The Second Noble Truth – the Noble Truth of the cause of suffering

The Second Noble Truth describes the principal cause of suffering. It is clinging. . . to anything at all.

The bad news is that we suffer. The good news is that there is a prime cause – clinging – that we can address.

There are lots of words that get at different aspects of clinging. For example, the original Pali word is “tanha,” the root meaning of which is thirst. Here are some related words, and you might like to pause briefly after each one to get a sense of the experience of it: Desire. Attachment. Striving. Wanting. Craving. Grasping. Stuck. Righteous. Positional. Searching. Seeking. Addicted. Obsessed. Needing. Hunger.

  1. The Noble Truth of Suffering
  2. The Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering
  3. The Noble Truth of the End of Suffering
  4. The Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path

As a general statement, clinging causes suffering by causing it to arise in the first place or to increase further, and by blocking factors that would reduce or end it.

The inherent suffering of clinging
For starters, any moment of clinging – in all of its forms, gross or subtle, and regardless of its objects – inherently contains suffering in two ways.

First, as you’ve probably noticed, the experience of clinging itself – in all of its forms – is unpleasant. It feels contracted, tense, uneasy, and at least a little stressful. And this is true even if what we crave is enjoyable: the craving itself robs the enjoyable experience of some of its savor.

Second, as the Buddha observed, one of the three fundamental characteristics of existence is impermanence. Everything changes. Nothing of mind or matter lasts forever. Every single moment changes instantly into something else.

That’s the absolutely universal nature of outer reality and of inner experience. But what is the nature of the human mind?

The mind evolved to help us survive, and it does so by trying to figure out stable patterns in the world, and in our life, and to develop lasting solutions to life’s problems. As a result, our mind is forever chasing after moments of experience or moments of reality — trying to hold on to them to understand them, to get a grip on them, to control them.

At the most basic, microscopic level, it is the nature of mind to cling. As a strategy for passing on genes, it has worked spectacularly well. But Mother Nature doesn’t care if we suffer; she only cares about grandchildren!

Because, unfortunately, by the time the mind has gotten mobilized to pursue a moment of experience in order to make sense of it and figure out a plan for dealing with it . . . . POOF! It’s gone!! Moment after moment . . .

Truly, we live life at the lip of a waterfall, with reality and experience rushing at us – experienced only and always NOW at the lip – and then, poof, zip, zap, it’s over the edge and gone.

But our mind is forever trying to grab at what has already disappeared over the edge.

As the 8th century sage, Shantideva put it:

Beings, brief, ephemeral,
Who fiercely cling to what is also passing
Will catch no glimpse of happiness
[In this or any life].

Four objects of clinging

In addition to the two ways that suffering is inherent within the very fabric of clinging, the Buddha described how suffering arises from the four main targets of clinging:

  • To sense pleasures – which includes resisting unpleasant experiences
  • To the notion or sense of self
  • To views
  • To routines and rituals

Systematically developing insight into your clinging in terms of these “targets” will really help reduce your suffering. As an extended example, let’s explore the first one.

The suffering of clinging to sense pleasures

First, life inevitably has lots of painful experiences. There is no way around them, no matter how much good fortune we have.Things like death, old age, illness, trips to the dentist, kids leaving home, traffic jams, etc.

Whenever we resist an unpleasant experience – including desiring a better experience – boom! right there our suffering increases. Let’s say you’re in the dentist’s chair: wishing you were somewhere else just makes it worse.

In addition to what is happening in the moment, we resist painful experiences by fearing them before they begin, and by dwelling on them after they have occurred.

Of course, it’s natural to have other preferences when you experience pain. But when you get attached to those preferences, that’s when suffering begins.

Second, desires get awakened for pleasures we cannot or will not get to experience, and that’s frustrating, disappointing, sense-of-futility-creating . . . in short, suffering.

Consider these common examples: success or fame or beauty . . . attractive people to be with . . . fabulous vacations . . . fame . . . promotions . . . hugs from surly teenagers. . . etc.

Shantideva again: “O foolish and afflicted mind, you want, you crave for everything.”

Third, even if we attain them, most pleasures are actually not that great. They’re OK, but . . . Look closely at your experience: is the Oreo cookie really that mind-boggling? Was the vacation that outstanding? Was the satisfaction of the A paper that intense and long-lasting?

