Chapter Six

The Second Noble Truth

The second noble truth is called the truth of the origination of suffering. The term, “origination,” samudaya, means “cause”—and a particular kind of cause at that: a cause coming from events in the mind. This is the main message of this truth: The cause of suffering lies inside. You suffer, not from what comes into the mind, but from what comes out of it. Things outside—society, the climate—might be atrocious, but they’re not the real cause of your suffering. If they were, then in the quest to put an end to suffering, you’d have to make the world a perfect place. But the world resists being made perfect. As we noted in Chapter 4, even the highest heavens are impermanent and imperfect. Suffering could never cease.

But because the cause of suffering lies within the mind, and because the mind can be trained to be perfect in completing the duties of the four noble truths, the end of suffering is possible. When you can train the mind to abandon the causes of suffering coming from inside, nothing in any world of experience can make you suffer in any way.

The Buddha identifies the origination of suffering as any craving that leads to further becoming, accompanied by passion and delight, delighting now here, now there.

Let’s look at what these words mean.

The Pali word for craving, taṇhā, also means “thirst.” Just as suffering is a form of mental feeding, the cause of suffering is a form of mental thirst.

Further becoming is best understood by first getting an idea of the types of craving that lead there. All in all, there are three: craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, and craving for non-becoming.

Craving for sensuality: As we noted in Chapter 5, “sensuality” refers not to sensual pleasures themselves, but more to the mind’s fascination with thinking about and planning them. In fact, a large part of sensual pleasure lies in the fantasies we use to embroider it: playing up pleasures we’ve had in the past as a way of inciting desire for more pleasures in the future.

Craving for becoming: Becoming (bhava) is the act of taking on a self-identity in a particular world of experience. The word “self” here can mean any sense of who you are: finite or infinite, material or formless. “World” can be either an interior thought-world or any of the outside worlds into which beings are born to pursue their desires.

These becomings can exist on any of three levels: the level of sensuality, the level of form, and the level of formlessness. A becoming on the level of sensuality would include the experience of pleasures or pains of the five physical senses. A becoming on the level of form would include the experience of the form of the body as felt from within. A becoming on the formless level would include the experience of such formless dimensions as infinite space or infinite consciousness.

In the Buddha’s analysis, becomings involving outside worlds come from becomings of inside worlds within the mind. In every case, they begin with desire—for a certain pleasure, for example, or to take on a particular role in a world. A sense of the world then coalesces around the object of that desire. This world will include everything relevant to attaining the desire, plus anything that might stand in its way. At the same time, a threefold sense of self develops around the desire as well—the self in the same three roles that we mentioned in Chapter 5: the self as agent, the self as consumer, and the self as commentator.

For instance, if you have a desire for some ice cream, the relevant world would include the nearest place where ice cream can be found, plus anything that would allow you to get there and obtain the ice cream, as well as anything that would get in the way. Other aspects of the outside world irrelevant to your desire for ice cream—political events, the weather 500 miles away—wouldn’t play a role in that particular becoming.

Your sense of self as the agent in that becoming would include your body, as either capable or incapable of getting the ice cream. If you can make ice cream, that skill would be relevant to that particular sense of self, too. If you have to buy the ice cream, the amount of money in your pocket or your bank account would be more relevant. Your sense of self as the consumer, of course, is the “you” who hopes to enjoy the ice cream once it’s obtained, while your sense of self as commentator judges whether the desire is worth pursuing and, if so, whether the other two selves do their job to your satisfaction.

Here, too, things you might identify as self in other contexts but irrelevant to your desire for ice cream—your religious views, your status in your community—wouldn’t be a part of your identity as a producer or consumer of ice cream.

As we noted in Chapter 5, your sense of the world and your identity within that world shape each other. If you know how to make ice cream, you’ll see the potential for ice cream in areas where you wouldn’t think to look if you lacked that skill. If you live in a world where ice cream is believed to be unhealthy, your sense of self as consumer or commentator will have to choose whether to identify yourself as one who follows the prevailing view or as one who defies it.

The mind goes through many of these becomings in the course of a day, often with a different sense of the world and sense of self in each case. This is why your sense of who you are and where you are can change so quickly.

Craving for non-becoming is the desire to see a particular becoming come to an end. This type of craving can be motivated by any number of reasons. For example, in some cases, you might want to see a becoming end because the root desire that generated it has been thwarted (as when you fall in love with someone who then calls off the relationship). In other cases, it’s because your sense of the world or of your self in that becoming has involved some unanticipated suffering (as when you marry the person you love, but the marriage turns out to be a disaster). Or it may be because another becoming has arisen in the mind around a desire that conflicts with the first becoming (as when you’re stuck in a bad marriage and fall in love with someone else). In all cases, the craving for non-becoming finds delight in its desire to escape from the becoming in which you find yourself.

