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Desire Causes Suffering

The capstone of Buddhist wisdom can be found in the Four Noble Truths, which state the following:

1. Life is suffering
2. Suffering is caused by desire
3. The way to end suffering is to end desire
4. The way to end desire is the Noble Eightfold Path

This article will focus on the Second and Third Noble Truths, which may seem wrong or counterintuitive on the surface. Yes, some desires cause suffering, but there are others that lead to joy. How can one walk the Buddhist path if they have no desire to take the first step?

But if we study the sutras carefully, we realize that the Buddha isn’t making a value judgment in these truths. Rather, he’s stating an objective fact. In the same way that a mathematician might say 2 + 2 = 4, the Buddha is pointing out an observable truth about reality, and each individual must decide for themselves what to do with that information.

I observe this truth for myself each time I work in our pear orchard here on the homestead. At the moment, we have several pear trees that are in their second year of growth, and we hope to add some apple trees in the years to come.

I’ve loved fresh fruit since I was a child, and I look forward to the day when I can fill baskets with fresh produce from our trees. But until that day comes, I’m left with the surprisingly difficult task of keeping them all alive. Fruit trees are more fragile than the typical shade trees, such as oak or maple, that one might plant on a property. They attract more diseases and they tend to be more enticing to pests.

Case in point: I’ve spent the better part of this year battling aphids that are intent on turning my pear trees into their new home! Aphids use their mouthparts to suck the life out of plant leaves. This weakens the tree and makes it more difficult for the plant to photosynthesize sunlight. If the infestation becomes too bad, the tree will lose all of its leaves and die.

Here we have a perfect example of desire causing suffering. More specifically, it is the desires of varying parties conflicting, and this conflict causes problems. My pear trees desire to grow up healthy and strong. The aphids desire to eat my pear trees. And I desire to protect those same trees so that I can harvest fruit from them.

These conflicting desires cause suffering for everyone involved in this equation, but one would be hard-pressed to say that anyone is in the wrong. It’s normal and natural for a pear tree to desire growth, just as it’s normal for a homesteader to want to harvest fruit from his trees. And can we really blame the aphids for wanting something to eat?!

When the Buddha states, “Suffering is caused by desire,” and “The way to end suffering is to end desire,” he is reminding us that both desire and the conflict that comes with it are a natural, normal part of life. Thus, we must study every one of our desires and determine if the ensuing conflict is worth striving to obtain what we want.

In cases where the answer to that question is “no,” we can let go of those attachments, ending suffering for ourselves and others. And in the moments when the answer is “yes” because we’re attempting to feed our families, realize enlightenment, or attain some other noble goal, we must study the conflict carefully and use our inner wisdom to find ways to reduce suffering as much as possible.

To put it simply, suffering is caused by desire, not because desire is bad necessarily (although there are times in life when our desires are fundamentally not good). Rather, suffering is caused by desire because our desires don’t always match up with the desires of the people around us.

At other times, our desires may not match up with the requirements that life has laid out for us. We desire to sleep in, but we need to wake up early for work. We desire a six-figure salary, but our job pays significantly less than that. We desire to lay out in the yard and look at the Moon, but the mosquitoes won’t stop biting us.

The Second and Third Noble Truths of Buddhism prepare us for these moments by reminding us that they are inescapable. If we have desires, we will have to deal with the suffering that comes with them. When we accept this simple truth, we’re better able to deal with the challenges that are part of daily life. They won’t be so shocking, they won’t hurt so much, and we’ll be able to turn our attention more quickly to ending suffering for ourselves and others.

Namu Amida Butsu

Related features from BDG

Understanding the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path
Grief and the Four Noble Truths
Three Awakenings and Four Noble Truths
Bagels and Mooncakes—Dealing with Desire and Craving
The Path of Joy—The Four Noble Truths in Daily Life: Part Four
Is Life Suffering? The Four Noble Truths in Daily Life: Part One

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