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suffering stems from confusion within; confusion within stems from disbelief

Updated: Nov 10, 2021


suffering stems from confusion within

This notion largely mirrors the Buddha's 2nd noble truth (suffering stems from wanting) and from his concept of the 3 kleshas (infatuation, aversion, delusion), where the prime klesha is delusion. I also lean heavily on the teachings of Byron Katie.


Suffering stems from confusion within. By suffering here I mean emotional suffering, as opposed to raw physical pain. Byron Katie traces our suffering to our attachment to false beliefs within ourselves, i.e. a belief that argues with reality. My phrase "confusion within" means essentially the same thing: a concept we hold dear that doesn't vibe with what actually is.

An extreme example of this is someone who wrongly believes a loved one has died. The loved one may be in the next room, sitting at the table with a pair of beverages, waiting to hug & chat. Clinging to their false belief the other is dead, the deluded one thrashes & howls with grief, perhaps even harms oneself or commits suicide, (see, e.g., Romeo's suicide in Romeo & Juliet, & Marc Antony's suicide in Antony & Cleopatra), the self-destructive act stemming from a false belief about the state of the world.

One of the most distinctive features of the Dhamma is that it points to the source of suffering inside. In other words, we suffer because of our own actions; we’ll be able to end suffering only when we can change the way we act. To be willing to take on such a teaching—rather than one that blames our suffering on things or people outside, or that promises someone outside can end our suffering for us—we need at least a glimmer of two qualities of character. We have to be (1) observant enough, and (2) honest enough to admit that, yes, we do suffer from our own actions, and we’ll have to clean up our own act if we want the suffering to stop.

- Thanissoro Bhikkhu, per:

Othello is another example. Othello kills his beloved Desdemona because he clings to the false belief that she is cheating on him. His false belief drove him to jealousy, which drove him to rage, which drove him to murder. His tragedy was birthed from his confusion.


Othello is particularly interesting because we're instinctively tempted to blame Iago for planting the false idea in Othello's head. But why? Of course we recognize Iago's act as treacherous, deceitful, etc. And we can construct a causal chain from his lie to Desdamona's death. Iago behaved demonically.

But Iago didn't kill Desdemona. Othello did. And that's because Othello embraced Iago's claim - "Desdemona is cheating on you" - as true for Othello. It was Othello's embracing the claim that drove his hand to murder. Had Othello remained uncertain long enough to fully investigate, he could have uncovered the truth, or at least not been deceived by the lie.

I'm not saying blame Othello, either. I'm saying that the determinative factor in the causal chain from Iago's lie to Desdemona's death was Othello's act of embracing the lie within. Iago could peddle a million lies a million ways - if Othello doesn't buy into them, they don't make Othello suffer, and the causal chain to murder breaks.

This is why I emphasize that suffering stems from confusion within. My suffering stems from my false beliefs, not yours or anyone else's. You may expose me to false beliefs, even urge or pressure me to believe them. But until I believe them, until I take them as true in my heart, they cannot cause me emotional suffering, because they have no footing or grounding within me, no base of operation. If I want to reduce & ultimately end my emotional suffering, I should start untangling the false knots within me. As long as I'm blaming others for my false beliefs & the suffering they cause, I'll be whacking at one mole after another, tilting at windmill after windmill, without ever getting to the root of my emotional pain.

"Here we have to be on the lookout to recognize the negativity within us. We're always searching for its causes outside ourselves, but they're not there. They always lie in our gut and darken our heart. So the point is: Recognize, don't blame, change!"

Ayya Khema, per:

confusion stems from disbelief

Above I argued that suffering stems from confusion - i.e., false beliefs - within.

But why are we susceptible to confusion to begin with? Why do false beliefs so easily take root in us? Why are we constantly clinging to lies & misunderstandings? Shouldn't our capacity for rationality gradually weed out all the falsehood?

The Buddha said the three roots of suffering are infatuation (yes yes yes), aversion (no no no), & delusion (me me me), with delusion being the tap root that sustains the other two. This image below represents that dynamic. It presents five kleshas instead of three, although if we look at the two added - fear of death and mask of ego - we can see that fear of death is an extension of aversion (no death!) and ego mask is an extension of infatuation (yes vanity!).


I believe that at its root, delusion/ignorance is denying the truth of anatta, or non-self, which the Buddha experienced through enlightenment. This of course doesn't mean the Buddha didn't believe he had a body or personal needs for survival. He lived on for 45 years after becoming enlightened, feeding & bathing & clothing himself all the while.

