The Cause of Suffering

Please note that i wrote this back in January 2008. My views on Buddhism have changed and thus my words from back then might not necessarily reflect what i am thinking now. However, so much work and time went into the discussion in the comments, i want to leave these pages up, so that others may benefit from them. (August 16, 2011)

Thanks to David Loy‘s teachings, i think i have a clearer understanding of this now, though this is my interpretation, not his… (May 2012) I like to use the story of the two arrows: The first arrow is pain and the second arrow is the suffering we add. Although the Buddha teaches how suffering arises and how we can end it, this does not mean that we can ignore the first arrow as a potential source for ending suffering! If we can remove the first arrow, i.e. end hunger in the world, let’s do it. This post takes issue with using Buddhist teachings to claim that we don’t need to worry about the first arrow… And if you prefer a more integrated approach to this, i invite you to take a look at David‘s teachings. He explains that way more eloquently than i do… Plus, he’s a fully trained Buddhist teacher…


The Second Noble Truth

In his Second Noble Truth, the Buddha taught the cause of suffering. The myth, as it is told at least within Western Buddhist circles, is that the Buddha went about finding the cause just like a doctor: listing the symptoms, trying out what made those worse, and then prescribing a cure. And he did this across many cases. What did he find? Well, that depends on the translation. Here are some variations of the causes of suffering:

  • Thirst, which leads to rebirth, accompanied by pleasure and lust, finding its delight here and there. This thirst is threefold, namely, thirst for pleasure, thirst for existence, thirst for prosperity. (Chinese Cultural Studies)
  • Craving and ignorance are the two main causes of suffering. People suffer with their craving for the pleasures of the senses and become unsatisfied and disappointed until they can replace their cravings with new ones. People suffer too when they are unable to see the world as it really is and live with illusions about life and fears, hopes, facts and behaviours based on ignorance. (Buddhist Studies for Secondary Students)
  • The craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming. (Access to Insight)

What is suffering? Here are the Buddha’s answers (the First Noble Truth) from the same source, in the same order:

  • Birth is suffering; decay is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering. Presence of objects we hate, is suffering; Separation from objects we love is suffering; not to obtain what we desire, is suffering. Briefly, clinging to existence is suffering.
  • There are four unavoidable physical sufferings: birth, old age, sickness and death. There are also three forms of mental suffering: separation from the people we love; contact with people we dislike and frustration of desires.
  • (Suffering was translated as “stress” in this case) Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

Basically, life is suffering. And we create our suffering by thirsting or craving for what we cannot have. But are these really all the causes of suffering? Do we really create all of our suffering? I would argue that there is more to suffering than what we cause with our craving. Fighting with reality surely adds to our suffering – if I do not accept that I am sick, for example, and moan the whole time that I shouldn’t be sick, I will suffer more. But the original illness is suffering as well – as the Buddha taught –and it is caused by some sort of germ or an autoimmune attack of the body. So, even in the simple case of, say, a cold, there are two elements of suffering: the actual cold, which is caused by a virus, and possibly my mental fight with reality. There are thus two causes: only one is caused by craving (“I wish I were healthy”), the other is caused by something unknown at the time of the Buddha. Yet, his Second Noble Truth is not questions, not amended.

Going beyond the simple, to the societal causes of suffering, the insidiousness of this teaching becomes clear. Despite what the Buddha taught, there is much that can be avoided about physical and mental suffering by changing things outside of ourselves. The story of a water pump spreading cholera might be a good example here. Cholera certainly creates suffering but the causes of this suffering are manifold: there is the cholera bacterium, there is the pump handle that is teaming with the bacterium, (going beyond the story) there is the city that is refusing to belief that the pump handle is the problem, and there is the merchant who charges more for a pump handle than the villagers can afford. True, some suffering might be caused because people afflicted with cholera are craving to be healthy again (who wouldn’t!). The many other factors that actually preceded the illness are never address by the Buddha. His teaching ignores any interplay between the personal and the larger society. He essentially teaches us that suffering is our fault and we can overcome it simply by changing our minds. This leads to a closed mind toward other potential causes.

It is clear that the Buddha’s teachings, just like Jesus’ teaching, are a product of the time he was supposed to have lived. But even then, without knowledge of germs, his teachings discouraged questioning the status quo by essentially blaming the victim. I do think that pointing to our own contribution to suffering – how we make it worse by fighting reality – is important. However, for something to be called a “truth,” it needs to include all the answers. The second noble truth does not list all the causes of suffering, hence a Buddhist is required to suspend critical thinking if she wants to accept it as a truth. It requires belief.


Please note considerable amount of work went into the comments below. If you are at all interested in getting a different take on these issues, I highly encourage you to read the comments, especially those from Buddhists (and especially because they think I don’t know what I am talking about). This post is meant to be thought provoking, not as the truth. I don’t have any formal training in Buddhism, so this is presented in the spirit of an outsider looking in. After reviewing the comments, you probably are in a better position to evaluate my ideas.


Comments

The Cause of Suffering — 39 Comments

  1. Rachel, I enjoyed reading this discourse. After reading all the arguments and comments I have concluded that your original critique still stands quite strongly.

    I have seen lots of comments saying that you dont understand Buddhism, or that dukkah is misinterpreted or has no English equivalent, therefore you cannot understand the noble truths. But there has been little substantive rebuttal.

    So far, this has just re-enforced your critiques. Until I am convinced otherwise, I am of the opinion that the four noble truths are untrue.

    Further, I think a broader comment would be this: Buddhism seems to focus on escaping dukkah. It seems to be entirely focused on eliminating this negative feeling. What about the joys that come with some of these attachments like children or marriage?

    No matter how you slice it, you cannot eliminate the negative of dukkah without sacrificing joy along with it.

