The Cause of Suffering

National Headquarters  |  May 10, 2019
Photo Credit: Peter Lin

When the Buddha presented the Four Noble Truths, he identified craving as the cause of suffering. Called taṇhā in Pali and tṛ́ṣṇā in Sanskrit, the terms are typically translated as craving, but also refer to thirst, desire, longing, wish and greed. Although craving isn’t the only cause of suffering, it’s always listed first and considered to be the principal, all-pervading, most palpable and immediate cause.

The term suffering – referred to as dukkha in Pali and duhkha in Sanskrit – cannot be fully expressed with a single English word either, and pain, anxiety, stress, distress, discomfort, frustration and “unsatisfactoriness” are also used to describe it. According to Buddhist sutras (scriptures), there are three root sufferings:

  • Dukkha-dukkha: The suffering of suffering – including the pain of birth, old age, sickness and death.
  • Viparinama-dukkha: The suffering of change – as everything in this world is impermanent and won’t last.
  • Sankhara-dukkha: All-pervasive suffering – an underlying sense of insecurity, anxiety or basic dissatisfaction.

The Buddha also identified three types of taṇhā (craving), which in turn are related to what are called the three poisons (Sanskrit: triviṣa) – ignorance (Sanskrit: avidyā), attachment (Sanskrit: raga), and aversion (Sanskrit: dvesha). The types of craving are:

  • Kama-taṇhā: Craving for pleasure – the desire for sense-pleasures, wealth and enjoyment. The basis is ignorance as to the Four Noble Truths and impermanence.
  • Bhava-taṇhā: Craving for existence – an ego driven desire for becoming, continued survival, identity, importance, and so on. The basis is attachment.
  • Vibhava-taṇhā: Craving for non-existence – the desire not to experience unpleasant conditions, situations or people. The basis is aversion.

The path to liberation from Samsara (the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth) and its suffering involves extinguishing deluded craving and the “fires” of attachment and aversion. Cultivating equanimity can pave the way, whereby we accept pleasant and painful experiences equally, and abandon striving to gratify and reaffirm our ego.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen sheds light on how craving plays out in our lives, and points to contentment and gratitude as a means to break its vicious, damaging grip:

I often say that life is like a play and this play revolves around one theme want and desire. Our desires are like a bottomless pit. We’re always seeking, never satisfied. This plays out in all aspects of our life. When eating, we don’t just eat to sustain our bodies and appease hunger; we crave good-tasting food. For our home, it isn’t enough to have a modest place that shelters us from the elements; we desire comfortable surroundings, the bigger and more luxurious the better.

All our life, we work hard to fulfill our desires. One dream fulfilled spawns another. We seek happiness, but for most of us, we think happiness comes with having more.  Instead of being content with an ordinary, simple life, our vanity causes us to want more wealth, success, glory, power, and so on. Our ambitions are endless. But the truth is, more isn’t necessarily better and it can have adverse effects. In our endless pursuit of our desires, we actually create much suffering for ourselves.

The Buddhist sutras tell us that people with many desires suffer greatly because they’re constantly seeking self-benefit and gain. When we give rise to desire, we act in order to seek things. When we can’t get what we want, afflictions arise and we suffer. We might get into arguments with people over what we want. We might tire ourselves out scheming to get what we want. Our efforts to fulfill our desires bring us much affliction. Those with few desires don’t suffer like this.

If we want to get rid of our afflictions, we have to know their source – our desires. We can then get rid of them by being content. Contentment leads to spiritual riches and a sense of satisfaction and happiness with what we already have. With fewer desires, we can sleep soundly at night without worries. Our heart can be at peace.  After all, what do we really come into the world for? What is life really about? Only by turning toward the Dharma can we begin to understand life’s true value and purpose. We can get perspective and see things in their positive light. A sense of gratitude will fill our hearts, and we’ll know how to make use of our lives in the most meaningful way, by contributing to the greater good.

Master Cheng Yen also asks us to reflect on how our behavior, focused on selfish desires and the endless pursuit of pleasure, is having a cumulative and harmful impact.

It all started with us human beings being self-centered and selfish. We want things to be under our control and our material desires are endless. That’s why today’s society is so focused on the pursuit of economic wealth, with manufacturing and businesses continually expanding. In this process, our land and natural environment are exploited and destroyed.

What also gets destroyed is our conscience – our moral principles and our humanity. Society too gets destroyed. With everyone pursuing self-gain, a huge disparity between rich and poor results, leading to great inequality, tension and struggle. All this came about because our heart and mind fell away from what is true and right.

We need to stop blindly going about our lives and look at the bigger picture of what’s occurring on our planet. We need to become introspective and take good care of our minds while taking true Dharma to heart and practicing it in every aspect of our lives. 

The sections in italics consist of edited excerpts of material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks and conversations with visitors.

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