A Teaching On The Second Noble Truth

Ralph Steele

There are two kinds of suffering—the kind that comes from within and the kind that comes from without—but often it’s hard to sort out which is which, especially when you’ve internalized a culture designed to make you suffer.

For more than twenty years I practiced various meditation methods. I was the only person of color at retreats around the country 99 percent of the time. Although I was a Vietnam Veteran and a victim of the race riots of the 1960’s in Kansas City, born into a culture built on slavery, for a long time I remained in a state of dissociation, ignorant of how I had internalized the colonization, oppression, slavery, racism, and genocide on which the United States of America is based. How could I have been so blind? I was born on Pawleys Island, South Carolina one of the Sea Islands, where many of the ships landed that brought the slaves that made this nation wealthy. Yet I was unaware that I was putting away certain aspects of myself to survive.

My wakeup call came when I was an ordained monk in Burma and Thailand in 1999 and 2000. I realized that by being away from the stressful life in the United States, I was taking a long-needed break. I was glad not to see any European Americans in Burma. Had I become hateful? If so, how did I get that way? After six months of intensive practice in Burma, I went to a monastery in Thailand where 80 percent of the monks were European American, and English was the spoken language. That’s when things really hit home. Observing my mind states, I noticed busloads of unskillful mental qualities arising to fuel my rage and suffering. Despite my previous intensive practice, I felt that my work had just begun. I thought I had already experienced hell during intensive practice, resulting in a ruptured L-5 spinal disc, but I accepted the fact that this was another level of hell I had to overcome.

I had to get even more serious with bhavana, mind/heart training that included chanting; meditation practices in the four basic postures of the body; right speech; hearing and teaching the Dhamma; listening to the evening’s talks and having conversations with other monks; and straightening out my view. Could I get all of this accomplished during this time. I had less than six months of my year-long sabbatical remaining before I would return to the country I now choose as my home. I wanted to master these skills, but for me that was like going to graduate school without completing undergraduate.

Going to Asia and working with the practice in cultures that have held this Buddhist practice for over a thousand years was a revelation. I suddenly understood that the American and European teachers of Buddhist practice had brought their own cultural baggage to the practice as it was taught in the U.S. This baggage included unconscious racism. Now I understood my unexplained rage at these teachers’ meetings and at retreats. In taking on the practice, I had also taken on the spirituality of the European American style.

Because I gained so much from the practice, I had tried to ignore the European- American way it was taught in. I had left the “ethnic” part of my self at the door so that the white participants would not be uncomfortable. I did not want to draw attention to myself. I just wanted to learn. I had no clue that I was taking my sense of self and putting it away in order to be some one I was not. My sense of self should be awarded an Oscar for playing this role of ignorance.

Before becoming a lay teacher, I recall practicing at a meditation retreat. Out of 200 participants there were two persons of color. This is still the norm at the majority of retreats in the American Buddhist traditions. I went to one of the teachers and said that I have been practicing for 15 years, how come no one has made arrangements for people of color to be part of this practice? Why haven’t we invited anyone from the Asian Buddhist communities? The response was, “That’s a good observation, Ralph.” We agreed that something had to be done. But I was on retreat so I went back to practicing. I went to war with my mental states about this situation. After a while, I found tranquility when my eyes were closed, and hell when they were open. This was when Metta or Loving Kindness, was being established as a practice here in America. At that first Metta retreats in California in the latter part of the 1980’s, I decided to become a teacher for the purpose of opening door for people of color so they could come to retreats and feel comfortable. It takes a good ten years of practice and training to become a teacher, so my goal of bringing ethnic diversity to American Buddhism had to be put on hold because none of the other approximately 200 Theravada and Vipassana teachers were ready to do anything about this situation. Every four to six years we would get together at a Western Lineage Teachers Conference, and every two to four years at a Vipassana and Theravada Teachers Conference. I was the only one talking about people of color and cultural diversity.