    This quote says it best:

    “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” – Alfred Lord Tennyson

    Yes it hurts to lose something. But many times its worth the pain of loss to have experienced it. Life is risk. Some attachments are worth the risk.

  2. Pain and Suffering:

    I look ahead, I look behind, I look to the left, and I look to the right and what do I see. A lot of pain and suffering. In their faces and demeanor. I see struggle, fear and anxiety. I see tension. I see those who are suffering from mental illness and addictions. I see all those people who must endure physical pain. I see the poor and neglected, the deaf, the blind and the crippled. I see suffering in old age with all it’s infirmities, And for what reason must all this be? I ask God for the answer and none is yet to be found. The cause, as the expert surmise, is for two reasons, one the free will of man, be it for good or evil and the other from the constant laws of nature, as in in birth, growth and decay with time and chance at play. I don’t question the the system and I how it works. I understand it completely. The larger question for me is what purpose does it serve? In the aeon of time this echo has never been tendered. C.S. Lewis summed nicely when he said “God speaks to our conscience, whispers in our pleasure and shouts in our pain.”

    Check out my web site with an essay about “My Search for Truth” which is posted on an international web site out of Ontario, Canada. Thanks,

  3. “The second noble truth does not list all the causes of suffering, hence a Buddhist is required to suspend critical thinking if she wants to accept it as a truth. It requires belief.”

    Not really sure how old this article is, but I’m going to post anyway :)

    To the segment above I would like to say:

    In the Buddha’s dying words he said (I’ve heard many different phrasings, but they all carry the same principle): “Believe not because an old book is produced as an authority. Believe not because your father said [you should] believe the same. Believe not because other people like you believe it. Test everything, try everything, and then believe it, and if you find it for the good of many, give it to all.”

    So my point is, the Second Noble Truth does not suspend critical thinking. From the quote we understand the Buddha would want us to meld his teachings so they reflect the knowledge we hold today. Perhaps the Dharma does not have Germ Theory as a component, but I will not abandon science because an old book told me so, however this was never the case.

    To Pam,

    “…and he didn’t bother about children either as he abandoned his own.”

    I have heard that later in life both his wife and his son became enlightened. You can find a quick read of it here, at the very bottom of the page: http://www.buddhamind.info/leftside/arty/his-life/home.htm

    “When I think about how Buddhism treats suffering, I can’t help but think about the women and children suffering in Darfur.” – I am not sure, but the way I have understood suffering is different from what I have read here today. Suffering, again at least the way I understand it, is caused by people. Not necessarily by YOU the person who IS suffering, but by anyone. The Janjaweed, or whoever you wish to blame for the terror in Darfur, are causing suffering because of their ignorance.

    See here on “Causes of Suffering” – http://viewonbuddhism.org/4_noble_truths.html : “The reason that we experience suffering comes ultimately from our mind. According to Buddhism, our main mental problems or root delusions are: attachment, anger and ignorance. Because of these delusions, we engage in actions that cause problems to ourselves and OTHERS. With every negative action (karma) we do, we create a potential for negative experiences.”

    • Thanks, Kenny, for your comment! I’ve been debating if i want to leave these pages up because, as i added to the main page: “My views on Buddhism are changing, so i have hidden this page from my website menu. I haven’t decided if i am going to take down these pages completely yet or revise them… Maybe a mixture of both… Or maybe i’ll just put a disclaimer…”

      Since there are so many comments, though, i’ve been reluctant to take these pages offline. I value the thought and work that went into them! Plus, the dialogs might be helpful to others. And, finally, it is an example of one of the things we can learn: Change happens :-) .

  4. @ Brian, FYI Buddhism existed before Christianity. If you read the article about the missing years of Jesus Christ, you will learn based of documented facts that Jesus Christ was somewhere in the Himalayas studying the teaching of Buddha. Hence, there are similarities between Buddha and Jesus Christ teachings.
    About the issue of suffering, I was just thinking that on the cross, when Jesus Christ experience external pain due to him being nailed in the cross and stabbed on his side. He still did not emotionally and spiritually suffer for he tapped into his highest conciousness of FORGIVING. Jesus Christ did not say to God the Father, oh my God why are you making me suffer or why Do I have to go through this but rather, Jesus Christ said “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” …. I think this is the way to relieve suffering if you stay away from “Me” or “I” but rather understand that this is what is written so It shall be done !!! Attaining the highest level of Conciousness towards one’s situation or the world’s situation and being able to detached yourself from the word ” I” or “ME” and forgiving and understanding that this needs to take place in order for the development of a higher conciousness that leads towards the attainment towards “Nirvana:….”
    ( Of course, this is my opinion and comprehension only)

  5. Why do all of the Buddhists, which claim to be so non-dogmatic, seem so similar to Christians when they are acting as apologists for their religion? It’s just like when a Christian says oh Jesus didn’t mean that about “not coming to Earth to bring peace” he meant this…yada yada… Just like the Christians the Buddhists claim that, ‘oh you skeptics just don’t understand it good enough, you’re not putting it in context…yada yada…’ If life is suffering and we have to basically figure out this ‘effing’ riddle that is Buddhism what is the point! So we are stuck in this hell that is Samsara and we are going to have to keep at it until we reach Nirvana – what a joke! It’s just like the Christians – you have to believe in God even though there is no cogent evidence – you just have to have faith. And this karma crap is straight up vindictive…you’re telling me “the universe” somehow punishes you for something you did in a previous life – so mentally disabled people must have been really bad and the poor deserve their lot?! If you ask me this “noble” and revered religion gets way too much exemption from critical analysis. I just feel sorry for all of you that get sucked into this detachment stuff – Life is about living it not becoming a stoic that puts the world away! I got news for you – there is only one life and those skinny monks in orange robes are wasting theirs as elderly virgins practicing escapism.

