Part of a series of short talks on the 16 attributes of the four truths of the aryas given during the 2017 winter retreat at Sravasti Abbey.
- Why the origins of cyclic existence are numerous, not singular
- How this helps us to generate renunciation
We’ll continue on with the 16 attributes of the four noble truths. Talking about true origins, the one we did last time was citing craving as the origin, the statement being,
Craving and karma are the causes of dukkha because due to them dukkha constantly exists.
That first one is pointing out that dukkha has causes, that it’s not random, it’s not happenstance, it doesn’t just come at you out of the sky, but it comes from causes that we create. This refutes the idea of the materialists. There was a school at the time of the Buddha called the Cārvākas, which are materialists. Sometimes they’re called hedonists. Because they said there’s only this lifetime, so live it up. All that exists is what you can see with your senses, so live it up, there’s no future rebirth. Because there’s no past rebirth and no future rebirth our dukkha (our misery) is just happenstance. This (attribute) specifically goes against their notion, that first one.
The second one about true origin:
Craving and karma are the origin of dukkha (first one was cause, here they’re called origin) because they repeatedly produce all of the diverse forms of dukkha.
What that’s getting at is that yes, dukkha has a cause (we saw from the first one), but there are actually many causes that produce many aspects of dukkha, and that all of our dukkha comes about due to these many kinds of causes, specifically craving and karma. What that does is it gets us more focused on the idea that craving and karma are the real troublemakers. Of course, ignorance is the root, it’s in there, too. But they’re the real troublemakers. And it also dispels the wrong idea that dukkha comes from only one cause. Because from the first one you could think that dukkha has only one cause. But no, it doesn’t have just one cause. There’s ignorance, there’s craving, there’s all the karma. Then there are all the cooperative conditions that have to come about for karma to ripen. Actually when you go through all 12 links of dependent arising they’re all causes that lead to the dukkha of another rebirth. It’s getting us to see that it’s a complex process. It’s not just one cause produces one result and that’s it.
The thing is, if anything—especially our dukkha—depended on one cause, then there are some problems. Especially if that cause is inherently existent. If you have one cause, and you don’t need other conditions or other causes, then what makes that one cause bring a result? Without other causes and conditions influencing it, one cause either could not produce a result, or if it did produce a result it would continuously do so, without stopping, because stopping some of the other causes and conditions would not cause that one cause to stop producing dukkha. You get what I’m saying?
This kind of argument comes up a lot when we get into the refutations of emptiness. It really keeps us from seeing causality, conditionality, as a simple process. It’s not just X produces Y. If it was just X–if all you needed was one seed to grow a plant, and you didn’t need water, fertilizer, heat, and other things, then either the seed could grow right now (fat chance), or if it grew it would never stop because taking away heat or moisture, whatever, would not stop the growth. So you have those two faults that arise.
Seeing the diverse forms of dukkha, and all of them are caused by ignorance, and afflictions, and karma. Seeing the diverse forms of dukkha that sentient beings repeatedly experience, under the control of afflictions and karma, can be rather shocking at first. When we really think about it, when we really look at life and see what is going on, and how much sentient beings want happiness and don’t want suffering, and yet are constantly creating the causes for more and more unhappiness. It can be rather shocking.
I was thinking about that, in the case of Mudita [one of the Abbey kitties]. Venerable Yeshe brought her over this morning. She came in, she saw a bird so she tore from one end of the room to the other, jumped on the altar, knocked some things over on the altar. I finally got her off the altar. She went on her little bed. You try to pet her sometimes, and she will swat at you. Or she bites. And even though you’re petting her gently, she may let you pet her for five or ten minutes, suddenly she’s biting and clawing. So I was looking at her after she did this, when she fell asleep. She was so cute, sleeping peacefully, sleeping quietly, just an adorable little kitty. And I thought, “How sad.” Because really, she likes people. She loves to be held. She loves to be coddled. But she somehow, no matter what we do, she doesn’t understand that we don’t like to be bitten and scratched. Even though we try and let her know that repeatedly. Either she doesn’t understand, or she can’t control herself. It’s really sad because the affection she wants doesn’t come to her the way she wants it because people can’t relax around her and trust her. Just looking at her when she looks so cute and peaceful, it’s just really sad thinking about her in that situation.
