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The Second Noble Truth:

the Origin of Suffering

Here is the English translation of the Second Noble Truth as it was presented already in our webpage The Four Noble Truths:1

"There is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering (duhkha): Suffering (duhkha) results from certain causes—it is craving, which produces renewal of being, is accompanied by relish and lust, relishing this and that; in other words, craving for sensual pleasure, craving for being, craving for nonbeing."

The original word in The Four Noble Truths that is translated here as "suffering" is duhkha in Sanskrit, and dukkha in Pali. The only differences between the Sanskrit word and the Pali word are the differences in their spellings. They both have the same meaning. But they correspond to a number of terms in English, including: suffering, pain, discontent, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration. Although duhkha/dukkha is often translated as "suffering", its philosophical meaning is more analogous to "disquietude" as in the condition of being disturbed.2

The original word in The Four Noble Truths that is translated here as "craving" is trishna in Sanskrit and tanha in Pali. The only differences between the Sanskrit word and the Pali word are the spelling and pronunciation. They both can be translated into as craving, thirst, and desire. But, as we shall see, in the context of the Four Noble Truths it should be taken to mainly mean "craving" and other forms of egocentric desire.

The phrase "craving for being" implies the condition that is sometimes called in the Buddhist scriptures "attachment to existence" This attachment is accompanied by the attitude that there is an absolute, permanent reality, and the denial that everything of substance is impermanent. In the terminology of Buddhist philosophy, this is called eternalism.

The phrase "craving for nonbeing" implies the condition that is sometimes called in the scriptures "attachment to non-existence." In the terminology of Buddhist philosophy, this is called nihilism. It might be expressed as: "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die!" But the modern philosophies of scientific materialism and existentialism are both considered to be nihilistic in that they posit that they deny the law of karma and the continuance of consciousness after death.

Usually a person has both a "craving for being" and "craving for non-being." When the futility of acting out one becomes apparent, he or she just switches to the other until that seems futile. Then the cycle repeats itself.

Here is another version of the First Noble Truth, translated by Buddhist scholar Paul Carus of a full version of the First Noble Truth and found in his work The Gospel of Buddha:3

"Now this, O bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning the origin of suffering: Verily, it is that craving which causes the renewal of existence, accompanied by sensual delight, seeking satisfaction now here, now there, the craving for the gratification of the passions, the craving for a future life, and the craving for happiness in this life. This, then, O bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning the origin of suffering."

We must be careful here not to take the word craving to mean "desire" in general. In his book, The Essence of Buddhism, Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche remarks:4

"Now, some people think that Buddhists encourage the idea of eradicating desire altogether, but that is not what the Buddha said. He said that we should try to overcome excessive and exaggerated forms of desire, which manifest as craving, grasping, and so on, because they make our condition worse by increasing our sense of dissatisfaction and discontentment. It is the more obsessive types of desire that the Buddha said we should try to overcome. As long as we have these strong forms of desire, they will always be accompanied by aversion, hatred, resentment, and so forth, because when we can't get what we want, we become frustrated, angry, and resentful."

Concerning this same point, another Tibetan spiritual teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes in his own book, Eight Steps to Happiness:5:

"We can...use the mirror of [the teachings of] the Dharma to distinguish between desirous attachment and love. These two are easily confused, but it is vital to discriminate between them, for love will bring us only happiness whereas the mind of attachment will bring us only suffering and bind us ever more tightly to samsara. The moment we notice attachment rising in our mind we should be on our guard — no matter how pleasant it may seem to follow our attachment, it is like licking honey off a razor's edge, and in the long run invariably leads to more suffering."

Samsara is the general condition experienced by the mind that is habitually latching onto this and rejecting that while constantly attempting to satisfy a great craving. The causes of suffering are mistaken for the causes of happiness. Even when the object of desire is apprehended, there is no lasting satisfaction; instead of exposing the futility of the quest, such experiences of temporary satisfaction gradually intensify the craving. The mind loses the ability to distinguish between the raw experience of happiness and whatever objects temporarily make us happy and give us the illusion of well-being. As long as the mind experiences suffering, the mind is in samsara.6

So we say that the mind craves, grasps for, and attempts to hold onto whatever it has become "attached" to. But the idea of securely holding onto something is a delusion. So the craving and grasping must continue even after something has been grasped. And what really started the whole process was some temporary experience of happiness that gave the illusion of well-being.

