of things, then sufferings come one after another, like ripples on water.
The third level of suffering, therefore, refers to the bare fact of our unenlightened existence, which is under the influence of this fundamental confusion and of the negative karmas to which confusion gives rise. The reason it is called the suffering of conditioning is because this state of existence serves as the basis not only for painful experiences in this life, but also for the causes and conditions of suffering in the future.
Dharmakirti’s Commentary on the Compendium of Valid Cognition (Pramanavarttika) and Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way (Chatuhshata-kashastrakarika) both offer a useful way of looking at this third level of suffering, and help deepen our understanding of it. Both works lay the emphasis on reflecting upon the subtle level of the transient, impermanent nature of reality.
It is important to bear in mind that there are two levels of meaning here. One can understand impermanence in terms of how something arises, stays for a while, and then disappears. This level of impermanence can be understood quite easily. We should add that on this level, the dissolution of something requires a secondary condition which acts as a catalyst to destroy its continuity.
However, there is also a second, more subtle understanding of transience. From this more subtle perspective, the obvious process of change we have just described is merely the effect of a deeper, underlying and dynamic process of change. At a deeper level, everything is changing from moment to moment, constantly. This process of momentary change is not due to a secondary condition that arises to destroy something, but rather the very cause that led a thing to arise is also the cause of its destruction. In other words, within the cause of its origin lies the cause of its cessation.
Momentariness should thus be understood in two ways. First, in terms of the three moments of existence of any entity - in the first instant, it arises; in the second instant, it stays; in the third instant, it dissolves. Second, in terms of each instant itself. An instant is not static; as soon as it arises, it moves towards its own cessation.
Since everything arises complete from the outset, the birth of things comes together with the seed or potential for their dissolution. In this respect, one could say that their cessation does not depend on any secondary, further condition. Therefore, in Buddhism, all phenomena are said to be ‘other-powered’, that is, they are under the control of their causes.
Once you have developed this understanding of the transient nature of phenomena, you are able to situate the understanding you have of duhkha within that context, and reflect upon your life as an individual in this samsaric world. You know that since the world has come into being as a result of its own causes and conditions, it too must be other-powered. In other words, it must be under the control of the causal processes that led to its arising. However, in the context of samsara, the causes that we are referring to here are nothing other than our fundamental confusion or ignorance (marigpa in Tibetan), and the delusory states to which confusion gives rise. We know that so long as we are under the domination of this fundamental confusion, there is no room for lasting joy or happiness. Of course, within the Three Realms there are states which are comparatively more joyful than others. However, so long as we remain within samsara, whether in the form Realm, the Formless Realm or the Desire Realm, there is no scope for joy to be lasting. In the final analysis, we are in a state of duhkha. This is the meaning of the third type of suffering.
The Sanskrit word for ignorance or confusion is avidya, which literally means ‘not knowing’. There are several interpretations of what is meant by avidya according to the different philosophical schools and their various views of the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of anatman or no-self. However, the general meaning that is common to all the schools is an understanding that there lies a fundamental ignorance at the root of our existence. The reason for this is quite simple. We all know from personal experience that what we deeply aspire to gain is happiness and what we try to avoid is suffering. Yet our actions and our behaviour only lead to more suffering and not to the lasting joy and happiness that we seek. This must surely mean that we are operating within the framework of ignorance. This is how we experience the fundamental confusion at the root of our life.
One way to reflect on the nature of duhkha, according to the traditional Buddhist teachings, is to reflect on the sufferings endured in each of the six ‘realms’ of the samsaric world system. These include the hell realms, the animal realm, the realm of pretas or hungry ghosts, and so on. For some people, such reflections may spur them to deepen their quest for freedom from suffering. However, for many other people, including myself, it can be more effective to reflect on our own human suffering. Although Buddhism teaches that human life is one of the most positive of all forms of life, since human beings have the potential to gain perfect enlightenment, it is not always that joyful. We are subject to the unavoidable sufferings of birth, death, ageing and sickness. In addition, when one reflects on the fact that life is conditioned and dominated by confusion, and the delusory emotions and thoughts to which confusion gives rise, then for someone like myself it seems much more effective to recognize this than to think about the sufferings of other realms.
As I mentioned before, the Buddhist scriptures describe the causal process through which ignorance gives rise to volitional acts, which in turn give rise to a birth in one of the samsaric worlds, and so on, as the Twelve Links in the Chain of Dependent Origination. On this, Buddha made three observations. He said that:
“Because there is this, that ensues. Because this came into being, that came into being. Because there is fundamental ignorance, volitional acts come into being.”
