n the Buddhist tradition, the main problems of samsara or this suffering life are summed up as 1) anatman (“selflessness” or the lack of essences to things), 2) anitya (impermanence), and 3) duhkha (the unsatisfactory nature of every aspect of the unenlightened state).
Behind every one of these three fundamental problems is a cause, which is variously identified as “craving” (trishna; tanha), “desire” (raga), or “grasping” (upadana).
We suffer because we ignorantly yearn for, and then attach ourselves to, things that do not exist the way we think they do (they are without essence and impermanent) and therefore cannot bring to us what we are seeking in them.
Happiness, then, is the state of freedom from craving and grasping that comes from wisdom that replaces ignorance. Happiness, in other words, arises from no longer being driven by one insatiable desire after another and from detaching from what one is grasping to.
Happiness comes when we let go. When we relinquish our cravings and attachments, we are freed from a prison-house of our own making. For there is no one or nothing other than ourselves that makes us unhappy. We are the sole architects of our own suffering.
We are like masochists in denial. We continue to recreate and embrace the sources of our suffering even while vociferously asserting that we don’t like being unhappy. We hear time and time again that the craving for and grasping to worldly goals such as money, possessions, success in our professions, relationships, etc., will only bring us more unhappiness – and yet we continue to do so. The proof that this is so is that we continue to suffer.
What’s going on here? I think it may be one of three things.
First, perhaps we don’t truly believe that wanting these things when we don’t have them (and thinking that if we get them we’ll be happy), and then clinging onto them when we succeed in obtaining them (and thinking that if we can keep them we’ll be happy) are the causes of unhappiness. If this is so, then we need to go back to the basics and study, contemplate, and meditate on the elementary building blocks of a spiritual life.
No spiritual progress is possible without some plain old renunciation. . . which means some version of giving up on the idea that worldly things will result in true happiness. It’s not just Buddhism that argues this. Jesus and other spiritual teachers were quite clear that (for example) “it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24), or "none of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his possessions" (Luke 14:33). This, needless to say, does not mean that divestment of money and things in and of itself means you have “renunciation,” but it does mean a radical break with certain ideas and values about what’s important in life and where your energies are being directed.
There is a second possibility here for why we continue to recreate the causes of our own suffering. Maybe we are fooling ourselves, thinking that we have indeed achieved a degree of renunciation when we haven’t. This is actually pretty likely for those who have been studying and practicing for a while and know the “right answers,” but haven’t really gained the realizations of the Dharma – one of which is knowing, deep in your bones, that worldly pursuits are all ultimately dead-ends.
Suffering is a great teacher. If you are unhappy, hurt, dissatisfied, disappointed, resentful, envious, proud – if, in sum, you are struggling with one or another of the 84,000 mental afflictions – it is always due to some type of craving and clinging. When you are afflicted, do a search and destroy mission and trace the affliction to its root. You will find quickly enough what you are ignorantly desiring and foolishly grasping onto, which is the real source of your suffering.
But there also may be a third possibility here for our continual reinvestment in samsaric life. We may have indeed renounced craving and attachment to worldly things. . . only to refocus them on spiritual things. We may have given up our grasping to worldly forms of identity and ego enhancement (money, position, trophy wives or husbands, etc.) only to reposition that attachment within the spiritual realm (“I am a practitioner”; “I am a Buddhist”).
We may have just transformed into what the great Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called “spiritual materialists.” We may have simply switched up one set of ignorant desires and graspings for another:
The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit. The teachings are treated as an external thing, external to "me," a philosophy which we try to imitate. We do not actually want to identify with or become the teachings. So if our teacher speaks of renunciation of ego, we attempt to mimic renunciation of ego. We go through the motions, make the appropriate gestures, but we really do not want to sacrifice any part of our way of life. We become skillful actors, and while playing deaf and dumb to the real meaning of the teachings, we find some comfort in pretending to follow the path.
At some point in our spiritual lives we must even give up desire for spiritual “progress,” and identify and detach from our grasping to our identify as a “spiritual practitioner” or “Buddhist.” For these are just more props for what Rinpoche calls the “bureaucracy of the ego”:
It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego's constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort or whatever it is that a particular ego is seeking. One must step out of spiritual materialism.
All forms of ignorant desire and self-destructive attachments must be relinquished in order to reach our real goals. Free yourself. Identify your cravings and discover what you are attached to – and then work to eliminate those cravings and desires from your own life.
And at every level of one’s spiritual progress there’s more to do.
With all good wishes,