Home > Personal & Spiritual Development > Suffering is Caused by Ignorance

Suffering is Caused by Ignorance

As many of my readers already know, I was blessed to be able to attend the Kalachakra Initiation, in Washington D.C., this past July. During one of the preliminary teachings that preceded the Kalachakra Initiation, H.H. The Dalai Lama, mentioned something that struck me at a very deep level, and has continued to resonate with me, “suffering is caused by ignorance”. While the concept of suffering is central to Buddhist thought (because the teachings are aimed at ending suffering), most of the teachings I had previously heard or read, stated that suffering was simply caused by various forms of attachment, so this teaching on suffering was new to me.

For my non-Buddhist readers, I should probably explain the concept of suffering in Buddhist philosophy. When most of us think of “suffering” we think of some sort of physical or emotional anguish. While this is truly a form of suffering, the Buddhist concept of suffering can be much more subtle. In Buddhist philosophy “suffering” includes regrets, desires, worries, depression, anger, and any other form of unhappiness (no matter how subtle), that is preventing you from living a happy and fulfilled life, and ultimately reaching a state of enlightenment. According to the Buddha, all forms of suffering are caused by attachment, because you can probably trace all of your suffering to some form of attachment to various emotions/mental patterns, desires/regrets, life experiences, the material world, or life in general. Therefore, the traditional teaching that attachment (in whatever form) is the root cause of suffering is true; however, the statement that suffering is caused by ignorance, took those teachings deeper for me and put them into a new context.

The reason that suffering is caused by ignorance is because, although no person wants to suffer, people continually gravitate to the things that cause suffering. For example: You may know that a certain relationship (friendship, family, romantic, work, etc.) is causing you to suffer, yet more likely than not you keep going back to that relationship, probably in the hopes that it will either be “different this time”, or you can change ____ about the relationship, or perhaps they will finally love and appreciate you in the way that you deserve. You may know that drugs, alcohol, or even food are causing you to suffer, but you keep going back to the source of your suffering. You may know that your regrets, fears, desires, or anxiety are causing you to suffer, but you keep replaying them over and over in your head, even though there is nothing you can do to change the past, and the future may never come to pass.

This pattern of continually going back to the source of your suffering is caused by ignorance. Please note that ignorance does not mean “stupid”, as it is often incorrectly used. Ignorance simply means a lack of knowledge or understanding. The key to end the cycle of suffering caused by ignorance is to realize that you have the power to end your suffering. You have the power to take control of your life, and end your suffering. The key to this is to examine your life, and find out what is causing suffering in your life, and to actively seek to eliminate those causes of suffering, no matter how painful the elimination process may be.

In my own life I have had to learn to enjoy living in the now (hence the name of the site), because I used to constantly focus on the past or the future, which effectively robbed me of enjoying this mysterious and wonderful life that I, and each of us, are a part of, right now. After I realized that I was suffering due to my attachment to the past, and my desires for the future, I actively took steps to enjoy the here and now. This rewiring of mental patterns is difficult to break, but it can be done. I use a variety of meditation and insight techniques, along with simple mental conditioning techniques where I will actively bring myself back to the present moment whenever I feel myself focusing too much on the past or the distant future.

Practical Tip: You can end your suffering; however, you must actively seek to end the suffering. Try keeping either a mental or written journal or log of your daily thoughts and emotions. At the end of the day, find a quiet place, and review your experiences. Try to trace back the cause of any suffering that you experienced. Did you become angry? upset? depressed? sad? stressed? if so trace back the cause of those feelings, trace back as far as possible (you may be surprised at how deep the roots go). After you find the cause, try to remove that cause of suffering, in order to prevent future suffering.

***A note on depression: If you have some sort of chemical imbalance that is causing depression or a mental disorder, seeking professional help, and if needed medication, is the best route to take in order to end that cause of suffering.***

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Also please check out my book, “The Path: Using the Religions of the World as a Guide to Personal and Spiritual Development.” (Click on the book cover to view on Amazon.com)

  1. October 10, 2011 at 6:57 PM

    Hi Jason.

