The core Buddhist doctrine of the Four Noble Truths is a lens through which to see the world, which is why it’s the heart of the path, described in the first limb, Right View. It explains the painful reality of the world in compellingly simple terms, offering a beautiful, if stark, framework for understanding who I am and what’s happening all around me. Each of the great religions I think attempts to reckon with the same painful reality; the painfulness of reality. I grew up with the Catholic doctrines of the fall from grace, original sin, and salvation through repentance and forgiveness. In many ways I see those concepts in parallel with the Noble Truths, where our fallen state is suffering, original sin is the cause, salvation is the goal, and repentance, devotion, and the prayer for forgiveness are the path. This path and goal still appear a reasonable response to suffering.
But Catholic practice, the ritual psychodrama of mass offered with no specific method or guidance through which to deepen or develop in it, didn’t hold my search. Turning to Buddhism, I was moved by the absence of judgment from the sequence of the Truths, and even more by the specificity of the Path as method. As I began to practice, not just my method but also my View shifted. Salvation now depended not on forgiveness from another but on clarity in myself, on cultivating a heart and mind powerful enough to meet the world as it is. It is in the View, brought about by seeing the world through the lens of the Noble Truths and finding some clarity there, that I now take refuge.
Two interwoven teachings power the Noble Truths: the nature of pain and the principle of cause and effect. The first states the obvious, that there is pain (dukkha: suffering, stress) of many kinds in life. The teaching proposes that the task is to “fully understand” pain, and this instruction alone can wake me up from a fog of depression or angst. It asks me to look closely at moments of hurt, of confusion, of discontent, all of them, and not turn away. In this not-turning-away, moments of ordinary and extraordinary pain shine more brightly. I feel my own sorrow and discontent more when I don’t turn away from them into distraction, entertainment, or any of the thousand gestures of denial. The layers to be peeled away within myself appear endless. One healing opens to a new wound, a period of ease and clearer heart seems to prepare the ground for another in which habits not yet seen become glaringly obvious, pains not yet felt become intolerable. Personal healing feels endless.
But the injunction to “fully understand” also opens into the urge to understand what’s happening for others, for groups of others, for the world. And the personal process itself can be the bridge. Attempting to understand my own pain, I learn about the pain of my parents. I trace my stoicism and sense of defeat through the quiet stoicism of my father, my grief and hopelessness through my mother, who carried disappointment and shame in a disfigured body. I trace my bloodline from Puerto Rican Pentecostal ministers in the Bronx and English Episcopal ministers in Illinois, preachers from Protestant lineages rich and poor. I widen the search beyond family to trace the pain of my generation (“X”, for “in between, undefined”, and it felt like that) and class (middle, declining), fed the limp promises of the Reagan years, whelped on sarcasm, bitterness, and the long imperial decline we knew was happening. All of our songs are sad, even the happy ones.
I studied history to learn how it got this way, and began to see the interlocking forces that created my world. That I’m living the long tail of centuries of colonial war and oppression, the globe torn into commodities and consumers; every product I buy, every piece of culture I take in, every relationship I attempt to find succor in, everything everywhere touched by power, greed, fear, and burned by the touch. It is in the interwoven sorrows of history, and how history becomes the bodies we now wear and the exact pains we feel, that I see the core teaching of cause and effect. Everything arises from a web of causes, then joins the web of causes for what comes next.
The great Thai Forest teacher, Ajahn Maha Boowa, identifies this principle as the heart of the teaching, saying “the Buddhist religion means cause and effect combined.” (Samaṇa, 67) The second Noble Truth proposes that all the pain of the First has a single cause: craving (taṇhā: grasping, thirst). The injunction to “fully understand” now turns toward a vast, profound proposition: one powerful force underlies all the suffering in the world. The principle is simple, expressed in a formula called “This/That Conditionality”, invoked in the Pāli texts as the background structure for Dependent Origination, which develops the craving-begets-suffering sequence into a complex theory of how we come to exist at all:
When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.MN 115.11, tr. Bodhi
When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.