  6. Rachel,

    I have gone through your posts and comments from others……..

    and i found that you have very little knowledge of Buddhism. Pity!!!

    You might as well go to buddhist schools ….. and do the debate there rather than you writing and posting here.

    • Sounds like the usual assumption: If you really knew Buddhism, you would not criticize it… If you had really read the comments, you would have seen that many others have accused me of that as well. I think that’s a variation of an ad hominen fallacy…

      You might be interested in reading Stephen Batchelor’s books. At least his lates – “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist” – contains many of the same points I raise in my critiques.

      • Rachel, this is very long time from the original post. But thought of commenting anyway. I am a Sri Lankan and was born into a Buddhist tradition. I consider myself now an atheist and a skeptic. My mother tongue is a derivative of Pali and Sanskrit, and the word Dukkha (as I understand it) has no direct English equivalent and threfore difficult to explain. In my understanding too, I can never put forward your critique as I never thought of dukkha to mean physical suffering. Perhaps I was wrong all along.

        But would like to comment on your objections to Lola, suggesting that she commits an ‘ad hominem’ fallacy. I think what she is trying to say is that perhaps you are comtting a fallacy by way of a ‘straw man argument’. What you are probably critiquing is not the correct interpretation of dukkha. I think she is entitled to point that out in this case.

        • Thank you for your comment, Sachith! My frustration with comments like Lola’s (and yours) is that my critique is simply dismissed by saying that i just don’t know what i am talking about. This is avoiding any engagement with the critique itself – or with the underlying fears that the critique expresses. It was not intended as a strawman argument: I was honestly wishing to present my concerns with this part of the Buddhist doctrine. I do not find it helpful to be dismissed.

  7. Buddha is a spiritual master. In spirituality the word “suffering” refers to psychological suffering, and not physical, unless specifically stated. Suffering of the mind is really because of the reasons stated above as given by Buddha. Ignorance is by far the main reason for it, I believe. To see the world as it is, and not live with illusions is the only way this suffering can be gotten rid of.

    As for the physical suffering, there can be N number of causes besides human created ones. Right. But I don’t think Buddha refers to that when saying “Suffering”. Misinterpretation it is.

  8. Interesting argument, Kim. I will just summarize it more formally:
    A: You are critiquing Buddhism.
    B: You don’t understand Buddhism.
    C: Your critique of Buddhism is wrong.

    Not quite sure which one but that sure sounds like a fallacy to me, possibly ad hominem.

    Just because there is no god in Buddhism (which is actually false, there are lots of gods in Tibetan Buddhism), it does not follow that Buddhism does not rely on faith. Faith is believing something without (the need for) evidence. Our own experience is not considered evidence in science. Neither Newton nor Einstein are claimed to be divine, nor did they teach us modern science. They were able to figure out ways to explain evidence, ways which have high predictive power and ways that can be tested. Their work holds up under scientific scrutiny (well, actually Newton’s doesn’t anymore at least in certain circumstances thanks to the work of Einstein). I don’t quite understand how comparing them with the Buddha presents any counterarguments to what I have claimed, which was, basically, that the Buddhist teachings are supporting the status quo.

    • With reference to 18th comment, paragraph 1:

      Interesting argument. Sounds like a straw man argument to me. Refuting Kim’s view based on a misrepresentation of her position. She’s basically saying (at least from what I see, which of course, may be wrong): By reading your arguments, one can see that ‘display’ insufficient knowledge of Buddhism. And thus, we can infer that your understanding may not be complete.

      I do agree with you that the 2nd part of her argument may be out of point though. :)

  9. Rachel, honestly it doesn’t take a buddhist scholar to tell that you do not have sufficient understanding of buddhism, less so sufficient practice. I think it would be wiser to make this post in form of a question than a downright criticism. However, I do have to congratulate you for your skepticism and doubt, as this is essential to learn. Do not simply believe what is preached. Verify them with your own experience, and test it. Much like science – having a doubt or question, forming a hypothesis and experiment it. I wish your journey to enlightenment is near; and I’m sure it is if you continue to question, study and learn. =)

    Oh one thing to note, since buddhism does not rely in faith, buddhist teaching is not like Christianity nor Islam. There will be no God / Allah that you need to believe in. Whether Siddhartha Gautama existed or not, doesn’t make the teachings of buddha any less credible. Please do not take Buddhism as the teaching of one divine person (e.g. Siddhartha). Buddhas are like humans, only that they are enlightened – much like how Newton & Albert Einstein was enlightened and taught us modern science. To make it more obvious, does the existence of Newton make Gravitational Force any less real or credible? It doesn’t matter! Just go do the experiment and calculations Newton did and the answer is yours to believe. Experience it yourself.

