The cornerstone of Buddhist wisdom is found in the Four Noble Truths, which state the following:
1. Life is suffering
2. Suffering is caused by desire
3. The way to end suffering is to end desire
4. The way to end desire is the Noble Eightfold Path
This article will focus on the second and third noble truths, which may seem false or counterintuitive at first glance. Yes, some desires cause suffering, but there are others that lead to joy. How can one follow the Buddhist path if one has no desire to take the first step?
But if we study the sutras carefully, we realize that the Buddha makes no value judgments about these truths. Rather, it states an objective fact. In the same way that a mathematician might say 2 + 2 = 4, the Buddha indicates an observable truth about reality, and each individual must decide for themselves what to do with this information.
I observe this truth for myself whenever I work in our pear orchard here on the farm. At this time we have several pear trees that are in their second year of growth, and we hope to add a few apple trees in the coming years.
I have loved fresh fruit since childhood and look forward to the day when I can fill baskets with the fresh produce from our trees. But until that day comes, I'm left with the surprisingly difficult task of keeping them all alive. Fruit trees are more fragile than typical shade trees, such as oak or maple, that can be planted on a property. They attract more disease and tend to be more attractive to pests.
Case in point: I've spent most of this year battling aphids who are intent on turning my pear trees into their new home! Aphids use their mouthparts to suck the life out of plant leaves. This weakens the tree and makes it harder for the plant to photosynthesize sunlight. If the infestation becomes too severe, the tree will lose all of its leaves and die.
Here we have a perfect example of desire causing suffering. More precisely, it is the desires of the different parties that come into conflict, and this conflict causes problems. My pear trees want to grow healthy and strong. Aphids want to eat my pear trees. And I want to protect those same trees so that I can reap the rewards.
These conflicting desires cause suffering for everyone involved in this equation, but it would be hard to say anyone is wrong. It is normal and natural for a pear tree to want to grow, just as it is normal for a farmer to want to reap the fruits of his trees. And can we really blame aphids for wanting to eat something?!
When the Buddha states, "Suffering is caused by desire" and "The way to end suffering is to end desire", he is reminding us that desire and the conflict that accompanies it are an integral part of life. Thus, we must study each of our desires and determine whether the ensuing conflict is worth striving for what we want.
In cases where the answer to this question is "no", we can let go of these attachments, ending the suffering for ourselves and for others. And in times when the answer is "yes" because we are trying to feed our families, achieve enlightenment, or achieve some other noble goal, we must study the conflict carefully and use our inner wisdom to find ways to reduce suffering as much as possible.
To put it simply, suffering is caused by desire, not because desire is necessarily bad (although there are times in life when our desires are fundamentally not good). On the contrary, suffering is caused by desire because our desires do not always correspond to the desires of the people around us.
At other times, our desires may not match the demands that life has placed on us. We want to sleep late, but we have to get up early to work. We desire a six-figure salary, but our job pays much less than that. We want to lie in the yard and watch the moon, but the mosquitoes keep biting us.
The Second and Third Noble Truths of Buddhism prepare us for these times by reminding us that they are unavoidable. If we have desires, we will have to face the suffering that accompanies them. When we accept this simple truth, we are better able to deal with the challenges that are part of everyday life. They won't be so shocking, they won't hurt so much, and we can turn our attention more quickly to ending suffering for ourselves and others.
Namu Amida Butsu