Sunday, June 3, 2018


“Is suffering brought about by myself alone?” asked Kassapa.
“No, Kassapa,” replied the buddha.
“Then is it brought about by another?”
“No, Kassapa.”
“Then both together, myself and another?”
“No, Kassapa.”
“Then is it brought about randomly by chance?”
“No, Kassapa.”
“Then there is no suffering?”
“No, Kassapa, it is not that there is no suffering. For there is suffering.”
“Well then, perhaps you neither know nor see it, dear buddha.”
“It is not that I don’t know suffering or don’t see it, Kassapa. I know it well and see it.”
“But… to all my questions, you have answered ‘no,’ and yet you say you know suffering and see it. Please teach me about it.”
“Kassapa, there are two wrong views: One says that oneself is the entire author of a deed and all consequent suffering one brings upon oneself and this is so from the beginning of time. The other says that it is deeds done by other people that bring about one’s own suffering. You should avoid both these views, Kassapa. Here we teach another way: All deeds, whether your own or another’s, are conditioned by ignorance and that is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. By ending that ignorance wisdom comes into being and suffering ceases.”
---Samyutta Nikaya

In this exchange between Kassapa and the buddha, we see the buddha rejected some common views regarding suffering that were popular in the time of the buddha and are still often found promulgated today, especially in the contemporary yoga world so influenced by ‘new age’ thinking.

First, Kassapa asks if suffering is brought about by oneself. Today this is often voiced in the context of karma with some teachers and practitioners saying that all one’s suffering arises based upon one’s karma. The buddha rejected this idea and offered several other catagories of causality beside karmic actions which he characterized as only those actions done volitionally. Additionally, there are those who hold this view in new age circles claiming that one “manifests” their reality and if one is suffering it’s because they created it themselves. This is a pernicious idea that adds suffering to suffering: I’ve seen yogis dealing with serious illness like cancer being asked what they think they did that brought this upon themselves. They are told that if their practice is “pure” enough, they should not experience suffering.

When this view is shot down by the buddha, Kassapa then assumes that one’s suffering is caused by others. In a response later in this exchange it’s clear that other’s actions can create the conditions for one’s suffering, here the buddha is denying that others are the root cause of one’s suffering. But, in this exchange with Kassapa, the buddha is telling him that others are not the ultimate cause of one's suffering. Today, in our culture, there has been a growing sense of victim consciousness that disempowers individuals. I am not denying that most likely every one of us has been victimized at some point in our life. Some have had to endure truly horrendous conditions. In this sense, those of us who suffered because of the behavior of others have been victimized. The trouble begins, however, when victimization becomes the whole of one’s identity, and with the rise of “identity politics,” there has been a rise among many who have been victimized that their identity is one of being a victim. As psychotherapist Barbara Frazier writes:

Being victimized is different than being a victim. A person who is victimized is still first and foremost that same person. It is a person who has had an experience or a series of experiences, and who is likely changed as a result or these experiences, yet is not reduced down to only those experiences.

A victim becomes the experience and stays there. He begins to see all of his life through this narrow window. He attributes his feelings, thoughts, and experiences going forward to his reaction to the original victimization event. He talks about it, thinks about it, and holds on to it almost like a badge of identity. Strangely, it becomes his point of reference for his life.

So, after the buddha denies that others are the cause of one's suffering, Kassapa suggests that perhaps it's both oneself and another, but the buddha shoots down this possibility as well. The buddha is pointing to a more nuanced view regarding conditions that he shares toward the end of this exchange. 

Kassapa keeps at it and then asks if suffering's arising is random and the buddha denies this is so as well. Today, there aren't that many I know of who would argue this, but there are those who speak of 'fate' and this too the buddha would deny. Fate implies that there is nothing one can do about suffering (or any other situation) because our actions do not have causal significance. Finally, a view many hold today is that suffering arises because it's the 'will of god' (or 'the gods') and the buddha again rejects this possibility because again, if it's the will of god, then there is really nothing we can do about it.

Still, the buddha teaches that though we do not bring on our suffering ourselves, nor do others, there is still something we can do in response to ameliorate suffering and even end it! This is because suffering, he says, arises based upon myriad causes and conditions (many, if not most, that we have not chosen for ourselves) and that the root cause of our suffering is ignorance.

Ignorance is generally the translation yogis use for the Sanskrit word avidya (avijjā in Pali). Avidya more literally means "not know," "not understand," or "not see." It is a cognate with the Latin vidēre ("to see") and it's echoed in the English "vision." It's the understanding that the unawakening being doesn't know nor do they see the reality of emptiness, the absence of any essential self-nature in any phenomena.
But, I also think that when we say "ignorance," we can also understand it as "ignore-once," or as we might say nowadays, "denial," because so much suffering arises through ignoring what we do not wish to acknowledge; we know it's there at one level, but choose to ignore it.

And the final point of the buddha is that because it is ignorance that is the ultimate cause of suffering and not any "individual" (which in a real sense doesn't even exist) then our focus in practice should be the removal of ignorance -- in ourselves and in others. Thich Nhat Hanh would often remind his students that "Man is not the enemy; our enemy is hatred, ignorance and fear." The bodhisattva works for the liberation of all, knowing that none can be truly free if all are not free, while knowing also that there are no 'beings' to be freed! 

The bodhisattvas, grounded in perfect understanding, find no obstacles for their minds. 
Having no obstacles, they overcome fear, liberating themselves forever from illusion, and realizing perfect nirvana. 

All buddhas in the past, present, and future, thanks to this perfect understanding, arrive at full, right, and universal awakening.
---The Heart Sutra


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