These three forms of craving lead to the four forms of clinging in the following way: Craving for sensuality, of course, leads to sensuality-clinging. Craving for becoming and non-becoming lead to views about the self in the world and how it should behave in negotiating the world: the remaining three objects of clinging.

All of these three forms of craving have one feature in common: They all lead to further becoming, “further” in the sense that they lead to more states of becoming either on a purely mental level or on the physical level, creating the conditions for rebirth after the death of this body. Central in all cases is the fact of location: These forms of craving generate further becoming by delighting in an object of desire in a particular location, physical or mental. This is the meaning of the phrase, “delighting now here, now there,” in the definition of this noble truth. This focal location acts as the kernel around which a sense of self and a world of becoming can form.

Acts of craving not only focus on pre-existing locations. They also create new locations, in new states of becoming. This is how the process of further becoming keeps finding or conjuring up new worlds to inhabit. Old worlds of becoming may fall away, but craving can keep creating the possibility for new ones, potentially without end.

It’s easy to imagine how any of these three forms of craving would have a strong grip on the mind at the moment of death. For example, when your identity in this world is threatened, along with all the pleasures you’ve been able to find here, there will be a fierce craving to continue becoming—to be somebody somewhere, anywhere—and to focus on the sensual pleasures you miss most dearly. If your mind hasn’t been trained, and you’ve been undergoing great pain leading up to death, you’ll see the prospect of new sensual pleasures as your only escape. Alternatively, the pain of dying could easily make you crave annihilation, in which case you would see total non-existence, devoid of any feeling or consciousness, as the only escape from the sufferings of life. However, none of these forms of craving actually lead to escape from suffering. Instead, they’re precisely the causes of suffering, which is why they should be abandoned. That’s the duty appropriate to this noble truth.

What the Buddha doesn’t mention in his first talk—but what he does indicate elsewhere in the Canon—is that each of the three forms of craving presents strategic challenges if you want to abandon it.

The challenge posed by craving for sensuality lies in the fact that we ordinarily see sensual pleasure as our only alternative to pain (SN 36:6). This means that any effort to abandon sensuality will require a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, we need to learn how to see the drawbacks of sensuality; on the other, we need to provide the mind with an alternative, non-sensual pleasure with which to nourish itself along the way. Otherwise, as the Buddha notes, even when you see the drawbacks of sensuality, if you don’t have access to a higher form of pleasure, the mind will revert to its original craving for sensuality—or for forms of sensuality that are even worse (MN 14).

Also, because craving for sensuality leads to becoming, it actually entails craving for becoming. This means that you can’t abandon it without attacking craving for becoming at the same time.

The challenge posed by craving for becoming lies in the fact that we use our various senses of self and of the world as tools for finding happiness, so we have difficulty imagining how we could achieve anything desirable without them. To pursue a path of practice that will end this type of becoming, you have to see that you’ll benefit from taking it on. This point may seem paradoxical—after all, when there’s no more becoming, there will be no sense of “you”—but strategically it’s necessary. People accustomed to thinking in the terms that constitute becoming need reasons that make sense within those terms before they’ll adopt any path of practice. As long as you’re still attached to your sense of self, you want to know that you’ll benefit from following the path.

To satisfy this desire, the Buddha provides repeated reassurances that even without a sense of “you” or a “world,” there can still be the experience of the highest form of happiness. In fact, it’s only when your usual tools for finding happiness—your sense of your self operating in the world—are abandoned that this higher happiness can be attained (MN 22).

However, the fact that craving for non-becoming also leads to becoming presents a further strategic challenge, one that’s particularly tricky. Even though the Buddha encourages you to end craving for becoming, you can’t simply replace it with craving for non-becoming. If you do, you’ll cling to the desire to end becoming, and that act of clinging—it counts as view-clinging—will involve notions of “self” and “world,” leading to more becoming.

The way out of this dilemma is to look at the processes leading up to becoming—such as sensory contact, feeling, craving, and clinging—as events in and of themselves, and to develop dispassion for them before any sense of “self” or “world” can coalesce around them. The Buddha calls this approach “seeing what has come to be (bhūta) as what has come to be.” (Iti 49) In other words, you see the processes that come to be as having resulted from a series of events acting as causes. If you develop dispassion for the events, the causes will cease, and whatever has come into being based on those causes will cease as well.

