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The Cause of Suffering

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In his Second Noble Truth, the Buddha taught the cause of suffering. The myth, as it is told at least within Western Buddhist circles, is that the Buddha went about finding the cause just like a doctor: listing the symptoms, trying out what made those worse, and then prescribing a cure. And he did this across many cases. What did he find? Well, that depends on the translation. Here are some variations of the causes of suffering:

    Thirst, which leads to rebirth, accompanied by pleasure and lust, finding its delight here and there. This thirst is threefold, namely, thirst for pleasure, thirst for existence, thirst for prosperity. (Chinese Cultural Studies)
    Craving and ignorance are the two main causes of suffering. People suffer with their craving for the pleasures of the senses and become unsatisfied and disappointed until they can replace their cravings with new ones. People suffer too when they are unable to see the world as it really is and live with illusions about life and fears, hopes, facts and behaviours based on ignorance.
    The craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming. (Access to Insight)


What is suffering? Here are the Buddha’s answers (the First Noble Truth) from the same source, in the same order:

    Birth is suffering; decay is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering. Presence of objects we hate, is suffering; Separation from objects we love is suffering; not to obtain what we desire, is suffering. Briefly, clinging to existence is suffering.

    There are four unavoidable physical sufferings: birth, old age, sickness and death. There are also three forms of mental suffering: separation from the people we love; contact with people we dislike and frustration of desires.
    (Suffering was translated as “stress” in this case) Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

Basically, life is suffering. And we create our suffering by thirsting or craving for what we cannot have. But are these really all the causes of suffering? Do we really create all of our suffering? I would argue that there is more to suffering than what we cause with our craving. Fighting with reality surely adds to our suffering – if I do not accept that I am sick, for example, and moan the whole time that I shouldn’t be sick, I will suffer more. But the original illness is suffering as well – as the Buddha taught –and it is caused by some sort of germ or an autoimmune attack of the body. So, even in the simple case of, say, a cold, there are two elements of suffering: the actual cold, which is caused by a virus, and possibly my mental fight with reality. There are thus two causes: only one is caused by craving (“I wish I were healthy”), the other is caused by something unknown at the time of the Buddha. Yet, his Second Noble Truth is not questions, not amended.


Going beyond the simple, to the societal causes of suffering, the insidiousness of this teaching becomes clear. Despite what the Buddha taught, there is much that can be avoided about physical and mental suffering by changing things outside of ourselves. The story of a water pump spreading cholera might be a good example here. Cholera certainly creates suffering but the causes of this suffering are manifold: there is the cholera bacterium, there is the pump handle that is teaming with the bacterium, (going beyond the story) there is the city that is refusing to belief that the pump handle is the problem, and there is the merchant who charges more for a pump handle than the villagers can afford. True, some suffering might be caused because people afflicted with cholera are craving to be healthy again (who wouldn’t!). The many other factors that actually preceded the illness are never address by the Buddha. His teaching ignores any interplay between the personal and the larger society. He essentially teaches us that suffering is our fault and we can overcome it simply by changing our minds. This leads to a closed mind toward other potential causes.

The Buddha's had observed that life is suffering. Before He could find a solution to the problem of suffering in life, He had first to look for the cause of suffering. The Buddha was just like a good doctor who first observes a patient's symptoms and identifies the cause of illness before prescribing a cure. The Buddha discovered that the direct causes of suffering are desire or craving, and ignorance. This is the truth of the cause of suffering, which is the Second Noble Truth.



is the deep-seated desire that all living beings have for the pleasures of the senses, and for life itself. For instance, people always seek to enjoy good food, entertainment and pleasant company. Yet none of these can give them complete and lasting satisfaction. After the fine meal has been eaten, the beautiful music heard and the pleasant company shared, one is still not content. One would like to enjoy these pleasures again and again, and for as long as possible.

People who desire to own many things also can never be fully satisfied too. Like children in a toyshop, they crave all the attractive things they see around them. But like children, they soon become dissatisfied with what they already have and desire more. Sometimes, they can hardly eat or sleep until they get what they want. Yet when they succeed in getting what they want, they may still find their happiness short-lived. Many will be too worried for the safety and condition of their new possessions to enjoy it. Then when the object they possess eventually breaks into pieces and has to be thrown away, they will suffer its loss even more.

When we have obtained something we desire, we may want more and more of it, and so greed arises. Because of desire and greed, people will lie, cheat and steal to get what they want. Uncontrolled desires can also lead to addiction, for example, to smoking, drinking and overeating, all of which lead to suffering and cause mental and physical harm.


If another person prevents one from getting what is desired, one may feel anger towards that person. Desire, when obstructed, can lead to ill will and anger. This in turn can lead to harsh words, violent quarrels and even fights or killings. All this is suffering.


Craving or desire is like a great tree having many branches. There are branches of greed, of ill will and of anger. The fruit of this tree is suffering, but how does the tree of craving arise? Where does it grow? The answer is that the tree of craving is rooted in ignorance. It grows out of ignorance.

Ignorance is the inability to see the truth about things, to see things as they really are. There are many truths about the world which people are ignorant of because of the limitations of their understanding.

Science has shown, for instance, that there are sounds that people are unable to hear and waves of light that they are unable to see. People would be totally unaware of radio waves, or ultra-violet light rays if special instruments had not been developed to enable them to observe these things. So long as people remain ignorant of things about the world in which they live, they suffer from all kinds of misunderstandings and delusions.

When people develop their minds and acquire wisdom through study, careful thought and meditation, they will see the Truth. They will see things as they really are. They will understand the suffering and impermanence of life, the Law of Cause and Effect and the Four Noble Truths. By overcoming craving and ignorance, they will attain happiness and Enlightenment just as the Buddha did about 2500 years ago.