Fourth, even if we attain them and they’re actually pretty great, many pleasures cost us much pain. Alcohol and drugs and certain sexual relationships may be good examples here. But also consider the possible “collateral damage” of career ambitions, winning arguments, needing the house to be “just so,” and so on.

If you look closely: what is the cost/benefit ratio — really?

Fifth, even if we attain a pleasure, and it’s actually pretty great, and it doesn’t cost too much – the gold standard – because of impermanence, even the most pleasant experiences inevitably change and end.

For example, one day we will be separated from everyone we love by their death or our own. Ouch: but no way around it. The cookie will be eaten: all gone! as the little kids say. We’ve got to get out of our warm and cozy bed for work. Time to leave the nice hot shower. You turn in the big report and the boss and everyone else sings your praises for a day or two and then it’s over and on to the next thing. The orgasm lasts just a few seconds!

As the Buddha said, everything that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing. Period. No way around it.

Since pleasant facts and experiences will inevitably end, it’s both doomed and painful to grasp after them.

When the heart grasps what is painful, it is like being bitten by a snake. And when, through desire, it grasps what is pleasant, it is just grasping the tail of the snake. It only takes a little while longer for the head of the snake to come around and bite you.

Ajahn Chah, A Still Forest Pool

Enjoy pleasant experiences, yes, as they pass through, as long as (A) you do not cling to them, and (B) your enjoyment does not fan the flames of desire for them – a possible but very challenging thing to do. You really have to be on top of your game for that, with lots of mindfulness.

Pretty grim, huh? But it’s helpful to remember that the point of developing mindfulness of and insight into the causes of suffering is to become free of them – and thus relatively (and perhaps even absolutely) free of suffering itself.

To summarize, for all the reasons we’ve discussed, any experience is incapable of being completely satisfying. We have been looking for happiness, security, and fulfillment in all the wrong places.

So, what’s the right place?

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The play of causes and conditions (Day 96)

100 Days of LovingkindnessWe adopted my daughter at four months old, and I found it absolutely fascinating to watch her mind evolve. What I noticed first was that happiness was her default emotion; it was only when hunger or pain arrived that she’d become upset. How many people can you say that for — that happiness is their baseline mental state and that they only deviate from that state temporarily? This reminded me of Buddhist teachings that tell us that happiness is fundamental to the mind, and that troubling mental states are disturbances to that inherent sense of well-being.

I watched my daughter exhibit wonder. She’d just sit there and move her hands and look at them and smile, and you could see that she was alive with curiosity and delight. Just the sight and feeling of her hands moving was wondrous to her.

But then things began to change.

She was happy because she had no craving or grasping. When she was small, you could remove something from her hands that she’d picked up, and she wouldn’t protest. She’d just move onto delighting in the next experience. But then craving and grasping started to arise in her mind, and with it arose her first real experiences of self-generated suffering. Because we’d take something from her that she wanted — something she saw as a fun toy but that we saw as a choking hazard — she’d suffer agonies of despair.

The hot on the heels of craving arose anger: by the time she was two, when she was deprived of something she wanted, she was likely to have a tantrum.

This was a bit of a shock to the system, having my sweet, happy daughter taken away from me and this demonic entity kicking and thrashing and screaming. It was all developmentally appropriate, but challenging!

One of the ways I found myself rising to this challenge was recognizing that what I was seeing was the play of causes and conditions. When she was frustrated and would try to strike me or spit at me, I started seeing her as an eternally-unfolding stream of causes and conditions.

She didn’t know why she was acting this way. She was experiencing new emotions (can you imagine what that’s like?) and having to learn to deal with them. She was struggling to come to terms with moving from complete dependance to relative independence, never knowing where the line was or what her limitations were, going through phases of development as she tried to make sense of the world around her and of herself.

Oddly, I found that I could face her tantrums not just with equanimity, but with love and compassion, when I let go of the assumption that she was a “person” and saw her more as a stream of causes and conditions.

It’s funny, isn’t it? It sounds dehumanizing to regard someone as not being a person. But actually it’s the opposite. When I see her as a “person” I start immediately thinking (even unconsciously, I think) in terms of her having a fixed nature that I have to mold into the shape I want. And that brings about judgments, because molding a living being isn’t easy. There’s “resistance,” and “uncooperativeness” and “bad behavior.” And it’s hard not to be angry when you’re faced with those things (even if they’re just judgments your own mind has imposed on reality).