  10. I was about to get on here and make a few points but the post from David actually slowed me down a bit. Its quite subtle but I will still post some of my thoughts since I think the mainstream Buddhist views that I am aware of are in line with what Rachel and Lola are arguing against. First, if we go with Rachel’s or Lola’s understanding, then the conclusions logically follow. If nirvana = non-existence then contridictions begin to appear all over the place. So if non-existence is transcending the dual nature of things (non attachment), thus suffering, happiness etc. what are we left with? We start to seek happiness but then we are left a state of non-happiness, emptiness? What about attachment to concepts? If we release attachment to all concepts then surely we won’t suffer but we sure won’t live either. Lets say, I don’t want to be attached to hunger. Do I not eat, or convinve my mind I am not hungry since this is a concept. How about life? Do I just see life as a concept and not cling or lean my mind in that direction towards that concept? (non-existence again = nirvana) If I don’t conceive life then living is a mute point, why would sucicide not be a viable option? Ohhh, because it will effect Karma? But isn’t this an article of faith like any other religion. Isn’t Buddhism built on the experience and not the concepts, including the concept of karma? I suppose Buddhism has its attractions from claiming to be something to experience and not something to conceptulize but in the process a Buddhist continually relays concepts of the dual nature which he is supposing to trancend. A Buddhist will resort to statements that end up resembling “Meaning is a concept of the duality (from meaningless) which ultimately stems from the dual nature of self, remove the concept of self and you remove duality (including meaning / meaningless) and thus you have nirvana and no suffering.” But wait, didn’t I just make a meaningful statement? Isn’t this the same thing as saying “There is no such thing as meaning” or “Everything is meaningless”? Both of these are meaningful statments so they are self-refuting. If everything truly was meaningless we would do nothing and end up in extinction, thus annihiliation or non-existence, or nirvana. Now, the post from David on the other hand was a very interesting interpretation of the teachings of Buddhism. This is definitely more palatable and makes sense within the actions of my everyday life. These concepts are similar things that most of us tell ourselves to cope with particular problems, “It is what it is”, or “Thats life”, “It will get better”, “Everything works out for the good” etc. These statements are demonstrating the non permenance of the situation just as David’s interpreation. I am not in a position to critique David’s position but I am interested in learning more on this particular view. David, what readings can you refer me to that point to this interpretation and or views, I am most interested teachings that pertain to training the mind to recognize the impermenance so it dosn’t effect it negatively. Although I am interested in this, I am still concerned with the statements I made above. I am unsure if your interpretation is not a subtler view of the others, or is it completely different and truly of the “middle path”. All in all, if I desire nothing then sure, I will not suffer but I will not experience life either. One last analogy, to love someone is to risk not being loved in return. If they don’t love you back you will suffer, but if they do then the joy can not be measured. I personally want to take the risks involved with life so I can experience it, not avoid them. Risk = Experience, Experience = Duality (Joy/Suffering). We can’t have one without the other.

    JC

  11. The Buddha’s way is a middle way; I have never really understood the 4 Noble Truths to be centered around suffering, though that seems to be the theme of the decade when it comes to Buddhism, I have never understood this to be true, there is no basis for it in any of the Sutta.
    It seems to be a linguistic error, that commonly happens when you get a translation of a translation of a translation, it is rather like the children’s game ‘telephone’ where a person whispers something into the ear of another person and by the time the last person repeats it, after it makes its’ rounds, it is completely different than what was originally stated.
    We cannot know for certain what was actually taught by the Buddha unless we sift through the teachings and question ALL of them, mainly because what we have are hand-me-downs that were written after hundreds of years of oral tradition, they cannot be taken at face value; they even warn of this by stating that we should not even attach to the Doctrine, but continually question – be a lamp unto your own path, the Buddha of these Sutta says.

    I am not of the mind that any of it is really to be taken literally, as the idea of ‘homelessness’ can be taken as metaphorically as a ‘ghost haunting a cave’ (which refers to the idea of attachment to the physical body via the mind or Citta).
    There is also this idea of denial of life and denial of any self-existence, which, to put it quite bluntly, also has no basis in any of the written teachings, this is a later development and is also possibly a product of the ‘telephone’ game, from mistranslation to mistranslation due to cultural/religious/societal filtration systems.

    As I understand the Four Noble Truths, whether we can call them truths or ‘Keys’ is left to question because, in my experience, truth cannot be expressed in words, words are more like ‘Keys’ to truth or reality.
    So, my understanding of the Four Noble Keys is this;
    First Key: The realization that all things rising and falling are empty of substantiality or permanence.
    Second Key: The realization that the cause of unsatisfactoriness is rooted in clinging to the impermanent flow as if it were permanent.
    Third Key: The realization that the end of unsatisfactoriness is not an escape from the impermanent, but a realization of the truly permanent by observing, peering into, and understanding the nature of that which is impermanent (and realizing its’ source).
    Fourth Key: The way to seek this understanding and ultimate realization of the permanent and substantial (reality) is by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

    The term Nirvana, as I understand it, can also be termed Amrta, or Immortality, the immortal source, Brahma, God, Vairocana, what have you.
    It is not about extinction or annihilation as many would have people believe and if we follow the Heart Sutra and many of the Sutta in the Pali Canon that speak of emptiness we can discover a clever re-orientation of the idea from ‘no-self’ to ‘selflessness’ being non-self-centered or ego-centric.
    It is similar, in practice, to the Advaita Vedanta practice of negation, this is not my self, this is not me, I am not that.
    In this light it becomes more a formula for Gnosis that is very similar to the teachings espoused in the Dead Sea Scrolls of Christianity, seeking the divine spark (Amitabha – The Buddha of Measureless Light) and thus finding the permanent, the truly immortal soul, (Amiteyus – The Buddha of Measureless Life).
    There can come Heaven (Sukhavati/The Western Paradise/Land of Ultimate Bliss) right where you stand.

    Of course, I could be wrong entirely, but in my own experience it seems to hold true – you won’t here many Buddhists readily agreeing with this and many would argue against the point. That is fine, as Buddha said, don’t attach to such things and don’t let the mind be moved by agitation.
    There is only one way to know for sure, that is through direct, unadulterated experience, which would require everyone to let go of every notion and really see what is there, most are not willing to do this, they only here what they want to hear.
    Thus the reason Modern so-called Buddhism is so appealing to the masses, it seems to have something for everyone and appeals to many different sorts of views, this is fine, playing second fiddle to selfish notions of comfort-seeking.
    I cannot agree with that approach, it is not a matter of belief.

  12. Pingback: Rachel’s Musings » Not Knowing

  13. Yes, let’s let this stand for others to peruse. If someone is genuinely interested in figuring out who is correct – if there is even such a thing as being right about something vague as Buddhism – I am sure they’d appreciate your thoughtful response. I am sure others will find your and other commentators elaborations useful. So thank you for taking the time to comment.

