Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire (Part 4 of A 13-Part Series)
Mr. MacPherson has a whole lot more to say about the Second Noble Truth than he did about the First. He makes a number of points which, taken together, add up to a kind of definition:
- “Suffering certainly comes from temporal desires” (though he doesn’t seem entirely certain this is sufficient, positing Original Sin as, perhaps, a more complete “explanation”);
- “We suffer because we focus too much on impermanent material things” (after which statement he quotes part of the Sermon on the Mount);
- “The Second Noble Truth [of] Buddhism posits that the root cause of all suffering is pride, greed, lust, and the like” (and then asserts “This is Christianity”);
- “Pride, or boastful vanity, which always leads to suffering because it is an attachment to temporal material things” (which truth he relates while discussing how Lucifer became the Devil—“he could not get past the third step of Buddha’s Eightfold Path”).
To sum up: Mr. MacPherson is saying that the Buddha is saying that desire (greed) for impermanent material things, connected with pride, lust, and vanity, is the source of suffering and that this constitutes the Second Noble Truth. He then says “The Buddha was in fact right.” Mr. MacPherson offers nothing from the suttas as textual support for his assertions, and this is unfortunate (for him) because he could easily have found a rich trove of evidence for his case. He might also, in the act of consulting them, have learned there is much more to the Second Noble Truth than mere desire.
Let us start again with a definition: “The Second Noble Truth is that of the arising or origin of dukkha (Dukkhasamudaya-ariyasacca)” (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught , p. 29), or Samudaya for short. In his first sermon (S.56:11), the Buddha spoke of it 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 (kamatanha), craving for existence (bhavatanha), craving for non-existence (vibhavatanha).
This would certainly seem to support what Mr. MacPherson is saying, that greed (craving) is the source of suffering. Indeed, it is clear that he is “right”—as far as he goes. The trouble is he does not go far enough; he is like a man who has visited Four Corners, splayed his legs and arms, and then claims on this basis that he has seen the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. (I did it and I haven’t seen squat in New Mexico!)
Without going further than this, it is clear his definition is at best one-third complete. The Buddha, after all, lists three specific types of craving, but Mr. MacPherson considers only one, i.e. kamatanha. What about the other two? A full discussion of these terms could lead us far afield, so for now I will only say that these represent two orientations toward experience, the first of wanting more of it, of wanting to preserve, continue, prolong and fortify it, the second the urge to escape it, end it, change it (from what it is to something else). The first is typically born of experiences of pleasure and satisfaction, while the latter often results from world-weariness and dissatisfaction. Notice how these emotional orientations naturally incline one toward specific views (ditthi) toward the world, namely eternalism (sassatavada) and nihilism (ucchedavada), respectively. The Buddha, however, claimed to teach something quite different from either of these, specifically the Middle Way (majjhima patipada):
This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin [samudaya] of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation [nirodha] of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world (S.12:15).
The “world,” therefore, is none other than that which arises and ceases, namely dukkha. (And so we have the equation: dukkha = life = the world [of experience]. Those who have read my post “The Buddha On the Nature of Personality and Suffering,” will know also that these terms are identical with sakkaya, i.e. “personality,” or “identity,” as well.) The Buddha is saying too that tanha (“craving,” “thirst,” “desire”) in at least these two senses is related to certain false modes of viewing the world, and that desire can end when the world is seen “with correct wisdom.” What is that “correct wisdom”?
This world, Kaccana, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence. But this one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, that mental standpoint, adherence, and underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about “my self.” He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising [i.e. he sees the second noble truth], what ceases is only suffering ceasing [he sees the third noble truth]. His knowledge about this is independent of others. It is in this way, Kaccana, that there is right view.
“All exists” [sassatavada]: Kaccana, this is one extreme. “All does not exist” [ucchedavada]: this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: “With ignorance as condition, volitional formations; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving (tanha); with craving as condition; clinging; with clinging as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering” (S.12.15).
This list of conditioned, dependent psychological phenomena is none other than the positive (anuloma) phase of Dependent Arising (paticcasamuppāda), and clearly indicates that “correct wisdom” is seeing Dependent Arising. (Cf. M.28:28: “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma; he who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising.”) Thus by not adhering to ideologies of existence and non-existence, by seeing phenomena without bias, as conditioned and impermanent, the noble disciple sees the arising of dukkha and its cessation and so attains to Right View (sammaditthi). His “Eye of Dhamma” (dhammacakkhu) opened, he attains the Path and becomes “independent of others” in the Teaching.
Plainly then a proper understanding of the Second Noble Truth (and by extension the Third) entails a proper understanding of Dependent Arising. The two are inseparable, for “the origin of this whole mass of suffering”—the illustration of which is the purpose of paticcasamuppāda’s positive phase—is exactly the point of the Second Noble Truth. Greed, craving, lust—all are part of this, but tanha has its antecedents and they theirs, tracing back to beginningless avijja—“delusion”—which is non-knowledge of the Four Noble Truths: the truth of dukkha, its arising, its cessation, and the Path leading beyond it.