The Second Noble truth is that suffering has a cause. It doesn’t just randomly arise. We’re quite familiar with the notion that if we understand the cause of something, we can usually find a remedy, a cure, a fix—or at least a leverage point for progress. About this truth, the Buddha said, if you want to be free, “This origin of suffering…should be abandoned.”
The second noble truth identifies the causes of our suffering as craving or desire. And what is it that we most desire? That things be different than they are. Even things that we love just as they are in the moment, we wish to be permanent, which they can’t. Just can’t. Impossible. It’s an anti-truth. And when we want things to be a way that they can’t, we suffer. You can’t ask a dog to be a cat and be happy with the result, because it’s anti-truth.
Craving produces a kind of restlessness. Human beings must ‘go’ and ‘do’ ceaselessly, all in the name of hoping to create a perfect existence. All in the name of desire. We want more and better in an escalating arc of wishful thinking and we simply can’t rest from this never-ending quest.
If we look a little more deeply into the mechanism of desire and craving, we find the most fundamental obsession of human life. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call it self-cherishing: the prevailing narrative is “I am more important, more essential, more valuable and more special than everyone else.” If this sounds absurd, consider how much of your life energy to date has been spent seeking your own well-being and how much has been spent on ensuring the well-being of the other 7.6 billion people in the world. (Not to mention the animals, and any beings of which we might be unaware.)
Relinquishing desire might sound like a plausible cure, but upon further examination, it might also sound nearly impossible. Where do I start? Can’t I desire anything any more? Can’t I cling stubbornly to even one thing? Of course you can. You can decide how much you want to suffer—and then cling to that much. Your life, your call.
But don’t confuse joy and love for clinging. They are not, necessarily. Think of how you have enjoyed a sunset and then happily watched it fade. No craving there. Love like that. Drink your coffee like that. Enjoy the beauty of youth like that. No problem. No suffering.
From the first two Noble Truths, we know that suffering is pervasive for human beings. And we know that what separates obsessive craving from simple joy is a kind of sticky clinging, instead of contentedness with things as they are. And we know that self-cherishing, the compulsion of I, Me and Mine as the most important thing in the universe is the root of the craving.
That root is the cause of oppression, racism, hatred and so much more. It is so poisonous that the one who perpetrates those things is the first victim of their own self-centeredness.
Now what? The Third Noble Truth was the answer to the Buddha’s own question, “Can the craving cease?” Read on.