The Four Noble Truths and Causation
The core teachings of the Buddha are grounded in the four noble truths. These are the foundation of the Buddhist teaching. The four noble truths are the truth of suffering, its origin, the possibility of cessation of suffering, and the path leading to that cessation. The teachings on the four noble truths are based in human experience, underlying which is the natural aspiration to seek happiness and to avoid suffering. The happiness that we desire and the suffering that we shun are not random but rather come about through causes and= conditions. Understanding this causal mechanism of suffering and happiness is what the four noble truths are about.
In order to understand the causal mechanism behind our suffering and happiness, we have to carefully analyze causation. For example, you might think that your experiences of pain and suffering and happiness happen for no reason—in other words, that they have no cause. Buddhist teachings say this is not possible. Perhaps you think that your suffering and happiness are, in some sense, caused by a transcendent being. This possibility is also rejected in Buddhism. Maybe you think that a primal substance could be the original source of all things. Buddhist teachings reject this possibility, too. Using reasons to eliminate these possibilities, Buddhism concludes that our experiences of suffering and happiness do not come about by themselves or because of some independently existing cause, nor are they the product of some combination of these. Instead, Buddhist teaching understands causation in terms of what is called interdependent origination: all things and events, including our experiences of suffering and happiness, arise from the coming together of a multiplicity of causes and conditions.
Understanding the Primary Role of Mind
If we probe the teaching of the four noble truths carefully, we discover the primary importance that consciousness, or mind, plays in determining our experiences of suffering and happiness. The Buddhist view is that there are different levels of suffering. For example, there is the suffering that is very obvious to all of us, such as painful experiences. This we all can recognize as suffering. A second level of suffering includes what we ordinarily define as pleasurable sensations. In reality, pleasurable sensations are suffering because they have the seed of dissatisfaction within them. There is also a third level of suffering, which in Buddhist terminology is called the pervasive suffering of conditioning. One might say that this third level of suffering is the mere fact of our existence as unenlightened beings who are subject to negative emotions, thoughts, and karmic actions. Karma means action and is what keeps us stuck in a negative cycle. Being bound to karma in this way is the third type of suffering.
If you look at these three different kinds of suffering, you will find that all of them are ultimately grounded in states of mind. In fact, undisciplined states of mind in and of themselves are suffering. If we look at the origin of suffering in the Buddhist texts, we find that, although we read about karma and the delusion thatmotivates karmic action, we are dealing with actions committed by an agent. Because there is always amotive behind every action, karma can also be understood ultimately in terms of a state of mind, an undisciplined state of mind. Similarly, when we talk about delusions that propel one into acting in negative ways, these are also undisciplined states of mind. Therefore, when Buddhists refer to the truth of the origin of suffering, we are talking about a state ofmind that is undisciplined and untamed, one that obscures us fromenlightenment and causes us to suffer. The origin of suffering, the cause of suffering, and the suffering itself can all be understood ultimately only in terms of a state of mind.
When we talk about the cessation of suffering, we are speaking only in relation to a living being, an agent with consciousness. Buddhist teachings describe cessation of suffering as the highest state of happiness. This happiness should not be understood in terms of pleasurable sensations; we are not talking about happiness at the level of feeling or sensation. Rather, we are referring to the highest level of happiness: total freedom from suffering and delusion. Again, this is a state of mind, a level of realization.
Ultimately, in order to understand our experience of suffering and pain and the path that leads to cessation—the four noble truths—we have to understand the nature of mind.
Photograph by Olivier Adam.