    I’ve added a note to the end of the post that is pointing readers of the post to the comments and encouraging to read them and then make up their own minds. Maybe that’s a lazy way of avoiding having to rewrite the whole post but I think it’s better to have several different voices to “hear” from when learning/exploring something. So, reading your (and others) comments after reading my post would be a good way of doing that. After all, keeping an open mind is always a good thing (as long as it’s not so open that our brains fall out…).

  14. “You have not responded to the content of my post anyway.” That’s correct because you did not address what I wrote other than saying that I got it all wrong and then giving me a different interpretation, the way I should interpret it.”

    Hmm. This is not true. I get the feeling you must not actually be reading my responses? Nonetheless, I’m going to take the bait and write a very long response to try to resolve all this.

    I said that you got the First Noble Truth wrong and did not respond any farther. But I responded in detail to your issues about the second noble truth. I responded directly to your idea that what we perceive as external causes of suffering (such as illness like your cholera example or violence perpetrated by others like the examples in the comments section) have nothing to do with attachment. I explained how actually it is our attachment (to our health, to our bodies, to our loved ones) that causes the suffering. The illness causes the physical symptoms but the suffering from those symptoms is due to your attachment to your body and your health. You can control your reaction to your symptoms (well you and I can’t but a very skilled monk can). I gave examples and cited sources, so I don’t know why you’d say this. I also mentioned the Buddhist belief in karma which can be used (rather dogmatically sometimes, unfortunately) to explain how anything that happens to you can be the result of your present or past attachments.

    But regarding the First Noble Truth, even in your quote you mention the Five Aggregates. This is core to Buddhism- the Four Noble Truths make up the entire religion, though you have to study further to understand them. And if you know what the five aggregates are, you’ll see that Buddhism rejects an idea of external or internal in the first place as well as the idea of a separate self. So your comment doesn’t make sense within a deeper Buddhist context. The non-duality of the ultimate reality is as basic to Buddhism as Christ being the savior of man is to Christianity, and if there is no difference between subjects and objects then your question about external causes of suffering disappears in the first place.

    “My intend was the offer some thought-provoking critique from outside of Buddhism. If I presented this as Buddhist teachings, I will need to change something.”

    But what are you trying to criticize? You are trying to criticize what you believe are Buddhist teachings, but these are not Buddhist teachings according to anyone except yourself. You said, summing up the first noble truth: “Basically, life is suffering. And we create our suffering by thirsting or craving for what we cannot have.” But this is not a COMPLETE Buddhist belief- even the quotation to which you are responding mentions the five aggregates. It is the basis for your criticism, yet it is not a Buddhist belief. So what are you criticizing? Nothing but your own opinion.

    It’s true that craving something we cannot have is A cause of suffering, but certainly not the only one. Read the quote from the Buddhist sermon again:
    “(Suffering was translated as “stress” in this case) Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.”

    Do you know what the five aggregates are? They explain what consciousness is and how my consciousness relates to yours and how they both relate to the rest of the world to bring about what we perceive as reality including all of our mental formations. A personal, permanent soul is impossible within the framework of the five aggregates, and we yearn for that. It is the cause of our dualistic thinking (you and me, external and internal) that is the source of all our suffering because there is really no permanent self or whole there. We are attached to our idea of a self and our dualistic view of the world, and this causes us to suffer. It causes us to feel attachment to ourselves when we are sick. The illness itself is just happening to us- it doesn’t CAUSE us to suffer. The illness can’t act with volition. It happens to us (because of karma), and our attachment to our health causes suffering. You can criticize this teaching and say it is impractical for daily life (the Buddha would agree) but what you say is: “There are thus two causes: only one is caused by craving (”I wish I were healthy”), the other is caused by something unknown at the time of the Buddha.” So what you get wrong is thinking that illness=suffering. Or maybe you are equating pain with suffering? It is true that the germs (unknown at the time of the Buddha) causes the illness (though a Buddhist would tell you the germs cause the illness because of karma), but the germs do not cause the suffering. The Buddha himself was afflicted with back problems that caused a lot of pain, but it did not cause him to suffer because of his mindfulness. I’ll repeat myself and say it again- if you don’t believe that through mindfulness you can control your suffering, watch those monks set themselves on fire. Do they look like they are suffering to you? Do you think it is painful to be burned alive? No doubt. But they don’t suffer from it. They sit there quite still. There are all sorts of examples of this- of course your brain can control your response to pain. You don’t have to be Buddhist to do it. Any smoke and mirrors magician or athlete can do it too. Monks are just so mindful they are able to do it on an even higher level.

    Likewise:
    “There are four unavoidable physical sufferings: birth, old age, sickness and death. There are also three forms of mental suffering: separation from the people we love; contact with people we dislike and frustration of desires.”

    These three kinds of mental suffering are important. I have never seen them translated as separation or contact with “people” but usually with “people and things” or “experiences”. The things we like are always changing. We are with someone we like, we are happy. They are away, we miss them. This is one tiny example of the frustrating nature of reality- that nothing is permanent and everything is constantly changing. Everything is only possible in relation to everything else. There are no permanent subjects or objects or internals or externals in the first place, and this fact causes a lot of suffering because people want to cling to the idea of a self very strongly. This is the third cause- what you have quoted as frustration of desires. Therefore, within these three kinds of mental suffering are several core Buddhist beliefs- the idea of Dependent Genesis (that nothing can exist without something else) and the idea of No Soul.

    So, taken all together, the First Noble Truth explains physical and emotional causes of everyday suffering, plus more existential types of suffering based on false views such as dualistic thinking (internal and external) plus the fact that all of existence is summed up by understanding the five aggregates (matter, sensation, perception, mental formations, consciousnesses).

