Misperception: S/he’s Making Me Suffer!

edvard-munch-the-scream-1893

….
Blaming others for our suffering is a common response. Buddhism, however, teaches that we create our own suffering – no one else does.  Anxiety, fear, resentment, anger, etc. are the unwholesome fruits of karma and 100% self-created.

 

 

 


 

MISPERCEPTION: S/HE’S MAKING ME SUFFER!

‘He insulted me,
hit me,
beat me,
robbed me’
— for those who brood on this,
hostility isn’t stilled.

‘He insulted me,
hit me,
beat me,
robbed me’
— for those who don’t brood on this,
hostility is stilled. – Dhp 1 (3-4) [1]

 

Blaming others for our suffering is a common response. Buddhism, however, teaches that we create our own suffering – no one else does. Anxiety, fear, resentment, anger, etc. are the unwholesome fruits of karma and 100% self-created.

edvard-munch-the-scream-1893

Note there’s a subtle distinction to be made between pains and illnesses that result from physics or biology, and the kinds of suffering that are purely karmic or self-created.  The Buddha also makes this distinction in the ‘Sallatha Sutta’.

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.

“Now, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental. [2]

 
If we consider the scenario in Chapter 1 Verses 3 and 4 of the Dhammapada (opening quoutation), the person’s suffering arises from aversion to the situation, anger towards the tormentor (also a deluded suffering being searching for happiness), and desire for the present reality to be otherwise. S/He’s feeling two pains, not one. S/He’s creating mental pain in response to physical pain.

So, karma isn’t necessarily responsible for pain and illness (although it can be if one habitually supports and promotes unwholesome societal conditions). Karma does, however, influence our response to pain and illness for better or worse. Suffering (an unwholesome response to adversity) arises from karma and is 100% self-created.

Be clear on what the Buddha meant by ‘karma’ (or ‘kamma’ if one is reading Pali suttas) –

“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.”AN 6.63 [3]

 
Moreover –

“‘I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir’…'”AN 5.57 [4]

 
Remember that when the Buddha spoke of ‘karma’ / ‘kamma’ he wasn’t referring to punishment or reward for past deeds but to bodily, verbal or mental actions powered by will or intention.
 
For the Buddha, karma = intention + action. One doesn’t suffer or enjoy karma – one does karma and then one experiences the mental consequences or ‘fruits’ of one’s karma (called ‘vipaka’), immediately or in the future, whenever the appropriate ripening conditions materialise.

For example, I’m wandering along the aisle in my local supermarket and all of a sudden I see a tub of chocolate ice cream in the freezer. The delicious chocolate taste I’m remembering and the longing and deprivation and guilt I’m feeling (vipaka) are the fruits of my prior action (karma), which was to indulge a craving for chocolate ice cream when I last visited the store. But this time around I can be mindful of my dietary requirements and choose not to purchase and subsequently eat chocolate ice cream. Not only will I avoid the remorse of greed I’ll be less likely to experience a chocolate ice cream craving the next time I go shopping.

Remember also that the Buddha measured the ethical quality of karma or wilful action according to its impact on the doer’s mind rather than according to how it’s experienced by others.

Thus generosity is a skilful act to habituate because this karma is powered by compassion and the generous person will eventually experience the fruits of a fortunate ‘rebirth’ (a wholesome state of mind) when the ripening conditions materialise. The fact that other people are pleased by one’s generosity isn’t what makes generosity a good thing. Generosity is good because it benefits the generous person.

Violence however is an unskilful act to habituate because this karma is powered by greed and the violent person will eventually experience the fruits of an unfortunate ‘rebirth’ (an unwholesome state of mind) when the ripening conditions materialise. The fact that other people are displeased by one’s violence isn’t what makes violence a bad thing. Violence is bad because it disadvantages the violent person.

One single wilful act is unlikely to have much lasting impact on our state of mind. However, when our thoughts, words and deeds become habitual they do have a lasting mental impact. There’s a rhyme not of Buddhist origin that serves nonetheless as a good illustration of karma –

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions, they become habits.
Watch your habits, they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny. Frank Outlaw [5]

 
The Buddha’s view of karma explains why people can react or respond differently to the same set of circumstances.

parinibbana

Unlike the vast majority of unenlightened folk, the Buddha was able to maintain equanimity in adversity (e.g. when slandered, when physically assaulted, when experiencing illness and infirmity towards the end of his life) because he had made a habit of developing skilful thoughts, speech and deeds that enabled him to realise the truth of anicca, dukkha, anatta in all lived experience.

When undergoing trials and tribulations he didn’t do what most of us do – he didn’t pile on mental anguish by harbouring deluded thoughts nor did he add fuel to the fire with unskilful speech and actions. He maintained a mind of equanimity and compassion instead. Thus, by refraining from doing unwholesome karma the Buddha ended the suffering of ‘dying’ and ‘rebirthing’ over and over as a ‘victim’ or an ‘angry man’.

“Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.- MN 21 [6]

 
Buddhism is all about training the mind to recognise life experiences as impermanent (anicca), stressful (dukkha), without essence or owner (anatta) and to respond without clinging to any thoughts and feelings that constitute our present moment reality.

Whether or not we have a peaceful mind or an agitated mind is entirely down to our own habitual intentions and actions, or karma. No one makes us suffer. We suffer because we insist on clinging to deluded notions of a permanent self, and this delusion persuades us to react inappropriately by holding on to the present moment reality – identifying with it instead of letting it flow unimpeded.

However, the well-trained mind remains calm and equitable and compassionate even when the body’s in pain through being violently beaten by deluded criminals, or because it’s falling apart as a result of ageing and sickness.

The ability to remain calm and wise come what may, to dwell in nirvana instead of rebirthing into samsara, is the ultimate fruit of the middle way practice.

_______________

Notes

[1] ‘Yamakavagga: Pairs’ (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[2] ‘Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow’ (SN 36.6), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[3] “Nibbedhika Sutta: Penetrative” (AN 6.63), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[4] ‘Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation’ (AN 5.57), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[5] ‘Watch Your Thoughts, They Become Words; Watch Your Words, They Become Actions… Ralph Waldo Emerson? Lao Tzu? Frank Outlaw? Gautama Buddha? Bishop Beckwaith? Father of Margaret Thatcher?’ by Garson O’Toole. Quote Investigator, 10 January 2013.

[6] ‘Kakacupama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw’ (MN 21), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

 

 

 

One thought on “Misperception: S/he’s Making Me Suffer!

  1. Pingback: What Does “I Resolve Not To Kill But To Cherish All Life” Truly Mean? | Trusting in Buddha

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *