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Ajahn Sumedho – The Four Noble Truths – A Handful of Leaves (Part 4)


What is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering?

It is craving which renews being and is accompanied by relish and lust,

relishing this and that: in other words, craving for sensual desires,

craving for being, craving for non-being.

But whereon does this craving arise and flourish?

Wherever there is what seems lovable and gratifying, thereon it arises and flourishes.

There is this Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering:

such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing

and light that arose in me about things not heard before.

This Noble Truth must be penetrated to by abandoning the origin of suffering….

This Noble Truth has been penetrated to by abandoning the origin of suffering:

such was the vision, insight, wisdom,

knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.

[Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11]


– Three Kinds Of Desire
– Grasping Is Suffering
– Letting Go
– Accomplishment

The Second Noble Truth with its three aspects is: ‘There is the origin of suffering, which is the attachment to desire. Desire should be let go of. Desire has been let go of.’

The Second Noble Truth states that there is an origin of suffering and that the origin of suffering is attachment to the three kinds of desire: desire for sense pleasure (kama tanha), desire to become (bhava tanha) and desire to get rid of (vibhava tanha). This is the statement of the Second Noble Truth, the thesis, the pariyatti. This is what you contemplate: the origin of suffering is attachment to desire.

Three Kinds Of Desire

Buddha_forest-2.gifDesire or tanha in Pali is an important thing to understand. What is desire? Kama tanha is very easy to understand. This kind of desire is wanting sense pleasures through the body or the other senses and always seeking things to excite or please your senses — that is kama tanha. You can really contemplate: what is it like when you have desire for pleasure? For example, when you are eating, if you are hungry and the food tastes delicious, you can be aware of wanting to take another bite. Notice that feeling when you are tasting something pleasant; and notice how you want more of it. Don’t just believe this; try it out. Don’t think you know it because it has been that way in the past. Try it out when you eat. Taste something delicious and see what happens: a desire arises for more. That is kama tanha.

We also contemplate the feeling of wanting to become something. But if there is ignorance, then when we are not seeking something delicious to eat or some beautiful music to listen to, we can be caught in a realm of ambition and attainment — the desire to become. We get caught in that movement of striving to become happy, seeking to become wealthy; or we might attempt to make our life feel important by endeavouring to make the world right. So note this sense of wanting to become something other than what you are right now.

Listen to the bhava tanha of your life: ‘I want to practise meditation so I can become free from my pain. I want to become enlightened. I want to become a monk or a nun. I want to become enlightened as a lay person. I want to have a wife and children and a profession. I want to enjoy the sense world without having to give up anything and become an enlightened arahant too.’

When we get disillusioned with trying to become something, then there is the desire to get rid of things. So we contemplate vibhava tanha, the desire to get rid of: ‘I want to get rid of my suffering. I want to get rid of my anger. I’ve got this anger and I want to get rid of it. I want to get rid of jealousy, fear and anxiety.’ Notice this as a reflection on vibhava tanha. We are actually contemplating that within ourselves which wants to get rid of things; we are not trying to get rid of vibhava tanha. We are not taking a stand against the desire to get rid of things nor are we encouraging that desire. Instead, we are reflecting, ‘It’s like this; it feels like this to want to get rid of something; I’ve got to conquer my anger; I have to kill the Devil and get rid of my greed — then I will become …’ We can see from this train of thought that becoming and getting rid of are very much associated.

Bear in mind though that these three categories of kama tanha, bhava tanha and vibhava tanha are merely convenient ways of contemplating desire. They are not totally separate forms of desire but different aspects of it.

The second insight into the Second Noble Truth is: ‘Desire should be let go of.’ This is how letting go comes into our practice. You have an insight that desire should be let go of, but that insight is not a desire to let go of anything. If you are not very wise and are not really reflecting in your mind, you tend to follow the ‘I want to get rid of, I want to let go of all my desires’ — but this is just another desire. However, you can reflect upon it; you can see the desire to get rid of, the desire to become or the desire for sense pleasure. By understanding these three kinds of desire, you can let them go.

