by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Suffering and Suffering's Cause

It is very difficult to be born as a human being and equally difficult to find Buddhism. However, because of the good karma that we have accumulated, we have received the exceptional gift of a human body and are able to hear the Truths of Buddhism: we therefore have the greatest possibility of a full life within the limits of birth and death. It would be criminal to waste such an opportunity by leaving this weak life of ours exposed to impermanence through lack of faith and commitment.

--Great Master Dogen
Shushogi (What is Truly Meant by Training and Enlightenment)

Impermanence, Pain and Longing

All beings know suffering through experience, for all beings experience pain. Yet this alone is not the same as realizing the First Noble Truth, "Suffering permeates existence."

The realization of the First Noble Truth comes when we recognize that there is no external way of escaping either the impermanence or the pain of existence. We long for something that will not just dissolve away in the stream of change. We long for a state of being in which there is not dis-ease. Because of this longing, the First Noble Truth can also be expressed in the following way: "No external refuge can satisfy the deepest longing of the heart."

Cause and Alleviation

If I break my leg it will hurt. And I will know that the cause of the pain is the injury to the leg. So we know through experience that physical pain has causes.

If we love someone and that person dies, we experience grief. Grief is painful. We know that the grief is caused by the death of the person we love. So we know through experience that pain of spirit has causes.

Yet neither of these ways of recognizing causes of pain constitutes realization of the Second Noble Truth: "The root cause of suffering is craving based in ignorance." Realization of the Second Noble Truth begins to seep into our consciousness with the dawning of awareness that we carry the cause of suffering with us wherever we go and whatever we do: the root cause of suffering lies within ourselves as attitude, belief and mental habit, not in external things, other beings and external conditions.

This is why we can alleviate pain in many ways and still suffer deeply. It is why beings can think of themselves as happy and be creating suffering at the same time. It is why we at last seek a spiritual solution to what is, at its root, a spiritual problem.

The Responsible Party

At this level of the true root of suffering, there is only one person in the universe who can hurt any individual. That person is himself. For example, another person can say nasty things about me, beat me, even kill me. While none of that is pleasant, it is also true that none of it gives impetus to the wheel of birth and death for me and my stream of karma unless I act (or react) in a non-Preceptual way.

This is not to deny the existence of cruelty and injustice. It is to say that cruel and unjust actions most truly and deeply hurt those who perpetrate them, and this becomes very evident in subsequent rebirths. Those who nurture thoughts and feelings of resentment against those who do cruel and unjust actions will themselves eventually do cruel and unjust actions.

Out of ignorance of the way in which the law of karma works, beings suffer injury at the hands of others, nurture resentment, indulge hatred, seek vengeance, perpetrate evil, and in consequence again suffer injury at the hands of others. We can only cut through this cycle of injury and perpetration by positively accepting adversity. The following teaching attributed to Great Master Bodhidharma shows how the understanding of karma/rebirth can help us do this act of acceptance:

"When those who search for the Path encounter adversity, they should think to themselves, 'In countless ages gone by, I've turned from the essential to the trivial and wandered through all manner of existence, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless transgressions. Now, though I do no wrong, I reap the consequences of my past actions. Neither gods nor men can see when an evil deed will bear its fruit. I accept the consequences of my past actions with an open heart and without complaint of injustice.'" (From The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, translated by Red Pine, slightly paraphrased.)

The focus in this passage is on attitude of mind and heart. It is important not to wilfully misinterpret this teaching: it is not advocating any particular course of physical action in any situation; nor is it recommending (or not recommending) pacifism, quietism, or any other "ism." It may or may not be good in any particular situation to intervene in order to prevent cruelty and injustice. The point of this teaching is that if one acts out of greed, hate and delusion, one harms oneself, regardless of what anyone else may or may not do.

Body, Mind and the Eternal

In How to Grow a Lotus Blossom Rev. Master captures the essence of the spiritual dilemma expressed in the first two Noble Truths in simple words: "The body will not know peace until the mind ceases from evil." (Page xxix; first edition, p. 176. In the first edition, the wording is a little different, but the essential meaning is the same.)

When our mind is in harmony with the Eternal, that is, when we are truly meditating, the cause of suffering is disengaged. This benefits, and is expressed within, the body in many ways. But the beneficial consequences of harmonization with the Eternal do not extend as far as bodily immortality: body and mind are mortal and remain mortal regardless of the depth of training and enlightenment.

At the deepest level of harmonization of body and mind with the Eternal, the cleansing and conversion of karma accomplishes the resolving of all spiritual need, thus stopping the rolling of the wheel of suffering into future rebirths. This does not mean that there may not be Bodhisattvic rebirth, which is the rebirth of merit, not need. Bodhisattvic rebirth--if it happens--may unite merit with a new batch of need so that the merit can guide that need to the Help of the Eternal.

Thus Rev. Master's statement that the body will not know peace until the mind ceases from evil has deep implicatons. For if first we substitute the term "karmic stream" for "body," and then look at the insight expressed in this simple sentence from a slightly different angle, an awe-inspiring spiritual vista opens before us.

Here is step one: "The karmic stream will not know peace until the mind ceases from evil."

Here is step two: "When the mind is firmly grounded in the Great Immaculacy, there is the cessation of suffering."


Click here to proceed to Part XXXIX, "The Cessation of Suffering and the Eightfold Path"


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