The Second Noble Truth: The True Causes of Suffering

The first noble truth outlines the true sufferings that we all experience. If we are motivated to put an end to all of these sufferings, we need to correctly identify their true causes. The true problem we face is not just that we experience unhappiness and unsatisfying, short-lived happiness alternating unpredictably all the time and that we perpetuate their arising. More horribly, we also perpetuate having the types of limited bodies and minds with which we experience these uncontrollably recurring ups and downs. As the saying goes, “If you didn’t have a head, you wouldn’t have a headache!” Although that sounds rather facetious, there is some truth to it. And, incredibly, the Buddha discovered the true cause for not only headaches but also for continued existence with the types of heads that get headaches. He revealed that the true cause is our unawareness, or ignorance, about behavioral cause and effect and about reality.

Unawareness about How We Exist

Now, in the early 21st century, we live in an age where disinformation is rampant, and many believe in so-called “alternative truths.” There is an explosion of what the Buddha, thousands of years ago, realized is the true cause of all suffering – unawareness, sometimes referred to as “ignorance.” This unawareness does not refer to not knowing how the Internet works. Rather, it is unawareness and confusion about the long-term effects of our behavior and, underlying that, unawareness and confusion about reality, especially about how we exist. What makes things worse is that we believe our false views as being absolutely true.

Let’s look a bit closer. We all experience a voice in our heads talking about “me, me, me.” Based on that, we automatically believe that there is a findable entity, called “me,” separate from the body and mind, that is doing all that talking. This confused belief is reinforced because whenever we complain in our heads about what is happening to “me” or think about what “I” am going to do next, it seems like there is some concrete entity, called “me,” that we’re worrying about. Of course, we exist; the Buddha did not deny that. The problem is that we don’t exist in the way it feels like we exist. We are unaware of that fact; we strongly believe in this alternative reality and so we’re completely confused.

Insecurity and the Futile Attempt, with Disturbing Emotions and Compulsive Behavior, to Make Ourselves Feel Secure

A clear indication that something is wrong with this misconception about ourselves is that when we believe it corresponds to reality, we experience the suffering of insecurity. In a futile attempt to try to feel secure, we feel we have to prove ourselves, or defend ourselves, or assert ourselves. Feeling like that causes disturbing emotions to arise:

  • Longing desire to get something that will make us feel secure
  • Hostility and anger to push something away from us so that, likewise, we will feel secure
  • Naivety with which we put up walls around us so that we will feel secure inside them.

These disturbing emotions cause us to lose peace of mind and self-control, triggering an intention to do or say something based on our previous tendencies and habits. Then, a compelling karmic urge draws us into actually doing or saying it. 

Unawareness, Disturbing Emotions, and Compulsive Behavior as the True Causes for Perpetuating Our Emotional Ups and Downs

Karmic cause and effect does not focus on the short-term results of our behavior, but rather on the long-term effects. For example, feeling insecure about ourselves, we imagine, with longing desire for “likes” on our social media posts, that getting them will affirm our existence and give us a sense of self-worth. If you’re into social media and posting selfies on it, examine your own experience. How often during the day does a compelling urge arise to check your phone to see how many “likes” you’ve received? How long does that rush of happiness last when you see someone “liked” your post? How soon after that do you check your phone again? Do you ever have enough “likes?” Is it a happy state of mind to be compulsively checking your phone all day long? This is a clear example that the long-term effect of seeking “likes” is the suffering of unhappiness. It is based on the false premise that there is a concrete, independently existing “me” that can be made secure with enough “likes.”

Even if we have a good motivation, like love, with which we compulsively help our grown-up children, if it is based on the naive misconception that being useful or feeling needed will make us feel good about ourselves, any happiness we experience from this will never satisfy. In short, the true causes of our perpetuating the arising of our emotional ups and downs are our unawareness and misconceptions of how we and others and, in fact, everything exists, plus the disturbing emotions and compelling karmic urges and compulsive behavior they trigger.

Unawareness, Disturbing Emotions, and Compulsive Behavior as the True Causes for Perpetuating Our Uncontrollably Recurring Rebirth

The Buddha taught that unawareness, disturbing emotions, and karmic impulses are also the true causes for compulsively perpetuating our existence, in this and future lives, with a limited body and mind as the basis with which to experience the sufferings of unhappiness and unsatisfying happiness. It is our confused attitudes toward these feelings themselves that the Buddha pointed out is the true cause of our uncontrollably recurring existence, our “samsara.”

When short-lived happiness arises, we thirst for it never to end, although it is futile since it never lasts. When we feel unhappy, we thirst for it to be gone forever, though our compulsive behavior will just cause more to arise. Even if we take strong painkillers so that we don’t feel anything, or we sink into a deep state of concentration in which we similarly don’t feel a thing, we thirst for that state of feeling nothing not to decline, though it inevitably does.

In addition, we fixate on “me,” as if it were a concrete entity, with the thoughts of “poor me”: “I want not to be parted from this happiness; I want to be parted from this unhappiness; I want this feeling of nothing not to wear off.” When this fixation on our confused idea of “me” and these disturbing emotions toward our feelings occur when we’re dying, they activate a karmic impulse, a compelling mental urge that, like a magnet, draws our minds and these disturbing emotions toward the body of a rebirth state, with the intention to take rebirth with them so that we can continue to live. This is somewhat like a Buddhist version of the survival instinct.

The Four Aspects of the True Causes of Suffering

Our confused attitudes, then, are the true causes of our true sufferings. The fact is that we perpetuate the uncontrollable recurrence of our sufferings. There are four aspects to this, specifically in reference to our continuing to take rebirth over and again. From these aspects, we can also understand how they are the true causes of suffering in general:

  • Firstly, unawareness about how we exist, together with disturbing emotions and compelling karmic impulses, are the actual causes of all our suffering. Our suffering does not come from no cause at all or from an unfitting cause, such as an astrological configuration or just bad luck.
  • Secondly, they are the origin for our sufferings to repeat over and again. In each situation, suffering never comes from just one cause alone, but from a combination of many causes and conditions.
  • Thirdly, they are the strong internal producers of our suffering. Our suffering doesn’t come from external sources, not even from some all-powerful deity.
  • Fourthly, they are the conditions for our sufferings to arise. Sufferings don’t arise from worldly activities themselves, but from our confused attitudes toward them.


Once we know that the true causes of our recurring problems and sufferings – which none of us want yet constantly go through – are our own projections of a false reality about ourselves, our unawareness that they are a mere fantasy, and the disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior that they generate, doesn’t it make sense to work to rid ourselves forever of these troublemakers?