    Finally, regarding your claim that you never attempted to say what Buddhists believe:
    Right here you stated:
    “His teaching ignores any interplay between the personal and the larger society. He essentially teaches us that suffering is our fault and we can overcome it simply by changing our minds. ”

    On the contrary. In the other teachings I mentioned in my first post, the Buddha spent about a quarter of his teachings talking directly about how the person should operate within society with complete understanding that the vast majority of people cannot overcome suffering by changing our minds. He never suggested that they should. The only people who can do this to the extent that they no longer suffer are extremely talented and well practiced monks who reach Nirvana, and the Buddha himself explained that most householders (people who are not willing to renounce the world and dedicate the rest of their lives to meditation) should not attempt to put the Four Noble Truths into complete practice. You can use them as a guide for dealing with certain aspects of your life, but you can’t practice complete mindfulness to the point of reaching Nirvana and overcoming all suffering without renouncing the world. Instead, he delivered teachings about how to deal with suffering and happiness in this present life and how to live ethically. I’m repeating myself- I said all of this in my first post already.

    Now, I don’t by any means expect you to believe all of this. Buddhism is certainly open to criticism, and one of the reasons I came to your site was to look for a particular article about Buddhism that is critical. (I found it, thank you). But I do expect you to admit that you are criticizing something you don’t fully understand nor have you fully studied it. Of course you won’t, but maybe this will be helpful for someone else…

    • Thank you for your post, Lola! I found it so helpful. And Thank you, Rachel. I think your posting and argument made this post possible (I am not being sarcastic).

      Anyway, I am writing a paper for my education related course and trying to write about social injustice and human suffering (different perspectives regarding the reasons of that). I was trying to find some information about Buddhism’s perspective of suffering and I got into this site by chance. I found all of arguments very interesting and helpful. (Actually I also thought Rachel’s original post is very legitimate criticism, which I myself had and still am confused about from time to time.) Especially, I found your explanation about Buddhism’s perspective of suffering very sophisticated and well-informed.

      At the same time, while I was reading your post, I had a question (I am not sure whether you [or anyone] can answer that but I hope so). I wondered what Buddha might have taught to or done for the millions of people who are living in poverty, without health care, without decent job in urban area (not rural area–this can be completely different story). As you said or implied, the suffering (at least physical suffer and most of cases psychological suffering, too?–not sure about this) that they have is more of due to others’ attachment (to money, power, etc.). When the suffering is caused by others’ attachment, what should the person who suffer do? What do you think?

  15. Well, you may not agree with the second noble truth and that’s fine. I do think however, that the four noble truths are intended to be a crude, basic understanding from which a more subtle understanding emerges through practice. This is the thing that i find interesting about it. Where Christianity teaches that you know by faith, Buddhism teaches that you know by experience.

    An example of what it seems is happening in your argument is similar to how music history is taught. We learn that the baroque period ended in 1750, and the classical period began. As one reads more however, it is learned that the classical period really was beginning as early as the late 1600’s and 1750 was merely when bach, the last great baroque composer died. Furthermore he was composing in an old style and baroque music was really already long dead. Does this make what is taught in music history classes wrong? no, it doesn’t. It creates a starting point from which we can develop a greater understanding.

    The same is true with the four noble truths. Can you fit everything into them? No. Does that make them wrong? No. They are a pedagogical tool that lay the foundation for experiential development through practice. Thats all.

    Doctrine is almost irrelevant to the Buddhist life. Practice is everything. So in order to really critique Buddhism you have to critique the merits of practice. I would suggest that you look up ‘neuro-plasticity and Tibetan monks’ to find some real hard science on the merits of practice (peer reviewed journals and all).

  16. Lola: I am not arguing with you but if you want to present counter-arguments, please try to do so without falling into fallacies.

    You wrote “claimed these interpretations are Buddhist teachings.” Would you kindly point me to where I claim that my interpretations are Buddhist teachings? My intend was the offer some thought-provoking critique from outside of Buddhism. If I presented this as Buddhist teachings, I will need to change something.

    “I am instead claiming that you have interpreted them in a way that no mainstream Buddhist scholar would agree with.” How do you know that? You’ve only checked with one.

    “If you pointed out that there is no mainstream Christian interpretation of Christ as an alien, could I claim that you are making a fallacious argument of authority?” Yes, you could. Additionally, I don’t think that my critique presented here, which is specifically about the second noble truth, is as absurd as claiming that Christ is an alien.

    “You have not responded to the content of my post anyway.” That’s correct because you did not address what I wrote other than saying that I got it all wrong and then giving me a different interpretation, the way I should interpret it.

  17. Look, I came across your website looking for a particular article critical of Buddhism to which you have linked in another post and I got sidetracked into this little discussion because I thought you were actually interested in more than just arguing.

    If I were claiming that the 4 Noble Truths were correct because Bhikku Bodhi says they are, then this would be a fallacy. I am not claiming that. I am instead claiming that you have interpreted them in a way that no mainstream Buddhist scholar would agree with. You have offered some quotations, then interpreted them on your own, then claimed these interpretations are Buddhist teachings, and then criticized these teachings as a criticism of Buddhism. Please tell me what Buddhist schools have interpreted the quotations you linked in the way you have interpreted them? If you are the only one, then these are not Buddhist beliefs- they are your own beliefs. I could claim that the story of Jesus walking on water is because he was an alien, and then I could criticize Christianity for believing in aliens. If you pointed out that there is no mainstream Christian interpretation of Christ as an alien, could I claim that you are making a fallacious argument of authority?

    You have not responded to the content of my post anyway. We are in different time zones. I think you are responding when you wake up and I get the email right before I go to bed. The world is a funny place. That’s it for me. This is your site, so I’ll give you the last word to respond. Good morning (good night).

  18. Exactly my point, Lola. That is called an argument by authority: “An appeal to authority or argument by authority is a type of argument in logic. It bases the truth value of an assertion on the authority, knowledge, expertise, or position of the source asserting it. It is also known as argument from authority, argumentum ad verecundiam (Latin: argument to respect) or ipse dixit (Latin: he himself said it).”