But when I see my daughter as a stream of causes and conditions, I see her as an evolving being, and instantly I feel compassion for her, because I see her as a struggling and growing being. And my heart opens to her, because deep down we’re all struggling and growing beings. And perhaps somehow my heart knows that the best conditions in which to be a struggling and growing being are love and compassion from other struggling and growing beings.

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The great teacher 8th century teacher Shantideva talked about how seeing beings in terms of causes and conditions could help us have more patience with them:

I am not angered at bile and the like even though they cause
great suffering. Why be angry at sentient beings, who are
also provoked to anger by conditions?

Just as sharp pain arises although one does not desire it, so
anger forcibly arises although one does not desire it.

A person does not intentionally become angry, thinking, “I
shall get angry,” nor does anger originate, thinking, “I shall

All offenses and vices of various kinds arise
under the influence of conditions, and they
do not arise independently.

An assemblage of conditions does not have
the intention, “I shall produce,” nor does
that which is produced have the intention, “I
shall be produced.”

So this is simply an extension of the principles of anatta (non-self) that I’ve been discussing recently. At my best, I don’t indulge in “conceiving” of my daughter having a self. At my best I realize that her tantrums are not her, not hers, and that they are not her self.

I’m at my best when I relate to others not in terms of what I think they are, but in terms of what they can become. It’s not that I have a fixed sense of what they can be, but that I simply don’t assume that what I see is all that there is. When my daughter’s having a tantrum that’s just one particular manifestation of the causes and conditions that constitute her being at that particular time. Minutes later she may be sweet and loving. And who knows what she will become in the future?

Things go best between us when I accept her as an eternally-evolving and undefinable being, and my task as a parent is to be a compassionate presence that encourages the emergence of what is best in her.

So this again brings us to upekkha. Upekkha is not equanimity, but is the desire that beings experience the peace of awakening. It’s also the activity that helps beings to experience that peace. Recognizing that beings are not fixed, but are vortices of conditions arising and passing away, helps us to experience that peace ourselves, and to help them to move toward that peace themselves.

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Having gratitude for our enemies (Day 70)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort.

“…patience arises only in dependence on that malicious intention, so he alone is a cause of my patience. I should respect him just like the sublime Dharma.
From the Bodhicaryavatara, by Santideva

The 8th century Indian teacher Shantideva gives us a rationale for feeling grateful to those who wish us harm: our enemies give us an amazing opportunity to practice patience.

This can actually work! This morning on a social network something I’d said attracted the attention of a guy whose communication started off as rather brash but quickly degenerated into graphic threats of violence against me. There was a momentary urge to write something nasty (but subtle!) back to him, but then I realized this guy was a “troll” — someone who gets their kicks from barging into discussions and causing a reaction. And I actually felt some gratitude and affection toward the guy for having given me an opportunity to be more mindful, wise, and compassionate — which manifested as refusing to respond to him at all. After a short reflection on gratitude, all anger for this person totally vanished. Right now I feel like I want to hug him, in fact!

We may generally wish that people who don’t like us would just go away, or start liking us, or stop being so unreasonable, but since we can’t force other people to change it seems that Shantideva’s approach has some merit. There are going to be people who hate us, dislike us, or make life difficult for us. We can’t entirely alter the world so that it suits us. But we can change our attitude toward them.

Now everyone has some positive qualities, to some degree. I can think of people it’s hard to like because they’re destructive, violent, and narcissistic. But not every single thing that they do is intended to cause harm. They have some restraint, some patience, some tenderness — or at least the potential for these things. But it can be hard to get beyond our dislikes and find something to appreciate in someone we feel antagonistic toward. Shantideva’s approach short-circuits this. When cultivating mudita — joyful appreciation — for the people we find difficult, it’s their challenging behaviors themselves that we appreciate. We don’t appreciate those qualities because they are harmful, but because they test us, chellange us, and allow us the opportunity to go deeper into our practice.

This is a difficult thing to remember in the heat of the moment! When someone “flames” you in a discussion forum, it can feel like a sharp object has been jammed into a sensitive part of your body. The first instinct is to retaliate. So we need to practice cultivating this attitude when our amygdalas are not red-hot and throbbing (the amygdala being the ancient part of your brain that sparks off the “fight or flight” reflex).

