How to End Suffering - The Buddha’s teaching

Dr Thanh-Tam Pham - 12/06/2022

Every living creature must face the sufferings of sickness, old age and death. Other types of physical and mental pain can come, as we fail to get what we want and instead get what we do not want. The Buddha realized that our suffering is not merely a product of chance. The real nature of suffering is due to the attachment, as people cling strongly to their identity, their “self”, their mental and physical being, when there are actually evolving processes. This clinging to an unreal idea of oneself, something that in fact is constantly changing, is the cause of suffering. 


Attachment develops because of the mental reactions of liking and disliking. We feel a sensation from our five senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body) and contact of the mind with any thought, emotion, idea, imagination, memory. If we feel a pleasant sensation, we like it and if we feel an unpleasant sensation, we start disliking it. The brief, unconscious reactions of the mind are repeated and intensified moment after moment, growing into powerful attractions and repulsions. The process arises in consciousness, a cognition which separates the world into the knower and the known, subject and object, “I” and “other”. Every moment consciousness arises and assumes a specific mental and physical form. Throughout one’s existence, consciousness flows and changes. At last, comes death, but consciousness does not stop there: without any interval, in the next moment, it assumes a new form. From one existence to the next, life after life, the flow of consciousness continues. The mind is constantly reacting, and every reaction gives impetus to the flow of consciousness. The stronger a reaction, the greater the impetus that it gives. But if that momentary reaction of liking and disliking intensifies into craving or aversion, it gains in strength and sustains the flow of consciousness for many moments, for minutes, hours, days, months and perhaps for years. And if through life, one keeps repeating and intensifying certain reactions, they develop sufficient strength to sustain the flow of consciousness from one day to the next, from one year to the next and may be from one life to the next.

To the Buddha, the truth of suffering begins with ignorance about the reality of our true nature, about the “I”, the “Self” or what is known as the “Ego”. Blinded by ignorance, the mental habit of reaction generates craving and aversion which develop into attachment, leading to all types of unhappiness. The habit of reacting leads to three types of actions: physical, vocal and mental. According to the Dhamma, the law of nature, a physical or vocal action assumes different significance depending on the intention with which it is done. It is the mental action, the habit of reacting that shapes our future, our karma. Ignorance, craving and aversion are the three roots from which we grow all our sufferings in life.


The Way to End Suffering

If we put an end to ignorance, then there will be no blind reactions to bring suffering. And if there is no more suffering, then we shall experience real peace, real happiness. The wheel of suffering can change into the wheel of liberation. 

Our deeds are the force that drives us into life after life. Samsara is the cycle of repeat existences, the succession of past and future lives. The Buddha realized, however, that in even the most fortunate existence, suffering can be found. Therefore, we should strive not for a fortunate rebirth since no rebirth is wholly fortunate. Our aim should rather be liberation from all suffering. When we free ourselves from the cycle of suffering, we experience happiness greater than any worldly pleasure. The Buddha taught a way to experience such happiness in this very life.

Heaven and hell exist here and now. Regardless of belief or disbelief in past or future existences, we still face the problems of the present life, problems caused by our blind reactions. Most important for us is to solve these problems now, to take steps toward ending our suffering by ending the habit of reaction, and to experience now the happiness of liberation. 


The Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha taught a practical way to eradicate suffering: The Noble Eightfold Path. 

The Path can be divided into three stages of training:

  1.  Moral practice, abstention from all unwholesome actions of body and speech
  2.  Samadhi is the practice of concentration, developing the ability to consciously direct and control one’s own mental processes. 
  3.  Wisdom, the development of purifying insight into one’s own nature. 


1-Right View:

Right view is the deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. 

The first Noble Truth is suffering. We all suffer to some extent.

The Second Noble Truth is the origin, roots, nature, creation or arising of suffering. 

The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of creating suffering. Healing is possible.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the Path.

2-Right thought:

Right thinking is thinking that is in accord with Right View. If we are constantly assailed by unwholesome thoughts, we need to learn how to change and replace those patterns with wholesome thoughts. Sometimes we feel as though we have a cassette player in our head- always running day and night- and we cannot turn it off. We worry and become tense and have nightmares.  When we practice mindfulness, we begin to hear the cassette tape in our mind, and we can notice whether our thinking is useful or not.

Thoughts that lead to our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others is lovingkindness, compassion

The understanding and practice of Right View and Right Thought will give rise to wisdom. 


Training of Moral Conduct

When we perform wholesome actions, we experience the heaven of inner peace, only then the mind can become peaceful enough so introspection can proceed. Therefore, it is not for the benefit of others but for our own benefit, to avoid harm to ourselves as unwholesome actions are the source of craving, aversion, and ignorance.

3-Right Speech:

Speech must be pure and wholesome and is steadfast in truthfulness, trustworthy, dependable, and straightforward with others. Speech must be gentle, kind, heart-warming, courteous, agreeable and brings harmony with others. 

Impure speech includes telling lies, carrying tales that set friends at odds, backbiting and slander, speaking harsh words that disturb others, idle gossip, meaningless chatter…

4-Right Action:

Action must also be pure. Abstain from killing a living creature, stealing, sexual misconduct, and intoxication. 

For ordinary people, to implement right speech and right action is to practice the Five Precepts:


5-Right Livelihood:

Each person must have a proper way of supporting himself or herself. Our work should not break the Five Precepts or encourages other people to break the precepts, since this will cause harm to others. Thus, any livelihood that requires killing, whether of human beings or of animals, selling liquor, poisons, weapons, operating a gambling casino…is not right. 