Also, consider the opposite of craving —disdaining. We find some experience to be unpleasant. We may then develop an aversion for whatever objects seemed to generate that unpleasantness. Aversion is, in a sense, the opposite of attachment. But it is not un-attachment, which, in itself, is rather neutral.

A certain degree of aversion is not necessarily a bad thing. My former craving for alcohol has been, to a degree7, replaced by an aversion to alcohol. That aversion helps me to stay sane and healthy. So it is a good thing. But if that aversion became so exaggerated that I broke into a liquor store and smashed all the bottles inside, that would be a bad thing.

There would not be any craving, grasping, and attachment is there were no sense that there is a self who craves, grasps, and attaches. Or there was not some real "thing" that could be firmly grasped.

Delusions do not accord with reality. Delusions are distorted ways of looking at ourself, other people, and the world around us. If we have a craving for whiskey, for example, we see whiskey as an intrinsically good thing to drink. We totally ignore its ill effects. If we hate a person, we see that person as intrinsically bad. But there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad person.

Our minds are under the influence of at least subtle forms of delusion all the time. So it is to be expected that we suffer often from frustration and disappointment. It is as if we are continually chasing after hallucinations that vanish into thin air just when we think we've latched onto them.

According to the teachings of Buddha, the ultimate mother of all such delusions is ignorance—in particular, what can be called "form-grasping ignorance."8 Form-grasping ignorance is the basic delusion that involves grasping phenomena as inherently, or independently, existent— as if they exist by some intrinsic essence that makes them what they are. When we speak of "ignorance" here we do not mean stupidity but instead a rather pervasive form of perception combined with the reaction of grasping, repelling, or ignoring the phenomenon perceived. All phenomena are, in reality, what Buddhists call "dependent arisings"—their existence is entirely dependent upon other phenomena such as their causes, their parts, and the minds that apprehend them. Consider a gun, for example. The gun would never exist if not for all the reasons for which it was first assembled and for all the laws of science by which it continues to appear and function as it does. The gun also could not exist without the parts that go together to form it as a whole gun. And it is not a "gun" except in the minds of people who recognize it as a weapon that shoots bullets or some other projectile. A person not raised in a modern society might see it as a weapon, but then he would probably think of it as a club. Another person with a different cultural background might see the gun as simply being a useless aggregate of useless metal pieces.

But this form-grasping entails self-grasping. The delusion of grasping what is apprehended as external, independent objects must be accompanied by the delusion that there is an internal, independent self that does the grasping. The most harmful grasping is the grasping that occurs when the phenomenon being grasped is the self, the ego, the "I" of the perceiver. That is the common state. We instinctively feel that we possess a completely real, objective self or "I" that exists independently of all other phenomena. One consequence of grasping at our self in this way is that, in order to maintain this self—or rather this delusion of the self— we develop self-cherishing, a mind that regards itself as important above all else. Because of this self-cherishing, we are drawn to the people and things we find to be attractive, we want to separate ourself from the people and things we find unattractive, and we are uninterested in the people and things we find to be neither attractive nor unattractive. Thus passion, anger, and negligence are born.

The "Big Book" (titled Alcoholics Anonymous) of Alcoholics Anonymous points out this problem of self-cherishing. Step One of the Twelve Step Program of Alcoholics is phrased as "We admitted we were powerless under alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable." In discussing what must be done at the beginning of the process of recovery the Big Book says:9

"The first requirement [for recovering from alcoholism] is that we be convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success. On that basis we are almost always in collision with something or somebody. Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great...

"What usually happens? The show doesn't come off very well. He begins to think life doesn't treat him right. He decides to exert himself more. He becomes, on the next occasion, still more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still the play does not suit him. Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying. What is his basic trouble? Is he not really a self-seeker even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well?...

