Chapter Two  
The Cause of Suffering: Ignorance and Karma


Second Magnificent Vow of the Bodhisattva:
I vow to put an end to the infinite afflictions of living beings.

Living beings are drowning in the sea of afflictions.
Defiled by deluded and confused views, they are quite alarming.
The Great Teacher feels pity in his heart and enables
them to separate from afflictions forever.

This corresponds to the Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering.

What, Bhikshus, is the Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering? Just this thirst, leading to being, accompanied by delight and passion, gratifying itself now here and now there; namely the thirst for sense pleasures, the thirst for being, and the thirst for non-being.2 (This “thirst” implies ignorance of the first truth of suffering. Ignorance and thirst are the most fundamental afflictions.) The Cause of Suffering should be cut off.

To end suffering, we have to recognize its cause. The Buddha found that the fundamental cause of suffering is ignorance. Ignorance in turn leads to the arisal of self-centered desire. Ignorance and desire combine to blind us and preclude any possibility of realizing our inherent spiritual nature. Confused and dazed we “mistake fish eyes for pearls,” i.e., confuse the ebb and flow of things impermanent with our true self.

You have lost track of your fundamental treasure: the perfect, wondrous bright mind. And in the midst of your clear and enlightened nature, you mistake the false for the real because of ignorance and delusion.3

Your true nature is occluded by the misperception of false appearances based on external objects, and so from beginningless time until the present you have taken a thief for your son. You have thus lost your source eternal and instead turn on the wheel of birth and death.4

Because of ignorance, living beings create karma. The word “karma” means “activity.” Karma more specifically is activities we do over and over again – activities rooted in desire and governed by the law of cause and effect. The law of cause and effect, simply stated, is that every good or bad act of body, speech and thought, generates a corresponding good or bad result. The cause necessarily brings the result, which differs only in degree and time according to circumstances.

For example, someone berates you, and then you scold him in return. His berating you is the result of past karma which has now come to fruition. When you scold him, you are creating new karma, which will bring equally unpleasant results in the future. All the things you do in body, speech and thought are causes. And all the things that happen to you are results. Thus, the present is both the fruit of the past and the seed of the future. What you are is what you have done; and, what you do is what you will become.

Karma, however, should not be construed as “fate” or “predestination.” Karma is not fixed and unalterable. Only the principle or “law” of karma is unalterable: you reap what you sowed. Yet free will and conscious choice are present in and inform each and every action. The individual is free to choose, but not free to evade the consequences of those choices. Once there is action with intention, the results inexorably follow. One cannot escape this immutable law, but one can understand and master its workings and thereby escape the cycle of existence with its endless births and deaths.

Hence one of the major goals of Buddhist practice is to attain the pure conscience and resulting clarity of mind that enables one to make wise choices and avoid errors in cause and effect. Even sages, including Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, are not exempt from the law of cause and effect; they simply do not err in cause and effect. The stress on moral precepts and meditation in Buddhism thus makes sense within the context of karma. Morality and mindfulness are designed to keep us in touch with our actions and, more importantly, the intentions driving those actions. Actions motivated by selfish desire and ignorance invariably result in unwholesome karma and entrapment. The converse is equally true: actions taken free of selfish desire and delusion invariably result in wholesome karma and genuine freedom. Being able to see and intelligently choose between good and evil, wholesome and unwholesome, liberation and bondage is the hallmark of wisdom – one of Buddhism’s two greatest virtues.

Compassion, the other central virtue of Buddhist practice, also arises from a clear understanding of karma. The principle of karma implies and confirms a deep interrelationship between all beings and all things. This inter-relatedness among all things means that what touches one, touches all. This is the truth that all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas awaken to. The dichotomies we make between self and others, body and mind, and man and nature are all fabrications and false. We thus, in a very real way, ‘do unto ourselves what we do unto others’, suggesting yet a deeper dimension of meaning to the long-standing Golden Rule.

Compassion, however, goes beyond instrumental kindness, i.e. being good to others so that they will be good to us. Compassion literally means ‘being one with everyone’. It is a way of seeing and being (not merely an attitude or way of thinking) in absolute identity with all that lives. It is both how things really are and how things might be – a solution to all of mankind’s conflict and disorder.

Thus, understanding karma is central to understanding Buddhism – the teaching of wisdom and compassion. Karma is the primary force that keeps us turning in the illusory cycle of birth and death. When understood and mastered, it is the same force that can free us from this hapless cycle, and gives us the compassion and wisdom to be truly benefit the world. The Buddha gave an analogy for those caught in this cycle of karma:

Bad karma that is created,
like milk, does not curdle at once;
Fermenting, it follows the fool
like a fire covered by ashes.

The family and social environments that we are born into and even our bodies are the result of our karma from past lives. The entire world as well manifests from the collective karma of all living beings.