Training of Concentration (Samadhi)

The cause of suffering lies in our mental actions. Merely restraining our speech and physical actions is useless if our mind continues to boil in craving and aversion, in unwholesome mental actions. 

6-Right Diligence or Right Effort:

Right Effort is the kind of energy that helps us realize the Noble Eightfold Path. The mind is easily overcome by ignorance, easily swayed by craving and aversion. If we are diligent for possessions, sex, or food, that is wrong diligence.

The four practices usually associated with Right Diligence are: (1) preventing unwholesome seeds in our store consciousness that have not yet arising from arising, (2) helping the unwholesome seeds that have already arisen to return to our store consciousness, (3) finding ways to water the wholesome seeds in our store consciousness that have not yet arisen, and (4) nourishing the wholesome seeds that have already arisen so that they will stay present in our mind consciousness and grow stronger. 

Right Diligence does not mean to force ourselves. If we have joy, ease, and interest, our effort will come naturally. 

The Buddha prescribed various techniques for concentrating the mind and the most suitable technique for exploring inner reality is awareness of breathing. This is not a breathing exercise; it is an exercise in awareness. The effort is not to control the breath but instead to remain conscious of it as it naturally is: long or short, heavy or light, rough or subtle. 


7-Right mindfulness:

Right Mindfulness is the heart of the Buddha’s teaching.

The mind spends most of the time lost in fantasies and illusions, reliving pleasant or unpleasant experiences and anticipating the future with eagerness or fear. While lost in such cravings or aversions, we are unaware of what is happening now. We cannot live in the past; it is gone. Nor can we live in the future; it is forever beyond our grasp. We can live only in the present. If we are unaware of our present actions, we tend to repeat the mistakes of the past and can never succeed in attaining our dreams for the future. 

This is a practice of being aware of the present moment, the here-and-now.

8-Right Concentration:

The practice of Right Concentration is to cultivate a mind that is one-pointed. In practising awareness of breathing in meditation, one finds how difficult it is to maintain unbroken awareness. Maintaining this awareness from moment to moment, for as long as possible, is right concentration. As concentration strengthens, we begin to feel relaxed, happy, full of energy. As the mind becomes more concentrated, the breath becomes finer and more difficult to follow, thereby requiring still greater efforts to remain attentive. 


The Training of Wisdom

The future Buddha was trained in Samadhi by two teachers with whom he studied, while searching for the way to liberation. He realized the existence of the unconscious mind that remain as dangerous as ever even though dormant. At the surface level of the mind there may be a layer of peace and harmony, but in the depths is the sleeping volcano of suppressed negativity which sooner or later will erupt violently. The Buddha said:

If the roots remain untouched and firm in the ground, a felled tree still puts forth new shoots. If the underlying habit of craving and aversion is not uprooted, suffering arises anew over and over again.”

So long as conditioning remains in the unconscious mind, it will put forth fresh roots at the first opportunity, causing suffering. For this reason, even after reaching the highest states attainable by the practice of concentration, he is not satisfied he had reached liberation. 

To remove the roots, a method is required that we can penetrate to the depths of the mind in order to deal with the impurities. This is Vipassana meditation, the development of insight into one’s own nature. By practicing morality, we avoid actions that cause mental agitation and by concentrating the mind, we further calm it and at the same time shape it into an effective tool with which to undertake the work of self-examination.

It is not necessary for all thoughts to cease in Vipassana meditation. The mind has become tranquil at least at the conscious level to prepare for the next step of right understanding of the Dhamma. There are three kinds of wisdom: received wisdom (learned from others), intellectual wisdom (from intellectual investigation) and experiential wisdom.  The way to achieve direct realisation of truth is the technique of Vipassana Meditation. 

 The Four Establishments of Mindfulness:

(1)- Mindfulness of the body. We renew our acquaintance with our body and make peace with it. We begin by noting all of our body’s positions and movements, stand, walk or lie down. 

The second way is to recognize all of our body parts and the third method is to see the elements that it is made of; earth, water, fire and air. 

(2)- Mindfulness of the feelingsTo observe our feelings, we identify each feeling as it flows by and disappears. Feelings are either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

(3)- Mindfulness of the mindTo be aware of the mind is to be aware of the mental formations. Some mental formations are present all the time and are called “universal” (Contact, attention, feeling, perception, and volition). Some arise only under particular circumstances (zeal, determination, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom). Some are uplifting and help us transform our suffering (wholesome like faith, humility, self-respect, non-craving, non-anger, non-ignorance diligence, care, equanimity, and nonviolence), and others are heavy and imprison us in our suffering (unwholesome like greed, hatred, ignorance, pride, doubt).

(4)- Mindfulness of phenomena (dharmas). Phenomena means the objects of our mind. The object of our mind can be a mountain, a rose, a full moon, or the person standing in front of us. These things exist outside of us as separate entities, but these objects of our perceptions are us. This includes our feelings. When we hate someone, we also hate ourselves. The object of our mindfulness is actually the whole cosmos. 

Sitting and watching our breath is a wonderful practice, but it is not enough. For transformation to take place, we have to practice mindfulness all day long, not just sitting meditation. 





The Art of Living- Vipassana Meditation as taught by S.N. Goencka.

The Heart of the Buddha’s teaching- by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Mindfulness- A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein.