September 1, 2014

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The Fire of Desire: The Buddha's Second Noble Truth

Fire of DesireToday, I'd like to talk about the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism - desire and craving, the cause of suffering. It's human nature to want more of what we like and to have better than what we have - not only for ourselves, but for our children and the people we love and care about. Yet the Buddha determined that it was in these desires that we could find the source of our suffering. How, we wonder, could something as natural and beneficial as this simple "improvement in circumstances" be the source of suffering?

This was the problem that confounded the Buddha. He was a man who seemed to have everything. He was rich, titled, handsome, intelligent and had a pleasing personality. But he became disillusioned with his life of luxury and ease. He knew that all people got sick and injured, grew old and died. Those were ordinary facts of life both inside and outside of palaces. But why were people everywhere so unhappy, so miserable - always complaining? This was not an ordinary problem, and it required an extraordinary man like Prince Siddhartha to solve it. He renounced his wealth and courtly pleasures and went "into the forest" - a term that still means that he began a quest for the answer to life's most troublesome question: why were the lives of human beings so filled with bitterness and pain?

He was twenty-nine when he started his quest and six years later, sometime around 528 BC, he found the answer. In a single Enlightenment experience that was so profound it changed not only his life but the lives of millions who followed him, he discovered the Path to happiness. The cause of suffering, he determined was desire. He understood that it did not matter how much wealth a man had, he wanted more. No amount of pleasure or power could satisfy, for more was always wanted. A man desired more because he was not content with what he had, and yet he wanted more of the same... more money, more pleasure, more power. But these things were part of the illusionary material world, the world of Samara, and in this material world ruled over by his foolish ego, there was nothing that was lasting and unconditional. Only in the world of the Spirit, in the reality of Nirvana, could a man know contentment. True contentment had to be eternal, universal, and unconditional. And this was the solution to the problem. The answer, then, was for a man not to involve himself in the conflicts and passions of the material world. He had to turn away from the things that could not possibly satisfy him and to turn instead towards the only source of lasting tranquility a man can possess: that spiritual Refuge within himself. Only there could he find, "the peace that passeth understanding," as Saint Paul would later say.

Legend has it that a wandering ascetic encountered the Buddha shortly after his enlightenment and, seeing the how profoundly serene and contented the Buddha appeared to be, the ascetic asked him: "Are you a God?" The Buddha replied "No." Then the ascetic asked him: "Are you a man?" The Buddha replied "No." Finally the ascetic said, "Well, if you're not a God, and you're not a man, what are you?" and the Buddha answered "I am awake."

The word Buddha literally means "One who has awakened."

The first time the Buddha made an attempt to explain the truth he had discovered, he gave a sermon which later came to be known as the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta or the First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. This sermon contained his Four Noble Truths.

The First Noble Truth - "Dukkha" - The existence of suffering. This truth does not, as commonly mistranslated, state that ALL life is suffering, but rather that each of our lives, here in this world - the world of Samsara or the illusionary world of the ego - contains the source of suffering.

The Second Noble Truth - "Samudaya" - The arising of suffering caused by craving and desire; desire for impermanent things to be permanent. Desire for more, better, new, different. We create our own suffering through our egotistical cravings and desires.

The Third Noble Truth - "Nirodha" - The truth that suffering can be penetrated, understood, and transcended.

The Fourth Noble Truth - "Magga" - The truth of the Noble Eightfold Path which leads to the elimination of suffering.

But today, we are talking about the second of these truths - the truth of the arising of suffering; the cause of suffering; a distinctly human problem that I like to call, "The fire of desire."

At some point in our childhood, we begin to sense that we are no longer physically attached to our mother - we develop a sense of individuality, an ego, and this is when suffering begins to take root. We start to think of ourselves as separate, autonomous beings, permanent entities in our own right. Once we begin to feel this separateness, or individuality, we develop a sense of self-importance, and naturally become attached to this sense of self. We are preprogrammed with a survival mechanism which causes our brain to want to protect its host. But in this program we encounter no permanence. Everything is always changing. The entire universe - including us - is in flux. Then a whole host of wants and desires frantically follows causing even more suffering as we realize that everything we crave is impermanent. We think that new clothes will make us more attractive and they do, but then either they wear out or more likely - we get too fat to wear them anymore and they no longer please us. So we want more new clothes in the mistaken belief that new clothes will make us happy. But the joy we felt when we bought our old clothes did not last; and the joy we feel when we buy new clothes will not last, either.

This constant discontent occurs to everyone. A vice-president wants to be president. A clerk-typist wants to be a secretary. The man who drives a Dodge wants to drive a Chrysler. Businessmen want to make more money, so they can attract more women; but the women will, in turn, also lose their appeal.

We constantly think; "If only I had this, then that would be better," or to use an example from my own personal experience, we discover that meditation is good, and we want to do more of it, but it quickly became boring. Immediately, we start to make excuses why we can't meditate the way we used to. We think, "When I can buy a proper cushion and mat, then I'll be able to meditate more often, and for longer stretches, and everything will fall into place." But then we get the new cushion and mat and guess what happens? Nothing. Now we tell ourselves; "I can't really meditate every day unless I can have a room designed for meditation - a room where no one will bother me and I can shut out all the noises and I can burn my incense without anyone complaining about the smoke and smell." Then we get our own room, but now we can't really meditate because we've got too many commitments to keep, commitments that regretfully won't allow us to waste an hour every day just sitting. On and on it goes, excuse after excuse. We crave and desire, we fulfill the cravings and the result is that whatever we wanted didn't live up to our expectations or it didn't last, or we got bored with it.

We are constantly engaged in Samudaya - creating suffering through our craving and desires for things to be other than the way they are. Sometimes the cravings are deep and burning; but more often they're subtle or even imperceptible - little "wishes" that we entertain all day long. "I wish it were cooler outside." "I wish those kids would be a little quieter." "I wish I had more sugar in this coffee." "I wish the lines weren't so long at the store." "I wish this guy would stop talking about suffering."

It's a constant battle going on within each of us, but we can begin to understand these desires, and by understanding them, we can reduce the power they have over us.

We need to begin by understanding that things are not going to conform to our desire for them to be a certain way, and that it's okay if they don't. For example, some people think that there is a force in the universe called "Karma" which causes us either pleasure or pain based on our past good or evil acts.

I remember another talk or essay somewhere which said in part: "I wonder where people get the idea that karma is some mysterious force with a will and volition of its own... or for that matter, the idea that there is 'good karma' and 'bad karma'. Karma is simply the network of causes and effects in which we find ourselves. It's how we deal with a situation - how we act and react to it that makes it seem good or bad. Karma is impersonal... it is just another name for the action of Maya. Atoms spin, people feel threatened and gossip, water evaporates, babies cry, gravity attracts, and egos salve themselves with the seven deadly sins: jealousy, greed, lust, anger, sloth, gluttony and pride."

When we truly understand that things happen, which we automatically label as either 'good', 'bad', or 'neutral', and that this labeling is part of the problem, then we have taken a step towards liberating ourselves from suffering. When we truly understand that it is our intentions, our thoughts, our actions, our speech, our livelihoods, our efforts, our understanding, and OUR concentration, that can create either suffering or non-suffering, then we can attain freedom.

We are never going to live in a world where milk doesn't sour, gravity doesn't cause bird droppings to fall on our cars, children don't make noise, parents don't die, and people don't make war on other people. But we can begin to learn how to accept those things with a degree of detached compassion. We don't stop caring; we learn to care for everyone equally. We don't stop crying when people we love die; we cry a little for anyone who dies; from our child to the serial killer who was executed last night. We don't stop desiring for things to be better; we work to make those things that we can change a little better.

The one thing we know for sure is that we are here now, in this world, and we have this one lifetime over which we can exert some control. We have this one precious chance to liberate ourselves from suffering; and since enlightenment comes in an instant and, in coming, eradicates all our past sufferings, it does not matter how long we have already lived. What is important is that we take the first step towards understanding the nature of our desires. Then, regardless of the time we have left, we can enter the eternal moment of truth and find constancy and unconditional love.

One of the most wonderful gifts we can give ourselves is the gift of understanding. We don't need a new cushion or a new room. We don't need the discipline of sitting on a cushion one hour a day. We do need the discipline of getting control of our desires We can get to the source of suffering and eliminate it with a single thought.