When commenting upon these three statements, Asaṅga explains in the Compendium of Knowledge that Three Conditions are necessary for anything to arise, and I think an understanding of these would be useful here.
Because there is this, that ensues
Asaṅga explained that the significance of the first statement is that all phenomena come into being because they have causes. One could say there is an infinite causal chain. It is not as if there were a first cause, or a ‘beginning’ point in time, from which everything arose. Asaṅga referred to that observation as the Condition of the Existence of a Cause.
Because this came into being, that came into being
When commenting on the second statement, Asaṅga introduced what he called the Condition of Impermanence. The meaning of this is that the mere fact that something exists is not sufficient for it to produce an effect. For something to have the potential to produce an effect, it must itself be subject to causation; in other words, it must come into being itself as a result of other causes. Hence we have an infinity of causes. So mere existence alone does not give rise to consequences, a cause should not only exist, it should also be impermanent and subject to causation.
Because there is fundamental ignorance, volitional acts come into being
Asaṅga’s comment on this mentions a further qualification that is needed for a cause to produce an effect, which he calls the Condition of Potentiality. The idea is that it is not sufficient for a cause to exist and to be impermanent for it to produce a particular result. It is not the case that everything can produce everything or anything. There must be some kind of natural correlation between a cause and its effect. For example, because the nature of our life is suffering we desire happiness, yet out of ignorance we create more suffering for ourselves, and this is because suffering is the root of our life. The result we obtain thus correlates with its cause.
So to summarize, three conditions are necessary for anything to arise: a cause should exist, it should be impermanent, and it should correlate with the effect.
In view of this, how should we understand the causal relationship between, say, ignorance and volitional acts? Buddhism pursues a rigorous analysis of causal relationships in general, and the scriptures contain many discussions on the different types of causes and conditions. However, there are principally two types of cause; one is known as the material or substantial cause, and the other as the contributory cause. By material cause we mean the very stuff that turns into the effect, so we can talk for example about the physical continuum of a physical entity. Many other factors are necessary to allow the transition to take place between a cause and its effect, and these are called the contributory causes.
Furthermore, there are different ways in which conditions can effect a result. These have more to do with the complex functioning of the mind. The scriptures identify five types of condition, such as the objective condition, which refers to the object of perception; the sensory organs that give rise to sensory perception; the immediately preceding condition, which is the earlier continuum of your consciousness; and so on. So you can see that the Buddhist understanding of causation is highly complex.
Let us take the example of fire. What would the material cause of fire be? We could say that a potential exists within the fuel that is used to make a fire, which then becomes the fire. In the case of consciousness, the issue is more complex. For example, it is obvious that we need the physical sensory organs for sensory perceptions to take place. Of course, the physical basis of consciousness would also include the nervous system, although in the classic Buddhist scriptures there is hardly any discussion of this, and it is perhaps something that needs to be added to Buddhist theories of epistemology and psychology. However, the substantial cause of consciousness would not be these physical entities. It has to be understood in terms of its own continuum, be it in the form of a potential or propensity or whatever. This is a very difficult topic, but perhaps we can say that the substantial cause of consciousness can be understood as the continuum of the subtle consciousness, although we should be careful not to end up in a position which implies that the material cause of anything is exactly the same as the thing itself. This would be untenable. We cannot maintain the position, for instance, that the substantial causes of sensory perceptions are always sensory perceptions, because sensory consciousnesses are gross levels of consciousness and are contingent on the physical organs of the individual, whereas the continuum should be understood on the level of the subtle consciousness. So perhaps we could say that the substantial causes of consciousness are present in the form of a potential rather than as actual conscious states.
When we talk about consciousness, or shes pa in Tibetan, we are not talking about a single, unitary, monolithic entity that is ‘out there’. We are referring, of course, to the mental consciousness which is the sixth consciousness according to Buddhist psychology.
Generally speaking, when we try to investigate our mind through introspection, we find that it tends to be dominated either by discursive thoughts or by feelings and sensations. So let us try to examine how feelings and discursive thoughts occur within the mind.
Feelings, of course, can be considered in relation to two different dimensions of reality. We can speak about them purely at the physical level, as sensations, but when we try to understand feelings in terms of mental consciousness the issue is far more complex. And although we naturally accept that there must be connections between the consciousness and the nervous system of the body, we must somehow be able to account for deeper levels of feeling as well, or what we could call tones of experience.
