The Second Noble Truth

The Origin of Suffering

Buddha statue in roots
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In his first sermon after his enlightenment, the Buddha gave a teaching called the Four Noble Truths. It's said that the Four Truths contain the entire dharma because all of the Buddha's teachings are connected to the Truths.

The First Noble Truth explains dukkha, a Pali/Sanskrit word that is often translated as "suffering," but which might also be translated as "stressful" or "unsatisfying." Life is dukkha, the Buddha said.

But why is this so? The Second Noble Truth explains the origins of dukkha (dukkha samudaya). The Second Truth often is summarized as "Dukkha is caused by desire," but there's more to it than that.


In his first teaching on the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha said,

"And this, monks is the noble truth of the origination of dukkha: it is craving that makes for further becoming -- accompanied by passion and delight, relishing now here and now there -- craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming."

The Pali word translated as "craving" is tanha, which more literally means "thirst." It's important to understand that craving is not the only cause of life's difficulties. It is only the most obvious cause, the most evident symptom. There are other factors that create and feed the craving, and it's important to understand them, also.

Many Kinds of Desire

In his first sermon, the Buddha described three kinds of tanha -- craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming. Let's look at these.

Sensual desire (kama tanha) is easy to spot. We all know what it's like to want to eat one french fry after another because we crave the taste, not because we are hungry. An example of craving for becoming (bhava tanha) would be a desire to be famous or powerful. Craving for non-becoming (vibhava tanha) is a desire to get rid of something. It might be a craving for annihilation or something more mundane, such as a desire to be rid of a wart on one's nose.

Related to these three kinds of craving are types of desire mentioned in other sutras. For example, the word for the greed of the Three Poisons is lobha, which is a desire for something that we think will gratify us, such as nicer clothes or a new car. Sensual desire as a hindrance to practice is kamacchanda (Pali) or abhidya (Sanskrit). All these kinds of desire or greed are connected to tanha.

Grasping and Clinging

It may be that the things we crave are not harmful things. We might crave becoming a philanthropist, or a monk, or a doctor. It's the craving that's the problem, not the thing craved.

This is a very important distinction. The Second Truth is not telling us we have to give up what we love and enjoy in life. Instead, the Second Truth asks us to look deeper into the nature of craving and how we relate to the things we love and enjoy.

Here we must look at the nature of clinging or attachment. In order for there to be clinging, you need two things -- a clinger, and something to cling to. In other words, clinging requires self-reference, and it requires seeing the object of clinging as separate from oneself.

The Buddha taught that seeing the world this way -- as "me" in here and "everything else" out there -- is an illusion. Further, this illusion, this self-centered perspective, causes our insatiable craving. It's because we think there is a "me" that must be protected, promoted, and indulged, that we crave. And along with craving comes jealousy, hate, fear, and the other impulses that cause us to harm others and ourselves.

We cannot will ourselves to stop craving. As long as we perceive ourselves to be separate from everything else, the craving will continue.

Karma and Samsara

The Buddha said, "It is craving that makes for further becoming." Let's look at this.

At the center of the Wheel of Life are a cock, a snake, and a pig, representing greed, anger, and ignorance. Often these figures are drawn with the pig, representing ignorance, leading the other two figures. These figures cause the turning of the wheel of samsara -- the cycle of birth, death, rebirth. Ignorance, in this case, is ignorance of the true nature of reality and the perception of a separate self.

Rebirth in Buddhism is not reincarnation as most people understand it. The Buddha taught there is no soul or essence of self that survives death and transmigrates into a new body. Then, what is it? One way (not the only way) to think of rebirth is the moment-to-moment renewal of the illusion of a separate self. It's the illusion that binds us to samsara.

The Second Noble Truth also is connected to karma, which like rebirth is often misunderstood. The word karma means "volitional action." When our actions, speech, and thoughts are marked by the Three Poisons -- greed, anger, and ignorance -- the fruit of our volitional action -- karma -- will be more dukkha -- pain, stress, dissatisfaction.

What to Do About Craving

The Second Noble Truth does not ask us to withdraw from the world and cut ourselves off from everything we enjoy and everyone we love. To do so would just be more craving -- becoming or not-becoming. Instead, it asks us to enjoy and to love without clinging; without possessing, grasping, trying to manipulate.

The Second Noble Truth asks us to be mindful of craving; to observe and understand it. And it calls on us to do something about it.

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Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "The Second Noble Truth." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 27). The Second Noble Truth. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Second Noble Truth." Learn Religions. (accessed April 1, 2023).

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