"Our actor is self-centered—ego-centric, as people like to call it nowadays. He is like the retired business man who lolls in the Florida sunshine in the winter complaining of the sad state of the nation; the minister who sighs over the sins of the twentieth century; politicians and reformers who are sure all would be Utopia if the rest of the world would only behave; the outlaw safe cracker who thinks society has wronged him; and the alcoholic who has lost all and is locked up. Whatever our protestations, are not most of us concerned with ourselves, our resentments, or our self-pity?

"Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.

"So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us!..."

There is a remarkable agreement here with some of what Ringu Tulku (who is a teacher of the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism) writes about the truth of suffering in his book Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of Buddha:10

The Truth of Suffering

"...As long as we do not see clearly and in proper perspective, even the smallest thing can be completely overwhelming.

"Once we know the suffering of suffering, we are able to go further: we can see that it is caused by constant change, which in its turn cannot be avoided. Change happens all the time. The reason is that nothing whatsoever has any essence of its own. Everything comes into existence due to interdependence, to different influences affecting each other. Nothing stands still. Looking into this fact more deeply, we will eventually see the interdependent nature of everything, the way everything is due to causes and effects. Then we will perceive how things really are, their actual nature. Having gained this capacity, we will see ourselves as being part of this ongoing process of change.

"When we discover that we ourselves are subject to this interrelatedness, we will no longer feel separate and cut off from anything else. Usually we endeavor to be separate from everybody and anything else. We constantly try to be just ourselves, and the only measure for everything that happens is whether it is good for us. This manner of being egoistic and making ourselves the center of our attention contradicts reality, and therefore leads to dire suffering.

"Normally we act and react in terms of 'I' and 'the rest of the world.' Whatever another person does is seen and evaluated in relation to ourselves. This leads to a constant need to protect ourselves, and we then become so defensive that we completely close up and experience everything as an attack or as pain. Figuratively speaking, we become like a wound filled with puss, ever so sensitive to the slightest touch. Once we change this unrealistic way of experiencing, knowing the interrelatedness of ourselves and everything else, this sensitivity and isolation is broken. We open up, and become freer and more relaxed. This will happen just by knowing the realities of life, that interdependence is the true nature of things."

Let us now go on to The Third Noble Truth.


1Translation from Sherab Chodzin Kohn, "The Life of the Buddha" in Entering the Stream: An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings (ed. by Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chodzin Kohn, c. 1993), p. 19.

2 See Wikipedia—"Dukkha".

3Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha (1915 edition), p. 54. (In chapter 16: "The Sermon at Benares." See Google Books—"The Gospel of Buddha" by Paul Carus —or— Sacred-Texts.com-The Gospel of Buddha—"The Sermon at Benares" —or— Mountain Man Graphics—The Gospel of Buddha—"The Sermon at Benares".)

4Traleg Kyabgon, The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice (c. 2001), pp. 5-6. Kyabgon Rinpoche is a teacher in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

5 Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang, Eight Steps to Happiness: The Buddhist Way of Loving Kindness (c. 2000), p. 63.

6 For confirmation and elaboration of these points, see for example: (1) Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice (c. 2001), pp. 98-99; (2) Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness (c. 2007), pp. 117, 119; (3) Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha (c. 2010), pp. 30-31.

7I say "to a degree" because — I being an alcoholic — the potential for that craving is still there, lurking in the background. The craving will fully manifest itself again if I start to drink alcohol again.

8Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in his book Eight Steps to Happiness (c. 2000), p. 5, uses instead the term "self-grasping ignorance." He uses that term whether the phenomenon involved is the self or some other phenomena. This follows classic Buddhist tradition but tends to be confusing for those unfamiliar with that tradition. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (c. 1973), pp. 124-125, uses the term "Ignorance-Form" for both cases. For the sake of clarity, I decided to use the term "form-grasping ignorance" for both cases.

9Alcoholics Anonymous Fourth Edition (c. 2008), pp. 60-62. (See Alcoholics Anonymous—"The 'Big Book' Online" From this website, you may download a free copy of the "Book Book" in the form of a PDF file.)

10Ringu Tulku, Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha (c. 2010), pp. 26-27.


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