One of the core tenets of Buddhism is that our life is marked by unsatisfactoriness and imperfection. At first, it may seem like a pessimistic outlook, but what it really does is help us gain a realistic view of reality and understand the cause of turmoils that befall us both within and without. This is what the Second Noble Truth clarifies with great precision and insight into the basic human condition, defined two and half millennia ago by the Buddha as follows:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination. ~ In the Buddha’s Words
Below you can listen to a lecture given by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on the meaning of the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism:
From the Buddha’s definition of the Second Noble Truth, we can see that he’s looking deeply at the underlying root of all forms of dukkha (suffering). And what he’s doing is not just pointing out the outer signs but looking at the underlying cause of suffering.
Sometimes the Pali word tanha (Sanskrit: trishna) is translated as desire, but that is somewhat misleading because there can be good and bad desire in Buddhism. So the more accurate English word would be craving — a thirst to swallow up things and absorb them into oneself as the basis of one’s own identity. When the Buddha analyzes the nature of craving, he distinguishes three types of craving.
The first type is craving sensual pleasure through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. We crave beautiful forms, delightful sounds, fragrant odors, delicious food, and pleasant bodily sensations, all of which stimulate our minds.
The second type is craving continued existence. This craving manifests most prominently in clinging to the five aggregates of attachment: body, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness. These five constituents form what we believe to be our true “self.” This craving for existence is what ultimately drives the stream of consciousness into a new manifestation after the death of our physical body: rebirth and new incarnation. And in this way, the craving can be understood as the dynamic force that drives the cycle of rebirths.
The third type is craving for non-existence, which is very hard to comprehend. At first glance, it may seem to imply a craving that drives someone to end his own life, but it’s never explained in the Buddhist texts in that way. If we attempt to interpret its meaning, then we could say that it’s a repulsion to existence and refusal to continue in the cycle of rebirths, desire to cease to exist after death, nothing else after that.
Furthermore, there are two ways in which craving functions as the cause of dukkha: psychological and meta-psychological.
The psychological aspect can be seen in how we crave for something that we don’t have. For example, we might want to buy a new expensive smartphone because we don’t like the one we have. First, we have to struggle to get the money to buy one. Then, we get the money and buy the new phone, and we feel amazing; there is a delight of possession. But then comes another form of Dukkha which manifests in anxious concern for our new phone. We are worried that it might break down, get lost, or be stolen; we experience the anxiety of possession. Then, with time our new phone gets old and out-of-date. We see our friends with new phones, and we don’t like our phone anymore, and we want to buy a new one. And so the cycle continues endlessly.
The meta psychological aspect is the craving that creates attachment to the five aggregates which, after the breakdown of our physical body at the moment of death, drive the stream of consciousness into a new existence and perpetuate the round of birth and death. This aspect shows the deep existential relationship between craving and Dukkha.
Complement with another lecture by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on the First Noble Truth, one of the most fundamental teachings of Buddhism