I would like to point out that although very little research has been carried out in this area, and despite the fact that what little exists is still at a rudimentary stage, experiments done on meditators point to a phenomenon which may be difficult to account for within the current scientific paradigm. These experiments have shown that without any voluntary physical change in the body, and without any physical movement on the part of the individual, a person can affect his or her physiological state simply by using the power of the mind through a focused, single-pointed state. The physiological changes that take place are difficult to explain according to current assumptions about human physiology.
There is no doubt that our consciousness and all our experiences are contingent upon our body, so the human mind and the human body are in some sense inextricable. Yet at the same time, I feel that research seems to point to the possibility that the human mind also has a power of its own which can be enhanced through reflection and meditation, or training of the mind. Furthermore, it is well known that there is a growing recognition within modern medicine of the power of the will in the healing process. A person’s willpower affects his physiology. How is willpower developed? It can be through thinking something through and discovering the reasonable grounds for one’s understanding. It can also be through meditation. In whichever way it is developed, it is now acknowledged that the will can effect physical change.
What does this mean? What seems to be accepted scientifically is that all the thoughts that occur in our mind give rise to chemical changes and movements within the brain, which are then expressed in physiological change. But does pure thought lead to such physical effects too? And is it the case that thoughts occur solely as a result of chemical changes within the body or brain? I have asked scientists on several occasions whether it would be possible for the process to begin first with just pure thought, and then, secondly, thought processes occur which give rise to chemical changes, which in turn trigger physiological effects. Most of the time their answers have indicated that since it is assumed that consciousness is contingent upon a physical base (the brain, for instance), every occurrence of thought must necessarily be accompanied or caused by chemical changes in the brain. To me, however, that assumption seems to be based more on prejudice than experimental proof. I therefore think the question is still open and further research is needed, particularly involving practitioners who engage in profound meditation.
The Vajrayana literature contains discussions of the existence of different levels of consciousness, or different subtleties of mind, and the ways in which these correspond to subtle levels of energy. I think these explanations can contribute a great deal to our understanding of the nature of mind and its functions.
So, as we saw earlier, most of our conscious mind consists either of states related with objects that we have experienced in the past - recollections of past experiences inform our present consciousness - or it consists of some kind of feeling or sensation. As a result, it is very difficult for us to glimpse the actual nature of consciousness, which is the sheer state of knowing or the luminosity of mind. One technique that we can use in order to do this is sitting meditation, through which we free our mind from thoughts of past experiences and from any form of anticipation of the future. Instead, we abide in the newness of the present, although we cannot really talk of a ‘present’ consciousness.
When you are able to clear away thoughts of the past and the future, slowly you begin to get a sense of the space between the two. You learn to abide in that present moment. In that space, you begin to glimpse what we call emptiness, and if you can remain in that emptiness for longer and longer periods of time then gradually the nature of consciousness itself, which is the sheer luminosity and natural awareness of mind, will slowly dawn in you. Through repeated practice this period can be lengthened more and more, so that your awareness of the nature of consciousness becomes clearer and clearer.
However, it is important to realize that this experience of the luminosity of mind, of the nature of mind, is not a profound realization in itself. Rebirth in many of the Formless Realms of samsara is considered to result from abiding in such states of clarity. On the other hand, if we know how to use that initial experience of luminosity as a basis, then we can build on it by complementing our meditation with other practices, and in this way it will become truly profound.
So here I have explained how we can look at the Buddha’s teaching on the Truth of Suffering. Once you have developed this kind of recognition of the duhkha nature of life, you already have some understanding that at the root of our suffering lies a fundamental ignorance. This, of course, leads us to the Second Truth which is the Origin of Suffering.
Q: Your Holiness, if corporeal beings are impermanent due to their complex physical nature, are spiritual beings permanent because of their lack of physical substance?
HHDL: Let us take the example of a formless being, that is, a being who, according to Buddhism, is in the Formless Realm. Unlike beings in the Desire Realm or Form Realm, that sentient being may not be subject to the natural processes of decay to which corporeal beings are subject, yet it still remains impermanent because it has a limited lifespan during which it remains in the Formless Realm. Since its life there has a beginning and an end, it is still subject to the process of change.
However, if we are talking about a being who has attained the state of moksha and has become an arhat, then the situation is different. Similarly, bodhisattvas on very high levels of realization (from the eighth bodhisattva level onwards) are no longer subject to the process of ageing. In a sense one could say that from the point of view of the continuity of consciousness, there is a sense of permanence for such beings, Moreover, such beings are described in the scriptures as having a mental rather than a corporeal form. We should note that this mental form is very different from the ‘mental body’ that is described in Vajrayana, in relation to the after-death states, for example.