Living beings’ individual karma,
Leads to worlds of infinite kinds.
Therein, of those who grasp at life,
Each receives a different measure
of suffering and happiness.6

The reason why people undergo seemingly unwarranted rewards and retributions must ultimately be traced back to causes or “seeds” we planted in the past. We ourselves are responsible for everything that happens to us. Karma is fair, impartial, and never in error.

All the many things you do to others will return to be undergone by yourself.7

If you want to know of your past lives’ causes,
Look at the rewards you are reaping today.
If you wish to know your future lives,
You need but notice what you are doing right now.8

All men and women in the world, whether poor and lowly or wealthy and noble, whether they are undergoing limitless sufferings or enjoying blessings without end, are all undergoing retributions from causes in their past lives.9

Sometimes people have plentiful goods.
The reason is quite fair.
In the past those same people
Gave food liberally to the poor.
Some happy fellows’ fathers and mothers,
Enjoy long life, contentment, and ease.
The reason for rewards such as these, you wonder?
In times past they looked after orphans
And cared for all elderly people as their own.10

If he meets those who take life, Earth Store Bodhisattva describes the retribution of a short life. If he meets robbers and petty thieves, he tells of the retribution of poverty and acute suffering.

To those with harsh tongues, he explains they will have a quarrelling family. To people who slander, he warns of the retribution of a tongueless and cankerous mouth. And to those angry and hateful, he tells how they will become ugly and crippled.11

The Truth of the Cause of Suffering pinpoints the root problem of suffering: ignorance. Because of ignorance we mistake our “self” to be something that is born and dies. Confused about this fundamental issue, we easily become driven by fear of death and grasping at life, and thus we create infinite kinds of karma. In reality our true nature was never born and will never perish. The “self” that undergoes birth and death is an illusion, a phantasm of our mind’s making born of ignorance.

Then the World Honored One explained the insubstantiality of the self.

‘Whatsoever is originated will be dissolved again. All worry about the self is vain; the self is like a mirage, and all the tribulations that touch it will pass away. They will vanish like a nightmare when the sleeper awakes.

He who has Awakened is freed from fear; he has become a Buddha; he knows the vanity of all his cares, his ambitions, and also of his pains.

It easily happens that a man, when taking a bath, steps upon a wet rope and imagines that it is a snake. Horror will overcome him, and he will shake from fear, anticipating in his mind all the agonies caused by the serpent’s venomous bite. What a relief does this man experience when he sees that the rope is no snake. The cause of his fright lies in his error, his ignorance, and his illusion. If the true nature of the rope is recognized, his peace of mind will come back to him; he will feel relieved; he will be joyful and happy.

This is the state of mind of one who has recognized that there is no self, that the cause of all his troubles, cares, and vanities is a mirage, a shadow, a dream.”12

The Buddha used another analogy to describe how ignorance by nature has no cause, no reason for being. Indeed, the greatest mystery in life is “Why is there ignorance?” The Buddha said that we are like Yajnadatta looked in a mirror and fell in love with his reflection. For no reason, he thought the head in the mirror belonged to someone else; that he did not have a head of his own. He suddenly went insane, and ran about madly screaming, “Where is my head? Where is my head?”

The Buddha said, “Was there any reason why he became fearful for his head and ran madly about? If his madness were to suddenly cease, it would not be because he “recovered” his head from someplace outside. So even before his madness ceased, how could his head have been lost?....”

“When the madness of the Yajnadatta in your own mind ceases, just that ceasing is Enlightenment. The supreme, pure, bright mind originally pervades all reality. It is not something obtained from anyone else.”13

With your own mind, you grasp at your own mind.
What is not illusory turns into illusion.
If you don’t grasp, there is no non-illusion.
If even non-illusion does not arise,
How can illusory dharmas be established?
This is called the wondrous lotus flower,
the regal vajra gem of Enlightenment.14


1 Rulers of the World, Chapter 1, Flower Adornment Sutra. “Afflictions” is a translation of the Sanskrit kleshas which literally means “causing pain, distress, or anguish.”
2 Turning the Dharma Wheel Sutra, Dhamma Cakka Ppavattana Sutra,Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11.
3 Shurangama Sutra, Volume 2, BTTS
4 Shurangama Sutra, Volume 1, BTTS.
5 Dharmapada, Verse 71.
6 Flower Store Sea of Worlds, Chapter 5, Volume 2, Flower Adornment Sutra, BTTS.
7 Sutra on Cause and Effect in the Three Periods of Time. Complete text appears in Filiality: the Human Source, Volume 1, BTTS.
8 ibid
9 ibid
10 ibid
11 Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva, BTTS.
12 Pali Canon Sutras.
13 Shurangama Sutra, Volume 4. BTTS.
14 ibid


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