Not all the problems were coming from outside. I needed to work on maturity around my own issues of belonging and power, before I could come forward to address the unintentional racism and continued oppression within the Western Buddhist system. When I returned to the States after my sabbatical in Asia, I was brought face-to-face with unexamined parts of myself, the realm of my shadow, that had led me to behave in ways that caused suffering for myself and others. In learning to understand my shadow, I found that bhavana was not enough. I had to understand the history of oppression in our society to see how I had hidden from myself the ways I had oppressed others.

This work is something we all have to do. We all have to examine the shadow we all carry as part of this society before we can heal our unintended racism. Each of us has to skillfully do our individual work in this area so that we can work on the collective. Otherwise we’ll just keep on causing suffering for ourselves and others, even when we think we’re practicing and teaching the Dhamma.

We can’t focus just on the internal or the external. We have to focus on both. But because we don’t know when our individual death will come, the four noble truths have us start by focusing on the unnecessary suffering that comes from inside. That’s the big issue. The Buddha wants to empower us. If we can learn not to pile suffering on ourselves, we can have more strength to deal with the suffering and stress that come from without. That’s why he taught the second noble truth: the cause of suffering and stress.

What’s the cause of our suffering? What’s the cause of our stress? There are two key words. The first is craving—not desire, but craving. Craving is our habitual thirst, our addictions, our obsessive-compulsiveness in looking for happiness and fulfillment in the wrong ways, as if equanimity could be found from using objects, substances and people. When I was a 19 year old soldier in Vietnam, I tried smoking five packs of cigarettes per-day, riding the white horse of Heroin, and engaging in sexual misconduct, all these unskillful behaviors. And all I got was a tormented mind and body. I realized that that was not the way out of suffering

The other key word is ignorance. Ignorance means not understanding. Not understanding what? Not understanding what we’re doing! We can see our ignorance only if we practice skillfully, doing whatever is needed to get a better understanding of ourselves so that we can work with the collective problem. This can start by understanding our shadow: the way we hide our own motives from ourselves in ways that we’ve devised for ourselves and that we’ve picked up from the collective shadow of our society. We can do this by educating ourselves about the history, social injustice, and oppression of people of color and all people; interacting with other people from other ethnic origins; becoming culturally and ethnically diversified to broaden our view; reading literature we are not familiar with; undergoing therapy; and professionally working on our issues and ourselves to support our being an excellent person of integrity, for the collective well-being.

And also by meditating.

Our sitting meditation is training the mind. This is where the hard insights come. The first few minutes or so, images (mental qualities, images, or both) begin to move through the mind. Not just a little bit. A lot. We respond: “Oh, I want to stop this; oh I don’t like this.†Just interacting with that, trying to drive those images away, makes us even more restless. And that restlessness creates tension in the body. Fifteen or twenty minutes into the sit, we’re dancing with this restlessness. We’re blaming the thoughts, but the problem is that we don’t see what we’re doing. Like a monkey whose tail’s on fire, we’re just running down a street, setting more fires as we run down the street. The city we live in is in flames hurting those close to us. And we have no idea that we are the cause of this fire! We have no idea

So what are we going to do? It’s like having dirty laundry. If we don’t wash it, it won’t get clean. If you wash the laundry a little, it’ll get a little clean. If we give the kid within ourselves something to wash, we know how it’s going to come out. So which part of us is going to wash our laundry? The kid, or the adult? Also, what kind of a laundry job are we going to do? Lukewarm or industrial strength?

When we begin training the mind, we need to bring some understanding of what we are doing to the task. Look and see, “OK, what am I doing to cause stress right now?†And after a while we might find out, “Oh, I’m not paying attention, that’s all. I need to pay more attention to what I’m doing, right now. Oh, my arm is tense, oh, my chest is tense, oh my belly is tense.†Right there we begin to cultivate right view. We’re beginning to have a better understanding. We’re noticing, “Wow, as I begin to release this tension here, I’m beginning to calm down, my focus is strengthening, I’m not thinking about right arm or left arm here, it’s just this object here.†Right view…or ignorance: Which one are we going to choose? How many times have we sent a kid out to do an adult job? We know the kid always craves the chocolate, the candy, the sweets. We’re sure to get distracted if we let the kid inside of us do our practice, because the kid is going to go for that craving, the habits, the instant gratification, every time.

