The Buddha then repeats the threefold analysis that he used for the First Noble Truth to explain the practice of the Second Noble Truth. The theme here is of abandonment. The insight of the Second Noble Truth is that there is an origin to dukkha; that the origin is to be penetrated by abandonment; and, in its third and final aspect, that it has been penetrated by abandonment. Notice here that the penetration is successive, but the abandonment is not. One doesn’t become more abandoned; abandonment, letting go, is the timeless mode of the Awakened Ones. Abandonment is not something to be done in order that something else may follow and it’s not done for a certain length of time until one has let go enough and can resume holding. After his enlightenment, the Buddha’s realization that he’d abandoned the origin of suffering was not an implication that, since he had gotten rid of suffering, he could return to the normal way of being. Abandonment is not “getting rid of”; it is not an unpleasant medicine that one has to take until one is cured, but a joyful, fruitful way to live. Having abandoned old attachments, one lives with non-attachment. This on-going “abandonment” is the ease of not holding. It is the abiding place of the wise, the place of continual emptying and being beyond holding things in terms of their form or how they are felt and perceived. As long as we hold on, we want things not to age, not to change from the state we like or have grown accustomed to. And that is not possible.
In this painting, the frame of knotwork has opened out a little compared with the previous one. This is a reflection that the tangle of dukkha changes, it is really not the fundamental structure of our being. The mainstays of suffering are portrayed in the black (ignorance) and red (desire) serpentine figures coiling down from the top. These borders emanate from a threefold nuclear motif at top left and right. In the case of the red, left, it is desire (tanha) in its triple aspect—sensual desire, desire for becoming and desire for annihilation. On the right, in the black corner, we have the three aspects of un-knowing in action (asavas)—sensuality, becoming and delusion. However, at the bottom left and right are the hands of the Buddha in the gesture of protection.
At the top, the interwoven “subject” of the painting is seen as separate from the forces of delusion; there appears to be something pure blooming within that cross-weave of powerful energies. In parallel, at the bottom, a pure central radiance is surrounded by fiery forms. This motif depicts, in symbolic terms, the six sense bases—the five external senses of eye, ear, nose, tongue and body, which surround the sense base of the mind. They have drawn bows with arrows because they are hunters and warriors; they shoot out to seize that which is pleasant and unpleasant (for different reasons, of course). The external senses are depicted as being on fire, bound by the serpents of un-knowing and desire, whilst the mind is bright and radiant with lotuses of purity emanating from it, though surrounded by fire.
This use of fire is a reference to the Buddha’s third sermon, the “Fire Sermon” (Adittapariyaya Sutta; Vinaya Mahavagga: , 21). Its theme is that: “All is burning … the eye … ear … nose … tongue … body … mind are burning with the fires of greed … hatred … delusion … with birth, death, sorrow, pain, lamentation, grief and despair.” It was one of those “fire and brimstone” talks about where the real fires were and how to put them out. The metaphor of fire is a powerful one. It was used because the Buddha was talking to a group of fire-worshipping ascetics. Yet, sure enough, the origin of suffering—the feeling that we want to have something, become something or get rid of something—has the power to get us heated up. It also has the fire-like quality of consuming our attention and producing a lot of smoke that blinds our sense of perspective.
This smoke-screen effect is the force of ignorance which plays a major part in keeping the fires unrecognized. Our consumer society has standardized desires to the extent that we call them rights and we expect them to be fulfilled by life. Yet, it is quite clearly the case that the level of consumption of the earth’s resources in terms of energy and raw materials is too high. And ironically, a good proportion of consumption is actually created by the need to get a break from the stresses of a consumer society that demands so much. It is not an “abandonment” society—except maybe the abandonment of sense restraint. So there’s a lot of desire hidden in the ways we perceive and create expectations as a society. When this demand is accepted as the common norm, it never gets checked: “Please be the way I want you to be. I want privacy but connection to all the modern conveniences. I want my team, my family, my country to always be the winner and not let me down. I’d like my monastery to be popular and all the monks and nuns to be wise, happy and serene; and the teacher to be inspiring, but not so much that I feel intimidated; to be strict, but not severe; funny, but only at the right times; and to be there when I want him or her and not to be there when I don’t. And I myself would like to be just right, always calm and assured and profound and light and … ” The real conflagration is in the mind; the desires of the other senses are merely functional. It is in the mind that you can feel the heat rise, often just over issues and opinions.
But the mind does not have to be on fire like the external senses; the senses are just that way because they are bound to the slow consuming flame of bodily life, functioning in order to support bodily needs and instincts. Although the mind can produce the craziest, most outrageous desires, it always has the power to reflect on that heat. We may choose to ignore it, but this kind of knowing is clear, undeluded and Awakened. Something knows when we slow down or feel “burnt out” that this is the origin of suffering. The one who ignores awareness blots that knowing out as soon as possible.
