Today, we focus on the Second Noble Truth: suffering is caused by 3 kinds of wanting. Wanting of the five senses, wanting to exist, and wanting to not exist.


Second Noble Truth - craving/wanting causes suffering

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which 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.  Bhikkhu Bodhi translation, SN 56.11 Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma


Three Causes of Suffering

We covered what is suffering in Day 1 - The Four Truths, and touched on how suffering is due to non-self: we think each of the Five Aggregates as our self, and that we can control them, and that is why we suffer.

The Second Noble Truth dives deeper into the mechanism of suffering. Suffering is caused because we want or crave. And the Buddha is saying here that there are three types of craving that cause suffering:

  • sensual pleasures (kāmatanha), refers to the craving & wanting related to the world of the five senses: anything you can see, hear, smell, taste, touch. This is extremely broad, and covers the large bulk of wanting & desire.
  • existence (bhavatanha), refers to the strong craving & wanting when we are faced with non-existence & death, and is often only noticeable when we are faced with impending death. It can also manifest as a very deep fear, when we enter deeper states of meditation.
  • the desire to not-exist (vibhavatanha), refers to desires like wanting to kill one self, but it can also be the wanting to attain Nibbana.

Of the three, wanting related to the world of the five senses is the broadest and most frequent cause of suffering, and which we will focus on.
Most of the suffering people encounter comes from wanting something which they have perceived from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touching.
Here are some illustrative examples, which are entirely from the world of the five senses (I have put some of the senses in parnetheses):

  • (sight, hearing) You watch and listen to all of Taylor Swift’s music and music videos, and are her biggest fan. So you line up for hours feeding mosquitoes, and lacking sleep, in order to get her tickets, which you ultimately didn’t get, because you were # 797,380 in the waiting list.
  • (sight, hearing) You are an executive committee member of a Buddhist society, and your colleague wants to hold an event which you oppose. But you feel you have no choice, even though you strongly disagree with it, and so you go along with the decision, and are now stuck in a project with people whom you don’t get along with.
  • (sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste) You are deeply in love, and have an active sex life with your partner. You spend many lovely months together. Then suddenly your partner has to be separated from you, due to work reasons: your partner is now in a different time zone, making it hard to make time to talk to each other.

A side-note on etymology:

  • The Pali word for wanting/craving is tanha, which literally translates as thirst. When you’re in the flood of desire, the craving or wanting fills one with urgency, like a parched throat driving one towards drinking water.
  • The Chinese term for wanting/craving/desire, 愛, is now used to represent “love” in modern Chinese. Used in this context, it simply means desire.



  1. If you look back at your life and recall when you suffered, what did you want or desire or crave? Or what is it that you did NOT want/crave/desire? (Note: if it is a recent or ongoing episode, you may wish to skip this for now, and instead recall a previous episode which you’ve already recovered from.)
  2. If you are currently suffering, what did you want/crave/desire? Or what is it that you did NOT want/crave/desire?
  3. Which of the five senses were involved in your episodes of suffering?
  4. If the five-sense world isn’t involved, then what type of wanting/craving was the cause of your suffering?

Orbit Prompts for Review