This/That Conditionality governs both the craving-suffering sequence of Noble Truths Two and One, and the path-cessation sequence of Four and Three. In both cases, behind the diagnostic of the first pair and the prescription of the second, is the principle that effects follow their causes.
Craving, as The Cause, is a terrifying lens through which to see the world. Was it really just craving for sugar, spice, tobacco, and the wealth those intoxicating substances could bring that caused the nightmare of the Middle Passage and the long tragedy of racial injustice, still burning all around? Was it really just craving to fuel our machines that tipped the entire planet’s ecosystem perhaps beyond repair? I start to think that my European ancestors lost their souls as their ability to dominate the planet outgrew their ability to feel the pain they were causing. Maybe this is just the Fall from Eden still playing out. Or the belief that we had Fallen in the first place? Cause and effect shines through every level of the contemplation.
Any tragedy I turn my lens to now reveals the aggression that caused it, then the aggression itself reveals a desperate attempt to secure the future against inevitable loss, and on and on. Every terror is born of an old trauma even as it begets a new one. This is saṃsāra, the endless round. Maybe saṃsāra and the Fall are the same thing.
And now one of the most common experiences I have is a sort of heartbroken wonder. The world, like an amazing tapestry, stuns me with its fantastically interwoven complexity, and in how much sorrow and terror shine out from every crossed thread.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answeredWarsan Shire
The contemplation of Conditionality, in the end, is actually comforting for me. It suggests that as terrible as things seem, and are, both the terrors and the beauties of this time are products of actions. That there is any beauty in the world at all is a wonder, I sometimes think, but I shouldn’t be surprised. There is nothing in the Truths that suggests that trauma is inevitable, only that it happens for reasons. Wise action therefore inevitably gives rise to better results than action based in craving, and prescriptions for Wise Action form the bulk of Buddhism’s instructions, as well as the bulk of most religions’.
Why doesn’t it happen more often, then? Is craving so strong that it bests most attempts at kindness and sanity? My first bitter answer is “Yes, just look around!” But then the softer answer comes in: “No, just look around.” The world shines with beauty, with kindness, with love. And every beauty carries its causes within it. I can only smile because someone smiled at me, starting with those same parents, beaming at their adopted newborn through the haze of their own conditions. Every beautiful institution, piece of art, healing work, or compassionate project exists because people wanted it to, and worked hard against the tide of horrors to make it. There is a round of goodness just as eternal as the round of pain.
The endless round of goodness is also saṃsāra, of course. Nibbāna, “the Unconditioned”, if it is indeed the complete cessation described, must be the end of satisfaction as well as discontent. It suggests a separation from the round of action deeper than I can imagine. Who would I be without the pain of the past I feel, all the threads of Craving that made the world what it is and made me what I am? What remains when all of that ends? Gotama famously wouldn’t answer. Dōgen would, but only with a paradox:
No Trace… And that No Trace continues endlessly.Dōgen, Genjo Koan
Tracelessness, mostly, is way beyond what I get to feel so far in this life. But I trust the Path, and I trust the cool, implacable steadiness of cause and effect.
Conditionality connects everything. It connects my personal story to the world story, but that’s not the point. Every story connects to the world story. Touch any one suffering, any one person’s story, and find the history of their people, of global migration or conquest, conflict over natural resources, over cultural objects, over belief systems. Every seemingly senseless killing reveals layers of dissociation, trauma, fear of change, of difference, of isolation. Every new war, whether between nations or inside the psyche, feels the same: once again Craving has birthed a new-old, endlessly repetitive violence. But in the very repetitiveness of the stories is the doorway to their liberation: stories of pain are all interwoven and fueled by the same force, but they remain different, unique, specific.
The practice with interconnection is never to reduce anyone’s personal or communal suffering to a generic, universal suffering, which is its own kind of violence. Instead, the lens of Conditionality opens the heart to deeper empathy because it doesn’t shut anyone out. It sees both victim and perpetrator as beings in pain, often in intimately related ways. Conditionality and interconnection maybe are just ways of saying that we’re alive, that we share an ecosystem, a home, a web of cultures, of ideas and the bodies that hold them. That we’re here with each other, and that everyone’s choices affect what happens next.