by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

The Cessation of Suffering and the Eightfold Path

The deepest truth lies in Oneness. It is due to ignorance that the Jewel of Enlightenment is mistaken for a piece of brick. When one is suddenly awakened to the Truth, one realizes that one has always been in possession of the real Jewel. . . . When we know that between this body and the Buddha Nature there is no real difference, what is the use of seeking after Nirvana (as something external to ourselves)?

--Great Master Hui-Ke (Eka)
--translated by D.T. Suzuki in Essays in Zen Buddhism (slightly paraphrased)


The second of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths--"suffering is caused by craving rooted in ignorance"--clearly implies that the ultimate source of suffering lies within ourselves, not in external circumstances. This means that if I wish to do something about my own suffering at the level of its real origin, I must find a way to change my own attitude of mind. This might be difficult--perhaps very difficult, maybe even impossible. It all depends on whether it is possible to eliminate or transform ignorance and craving. On the other hand, at least I am not having to try to change the whole world and everyone in it, which is clearly impossible.

Throughout these Reflections, I have emphasized that if we try to destroy greed, hate and delusion, we actually only succeed in making them more powerful. Again, this is a teaching that can be verified in experience. The effort to destroy greed, hate and delusion in oneself is called "asceticism." The Buddha tried it and found that it did not work. Many people have tried it in many different ways. I tried it for a short time just a few months before I found the Path of Buddhist training that I have followed for over forty years. Asceticism did not work for me.

So we cannot destroy the causes of suffering. But can we somehow change these causes so that they cease to generate suffering and instead generate something else? The Buddha's answer to this question was a resounding "Yes!" Craving can be transformed into compassion and ignorance can be transformed into wisdom. As this happens, the rolling wheel of suffering becomes the rolling wheel of training/enlightenment--the onward flow of beneficence and compassion.

The Buddha's Third Noble Truth states that when the causes of suffering cease, suffering itself ceases. But He never equated the cessation of suffering with an existential vacuum--mere annihilation. The cessation of suffering is not extinction of the onward flow of existence, but rather the transformation of one mode of that flow into another. What are these "modes?" One mode is the "raw material of enlightenment" mode; the other is the "enlightenment" mode. In other words, craving and ignorance, and all the wilfull actions that flow out of them and reinforce them, constitute the potential for compassion and wisdom, and all the non-wilfull actions that flow out of them and reinforce them.

The Third Noble Truth can thus be re-phrased in the following way: "When craving and ignorance are being transformed into compassion and wisdom, the cessation of suffering is happening."

Generating Enlightenment

How does such a transformation happen? The Buddha answered this question in the Fourth Noble Truth, "There is a Path that leads to the cessation of suffering." He identified eight aspects of this Path (see How to Grow a Lotus Blossom, Plate LXI; first edition, Plate XXXIX). These eight aspects are themselves grouped in three categories that provide at a glance the basic outline of correct spiritual training: Preceptual practice (sila); meditational practice (dhyana); and wisdom practice (prajna). The Buddha called this Path the "Middle Path" because it avoids and transcends both worldly wallowing in pleasure-seeking and the misguided spiritual effort to storm heaven by trying to destroy the causes of suffering within oneself (asceticism).

Whenever we do correct spiritual training in any of its aspects, we are doing work of spiritual transformation. So the Middle Path is not just a path that leads to a far-off goal of enlightenment. To follow the Middle Path is to is train in, not just toward, the cessation of suffering.

There is no cessation of suffering without continual training. This very day, I am free to do my training or not to do it. When I do it, the cessation of suffering is happening. When I drop my training, the cessation of suffering comes to a halt and the creation of suffering starts up.

Again, if I am doing my training, then the potential within me for compassion and wisdom is being actualized. If I drop my training, then that potential remains in its "raw material" form of greed, hate and delusion (craving and ignorance).

Thus it is up to me whether I will live a life in which the causes of suffering roll on and on, resulting in the inevitable flourishing of all kinds of misery, or whether I will live a life in which compassion and wisdom have the opportunity to manifest. If I do the latter, I am training in the cessation of suffering by walking the Buddha's Middle Path.


The full cessation of suffering is called "Nirvana." Many years ago I read that the word "nirvana" originated in a verb that meant "to cool by blowing." The idea is that in the Buddhas the passions--greed, hate and delusion--have cooled and no longer rule mind and heart; they have been replaced by compassion, love and wisdom.

Realization of Nirvana does not result in personal immortality or extinction; nor is it rebirth in a heaven. It is not the achievment of any kind of static, unchanging mental, physical or emotional state. The problem with all such views is that they are all based in the illusion of a separate self. It simply does not work to attribute "realization of Nirvana" to a personal identity, self or ego. The Eternal, not my or your or the Buddha's body and mind, is the True Reality.

All the confusion vanishes when we realize that "Nirvana" refers to "living from one's True Self." Or, more accurately, "Nirvana" is a term that applies when "the Buddha [in this context "the Buddha" refers to the Eternal] does all and we follow that doing effortlessly," to use Great Master Dogen's words.

Once again we see the importance of letting go of ideas of static attainment. Do not worry about the final cessation of suffering: today, train in the cessation of suffering. Do not worry about the final cooling of the passions: today, train in the conversion of greed, hate and delusion into compassion, love and wisdom.


Click here to proceed to Part XL, "Joy and Woe"


Click here to return to the Table of Contents of Book One: How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections



Click here to go to Table of Contents of Book Two: How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections in a Disciple's Life

Click here to return to Home Page