So right now, think of someone you tend to get annoyed by, or someone who has hurt you, or someone you tend to criticize a lot. And see if you can feel a sense of generosity and appreciation toward them for testing you. See if you can regard them as being like a particularly challenging climbing wall, or sudoku or crossword puzzle, or like a tricky mystery story that’s designed to baffle you (please translate to your challenge of choice). Seeing the enemy this way, we take them less personally. We see them less as a personal affront, and more as a puzzle to be solved. It’s good to be challenged! Life without challenges becomes gray and insipid.

It crossed my mind that there’s a mirror image of this in the way that when we’re first in love with someone their “faults” are seen as endearing. We appreciate our loved one and take their odd habits not as a personal affront but as a reason to feel even more appreciation. But once the infatuation wears off, we’re left with being annoyed by our beloved’s faults. Shantideva walks this process back — we no longer take the faults as being a personal affront, and start to feel appreciation, and perhaps appreciation, because of them.

This is an important part of the Bodhisattva path — practicing Buddhism to benefit not just yourself, but all beings.

PS. You can see a full list of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Dazzling treasures of the heart


Karunachitta introduces us to Ratnasambhava, the Buddha of abundance, and issues a challenge: Dare we discover the extent of our inner riches?

When I was a child I kept going back to certain fairy stories. There was King Midas’s quest for riches. He was so delighted at the beauty of trees and flowers when his touch transformed them into gold but horrified when those he loved became solid gold statues.

Then there was Aladdin with the lamp that could grant all wishes. I used to wonder what I would wish for, especially when in some stories people were granted three wishes but could only think of stupid things that changed nothing.

I had a glimpse of understanding that you needed to have a certain wisdom and selflessness for a wish to have a positive effect.

As I write this the January sales are on. Outside my window people are flocking to buy items at half price, or two for the price of one. This consumerism is contagious. I find myself thinking: “If only I had… if only I won £10,000 … if only things were different.”

The quest for riches has now come to mean something different to me. Many years after I first mused on those fairy stories, I was sitting in meditation when I was suddenly dazzled by a shining yellow Buddha figure standing with a horse. One arm was placed lovingly around the horse’s neck, the other held out the jeweled bridle to me. He was waiting patiently for me and I could see that I was expected to mount the horse and ride off with him. But I was afraid. Blinded by the light, I could not see who it was. Yet such boldness suddenly came over me that when he asked: “Are you coming with me?” I found myself replying, “Yes!”

That night my mind was so full of yellow light that I couldn’t sleep. I had the feeling I’d said yes to something far beyond what I was even remotely capable of imagining. Who was he? After discussing my experience with a friend, I came to recognize this figure as the archetypal Buddha Ratnasambhava from the traditional Buddhist “Mandala of the Five Jinas.” Each Jina or Buddha becomes a gateway to Enlightenment. Ratnasambhava is the southern gateway. He comes from the Glorious Southern Realm, where:

Currents of pure fragrance fill the great rivers
Beautiful diamonds form their banks.
Rings of jewelled dust are spread on the ground;
The various ornaments are all rare and fine.
Jewel stairways arrayed in rows,
beautifully adorned.
Balustrades surrounding, all extremely fine,
Flower decorations with stores of pearls
And various garlands draped all around.
(The Flower Ornament Sutra)

Ratnasambhava’s body is yellow in color — sunflower yellow, dandelion yellow, canary yellow, lemon yellow, luscious cadmium yellow hue, the color of sunlight. Wearing sparkling jewelled robes with a seven-stranded jeweled necklace, and illuminated by sunlight, he is beautiful to behold. He sits on a golden-yellow lotus throne upheld by four energetic horses with flowing manes and tails.

He symbolizes richness and generosity. In his left palm he holds a wish-fulfilling jewel, and his right hand is outstretched in the gesture of supreme generosity. His name means Jewel-Born One. The color yellow represents the earth element and the earth brings forth the wealth and richness of harvest crops, forests and flowers, as well as those “harvests” beneath the earth of gold, silver, rubies, emeralds and crystals. Shantideva evokes this in The Bodhicaryavatara: “As many flowers and fruits and species of healing as exist in the world, and as many jewels exist, and waters clear and refreshing.”

As a practitioner of yoga, being in touch with the earth means being centered in my body, and fully experiencing physical sensations. This encourages me to relax, appreciate and enjoy my body, and to be wholly aware of body, feelings and thoughts. I come to know myself more deeply and this inspires confidence and fearlessness. It also means becoming more aware of my physical environment — especially by spending time in nature. This kind of appreciation brings a joyful, playful element to life, and a feeling of potency.