This is the situation of all of us in samsara. When our mind is out of control we create the causes of suffering that bring suffering right to our doorstep. And when we’re in a good mood we look like we’re so nice, and how could we ever create the cause of misery? But it’s sad, isn’t it? When you think about these people who nowadays are really abusing power. They’re trying to be happy, and when I think of the karma they’re creating for future lives, it’s like wow…. Horrible, horrible karma. But they don’t see it. And they seem to be having such a good time in their finery and things like that. So it’s really a rather sad situation.
This morning I was working on one story, an incident that happened in the Buddha’s life, when he met with this one wanderer who didn’t like the Buddha’s philosophy at all. This wanderer thought that sense pleasure makes you grow. It’s kind of like the present day philosophy of having as many varied sensual experiences as you can possibly have because that just makes you grow. So he came to talk to the Buddha, and the Buddha said, “You know, I had all these sense experiences in the palace. I really had it good. And then I realized that it wasn’t going anywhere. Yes my senses got gratified. Yes, all these pleasures were the origin of my happiness. Yes, my senses got gratified. But there was also danger in there because none of this pleasure could be sustained. None of the objects that brought the pleasure could be sustained. And so eventually I had to see that there was danger, and then try and get out of the situation.” And the way he did it was by ordaining, becoming a monastic, practicing the Dharma and attaining nirvana. Then the Buddha told an analogy to this wanderer of a leper. Now, if you’ve been to India, especially in Dharamsala, we used to have our Dharamsala lepers. They were part of the community. They lived there. There were other lepers who came when His Holiness was teaching, but there was a group that we just knew them. When you have leprosy, the bacteria eats away at the tissue and the bones. You’re numb, so in one way you don’t feel it. But in another way it itches horribly. So you scratch it to stop the itch. In scratching it, you wound yourself. Scabs grow. You scratch it some more and peel off the scabs, so the wounds get infected. It’s really ugly. So then, sometimes, in desperation what they do is they cauterize their limbs because if you burn it it stops the itching, it stops the decay. It’s a horrible disease, which is curable, by the way.
The lepers, they think that scratching is bringing them pleasure. They think that cauterizing is ceasing their pain, and bringing them pleasure. It does, for a short while, just as satisfying our sense craving brings us pleasure for a few minutes. But then, in the case of the lepers, what they do that brings them the pleasure actually worsens the disease, and worsens the itching and the pain. In a similar way, when we’re running after sense pleasure, we get a little bit of pleasure, but the more we crave the more we run after it, and the more we get, and the more we’re disappointed in it afterwards, and the more we’re dissatisfied because whatever sense pleasure we have never is really good enough. We want more, we want better. So just like the leper, we’re actually shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s like drinking salt water and expecting that to quench your thirst. It only worsens your thirst.
The Buddha was saying to this wanderer, it’s like the leper, something is wrong with his sense faculties, they’re impaired, so he doesn’t see what he’s doing as painful and as increasing the disease and the pain. Similarly, when we chase after sense pleasure, we’re not seeing our craving and our clinging as something that is a set up for more disappointment, more pain, more dissatisfaction, that’s going to make us run after more and more and more sense pleasure, and lead to more and more dissatisfaction. We don’t see that whole cycle and how that starts. So it’s like, in some ways, our minds are impaired, our mental sense faculty is impaired. It can’t see things for what they are. It can’t see the causes of dukkha as the causes of dukkha. That’s why we have these four attributes talking about the origins of dukkha, so that we can really start to understand that, and then hopefully give up that kind of craving and clinging, and addiction to external objects.
Here it’s not just talking about external objects: “I want money and a sailboat.” It’s talking about addiction to praise, to status. These things that we say “Well praise isn’t a sense object, status isn’t a sense object, fame isn’t.” But actually, all those things depend upon objects of the senses, so in that way, they are included as sense objects. You have to listen to sweet, ego-pleasing words, or read them with your eyes to have the experience of praise or of fame, or something like that.
Really a strong message on renunciation. And how much relief you feel when you stop shooting yourself in the foot. The more we’re able to give up the source of our misery, then the happier we’re going to be. Just to understand that and realize that.
Audience: One cause would have to be inherently existent, right? because it’s independent of all other factors.
Venerable Thubten Chodron: It’s assuming an inherently existent cause, but anyway, just even one cause…. How could you have a dependent one cause? That’s an oxymoron. And no other factors would be involved. It’s either dependent or independent. If it’s one thing, it’s independent.