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.