    This becomes a fallacy when you use “admiration of a famous person to try and win support for an assertion,” which is what you seem to be doing. I am wrong because I’ve just taken a college course. He is right because he has a Ph.D. and is well regarded. I am not claiming that what I am saying is the truth. I am simply pointing out inconsistencies and potential problems that I’ve noticed when reflecting on Buddhism. I’ve yet to read anything that goes beyond “you just don’t understand Buddhism” as a counter-argument. That is a very religious counter-argument, which, I guess shouldn’t surprise me since Buddhism is a religion, but it’s still not helpful because you’re not addressing what I actually wrote…

  19. “How do you know that Bodhi’s understanding is better or more complete than mine?”

    Are you serious? Bhikku Bodhi is an internationally recommended Buddhist scholar and president of the Buddhist Publications Society. He has written commentaries and translations of the Tripitaka that are considered authoritative by Buddhist scholars and leaders all over the world. Additionally, he holds a PhD in Buddhist studies, has been a practicing master monk for decades and can read the Buddha’s teachings in their original languages. There is only a small handful of people who have a better understanding of Buddhist teachings in the entire world.

    On the other hand, you took one community college course and did a little reading on your own.

  20. “But it’s not OK to make criticisms that are based on incomplete understanding.” Just because you don’t agree with what I am writing doesn’t mean that my understanding is incomplete. This is simply dismissing criticism by a claim to an authority. How do you know that Bodhi’s understanding is better or more complete than mine?

  21. OK… I could say a lot more, but I’ll just comment on a few quick things.

    1. The word suffering itself is an unsatisfactory translation of the Pali word dukkha, but it’ll have to do as there is no English equivalent. Studying this first truth better will help you understand the second. I won’t get into it now, but a complete understanding of the first and second noble truths includes and understanding of dependent origination and the Buddhist concept of emptiness, both of which will help you correct your confusion. If you find my comments helpful about the second noble truth, send me an email and I’ll write again about the first.

    2. Illness causes physical pain, that’s true. This does not necessarily mean that the person must suffer in the deeper sense. Remember that the first noble truth outlines different types of suffering, of which physical pain is one. A very skilled Buddhist practitioner (not an average layman) can learn to control his brain’s response to physical pain. If you don’t believe me, watch Vietnamese monks set themselves on fire without stirring an inch. Moreover, many people (including non-Buddhists) who have achieved a level of contentment and equanimity in life are happy despite the physical pain they experience during their illness. Surely you have known people who maintained a good attitude despite suffering extreme physical pain from illness? So, something from the external world (virus, germs) causes illness. The symptoms of that illness cause physical pain and suffering. But with extreme mindfulness, you can control both the amount of pain you receive and prevent your physical pain from affecting your over-all deeper level of contentment. Can a lay follower do this? Only to a certain extent. Buddhism is highly practical, and most of the Buddhist teachings for average people are not about things like this.

    3. The suffering caused by other people (like in your example of slavery or Darfur) is also not in a person’s mind. You are correct. But the perpetrator of the violence is acting out of wrong views that have attachment at their core. Buddhism explains how the root of greed, violence, lack of compassion, etc is attachment. If you are a victim, it may not be YOUR attachment that caused the violent action that made you suffer. It may be the attachment of the other person. However, let’s look at the suffering of the victim. A mother is attached to her child, and if the child dies, the mother will suffer because she has lost a child that she is attached to. If the mother is about to die herself, she will suffer because she is attached to life. So as you can see, the attachments of the victim also cause suffering. Again, can a lay follower live a life of complete non-attachment? Of course not. Buddhists are simply stating a fact. Attachment leads to suffering. You suffer when you lose the people to whom you are attached. Does this mean you should avoid making attachments to people? Of course not. You can’t avoid suffering, and you probably think the suffering is worth it for the happiness it brings. But that doesn’t change the fact that your attachment to people will cause you to suffer.

    4. You misunderstand what the Buddha intended for people to do with his teachings. If you read the Buddha’s teachings, you’ll see that about a quarter of them are concerning how to be happy in this present life or how to achieve a fortunate rebirth. These are practical teachings meant for people who are not interested (or ready) to renounce the world and become a monk. These include how to behave ethically and with compassion, how to treat your family members, how to be a good worker and a good boss, etc. Strict adherence to the 4 Noble Truths in order to reach Nirvana is not possible for lay followers. Even the Buddha stated that without renunciation of the world, one cannot achieve Nirvana. Read the Buddha’s teachings for householders and the teaching about the lotus pond when the Buddha made the choice to teach. In the Buddhist view of the cosmos, everyone is going to go through countless numbers of births before they feel they are ready to set out on the Eight Fold Path. They have to work through all their karma first and come to the conclusion that they are now ready to live a life of non-attachment that includes renunciation of the world and entrance into the Buddhist sangha. This is the only way to fully follow the 4 Noble Truths to the core. The Buddha said that if you took all the grains of sand all over the earth and counted them, they would not even add up to the number of epochs that have already passed.

    5. Also, the other thing you are forgetting is the Buddhist concept of karma and dependent origination. So many of what you are calling “external” causes of suffering have their roots in attachment in the past. Your good and bad karma and the good and bad karma of every other living thing are all bouncing around out there causing all sorts of things to happen.

    It’s perfectly fine for you to disagree with Buddhist teaching. But it’s not OK to make criticisms that are based on incomplete understanding. For a better understanding of all of these things, I can recommend Bodhi’s translations and commentaries on the Tripitaka, Walpola Rahula’s introduction to Buddhism and Rimpoche’s series on the Abhidhamma. These are my sources for what I just wrote.