We’ve got a choice. The adult is awareness itself. I’m saying awareness itself, not just awareness, because awareness can be scattered, but awareness itself can see what we’re doing and the effects of what we’re doing right as it’s happening. If we see these things after they happen, it’s too late. But as soon as we bring awareness itself to catch ourselves right when we’re causing stress, yahman, than we can let go. There’s some peace. That’s wisdom—our sense of discernment. But it takes precision and relentless dedicatio

It’s all about training the mind. A Western Thai Forest Meditation Teacher, Ajahn Pasanno said, when you’re tired, practice; when you’re happy, practice; when you’re sad, practice; and when you’re joyful, practice. It’s like Martial Arts.

I initially came into the practice of meditation through Zen and Martial Arts during my high school years in Japan, and there the lesson was the same. My teacher told me not to complain, but to keep practicing and learning to overcome mental and physical difficulties or obstacles.

The cause of our suffering is not allowing the impermanence of life and death, the good and the bad, to flow. When we freeze up at the bad, we’ll never overcome the fear of looking at our shadow. The cause of suffering is not being aware of the interconnectedness of the internal and external, not accepting, not being ready for the transitions of life, not being relentlessly mindful. Not understanding the uncertainty of life and death fuels our ignorance, supports unskillful behaviors, and causes suffering. It’s like swimming in the Artic Ocean for a few hours. If we’re not prepared, we will die. But because of our commitment to the practice and working on ourselves, we are able to allow life and death to flow through our hearts, which results in nourishment, food for love and the collective.

This spiritual practice is universal. With discernment and insight we can learn to look at our cultural conditioning, language, ethnicity, temperament, and do whatever is therapeutically needed to integrate our shadow, and to cultivate healing, because the time of death is uncertain. Practice is the arms of grace or the hands of the Dhamma washing the inside of our body constantly, and once the mind/heart is trained to pay attention, then it’s not difficult anymore. What’s difficult will be to not pay attention! That’s the beauty in the practice: gaining understanding that this heart of ours can be trained. Because of that, we can liberate ourselves from suffering in this very lifetime. We always have a choice, to keep things hidden in the shadow or to pay attention.

The second noble truth is key, the biggest. If we don’t understand that, our foot will never come out of the hole. And we will constantly complain, “Why is my foot in this hole? Who put my foot in this hole?†All the stories. Most people don’t look at this particular truth here, this second noble truth. But it’s like when we get sick. If we don’t understand how we got sick, we won’t know how to cure our sickness. But once we understand the cause of our suffering, boom, it stops. It doesn’t stop completely at first. It’s only going to stop enough so we can say, “Ahhh, yes, I relax here.†Then we have to bring in more discernment.

This is where maturity comes from. Maturity arises from practice. So in that moment of craving, who’s going to jump in? The adult or the child? It depends on how strong the craving is and our level of maturity—can you see that? If you can, then you can see your addiction. And when we can see the stress it causes if we follow it—and when we realize that we don’t have to follow it—we are able to drop it. That’s when we’ll understand how powerful it is to practice, and practice will become the thing you crave instead. That way our craving becomes our friend. Ajahn Jumnien one of the Thai Forest Meditation Masters that I studied with said, “Use everything as a tool for practice, and see through everything.” We begin to find the joy in practicing, the sweetness. It just comes, a joy bigger than any other joy we have experienced. So this is practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. And then all of a sudden, our life is our practice, and there’s no moment when we are not practicing, turning the light on our collective and individual shadow, and letting go of the second noble truth.