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Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Samudaya: The Causes of Suffering

In answer to my query about what is behind the perceived “lack” or “disconnection” we often suffer from, one correspondent said that “disease, inertia, lack of enthusiasm, laziness, sensuality, mind-wandering, missing the point, instability – these distractions of the mind are the obstacles. These distractions are beautifully stated and are the human obstacles which blind us from seeing the causes of our suffering.”

Now, these distractions (vikshepa) are indeed obstacles (antaraya), according to Patanjali, that we might understand as keeping us from seeing. But as such, they might also be seen as symptoms of duhkha rather than causes of duhkha. As pointed out, "These distractions...are the...obstacles which blind us from seeing the cause(s) of our suffering."

Pantanjali says:

avidya-asmita-raga-dvesha-abhiniveshah pancha-kleshah

or, "Ignorance, I-Am-ness, attachment, aversion and the will to live are the five causes of affliction." He goes on to say in the very next sutra that "Ignorance is the field of the others," which is to say that it is Ignorance or avidya that is the breeding ground of suffering (duhkha).

While it would be inaccurate to say that the Buddha posits avidya as the "first cause" of duhkha (since the core of his teaching is the interdependent origination of phenomena), he certainly gives it "pride of place" as a cause of our suffering, because obviously if we only saw "how things are as they are" we'd never get caught in all the more obvious causes of duhkha. Which is merely to say that we will not look for a three-scoop banana split, or a dry martini, or another person, for the "supreme" happiness that is our birthright, if we already saw that we are indeed, as the Buddha said, "perfect and whole, lacking nothing!"

Patanjali defines avidya as:
"the seeing of that which is eternal, pure, joyful and the self in that which is ephemeral, impure, sorrowful, and the non-self."

When I teach about avidya defined as "ignorance," I stress that experientially, this is more ig-nore-ance, than some mere lack of knowledge or understanding. The modern western equivalent would be "denial." We live in abject denial of "things as they are" and so create all our suffering! I believe there isn't one of us who truly believes we will live forever, yet we live -- or try to live -- as if we will! We intellectually know that all who we love and all we care about is destined to change and that there is no way to prevent being separated from them, yet we live with attachment, and as if they and we were permanent.

We ignore our own experience and posit a self that we don't ever really experience. When one truly meditates, one sees that there is thinking and feeling, there is anger, joy, sadness, lust, awareness -- whatever -- but no self or person who experiences all this. The self is what we add on to the pure experiencing. Then this fabricated self attempts to take possession of all these phenomena, and creates an identity that will ignore all evidence to the contrary. Suffering is then inevitable, because living as if we are separate, when we are not, is living in mis-alignment with reality. (Rememer, duhkha, meaning "bad space" refers to an axle that is not "true," or centered in its wheel).

What I am positing here is that it is "self-centeredness" that is the cause of suffering rather than the other way around. Both Patanjali and the Buddha seem to say that the cultivation of witnessing (I prefer this terminology over that of "the witness" because again this makes it seem more like an entity that the process or function that it is experienced as) is essential so that we can see what is behind and beyond all our concepts, labels and notions.

This is not to say that concepts, labels and notions are bad. They are indeed quite useful, as long as we do not ignore that they are just that (models and maps, so to speak) and not the terrain!

I welcome any further discussion of this and/or the First Noble Truth before going onto the Third Noble Truth . But just to clarify before moving on to The Third Noble Truth, which is the prognosis for the human condition, it is pretty clear that the Buddha and Patanjali agree that the primary existential cause of duhkha is avidya or ignorance. Earlier I used the word "denial" as a synonym for ignorance to emphasize that it is not a mere lack of knowledge we are talking about here. (That would be too easy -- just learn some data and be free!) No, ignore-ance is an active (mostly unconscious) turning away from reality.

I am really enjoying hearing from those of you who respond, and again encourage more of those of you who visit to join in the discussion.

Yours in Metta
frank jude

.: posted by Poep Sa Frank Jude 12:15 PM

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