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The Origination of Suffering: The Second Noble Truth

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The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering is craving. We need to point out that this word can be confusing. It is often  used for extremes, such as drug addiction. So many people think this truth doesn't apply to them; that they don't crave. The worker rushing home to watch tv does not think he is craving. The mother dreaming her son or daughter will become a doctor or famous author does not think she is craving. The woman who thinks she must give that bad person a piece of her mind, does not realise she is craving. The scholar who must get that book to enhance his knowledge, does not think he is craving. The majority of people being dragged or shoved through life by their desires, do not realise they are craving. The Noble Truth of the Origination of Suffering is, as Gotama said, something never heard before, something quite unknown to the people in the Buddha's time and largely unknown now.

This is the way the ordinary person thinks. The word craving causes part of this unawareness because it is associated with others such as addicts, so Buddhists sometimes use the word desire instead. However, not all desires are wrong in Buddhism. No doubt, Gotama desired to help others. The difference is that the Buddha desired to help others but did not cling to the idea. Buddhists might desire to reduce suffering, but they know they won't do it in one lifetime. We will use craving for Gotama's word tanha taking it to mean (roughly) clinging, demanding desires that we are to some degree unaware of. Craving is not just a feeling, emotion, thought, or type of behaviour. It is a combination of these, combined with ignorance and unawareness that leads to clinging. We are normally aware of the feelings, thoughts, and so on, but we do not realise we are craving, being pushed or pulled by a force based on ignorance.

Even though, we may not be aware of craving, we can get a clue to its presence. We can recognise the signs. One way is to be aware of the emotions that arise. The negative emotions such as anger, sadness and fear may indicate craving. So when we experience annoyance, dissatisfaction, impatience and so on, we know we are craving. The positive emotions too, may indicate craving. For instance, the excitement on getting something indicates craving.

We can also detect craving from speech. We are alerted to craving when we, or others use words like urge, need, want, impulse, should, must, ought to, like, dislike, good, bad ... That is, any mental force words may indicate craving. However, it might not indicate craving. It is not craving to want or desire something consciously and with awareness of the consequences, after fully analysing it. Nonetheless, mental force words are clues to craving.

Craving is a bundle of impulses, thoughts and attitudes. Usually, we aren't aware of the impulse, or at least not mindful of it. This is the subtle force that leads us to the refrigerator to get a desirable thing before we are aware of it.

Gotama taught that the origin of suffering is craving (tanha) conditioned by ignorance (avijja).

Buddhists, through self-awareness or mindfulness become aware of craving and the resulting suffering, so through experience they learn this second truth. Sometimes, a kind of enlightenment occurs quite suddenly for some people. For instance, a businessman is rushing to a meeting, or to prepare of report.

He thinks, "Why am I doing this? I spend my life rushing from one project to another, and what is the point of it?"

While such people may suddenly give up their current lifestyle, and in spite of hardship take up something else, they may not realise how they have acted on the noble truths, by realising suffering, stopping craving for the illusory life, and feeling a wonderful sense of relief (third truth). Perhaps a high-flying business woman gives up her promising career and moves to a country area where she can be close to nature. Sometimes they form a new religion. Yet while they have realised the folly of the rat race, they may not have realised the folly of all craving. Even so, this enlightenment is a major step in their development.

So, the origin of suffering is craving. When there is craving, there is also suffering. Craving is, therefore, associated with an uncomfortable feeling (suffering). When the art lover hears of a new picture in the gallery, she feels uncomfortable until she goes to see it. We act impulsively to remove that uncomfortable feeling, either by seeking the promised illusory delight, or escaping the unpleasantness of the present situation. 


Craving is not always Immoral

The word craving makes us think of drug addicts, alcoholics, power greedy people and gluttons. All moral categories. But the majority of suffering is not conventional immoral. Sometimes, or often, unbearable pain is not related in any way to immoral behaviour.

In the dim hours of early morning, I feel a pain in my heart because I recall the loss of my family photographs. In one of my moves (from one country to another), I lost all my old photographs, including my grandmother's childhood photographs. The only records of people, now dead, are totally lost. I have no remaining images of my family. I felt a deep pain of loss, an unbearable suffering.  

The conventional response is to suggest the records might be retrievable. What was lost might be found. Or to give sympathy. However, what is lost, health, property, loved ones ... may never be recoverable.

In Buddhism, the pain is not, ultimately caused by loss. Loss happens routinely in the world. The solution is not to receive sympathy or to attempt to recover what is lost. The solution is the cessation of suffering the Third Noble Truth − giving up craving. This is always possible.

As I awoke, I remembered that Gotama taught that suffering is caused by craving. The cause of the pain I felt was craving. The solution was not to attempt to retrieve what was lost (that is impossible), but to realise that suffering is caused by craving and to give up craving. In this way we experience a release from suffering.