Rather, the Buddha recognized that his body & its needs arise within a larger context - the whole of what is - and that he is no more his private self-conception than he is the entirety. In other words, identifying as part - my body, my needs, my desires, my knowing - is a choice, and that choice requires denying the truth - we are as much the whole as the part.

When we say "I am," we reflexively believe we're referring to this body, this mind, this lifespan. Buddha taught that "I am" is a statement that describes not only the physical universe, but the emptiness - the state of pure potential - from which all physicality springs. This primate body & primate mind are aspects of that incomprehensible whole. But when we confine our notion of "I am" to a particular body and mind, we identify ourselves narrowly, and so it's only natural that our self-conception and range of concerns coil like a snake around that narrow branch, rather than unfurling like a limitless sail.

A tricky aspect is, Buddha was teaching this to people immersed in the delusion. So when they - e.g., we - hear that we are the whole as much as this part (i.e., we are both the whole and the part, i.e. neither the whole nor the part), we blow the idea off as ludicrous. Probably because we immediately pivot to the question - well, what is that lofty belief gonna do for me?

The delusion is a loop that repeatedly steers us back toward self-concern, which supports a self-conception rooted in self-concern, and self-concern rooted in self-conception. This ever-tightening spiral drives us into smaller and smaller notions of what we are and what we should be doing. We believe we are only our small self, so we look for ways to serve our small self, and in so doing we ask well what does my small self want and not want, and then we serve the small self's infatuations and aversions, forgetting that the small self is only an aspect of who and what we are, and that a larger self-conception - non-self - allows us to transcend the self-service loop and discover a more naturally peaceful & expansive & virtuous way of being.

Here is the story passed on with the flame: enlightenment is our true nature and our home, but the complexities of human life cause us to forget. That forgetting feels like exile, and we make elaborate structures of habit, conviction, and strategy to defend against its desolation. But this condition isn’t hopeless; it’s possible to dismantle those structures so we can return from an exile that was always illusory to a home that was always right under our feet.

Joan Sutherland, per:

The disbelief, then, is disbelieving that we are the whole, and, in turn, disbelieving that we are stuck in a loop of serving an artificially small conception of ourselves. In other words, we disbelieve we are non-self and disbelieve we are stuck in small self.

The antidote is not ramming higher minded beliefs into the brain. It doesn't work: we're doing so from an aversion to disbelief and a craving for belief, trapping us back in the delusional cycle. We can't trascend wanting by wanting to, & we can't transcend avoidance by avoiding it.

Instead, the path is to renounce the disbelief and then investigate the truth for ourselves. We can use the wisdom of more achieved investigators (e.g. the Buddha) to guide & inspire us. But we must do the work.

Byron Katie has a method I've found helpful:

The Buddha provided the Noble Eightfold Path, along with many other teachings -

Neither teacher provides much dogma to adopt as true on their authority. Instead, they consistently encourage us to dig into our own experience, question what we habitually accept, and gradually unknot our misunderstandings on our own.


Returning to my framework, my position is that the fundamental delusion is denying that all is One, all is lOve, and all is perfect. In other words, we are confused because we disbelieve the fundamental truths of existence.

Someone says, your enemy is you, all is you. We disbelieve - no, so-and-so over there is the enemy, and this here is me, we're separate and very different from each other, stop trying to confuse me.

Someone says, you are love, all is love. We disbelieve - no, I'm kinda awful sometimes, and do you see the atrocities & banality of the world, stop lying.

Someone says, you are perfect, all is perfect. We disbelieve - no, I mess up all the time, and do you see how messed up so-and-so is, how messed up society is, stop kidding yourself.

Notice how each time the listener is presented a claim, they resort to their opinions, which are built around their personal aversions & infatuations. No it can't be perfect - I don't like it! No it can't be love - it doesn't feel good to me! No that can't be me - I hate it! Our minds try to be clever by dressing the aversions and infatuations in justifications & social norms, to give them an air of objectivity & correctness. It's all a mirror game, a self-sustaining loop of acting out our desires, justifying our acting out, and defining ourselves by our patterns of acting out and justifying.

I don't suggest trying to believe the truths of Oneness, perfection, & lOve. It's a shortcut that leads you right back to the road's beginning.

Instead, I suggest recognizing our patterns of infatuation, aversion, & ignorance, questioning the justifications we present for those patterns, trusting our intuitions to learn & recalibrate over time, &, if things get painful or discouraging along the way, use the truths as a resource - like a cold splash of water on a hot day, a supportive hand on your shoulder - to recenter your investigations and reinspire your heart.

a prayer:

I free this body & mind from my false belief that they alone are what I am


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