Suffering’s mental causes are not merely conventional

Patrick O’Donnell makes several interesting comments disputing my claim that for most classical Indian Buddhists “the causes of suffering are primarily mental.” I think they’re worth responding to at length, so I’ll take two posts to do so: this week on the theoretical (metaphysical and psychological) claims about the causation of suffering, next week on their practical implications.

In the original post I say the idea is from “the Disengaged Buddhists”, but will refrain from that phrasing in this particular post because it probably begs the question currently at issue. I do think that the idea is subscribed to by the Buddhists whom I refer to in my article as disengaged, and that it is a key reason for their disengagement. These include Śāntideva, Aśvaghoṣa, and – perhaps most importantly for the present discussion – the authors of most if not all of the Pali Canon.

Let me first make a methodological point: for now, at least, I will be speaking exegetically and not constructively. That is, I am aiming to clarify the viewpoint of these classical Buddhist thinkers on the question of suffering’s causes, not to state my own position, since I do disagree with them on a number of questions (including in the original post). In this post (and most of next) I am concerned with what they think about suffering (dukkha), not with what I think.

Patrick begins by saying “I have always understood the so-called roots of suffering in Buddhism two be twofold: inordinate desire (hence craving) and ignorance.” It seems to me that that is already just to say that the causes of suffering are mental right there: as I pointed out and I don’t think Patrick disputed, inordinate desire and ignorance are both mental. This point is in line with the Second Noble Truth, which identifies the origin (samudaya) of dukkha in taṇhā, craving (or inordinate desire if you wish), and makes no mention of any other origin. It is also in line with the opening verse of the Dhammapāda, which proclaims from the beginning that

phenomena (dhammas) are preceded by mind (manas), led by mind, made of mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows them as the wheel follows the ox’s foot.

In case one didn’t get the point, the second verse repeats:

phenomena are preceded by mind, led by mind, made of mind. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows them like a shadow that does not leave.

Patrick clearly knows the Pali texts well enough to be aware of all this. How then can he claim, as he does, that it is “egregiously mistaken to prioritize, stress, or focus on ‘the mental'”? He notes, and I grant, that “changes in our material conditions and experiences can have effects on our mental and emotional outlook and dispositions…” But in response to that I argue: “One could then specify that the mental causes of suffering in turn have their own non-mental causes, and that seems plausible to me – but it wouldn’t change the fact that the causes of suffering themselves are mental, whatever might cause those causes.”

It is in Patrick’s response to this where I think the argument gets particularly interesting. Here his comment is worth quoting at length:

Dependent origination is about the causes of suffering: they are variable, multiple, and interdependent, that is why it is misleading to simply assert that the causes are mental; everything is connected, is it not? This is actually a topic I have come across both in the law (especially criminal and tort law) and in philosophy of science and science generally. It is extremely difficult to select out particular causes as more significant than others (even if, by way of shorthand or convenience, we do so)…
We can, conventionally, say that smoking causes lung cancer, but of course there are other causes of lung cancer and it may be that genetics, lifestyle choices, circumstances and conditions into which one is born and raise that one has little control over, etc., etc., could be said to be part of the larger network of causes that may lead to (as contributory causes) to lung cancer in one who smokes.

The “conventionally” usage is interesting in its allusion to the two truths or ways of speaking, conventional (sammuti/vohāra) and ultimate (paramattha). Just as speaking of a person is merely a convenient designation to refer to what is more accurately a set of aggregates, I think Patrick is saying, so likewise, saying that suffering is caused by craving is merely a convenient designation to refer to a more complex set of causes identified by the scheme of dependent origination (paṭicca samuppāda).

The problem with that approach, I think, is this: nowhere in any Pali text that I am aware of is there any indication that the Four Noble Truths – including the Second – are merely conventional. The Four Truths are not in the personal language that usually characterizes the conventional (“my suffering comes from craving”); they are in the same impersonal phrasing as the abhidhamma. As far as I can tell, the Truths are always considered nītattha, of clear meaning, rather than neyyattha, requiring interpretation. That the origin of suffering is in craving is no mere simplification; it is no more of a conventional or provisional statement than is any statement of dependent origination. So the fact that every causal element is connected does not supersede the fact that suffering is caused by the mental factor of craving (and perhaps ignorance along with it). If Patrick can find me anything in the first millennium of Pali Buddhism that really says the Four Truths are a mere shorthand or convenient designation, or less fundamental than dependent origination, then I’ll be both impressed and startled, for that would indeed overturn a great deal of my understanding of the tradition. As far as I know, nobody seriously claims the Truths are merely conventional until Nāgārjuna comes along – but he says that dependent origination is merely conventional too!

So I don’t think it is misleading to assert that, according to the suttas and other Pali texts, the causes of suffering are mental. They are, and that’s one of the most important ideas in the canon. The truth that suffering’s origin is craving does not invalidate the truth of dependent origination – but just as much, the truth of dependent origination does not invalidate the truth that suffering’s origin is craving. A reading of dependent origination that says “suffering’s origin isn’t really craving, that’s just a shorthand for more complex causes” is a misreading.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

One Reply to “Suffering’s mental causes are not merely conventional”

  1. இலக்கம் உடம்பிடும்பைக் கென்று கலக்கத்தைக் கையாறாக் கொள்ளாதா மேல்.

    யாதனின் யாதனின் நீங்கியான் நோதல் அதனின் அதனின் இலன்.

    Two thirukkural couplets.
    Race 2 versus explain the practical situation of human life.

    Suffering is part of life.
    Detachment gives you an escape from suffering

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