The Arising of Suffering

We had a long discussion of the important and problematic Buddhist concept of no-self. The point of that discussion was to explore one of the basic dilemmas in the Buddhist tradition. To try to understand how they can make such an apparently pessimistic claim about the nature of life and consider it as an experience of freedom, to live it with a sense of lightness, of buoyancy and detachment from the difficulties of this world.

Where Does Suffering Come From?

Our job in this article is to continue the discussion of the Four Noble Truths and start to talk about the second one. The second noble truth is called the truth of the arising of suffering. According to this noble truth, the origin of suffering is explained by a causal sequence known as the twelve fold chain of dependent arising. The word “dependent arising” is probably the longest of the technical terms used in introductory courses on Buddhism. In Pali it is pratītyasamutpāda.

So, suffering comes from a twelve fold process of dependent conditioning. We could spend a little time if we wanted in each of the twelve links in the chain, but it is not very productive.

It is better for us to pluck two or three crucial links out of the chain just to see how the chain works. If we do that, we see suffering arising essentially from ignorance. From that ignorance comes desire or craving. And then, out of that craving or desire comes birth.

So, ignorance leads to desire, desire leads to birth.


This might seem counterintuitive at first, but it is not difficult to understand what Buddhists have in mind when they say this. Just take a glossy advertisement from a magazine or imagine one on the TV, and ask what kind of illusion that advertisement is meant to foster. What kinds of desires it’s meant to arouse? And what comes into being as a result of those desires?

Most of the desires are pretty benign. I’m not talking about anything deeply troubling or problematic. But they feed the creative process, the process of constantly acquiring new things and letting them slip away, and getting more things that from a Buddhist point of view would feed the process of death and rebirth. It simply fuels Samsara. This is the fuel that is added to the fire of the personality that drives this continuous process of death and rebirth.

The most fundamental form of ignorance is the idea that “I”, this personality, is something permanent that needs to be protected, to be fed with desirable experiences. This is the basic form of ignorance that fuels the fire of existence.

The End of Ignorance

If you simply focus on these three links that lead from ignorance to desire and to birth, you’ve got implicitly a roadmap of how you can reverse the process, if what you want to do is to stop rebirth as Buddhists do. If you want to stop rebirth, what you do then is to remove ignorance. Somehow chip away at that basic misconception that people have about the world, and as a result diminish desire.

Slowly some of those desires begin to slip away, and as a result of that, the process of birth will begin to unravel. It may not happen quickly, it may not even happen in this lifetime. In fact, according to this tradition, it’s very likely that it won’t happen in this lifetime. But at least you can set the process moving in a more positive direction.

If you do that, what eventually happens is that you find yourself on the path of Nirvana. It is Nirvana, the third Noble Truth, the definitive cessation of suffering.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha's Teachings.

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