reserved space

The Second Noble Truth

I wonder what was the response to the First Noble Truth of Dukkha? It would have been a revelational teaching for those who sat, listening attentively to the radiant figure of Buddha Gotama, formerly but a prince of the Earth, but now above Gods and men!

Continuing his historic sermon at the Deer Park, he proceeded to elicit the Second Noble Truth

So what is the Second Noble Truth?

the Second Noble Truth is the Arising of Dukkha

The Pali term is Dukkhasamudaya ariya sacca. The Buddha stated that the predominant aspect or principle part of the arising of unsatisfactoriness is tanha which means thirst, craving or greed. It is the engine that drives dukkha on and on without end. However, tanha is not the original cause, but itself dependent on conditions. Indeed it may be seen as part of a chain called Dependent Origination which the Buddha described as an elaboration of a natural law of cause and effect - see below for links on this detailed teaching.

The Tathagata partitioned Tanha into three kinds:

kama-tanha thirst for sense pleasure
bhava- tanha thirst for existence and becoming
vibhava-tanha thirst for non-existence, self annihilation

Let us have a look at each of these in turn, making reference to the three kinds of dukkha discussed in the previous issue. Here I give my personal interpretations using contemporary examples.

kama-tanha is perhaps the most straightforward to see, being the direct cause of dukkha-dukkha (ordinary suffering); we illustrate this with the 5 senses of the body and the sixth sense, pertaining to mental objects:

  • sight - Can you remember when your family or friends decided to buy a colour TV? Ask yourself, 'What were the motives?'

    The urge to see a movie for entertainment or even just watch the adverts because of their chirpy images is tanha. With modern technology, this form of tanha has scope for gaining massive momentum, as the craving for visual distraction evolves from 2D videos to 3D virtual reality.

  • hearing Like the sound of your own voice? So do you ever desire singing in the shower or bath tub to hear your dulcit tones? This is (as I clear my throat) a form of tanha! It is a desire that is based on attachment to ego; also, once you start singing, you may become attached to the 'cool' sensation of the singing going through your body, which promotes more tanha.

  • touch Here in the West, there is craving for comforts of all kind, especially to the touch - clothes of various textures to wear, padded office chairs to sit on, soft pillows in bed and the smooth surface of a new car that is coated in a 'special' metallic paint. It all provides fuel for greed, manifesting in materialism, and which is never satisfied.

  • taste "Oh, I feel like having a chocolate bar..", is a common statement of gluttony. Adverts play on this kind of craving with false promises such as "This bar gives total satisfaction". This is never so; indeed, it is often the case that having unmindfully gobbled one bar, then quite soon afterwards further craving arises, though it may be for something else, possibly a finer quality assortment!

  • smell This is similar to the craving for taste; at a crude level, one may crave for sweet perfumes or aftershaves for the body and pot pourri for the house; even incense sticks which may be formulated to revivify can be a source of distraction and then craving.

  • mental objects Our minds are usually restlessly searching to satisfy tanha, not only of the 5 senses but for our emotions. One form of such craving is the engaging ourselves in chitchat; it is a form of distraction, often borne of the desire to escape from perceived loneliness. This latter is an example of vibhava-tanha.
It is OK to engage in the activities described above - singing, eating etc... , provided they are not driven by tanha, provided one does not have attachment.

bhava-tanha is often borne of a dissatisfaction with the way things appear, particularly for the ego. Unaware of the continual processes that are inevitably involved in the flux of the 5 'heaps' (or Aggregates), one may seek change, motivated by false attachments. This is a cause of Viparinama-dukkha (suffering produced by change) and Samkhara-dukkha (suffering produced by conditioned states). One can observe this in the 5 heaps as follows:

  • form the desire for things to take on different attributes which one seeks - shape, size and colour. Note that as soon as one tries to change external surroundings, there arise internal changes too. Expectations may arise, so that if things don't appear as one wished, then the desire to change becomes stronger.

  • sensations/feelings the desire to experience certain kinds of feeling; manifest these days in the curious quest for the 'feel good' factor.

  • perceptions Depending upon sensations that one has experienced, without insight one is led to believe that true happiness may be found in this 'feel good' factor, even though the pleasantness soon wears off,

  • mental formations The basis of this is kamma, which means volition. The search for the feel good factor typically arises as an illfounded wishful thinking for some transient happiness through kama-tanha.

  • consciousness is a response or reaction from one or more of the six sense organs to some contact. It is a form of awareness, on which perceptions are formed.

We should heed well the advice which I have heard monks utter emphatically, "There is nothing worth having or being!"

vibhava-tanha is the counterpart of bhava-tanha, for which examples may be given similar to the above, except the force of craving is one of repulsion, not of attraction. It is manifest in the wish for pain to go away; or the dismissal of some uncomfortable idea. Also it applies, naturally, to each individual, so in an embarrassing situation, one may wish not to be present.

Further links on the Second Noble Truth

In examining carefully through wisdom and compassion the process that gives rise to suffering, some light emerges. For example, if you feel pain, then by observing it, you can see it without engaging in predetermined reactive behaviour, so you no longer crave its absence. Then, paradoxically, the pain can disappear!

If the investigating the first two Noble truths has been hard, then at this stage we have the encouraging statement (as in, e.g., the Majjhima-nikaya):

Whatever is of the nature of arising, all that is of the nature of cessation

This provides a taste of the Third Noble Truth, the Cessation of dukkha, which is discussed in the next column.


This article was originally one of a series of contributions I made as a 'Buddhist Guide' for the Mining Company.

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- Paul Trafford