The Second Noble Truth: The Cause of Suffering Is Desire
In the Buddha's words, “This, O Monks, is the Truth of the arising of Suffering. It is this thirst (tanha) or craving which gives rise to rebirth, which is bound up with the passionate delight and which seeks fresh pleasure now here and now there in the form of (1) thirst for sensual pleasure, (2) thirst for existence, and (3) thirst for non-existence.”
The Second Noble Truth can be summed up in one word — desire — and is known as the truth of arising (of suffering). Desire is like an overflowing river carrying you away to samsara. A traditional myth provides a metaphor for the relationship to desire. According to the myth, the first beings were nonmaterial entities whose lives were long and blissful until they tasted a sweet substance. That taste created the craving for more tastes and eventually through this process of increasing desire they became solid and differentiated into the creatures humans are today. This metaphor suggests that desire, or thirst as it is sometimes called, weighs you down.
In the Buddha's Fire Sermon, he warned, “Monks, everything is burning. And what is burning? Monks, the eye is burning, visual consciousness is burning, visible forms are burning…Burning with what? Burning with the fire of desire, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion.” In other words, the three poisons. And so the warning goes through the five senses and concludes with an invitation towards detachment as a path to liberation. You suffer because you reach out for certain things, push other things away, and generally neglect to appreciate that everything is changing constantly (anicca). The Buddha's admonition should not be interpreted as a condemnation of the senses, but rather a call to examine your relationship to your senses. Are they pushing you around, leading you into trouble, becoming an excessive preoccupation? Here again, the call is to the Middle Way, neither indulging in nor avoiding sensory experiences.
The Source of Desire
Desire comes from sensation and sensation is caused by contact with something that gives rise to the sensation. The cycle of suffering and desire carry on infinitely. For instance, you feel a gnawing sense of lack (the sensation) and see an ad for a powerful new car (the contact that forces the sensation or, in this case, exaggerates the sensation) that you believe will change your life forever. Your self-esteem, the ad, and the possible purchase of the car are causal, relational, and interdependent (the purchase is based on the sight of the ad that you saw when you were feeling bad about yourself). As you probably already know, such retail therapy does not lead to enduring happiness.
But the most direct cause of suffering is wanting something — desire. This desire is not limited to material objects, though they can certainly cause much suffering. Who doesn't want a beautiful body, a nice home, a new pair of shoes? But wanting, desiring, also extends to having a serene disposition, your candidate of choice in office, a healthy life, a well-behaved dog, and attachment to ideals, ideas, and opinions.
Clouding the Truth
The desire that you have for so many things keeps you from seeing things as they are. Taken to an extreme, desire can lead to addiction to substances such as drugs or food. Everyone is addicted to some degree to thoughts of “me” and “mine.” All this craving leads to pain. Have you ever felt a sense of lack and tried to fill it with things and experiences? Has it helped? Probably not. This is the truth of the arising of suffering. Desire keeps you trapped, going nowhere, like a hamster on an exercise wheel (but at least the hamster is getting some exercise).