The Second Noble Truth: The Cause of Suffering

This week we come to the Second Noble Truth – the cause of suffering,

The Buddha left his life as a Prince to live as a seeker after truth after seeing that all those whom he loved, and he himself, would one day sicken, grow old and die. It was out of compassion for those he loved and hoping to find what he described as “the path to the deathless” that he left home. His wife had only recently given birth to his son, a future King if the Prince stayed and obeyed his father’s wishes to take on the kingdom after his death. But the Prince who was to become the Buddha saw that he could find a greater inheritance for his son, one that would not disappear in the sands of time but that was eternal, due to existing outside of time.

In the time of the Buddha there was already the notion of reincarnation. Death was not seen as the end, but just part of a never ending cycle of birth and death and rebirth. This was part of the suffering the Prince saw and that he wished to wake up from – the tendency to grasp at existence and the idea of I, me and mine that leads to ongoing rebirth into a state of suffering.

We may not believe in life after life now. But we see that we go through a number of incarnations in this life. We wake each day to inherit the consequences of our decisions from the previous day and as we age we become aware of inheriting the consequences of experiences and actions from the past that impact on us now even though the original self that experienced them is no longer here. Even moment by moment we see that we are coming into existence as our moods shift and change – you’re feeling happy at a party then someone spills their red wine on your new shirt and you feel upset and angry, in a moment one experience of selfhood has died to be replaced by another.

Hence, although we may not seek to end the rounds of rebirth from one life to another – we can identify with the Prince who was to become the Buddha and his wish to be free from constantly being held hostage by the past and our identification with what is arising in the present moment as being ‘me’ and instead be free in the moment through experiencing it with an open and non judgemental awareness of it as it is, rather than adding anything to it or wishing it were different which leads to suffering.

Why is there suffering? This is the central question so many of us ask and so many religions seek to answer.

What the Buddha saw and taught was that suffering is caused by three types of grasping:

1. Grasping at sensual desire (which leads to rebirth – the ongoing process of being someone wanting something)

2. Grasping at the desire to become (identity, being someone doing something)

3. Grasping at the desire not to be (rejecting identity, wanting to annihilate oneself)

In contrast letting go of desire and being at peace with things as they are leads to freedom.


How can this teaching be relevant to us and the question of how to be happy?

The Buddha does not say we are wrong to have sensual desire. We are in a body and as such we will experience pleasure. The suffering comes when we look to this sensual pleasure as being the source of ultimate happiness. If I look to sex, drink, drugs, food etc as being all there is to provide happiness then there may arise the feeling that I need more and more to touch the levels of pleasure they once opened me to. This way so easily leads to addiction. To searching for yet more intense ways to experience these pleasures until the pleasure no longer sets one free but has become a prison.

One’s life is consumed by the question “how can I get more?” More money, more sex, more exquisite music – whatever our sensual desire might be. And so we reach the point of eating that final wafer thin mint at the end of a gigantic meal of epicurean dimensions – and burst!

I’m sure we have all seen that following sensual desire as an end in itself has not led to happiness but to a deeper sense of lack and loss, of feeling that the hole we wish to fill is deeper and darker the more we run to the mirage of sensual desire.

This can open us up to a wish to change. But at this point the other two types of desire can hijack our real wish to be free.

We may pursue the desire to become: to become evangelical about what we see as our way of being saved – AA, religion, yoga, being a monk, being celibate etc. We seek to become the ideal student, to follow the teachings in a way that we become the best in our recovery group or a pure follower of the Buddha’s teaching. I did this by seeking to abandon sexual desire and embrace a life of celibacy aged 22. But in all of this there is still attachment – attachment to the idea of being pure, of being someone struggling to be better. There is still a strong sense of I, me and mine.

This struggle may then lead to the third type of desire: the desire for cessation, to no longer exist. We may come to a point where we see that our desires do not lead to happiness, that trying to be pure or become free does not work and so we just want to annihilate ourselves. This might be through suicide. It might be through following a spiritual teaching with the wish that we could disappear into the void and our suffering ceases. Still in trying to destroy ourself we are acting out of the idea of I, me and mine.

When I came across Buddhism I wanted to meditate to the point that I ceased to be, hoping that if ‘I’ disappeared then the suffering it experienced would cease. On one retreat I sought to challenge sensual desire by reducing my eating to a minimum. The result was that I went down to about 7 stone. (44KG). I then had even more suffering as I spent a year recovering my health! It was only after recovering and regaining some weight that I saw I had been lost in the desire to push away, to cease to be, in my attempts to challenge the desire to hold and posses, that this did not lead to freedom any more than grasping at the idea of becoming the ideal student and follower of the Buddha’s teaching.

Rather than this extreme of pushing away or grasping the Buddha taught the middle way. This middle way is the path leading to the end of suffering and is a gentle encouragement to be fully present to one’s experience, to enjoy what is there in the present moment and open to a sense of gratitude for what is in one’s life. With this attitude a meal or a caress from a lover can feel full and perfect rather than leave one wishing for more or better. Being mindful – fully alive to the present moment – can make that moment full and perfect as it is. This shall be the theme for the following two emails which will cover the final two Noble Truths:

The third Noble truth – suffering has an end

The fourth Noble Truth – there is a path leading to the end of suffering.

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