    I had not realized how much we share a similar outlook. Kalachakra was not possible for me this summer, but I was able to attend a major empowerment at the end of July when H.H. Sakya Trizin stopped in the SF bay area. Great post and I look forward to reading through your archives.

  2. October 10, 2011 at 7:28 PM

    I am glad that you are enjoying the site! I have really enjoyed your site as well. Perhaps we will meet in person at an event.

  3. October 12, 2011 at 7:57 AM

    Good morning Jason,

    Suffering is a misunderstood Buddhist concept, one that you explained well. In Engaged Dharma we term the suffering that Siddhartha referred to as “psychoemotional suffering” to remind us that so much of it is self caused.

    Coming to the realization of the cause of our own suffering isn’t easy as it can bring up thoughts, memories and emotions we’d prefer not to encounter. Without the practice of rigorous self-honesty the search for the causes of personal suffering can be a fruitless task.

    I second your recommendation to keep a log or journal.

    I bow with respect,
    Ven. Wayne Hughes (Ren Cheng)

    • October 13, 2011 at 12:13 AM

      I think you hit the nail on the proverbial head, “Coming to the realization of the cause of our own suffering isn’t easy as it can bring up thoughts, memories and emotions we’d prefer not to encounter. Without the practice of rigorous self-honesty the search for the causes of personal suffering can be a fruitless task.”

      Also, thank you for visiting my site, I have really enjoyed your site.

      Peace and blessings,

      – Jason

  4. October 13, 2011 at 9:57 PM


    You’re giving great advice. I also believe keeping consistent track of our thoughts and emotions in a journal helps us become more and more self aware. Great post!

    Thanks for visiting my blog!

    Best Regards,

  5. October 16, 2011 at 6:22 PM

    Very good explanation. Simple, straightforward and easy to understand! Thanks for sharing Jason, please check out My Awakening Journal, a new book and website! “White Eagle”

    • October 17, 2011 at 10:58 PM

      Thank you! I have subscribed to your blog, and have really enjoyed it. Keep up the good work!

  6. February 12, 2013 at 5:51 PM

    Ignorance imprisons the mind by limiting it to a narrow view of reality.

    Ignorance causes worry – because the mind does not know what it needs to do.

    Ignorance causes regret – because the mind did not know what it should have done.

    Ignorance causes anger – because the mind blames itself for its own ignorance in times of regret.

    Ignorance causes depression – because the mind is riddled with worry, regret and anger.

    Ignorance causes obsession – because the depressed mind copes by masking the pain with some other unrelated thought or activity.

    The stages that lead to this discovery are profound and differs greatly from person to person. Only by understanding the true nature of suffering can we remove ourselves from the things that cause it in our own individual lives.

    Feel free to use my words in whatever path the buddha takes you.

  7. Aziza
    March 15, 2013 at 10:35 AM

    The reason why we keep going back to the source that is causing the anguish is because we are unclear about what we are seeking and what we truly want. Deep down such behavior is lack of clarity and conflicting goals. We want that something which is eluding us and we also want something else that conflicts with having our first desire met. In my case, i wanted a soul mate and at the same time I wanted detachment that will make me fully enter the world of the spirit and seek enlightenment. When challenges came with my soul mate I would easily give up because my heart went to the spirit and yet there was desire for the soul mate and I wiould again hurt from the loss and would try to stay plugged. By not giving my full, I was not getting far with either. In time I realized that what I really want is the spirit and not so much the person. People have clay feet and to tolerate them as well as to deal with the interaction of their clay feet and our own, we need to have strong enough desire to pursue that object of attachment. I didnt have that strength of conviction to work out the challenges with the person; they seemed pointless and wasteful when I could feel bliss by staying with the spirit.

    • Nariman
      September 8, 2013 at 12:05 AM

      Someone I know is in the exact same situation but unlike you, she hasn’t quite found a way to express or enjoy the spiritual side of life. I know she is deeply spiritual but is very confused about a lot of things because of dogmatic religious education etc. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  1. March 25, 2013 at 6:32 AM

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