  22. Regarding children too, you can look at these teachings of the Sigalovada Sutta:

    “In five ways, young householder, a child should minister to his parents

    (i) Having supported me I shall support them,
    (ii) I shall do their duties,
    (iii) I shall keep the family tradition,
    (iv) I shall make myself worthy of my inheritance,
    (v) furthermore I shall offer alms in honour of my departed relatives.

    “In five ways, young householder, the parents thus ministered by their children, show their compassion:

    (i) they restrain them from evil,
    (ii) they encourage them to do good,
    (iii) they train them for a profession,
    (iv) they arrange a suitable marriage,
    (v) at the proper time they hand over their inheritance to them.

    Thus parents and children too have mutual rights and responsibilities.The Buddha not having done his duty, was severely rebuked by his wife, and didn’t attempt to justify himself. Thus, even the Buddha’s son is not compelled to look after him in his old age. The duties of a child still remain the same in much of the world. In old age parents do expect support from their child(ren) spend their inheritancce wisely and many visit their parents tombs too.

    Parents also still follow these age old duties. Raising children well, putting them through school and if possibly college and later providing them an inheritance. If an old billionaire father marries a young woman and leaves all his money to her, his children usually sue don’t they? Except for arranging marriage, which is usually done by the children themselves, but did te Buddha forbid the children from marrying someone they personally select? Even today, when people marry young, the families financially pay for the wedding expenses.

    As for the Buddha leaving his son, that bit has bothered me as well. But he left his son in the palace, knew that he would be well cared for-certainly didn’t attempt to sacrifice his son or sell him into slavery, practices which were legally and morally acceptable in the world then.Read the Biblical story of Jeptha’s daughter, where the girl Jeptha’s father sacrifices her to fulfill a vow? Or the Roman Laws which allowed a father to sell his kids into slavery? The Buddha when he left his son was a young man searching for some answers to life’s eternal questions, before he became the Buddha and attained Enlightened. The Buddha as a man is not the ideal family man, he is not regarded as such by his followers. But I think as a man born 2600 years ago, into a royal family and an heir to the throne, he was a remarkably good man. He wasn’t a polygamist, a mass murderer, didn’t spread superstitions, didn’t force anyone to accept his faith(which he could have as a Prince) and was willing to give up his life for a lamb.

  23. Hi Pam,

    I am a practicing Buddhist, and I’d like to comment on a few stuff you said. I don’t accept everything the Buddha taught, but neither do I need to as the Buddha himself said, “Believe nothing no matter who said it, no matter if I said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” Thus according to the Buddha’s teachings, its perfectly allright to be skeptical about some aspects of Buddhism unlike Jesus’s teachings to Thomas whom Jesus said that happy are those who do not see and yet believe. You can rationally examine all of Buddha’s teachings-accept them entirely,reject them entirely or partially accept them according to your own reasoning and the morals of changing times and circumstances. As far as I know, no founder of a faith not Moses, not Jesus not Mohammed gave people the freedom so explicitly to reject or amend their teachings according to their own or the society’s morality.

    As far as women in unhappy circumstances or African American slaves I can recommend the Silogavada Sutta of the Buddha where he taught “In five ways should a wife be respected by a husband: by honoring, not disrespecting, being faithful, sharing authority, and by giving gifts.

    “And, the wife so respected reciprocates with compassion in five ways: by being well-organized, being kindly disposed to thefamily members and household workers, being faithful, looking after the household goods, and being skillful and diligent in all duties.

    “In five ways should workers and servants be respected by an employer: by allocating work according to aptitude, providing wages and food, looking after the sick, sharing special treats, and giving reasonable time off work.

    “And, workers and servants so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: being willing to start early and finish late when necessary, taking only what is given, doing work well, and promoting a good reputation”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but these principles of the rights of wives and servants which might be implicit in the teachings of other faiths are nowhere as clearly stated as in Buddhism in the Sigalovada Suttas. Compare it to other faiths. In Islam a man can even talk, separate and beat his disobedient wife. In Christianity Paul tells wives to obey their husbands.In these lines the wife has certain well defined rights which the husband is obliged to fulfill. Only on getting those rights, the wife reciprocates with her duties.
    The servants are nt slaves, they have a definite wage which the employer is obliged to pay them, he’s to look after them in sickness.

    Thus if wives and husbands, employers and employees(wage earners aren’t slaves at all) followed these reciprocal rights and duties, they wouldn’t have suffered in the first place. If duties by the husband weren’t done to them, the wife needn’t do her duty. Ditto for the servant, who as a wage earner wouldn’t even be a slave.

    As for suffering, well life does have suffering too. Even if you don’t accept harsh treatment from your master, be he your employer or your husband, you might suffer death, accidents etc. Buddha didn’t claim that faith moves mountains or cure epileptics like Jesus. Desire to live life queen size and desire for the best material objects does lead to suffering! All the Buddha was talking of was excessive greed or inability to accept tragedy, not giving up legitimate rights.

    Anyway feel free to disagree with me, the way a Buddhist views these stuff might be different from your views on the issue.

  24. Hi,

    This is a wonderful website!!! I am a skeptic and also an atheist. I would like to comment on the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism.

    I have been studying Buddhism for about 6 months. I am having a very hard time with the idea that suffering is caused by desire. I can accept this on a superficial level (desiring unnecessary material goods). But it seems to me that the Buddha did not understand women, and he didn’t bother about children either as he abandoned his own. When I think about how Buddhism treats suffering, I can’t help but think about the women and children suffering in Darfur. I doubt that their suffering would disappear if they just stopped desiring to be free from rape and hunger.

    Also, I don’t think that women and African Americans would have come as far as they have in the last 100 years if they believed the “truth” about suffering.

    I am so glad to see someone else question this. Sorry for rambling on.

  25. Pingback: Rachel’s Musings » Criticism of Buddhism

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