Idaṃ kho pana bhikkhave, dukkhasamudayo ariyasaccaṃ: yāyaṃ taṇhā ponobbhavikā nandirāgasahagatā tatratatrābhinandinī, seyyathidaṃ — kāmataṇhā, bhavataṇhā, vibhavataṇhā.
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.”
Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)
The Second Noble Truth, the Noble Truth on the Cause of Suffering (dukkhasamudayo ariyasaccaṃ), identifies the means by which stress originates.
In brief, the cause of suffering is craving (taṇhā).
The Pāḷi term taṇhā literally means thirst. This is among the most insatiable forms of thirst, a parched feeling of near-dehydration. When thirsting after various objects and experiences, craving can never be fully satiated. Thirst always re-arises, even after we drink from the worldly senses.
Interestingly, however, the Second Noble Truth goes beyond just the worldly senses in its description of craving. The three forms of craving acknowledged here are:
- kāmataṇhā – sensual craving
- bhavataṇhā – craving for “becoming” / “being”
- vibhavataṇhā – craving for “non-becoming” / “non-being”
A person may crave the 1. pleasures of the senses, they may crave 2. eternality, immortality, and preservation of the self, or they may crave 3. nothingness and the annihilation of the self. Each of these cravings inevitably leads to some level of suffering.
1. kāmataṇhā – sensual craving
The meaning of kāmataṇhā is rather straightforward. The word kāma means lust and taṇhā means thirst. Thus, kāmataṇhā is lustful thirst, or sensual craving.
This often manifests as sexual desire but may also take the form of strong cravings for food (especially fats, oils, and sweets) and other sense objects. One may crave contact (eye-contact) with pleasing visual forms. One may crave contact (ear-contact) with pleasing sounds. Likewise for the other senses (which are sixfold, and include the mind in Buddhism) and their corresponding external sense objects.
Kāmataṇhā is probably the most readily identifiable form of craving, and all who have experienced it will realize that the pleasure derived from the senses fades. Our cravings re-arise and we are never, ultimately, satisfied. We are always hungering for more.
2. bhavataṇhā – craving for “becoming” / “being”
The meaning of bhavataṇhā is not so straightforward, especially to the Western ear. Particularly, “craving for becoming” sounds grammatically awkward. However, the underlying meaning is a sense of thirsting after sustained experience, wishing to draw out the length of pleasant sensations.
Ultimately, this can be encapsulated by craving for eternality, immortality, and preservation of the self. At the gross level, people often wish to prolong their pleasant experiences, to abide in them infinitely. At the subtle level, people often wish to prolong their lives, whether through literal immortality on earth or through wishing for an afterlife of eternal bliss.
However, due to the impermanent nature of all experience, this desire for sustained being cannot be fulfilled.
3. vibhavataṇhā – craving for “non-becoming” / “non-being”
The exact opposite of bhavataṇhā, vibhavataṇhā means craving for non-becoming. Again, the meaning of this term is not as intuitive as it could be. One way of better comprehending its meaning is by thinking of vibhavataṇhā in terms of the desire to be rid of.
Being rid of unpleasant states brings immense relief. However, in constantly desiring for the undesired to be gone, one becomes trapped in another round of craving and its associated dissatisfaction. By wishing to change things from what they are at present, one needlessly creates agonizingly unbearable suffering and painful resistance out of otherwise tolerable and resolvable discomfort and unpleasantness.
Again, from the gross perspective, people often wish to put an immediate and irreversible end to certain experiences, resisting them wholeheartedly. At the subtle level, some people crave an ending to existence, the annihilation of themselves. This is usually the case in suicidal ideation. There is no denying that this type of craving leads to profound suffering.
By dampening and eventually removing cravings, we no longer suffering.
Our chasing after cravings is the cause of dissatisfaction in life. We tend to make them the very purpose of life, but when they are unmet, even when they are fed, suffering is sure to follow.