Three Types of Craving

There are three types of craving, according to Gotama:

There is

  1. Sensual Craving,
  2. the Craving for (Eternal) Existence,
  3. the Craving for Self-Annihilation (vibhavatanha).

Not all desire is craving (combined with ignorance). The desire to eat when hungry, for instance is not a source of suffering, but a necessity if we are to live and practice (or just live.) We use Right View and other Path steps to distinguish unwise desire from wise desire, and to avoid unwise desire. We can also use the principle of the Middle Way, avoiding excessive desire, and avoiding too little. A person who desires too little food may become ill and unable to practice the Path, which leads to suffering. The appreciation of something beautiful, the desire to visit a sick friend, the urge to avoid a speeding truck – all are examples of desires that are not craving. However, eating a large meal, obsessively visiting the sick, and worrying about traffic accidents are all craving (with ignorance) – they lead to being unwell, they stress ourselves and others, or they lead to unhappiness.

This Second Truth also implies causality, see below.

Sensual Craving (kamatanha)

This is craving for the objects of the six sense media:

  1. Sight
    Craving to see something pleasant or interesting. For instance, to see a film. Or craving not to see something considered unpleasant.
  2. Hearing
    Craving for pleasant sounds, such as music and singing. Or craving not to hear something unpleasant.
  3. Feeling
    Craving for pleasant feelings, or craving to avoid unpleasant ones.
  4. Taste
    Craving pleasant tastes, or avoiding unpleasant one.
  5. Smell
    Craving pleasant smells, or avoiding unpleasant ones.
  6. Mind
    Craving pleasant mind objects, such as thoughts, ideas, etc. Or craving not to experience unpleasant ones.
    The Mind media also includes the other 5 sense media, so it can involve craving for one or more of mental pictures, mental feelings, mental sounds, etc.

Craving for (Eternal) Existence (bhavatanha)

This is sometimes called Craving to Become, or Craving to Be. In can mean the craving to migrate to a happy land, now or on death. (There are Buddhists and others who teach Happy Land). In other systems, this can be related to the belief in an eternal, immortal soul. Naturally, it can be a desire rather than a craving (with ignorance). See Stages and Fruit of the Practice. One reason this can be an unwise desire is that it distracts people from the present situation, and from practising the four noble truths. It may lead people to live in a dream instead of being mindful of the present.

It may also suggest that living an ethical life is irrelevant. In Gotama's time (and perhaps now) there were teachers who taught that however we behave we remain unaffected through various existences. Even if they rode up and down the Ganges stealing, raping, and killing, there would be no consequences. However, Buddhism teaches Cause and Effect, so such teachings would lead followers to extreme suffering.

There are everyday examples of cravings for becoming. For instance, craving to be the boss, to be a scientist, to be a famous pop star.

In a moment by moment sense, this can be craving to be impressive (at the moment), always having the last word in a conversation, or craving not to be an angry person.

Craving for Non-Existence (vibhavatanha)

Sometimes this craving not-to-be is the result of believing that their is no soul, and death is the end. We crave to be nothing. To escape suffering through non-existence. This is an extreme aspect.

This can be an unwise desire when, like Craving for Eternal Existence, it distracts the person from understanding the present situation (the four noble truths) and from living an ethical life.

In an everyday sense, we can crave not-to-be ourselves. Not to be in our present job, relationship, or, when about to give a speech, craving to be elsewhere. A worker goes to work and does not like what he does, and does not like those who works with. He craves not-to-be there, perhaps spending his time daydreaming. His problem appears to be his work, but the second truth says it is the craving combined with ignorance, that leads to suffering. Getting a new job may appear to be the solution but the basic solution is realising craving and giving it up (the third truth).

In a moment by moment sense, this can be craving not to be where we are. Craving to be somewhere else when we are embarrassed. When the warm red feelings goes over our face, we wish we were somewhere else.

When we say craving causes suffering, the word cause is used in a special sense.

Causality in Buddhism

Buddhist believe that everything is the result of causes, of the circumstances (or almost everything  − Nirvana and Emptiness aren't). In reducing suffering, we seek its cause. In Buddhist, the word cause is sometimes used in a special way. In the Western meaning the cause precedes the effect, and does not exist when the effect exists.

In contrast, cause in Buddhism exists when the effect exists and supports it. So when suffering occurs, craving is also present (as are other factors).

Just as suffering is, according to Gotama, caused by craving, so craving too has a cause. The Twelve Links are a detailed explanation of this Second Truth. Sometimes, we might say ignorance, or another of these links, causes suffering. The explanation is causality. Ignorance, through various links causes craving (which causes suffering). However, craving is the link that is best addressed in dealing with suffering. See also Cause In Buddhism.