An interesting part of Buddhist philosophy is the idea that, through a chain of cause and consequence, our suffering is the result of past actions, even in past lives. This seems to fly in the face of other more individualist philosophies, where we assert that each person has a new life, unaffected by the past.
Whether or not we agree with reincarnation and extended karma, it is worth looking at how suffering might have its root in previous actions.
SHORT TERM CAUSES OF SUFFERING
Sometimes we feel irritable. With that irritability in our hearts, we pick up the phone. The conversation that follows does not go well. If we are honest with ourselves, we might see that the pattern of the conversation was influenced by our own irritability in the moment. There were micro-instances when choices were made, about timing, tone of voice, subject matter… and all these were influenced by our state of mind. In this way, we might come to see how much of what happens to us is as a result of our inner state.
MEDIUM TERM CAUSES OF SUFFERING
Sometimes we fail to plan wisely. With impatience in our hearts, we fail to set aside resources for the future; or perhaps we fail to establish a good contractual agreement, and a clear understanding, with a business colleague; or perhaps we are not clear with a friend who we are and what we hope and expect from life. We then suffer, when we are stuck without resources, or when business relationships fall apart, or when friendships become confused or insecure. Again, we can see that choices were made in the medium-term past, which help to define the suffering we experience now.
LONG TERM CAUSES OF SUFFERING
Sometimes cultures, and even whole species, fail to control their own greed. They become rapacious, taking from the world without fitting in with the ecology that surrounds them. Eventually, if the circumstances are right, there is a period of suffering in which they reap the consequences, perhaps in the form of starvation, perhaps in the form of isolation and enmity, or perhaps in the form of discord and chaos. If we are good cultural or natural historians, we can trace suffering back to possible causes thousands of years before.
By careful thought, can I begin to see how suffering arises from lack of compassion, and lack of wisdom?
In my own life, can I trace back my suffering to points in time when, misled by mood or delusion, I went the wrong way? Can I see how, by being greedy, or deceitful, or irritable, I sowed the seeds of problems?
Can I be wise, and begin to encourage clear understandings with myself, with colleagues, and with friends? Can I be open and honest, and thereby create the conditions for future kindness?
Can I understand that some of the things happening in the world today, have their roots thousands of years before? Can I be humble enough to see that much present suffering is like the weather, stirred up by winds that have blown across generations, centuries, even aeons?
Above all, in my meditations, can I begin to see how my present actions influence the future, and create the causes and conditions for either future suffering, or future happiness, for myself and others? Can I analyse my experience carefully enough to observe where things go wrong, and to identify what I need to do to correct situations peacefully?