The four golden horses that hold up Ratnasambhava’s throne gallop across the wide expanse of sky with free, wild energy. But they have come together to support the lotus throne. This represents to me the focus, purpose and integration of meditation.

The horse symbolizes the transformation of the energies of the mind. This is the gift of focused vitality. As the Tibetan poet Milarepa sang:

The horse of the mind, moving like the wind, doth prance about.
What lasso must be used to catch this horse
And to what post it be tied when caught?
What food is it to be given when hungry?
And what drink is it to be given when thirsty?
In what enclosure is it to be kept when cold?
To catch the horse, use, as the lasso, Singleness of Purpose.
It must be tied, when caught, to the Post of Meditation:
It must be fed, when hungry, with the Guru’s Teachings;
It must be given to drink, when thirsty.
of the Stream of Consciousness;
It must be kept, when cold, in the enclosure of the voidness.

“The horse of the mind” can also be transformed through receptivity to the interconnectedness of all things, and this brings a sense of abundance. What makes one feel poor is alienation from humanity. Ratnasambhava transforms the pride that separates us from one another, and makes us judge others and ourselves in an unhelpful way. I find myself asking whether others are “better” or “worse” than me. And there is a preoccupation with the great ME the at center of my universe. Ratnasambhava connects me with others. Self-centredness is converted into love, and ultimately into compassion for all that lives.

This manifests spontaneously as generosity. Ratnasambhava’s great generosity is based on egolessness, the basis of his solidarity with all beings. He is said to possess the Wisdom of Equality, and this is symbolized by Mamaki, who is Ratnasambhava’s consort. Her name means “she who makes everything her own.” Mamaki looks on all things as identical with herself, because she knows the inner unity of Shunyata or emptiness which lies at the heart of all beings.

She delights in and appreciates everyone and everything. I see her as a dazzling yellow, bejeweled dakini. When I feel impoverished, I call her up and her dance brings back the feeling of inner abundance. If you call on Mamaki you may need sunglasses! Working from strength is like bringing jewels into the sunlight where everyone can see them. You have to be fearless to be generous. Auguste Renoir wrote of Algeria: “The magic of the sun transmutes the palm trees into gold, the water seems full of diamonds and men become kings of the East.”

The Wisdom of Equality is the great leveler. Possessing it, one has a kindly and impartial heart, one sees all people with equanimity. This wisdom is based on the insight that all phenomena are equal, because they are all empty. As the Heart Sutra says, “Form is only emptiness, emptiness only form.” All things and all thoughts are in a process of continual arising and passing away. Seeing this leads us to compassion. Shantideva in his compassion says:

May I be an imperishable treasure for needy beings.
May I stand in their presence
in order to do what is beneficial in every way …
I would be for all creatures a magic jewel,
an inexhaustible jar, a powerful spell,
a universal remedy, a wishing tree,
and a cow of plenty.

This attitude is what Ratnasambhava, with his wish-fulfilling jewel, represents. Am I wise enough to use my wishes generously? Dare I take Ratnasambhava’s challenge to dig down to the treasure trove of the mind — however small it seems to be? Dare I mount wild horses and gallop into the sky?

Ratnasambhava overflows with love. To take up his challenge I have to believe in who I am and feel the sun of the glorious southern realm shining openly in my heart. Sunny Ratnasambhava is able to give continually because he is rich and abundant in spiritual wealth. But if I gaze long enough into his wish-fulfilling jewel, then I, too, can feel more abundant. I must learn to let go of expectations and leap into the unknown.

Ratnasambhava is associated with midday, when the sun is at its brightest. So Ratnasambhava symbolizes both the heights and the depths of experience, and understands the importance of both. Midday has the brightest light and the deepest shadows. It means living from the heights of inspiration, while also being earthed. Ratnasambhava is rich enough to embrace it all.

He is the Buddha of beauty and aesthetic appreciation and the protector of those engaged in the Arts. Out of our spiritual practice surprising images and unknown colors can arise. According to Jung, “Color is the mother of the subconscious.”

Colors are enhanced in bright sunlight until they dazzle you in the midday sun. The more I engage my emotions in my painting and respond to color, the more I can enter this abundant realm. Ratnasambhava helps me to contact and sustain my spiritual vision and to bring it out into the sunlight where I can share it with everyone. Accepting his gifts enriches the world

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