For instance, an ex-military man was telling me about the common use of alcohol to relieve some of the extreme tension caused by the fear and aggressive conditioning of army life. You drink to get rid of the stress; go to bed in a befuddled state and then wake up the next morning feeling ghastly and confused. The anxiety over what happened last night and the need to try and pull yourself together for the morning is so stressful that you reach for the bottle of Vodka/Scotch under the bed. Soon your body develops the shakes and you need a drink to settle your nerves.
The Group of Five to whom the Buddha addressed this sermon did not have a drinking problem; hopefully, the majority of spiritual seekers will also not have to work through that one. But note the kind of suffering that desire can put you through, the desire to become something or the desire to get rid of. Here is an extract from the Buddha’s description of his unenlightened asceticism:
I thought: ‘Suppose, with my teeth clenched and my tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth, I beat down, constrain and crush my mind with my mind?’ Then as a strong man might seize a weaker by the head or shoulders and beat him down, constrain him and crush him, so with my teeth clenched and my tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth, I beat down, constrained and crushed my mind with my mind. Sweat ran from my armpits while I did so. Though tireless energy was aroused in me, and unremitting mindfulness established, yet my body was overwrought and not calm because I was exhausted by the painful effort. (Mahasaccaka Sutta; Majjhima Nikaya: Sutta 36)
“Not my problem,” comments the average contemporary meditator. Yet within the context of their own values, people do experience the same kind of stress with the desire to stop their incessant thinking. And the alternative course of desire is wide open: the “retreat junkies” obsessively tinkering with situations—wanting the right setting, the right diet, body work, enough relaxation, suitable doses of calming music, eclectic spiritual teachings from which to select the one that is exactly suited to their personal tastes, and a format that does not require them to give up what they don’t want to. Contemporary spiritual training can be clever in a technical, manipulative way. It produces a great deal of one kind of knowledge—knowledge of how subtle body energies work and how they can be directed; knowledge of the structure and conditioning of the psyche and how to bring out the most fortunate moods. But it all leads to further perpetration of “me” and “mine” and “my wants.” This technical knowledge is precarious—dependent upon sustaining circumstances. It is not free. The symptoms of suffering are being allayed, but its origin is not being abandoned. Technical know-how is not the knowing that abandons the origin of dukkha.
The Second Noble Truth hinges upon the First; suffering has not been “understood” nor looked into. But when we do look into it, the root becomes evident: the problem lies in self-view. This self-view is conjured up out of a consciousness moored to the needs of the body and operating from a desire mode. Our ways of relating to the world get created from the early experiences of helpless, dependent bodily life when consciousness is taught to be constantly on the look out for bodily needs and discomfort; and the impression arises that there is a mental or immaterial “me” that needs things. But what the mind really needs is wisdom, for wisdom is the most sustaining food. And the good news is that we already have it. We just have to cultivate wisdom in simple ways like knowing what our body really needs and how much we can expect of it.
So abandonment is not rejection. It is an unwillingness to hold onto assumptions and habits when they are no longer relevant or helpful or when they cause dukkha. With the presence of seeing or knowing, there is that which sustains the mind by itself. In that sphere, there is no need. Through encouraging investigation and thereby activating wisdom, these Noble Truths lead us to something incomparably more worthwhile than this mass of dukkha. That is why these Truths are fine, noble, pure and rare.
The more that our perceptions of how things should be or of how we’d like to be are abandoned, the more Truth can enter the mind. The perceptions based upon self-view are that I like to feel that I’m going in the right way, that I have my bearings, that there are people I can rely upon, and fixed systems that won’t let me down, and that my body is healthy and not being corroded by some chemical additives in the food. Above all, I want my mind to be clear, reasonable and in control. But that’s not the way it’s going to be, is it? This system runs down; sooner or later one of my organs will mutiny and cause me pain. Probably, my memory is going to fade. There’s a good chance that if I’m attached to mental clarity and agility, I’m going to get upset and frightened when it goes; and maybe I’ll get put in some home with other senile rejects. It is better to abandon physical and mental states as something to identify with. Let go of those perceptions that the self-image depends upon. Then attention can focus upon the present and be free from bias. Things are known in themselves and actions are done because they are Right and not to bring about my imaginary future.
Thus, Bahiya, you should train yourself: ‘In what is seen, there is only the seen; in what is heard, there is only the heard; in what is sensed, there is only what is sensed; in what is thought, there is only what is thought … ’ Then for you … there will be no ‘there,’ where there is no ‘there’ … there will be no ‘here’ … and because both extremes are not, this indeed is the end of dukkha. (Udana: 8)
It is an insight into non-dualism, the Way of realization.