In practice, this means that you can’t focus directly on becoming, and you can’t even think in terms of “self” or “world” at that stage of the meditation. Instead, you have to focus on the process of events that would lead up to those concepts, simply as events in a causal chain, with no thought of where they’re happening or who they’re happening to. They’re just events as events. This may sound fairly abstract, but the Buddha is actually asking you to look directly at events immediately present to your awareness, on a level of intimacy that lies closer to your awareness than even your sense of self in the world.

As these causes for new becomings disband through dispassion, no new becomings can form. At the same time, any becomings already existing will be allowed to cease as their causes run out. This is the only way in which becoming, and its attendant suffering, can be totally brought to an end.

So just as the first noble truth presents some strategic challenges for the path to the end of suffering, so does the second: Any path that will lead to the end of suffering has to lead also to the end of becoming. This means it has to focus on discerning chains of events in the mind before those events can coalesce into becomings, and, at the same time that you discern them, inducing dispassion for them.

The act of developing this dispassion is what abandons craving, but it starts by focusing not on craving itself, but on the locations where craving arises and settles in. In other words, you learn to see that the things in which craving delights are not really worth craving after all.

The Canon describes these locations as “whatever seems endearing and alluring in terms of the world.” You develop dispassion for them by analyzing them into discrete events related to the processes of experience at the six senses. For instance, suppose that you crave a certain person. When you see that the craving is causing suffering and you want to be free of it, you start by analyzing the allure of the craving as to where it might be focused in the internal sense media—the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and ideation—or their external objects: sights, sounds, aromas, flavors, tactile sensations, and ideas.

You then further break the sensory process down into the events that surround experience at these senses (DN 22):

contact between the senses and their objects,

consciousness at that contact,

feeling born of the contact,

perceptions of the sensory objects,

intentions for the sensory objects,

craving for the sensory objects,

thoughts directed at sensory objects, and

evaluation of sensory objects. (Directed thought and evaluation are the Buddha’s analysis of how you use perceptions and feelings to talk to yourself.)

Here again, this analysis may seem abstract, but as we noted above, you’re actually moving from a mental construct—your sense of the other person—to the events directly experienced in your own awareness out of which you assemble that construct. You find that what seemed so obvious to begin with—your sense that the craving was focused on the other person—is not so obvious after all. Maybe you were attracted more to your perceptions about that person, or to the way you talked to yourself about yourself in relation to that person. That’s where the craving was really focused: on the perceptions or the thoughts and evaluations about the relationship. Your craving wasn’t really focused on the other person at all.

This is why personal relations can be so precarious. You’re not really in love with the other person. You might be in love with your intentions around that person—you might even crave your cravings—which often have very little to do with who that person really is. And because you’re not fully aware of where your cravings are actually focused, they can move around quite quickly—“now here, now there,” from perceptions to intentions to other cravings, playing hide and seek—without your even knowing it. No wonder your cravings can find it so easy to lie to you.

You can expand this realization to see that all cravings can be deceptive in this way, which makes you stop and think: This would apply to the cravings you might experience at the moment of death and which would determine your future state of becoming. At the same time, you see that the events on which your cravings are focused are ephemeral and dependent on conditions, so they’re undependable sources for genuine happiness as well.

Seeing how craving and the objects on which it focuses are so inconstant and unreliable, you move closer to wanting to develop dispassion for any craving that would lead to further becoming. This is how you begin to fulfill the duty with regard to this noble truth. And this is where you see why this truth is noble, in that it induces you to develop a noble sense of dispassion toward your cravings.

Here it’s important to note that the desire to develop dispassion in this way is not classed as part of the second noble truth as a cause of suffering. Instead, it’s classed under the fourth noble truth, as part of right effort in the path leading to the cessation of suffering. This is the desire you develop to end desire.

Now, this, too, presents a strategic challenge, in that a healthy sense of self is necessary to cultivate this desire, and this sense of self will involve a level of becoming. This means that a certain measure of becoming will have to play a role in following the path. This path-becoming, though, can eventually be abandoned through right view after it has done its work of abandoning the causes leading to other states of becoming.

This is why the Buddha used the image of the raft to illustrate how the path works: You hold on to the raft until it has taken you to the far shore. Then you can let it go.

Another image from the Canon is of going to a park. To make the effort to arrive at the park, you need desire to get there. Once you’re there, you don’t need the desire anymore (SN 51:15).