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Who is the Cause of Suffering?

In us, by far the majority of our thinking is self-concerned. Most, if not all thoughts, are about ourselves and what we want. Most if not all thoughts are coming from selfish desire, from concern about “myself, me, what I want.” It appears that we cannot control this tendency. Even when we seem to be doing something for someone else, our own interests still come first.

The outcome of our self-interest is actually quite logical: if everyone is thinking only about themselves, the result will be strife, disagreement, fighting, and inequality. When people think only about their self-interests, then violence will reign, and the strong will take from the weak. Is this not the state of our world? This may be what we consider “normal,” but we only think it is normal because we have forgotten what normal really is. We have grown accustomed to our cage of suffering. The truth is that our society has been made by choice. It does not have to be as it is.

Science, which has long assumed that selfishness and violence are “human nature,” has recently begun to question this position, based on evidence that the real basis of human nature is altruism: generosity, non-selfishness. Science is beginning to review evidence that violence and selfish behavior arise due to causes and conditions in our lives, and are not “normal” in our psyche. This agrees with all religions, which for centuries have said exactly that.

In fact, the true nature of all free, unconditioned consciousness is a profound awareness and sensitivity to the needs of others. This is why all true religions depend upon the foundation of love.

“And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, ‘Which is the first commandment of all?’

“And Jesus answered him, ‘The first of all the commandments [is], Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this [is] the first commandment. And the second [is] like, [namely] this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.’” - Mark 12

Through union with our true nature—which is a vibrant, bright, selfless love—we also unite with God (or Allah, Buddha, or whichever name you prefer), who is, in essence, cognizant love for all beings.

What does this have to do with cause and effect? It is simple:

“All whosoever who are happy in the world

“Are (so) through the wish for the happiness of others;

“While all whosoever who are miserable in the world

“Are (so) through the wish for the happiness of themselves.” —Shantideva, Bodhicharyavatara

Selfishness is the devil itself, and the cause of all suffering. Conscious love—generosity—is the cause of freedom from suffering.

Many of us may think that karma only applies to actions like stealing or murder. But really, cause and effect applies to everything in life. Remember the words of the Master Jesus, when he said:

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” - Matthew 5:21

Jesus gave us a tremendous clue in this wisdom, that we should understand the law with our conscience, and know that we can kill with a word, a glance, with our will. We can kill without a knife or a gun. He told us that even these actions, that seem so normal, so acceptable, are cause for judgement and punishment. He said what all spiritual traditions said: that we will reap only what we sow in life. As we do, so shall we receive.

If you continue day after day nursing resentments against your spouse, your coworkers, and continue feeding your anger toward your father and mother, and continue generating anger toward people on the street, in the grocery store, on the freeway, what do you think you are sowing in the field of your life? If you plant seeds of anger in the fields of your life, then happiness will not grow there. It is impossible. Yet, you expect happiness to come, no matter what you do.

Once we deeply comprehend this fact, we can see that we are responsible for the state of our life, we are responsible for the well-being of others, we are responsible for everything that we experience in life. Those who do not comprehend cause and effect blame others, and never recognize that the primary person who is at fault for our problems is OURSELVES. We are the cause of suffering.

“Whatever affliction may visit you is for what your own hands have earned.” - Qur’an 42.30

We all say, “If I had a better job” or a better husband or a better car or, “if I get this new computer or this new book or if I can make a little more money or move to a different city, then will I finally be contented and happy and then I will start to do good for others. I’ll do some charity once I have everything I need.”

We all say, “My boss is making me miserable, my sister is making me angry, my wife is making me anxious, my friend is making me jealous... and if they change, then things will be better for me. If my husband changes, then I can be a cheerful person. But as long as he keeps being the way he is, then I can’t do it.”

We create these illusions because we do not want to face the fact that our suffering is created by our own hands.

It is not my employer’s fault if I am miserable at work. It is my reaction to work that creates my suffering. If I change my reaction or attitude, my experience at work can be totally different.

When we are suffering, it is our responsibility to see what in us is suffering, and how we created the circumstances for that suffering. Furthermore, we have to see how we have made others suffer in the same way.

Confucius said:

“In vain have I looked for a single man capable of seeing his own faults and bringing the charge home against himself.”

The one adopts this attitude no longer seeks blame outside, and instead, takes charge of their experience of life. They choose how to handle life. Would it not be better to choose how to respond to life?

“Whatever harm a foe may do to a foe, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind can do one far greater harm.” - The Buddha Shakyamuni, from the Dhammapada, 42

Our habits of thinking, habits of feeling, and habits of action are all self-centered. None of us have selfless habits. This is a tremendous clue to us, a way for us to determine when and where we are acting in an out-of-balance way: we must begin to recognize when we are acting out of self-will. That is, seeking to satisfy ourselves, our sense of “me,” our attachments, our desires, our wishes, our rules, our requirements, our demands, our dreams, our passions.

When we are concerned only with ourselves, or our own interests, who are we stealing from to do it? Who are we hurting in order to serve ourselves? What imbalances are we creating?

Observe the state of the world, the imbalances from culture to culture, and observe this in our city, in our families... It is quite evident that the state of our world is a result of this habitual fascination with “me, myself and I”...

When the rich hoard wealth and possessions, they are stealing it from their community. This creates imbalance, poverty, resentment, and violence. The end result is suffering for everyone. Every civilization has passed through upheavals caused by the disequilibrium of power and wealth. This will continue so long as one has, and another does not. Those who have should empower and nourish their neighbors. In this way, everyone benefits.

Suffering begins the moment we act from self-will. Remember the story of Adam and Eve: mankind was cast out of perfection when we acted from desire, and went against the law. Thus, we began to pay for our actions. Previous to that, we were in balance.

It is urgent for us to recognize our responsibility for our life. Everything in our lives is ultimately our responsibility, whether we like it or not. The sooner we recognize our responsibilities, the sooner we can change our life. It is only by recognizing that we create our own lives that we can begin to create a better one.

Those who continually blame others will remain victims of suffering. They will never stop suffering.

To escape suffering, one has to stop producing the causes of suffering.

“I have heard and realized that bondage and salvation are both within yourself.” —Acarangasutra 5.36