The Four Noble Truths, the teaching of the Buddha’s first sutra and perhaps the closest thing Buddhism has to a Genesis, establish Buddhism as a fundamentally pragmatic religion. Where the Abrahamic religions begin with God creating the universe and then humanity within that, implying particular relationships among humanity, its environment, and its creator, Buddhism begins with a man sitting under a tree contemplating existence until he determines the causes, and thus cure, of suffering, implying a very different relationship between humanity and its environment, and excluding any creator. Rather than the theological or the metaphysical, Buddhism begins with a focus on the practical. Rather than handing down rules to govern our behavior, Buddhism encourages us to investigate the truths discovered by the practitioners who have gone before us and to embrace only that which we find to be valid. This pragmatism can help to keep practitioners from becoming attached to particular views (though it’s by no means foolproof in that regard), and to keep them focused on the path of practice.
The Four Noble Truths are modeled after the medical approach then in use, which suggested that illness be understood in terms of symptom, cause, relief, and cure, and suffering is the first symptom that the Buddha chose to address through his spiritual approach. He stated that suffering is a universal experience, that suffering is caused by our view of existence, that the cessation of suffering is possible, and that the Noble Eightfold Path leads to that cessation. In this context, it’s important that suffering is caused. If it weren’t caused, if it simply existed, then it couldn’t be cured. And from the Buddhist perspective, the causes of suffering fall into two categories: Things that happen to us (karma) and how we react to them (klesha). Karma is what yields an effect for every cause, and klesha is what informs and motivates our participation in karma. Or put slightly differently, klesha is what informs how we feel about what happens to us (causing our immediate suffering), and it’s what causes us to react to what happens to us (propagating that suffering through karma). The distinction between karma and klesha gets harder to locate the closer we look, like the distinction between self and other, subject and object, mind and matter, or any other dualism. Increasing precision brings us closer to the realization that they are interdependent phenomena, two aspects of the same truth. Without either, there would be no suffering. If nothing happened to us, we wouldn’t suffer, and if we didn’t feel compelled to react to what happened to us we wouldn’t suffer.
Buddhism suggests that klesha is the more important of the two causes of our suffering, which is the reverse of how most of us see things. We tend to think that what happens to us is the more significant contributor to our suffering, but Buddhism teaches us that how we view and then react to what happens to us (klesha) is actually the more significant contributor. Enlightenment ultimately frees us of both karma and klesha, but in the short term, klesha is generally the more available to us as an object of investigation and practice. From our dualistic perspective, it’s the subject side of the interplay of karma and klesha in the propagation of suffering. This may be seen as analogous to the realization of the selflessness of persons (or egolessness of self) being achieved prior to the realization of the selflessness of phenomena (or egolessness of other) in Mahayana Buddhism. This also has has practical implications. Just as it’s important that suffering is caused, it’s important that one of the interdependent causes of suffering can be at least partially understood and controlled by those of mundane achievement–it provides a reachable first step on the path. If karma alone caused suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path leading to it would be immeasurably more difficult–the first rung of the ladder would be out of reach.