In the past few articles we discussed and identified the causes of suffering, thus we are now ready to discuss how to put an end to suffering. Just as when one has identified the pain in your lower, left side, abdomen and you are then in a position to remove the cause of the pain. We can now start to put an end to suffering by elimination craving, ill-will and ignorance. Buddha’s Third Noble Truth states that there is freedom from suffering, or Dukkha. The successful cessation of suffering is known as Nirvana — the absence or extinction of desire. This “state of being” is popularly known as “enlightenment.”
To understand the truth of the end of suffering, one of the obstacles that we have to overcome is the doubt that an end of suffering is even possible. It is in this context that confidence or faith plays an important role in Buddhism. When we say confidence or faith we do not speak of faith in the sense of blind acceptance but in the sense of recognizing or accepting the possibility of achieving the goal of ending suffering. If you do not have faith that a doctor can cure you of your abdominal pain you will not seek out a doctor, you will never take the medicine or have an operation to help you. Thus, you will die as a result of an illness that could have been cured it you had faith that going to a doctor would help you. So, confidence, belief in the possibility of being cured is an indispensable prerequisite to stopping suffering.
Here too people might ask “How can I believe in the possibility of Nirvana? How can I believe that there can be an end to suffering?” In response to these questions I say that if it were not for the development of radio receivers which translates the unseen radio waves into sound we would not be able to enjoy radio. Until Antony van Leeuwenhoek opened up a whole new world with his studies of the microscopic world most people did not believe in microscopic animals and plants. I would hazard to say that few who read this, unless you are a particle physicist, have actually observed an electron and yet we accept them because there are people who have special training and instruments who have seen them and with enough studying and hard work we too could see them. The same applies in regards to the possibility of the end of suffering and of attaining Nirvana; we ought not to reject the possibility of attain Nirvana outright simply because we have not experienced it ourselves.
If you are familiar with Plato’s Allegory of “The Cave” (see video at end) I present an Eastern variation on that theme.
One day a turtle crawled up out of the water and sat on the bank looking at the sun, clouds, trees, birds and other wonderful sights. When he returned to the water and told his fish friends about his experiences out of the water they did not believe him. The fish could not believe that there existed a place that was completely dry and totally unlike what the fish knew and were familiar with. The fish would not believe that there was such a place where creatures walked and flew rather than swam, where they breathed air instead of water, and that the sun was round like a ball instead of just a glow.
There are many historical examples of the tendency to reject information that goes against what is “commonly” accepted. When Marco Polo returned to Italy after traveling to the Far East, he was put in prison because what he said about how large the Far East was and other various things that challenged what was then believed about the nature of the Universe. When Copernicus advanced the theory that the Earth circled the Sun instead of the opposite being true. Copernicus waited until the end of his life to publish his work “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” and challenge the GeoCentric accepted theory with his HelioCentric one to avoid being put into jail. In history there are many cases such as these two.
We have to be on guard against dismissing the possibility of the complete end of suffering or the possibility of attaining Nirvana simply because we have not experienced it ourselves. If we can accept that the end of suffering is possible, that we can be cured of an illness, then we can proceed with the steps, that have been taken before, that are necessary in order to achieve that cure. Unless and until we believe that a cure is possible there is no question of successfully completing the treatment. In order therefore to attain progress on the path, to realize, eventually, the end of suffering one has to have at least confidence in the possibility of achieving the goal, the goal of attaining Nirvana.
Now that we know that life is suffering, ignorance and desire cause suffering and that we must have confidence in the path to attain Enlightenment. What are the steps along the path we must take. This is addressed in the upcoming article on the Fourth Noble Truth.
If you missed any of the other Noble Truths click on the one you want to review.