The Second Noble Truth does not ask you to think, ‘I have a lot of sensual desires’, or, ‘I’m really ambitious. I’m really bhava tanha plus, plus, plus!’ or, ‘I’m a real nihilist. I just want out. I’m a real vibhava tanha fanatic. That’s me.’ The Second Noble Truth is not that. It is not about identifying with desires in any way; it’s about recognising desire.

I used to spend a lot of time watching how much of my practice was desire to become something. For example, how much of the good intentions of my meditation practice as a monk was to become liked — how much of my relations with other monks or nuns or with lay people had to do with wanting to be liked and approved of. That is bhava tanha — desire for praise and success. As a monk, you have this bhava tanha: wanting people to understand everything and to appreciate the Dhamma. Even these subtle, almost noble, desires are bhava tanha.

Then there is vibhava tanha in spiritual life, which can be very self-righteous: ‘I want to get rid of, annihilate and exterminate these defilements.’ I really listened to myself thinking, ‘I want to get rid of desire. I want to get rid of anger. I don’t want to be frightened or jealous any more. I want to be brave. I want to have joy and gladness in my heart.’

This practice of Dhamma is not one of hating oneself for having such thoughts, but really seeing that these are conditioned into the mind. They are impermanent. Desire is not what we are but it is the way we tend to react out of ignorance when we have not understood these Four Noble Truths in their three aspects. We tend to react like that to everything. These are normal reactions due to ignorance.

But we need not continue to suffer. We are not just hopeless victims of desire. We can allow desire to be the way it is and so begin to let go of it. Desire has power over us and deludes us only as long as we grasp it, believe in it and react to it.

Grasping Is Suffering

Usually we equate suffering with feeling, but feeling is not suffering. It is the grasping of desire that is suffering. Desire does not cause suffering; the cause of suffering is the grasping of desire. This statement is for reflection and contemplation in terms of your individual experience.

You really have to investigate desire and know it for what it is. You have to know what is natural and necessary for survival and what is not necessary for survival. We can be very idealistic in thinking that even the need for food is some kind of desire we should not have. One can be quite ridiculous about it. But the Buddha was not an idealist and he was not a moralist. He was not trying to condemn anything. He was trying to awaken us to truth so that we could see things clearly.

Once there is that clarity and seeing in the right way, then there is no suffering. You can still feel hunger. You can still need food without it becoming a desire. Food is a natural need of the body. The body is not self; it needs food otherwise it will get very weak and die. That is the nature of the body — there is nothing wrong with that. If we get very moralistic and high-minded and believe that we are our bodies, that hunger is our own problem, and that we should not even eat — that is not wisdom; it is foolishness.

When you really see the origin of suffering, you realise that the problem is the grasping of desire, not the desire itself. Grasping means being deluded by it, thinking it’s really ‘me’ and ‘mine’: ‘These desires are me and there is something wrong with me for having them’; or, ‘I don’t like the way I am now. I have to become something else’; or, ‘I have to get rid of something before I can become what I want to be.’ All this is desire. So you listen to it with bare attention not saying it’s good or bad, but merely recognising it for what it is.

Letting Go

If we contemplate desires and listen to them, we are actually no longer attaching to them; we are just allowing them to be the way they are. Then we come to the realisation that the origin of suffering, desire, can be laid aside and let go of.

How do you let go of things? This means you leave them as they are; it does not mean you annihilate them or throw them away. It is more like setting them down and letting them be. Through the practice of letting go we realise that there is the origin of suffering, which is the attachment to desire, and we realise that we should let go of these three kinds of desire. Then we realise that we have let go of these desires; there is no longer any attachment to them.

When you find yourself attached, remember that ‘letting go’ is not ‘getting rid of’ or ‘throwing away’. If I’m holding onto this clock and you say, ‘Let go of it!’, that doesn’t mean ‘throw it out’. I might think that I have to throw it away because I’m attached to it, but that would just be the desire to get rid of it. We tend to think that getting rid of the object is a way of getting rid of attachment. But if I can contemplate attachment, this grasping of the clock, I realise that there is no point in getting rid of it — it’s a good clock; it keeps good time and is not heavy to carry around. The clock is not the problem. The problem is grasping the clock. So what do I do? Let it go, lay it aside — put it down gently without any kind of aversion. Then I can pick it up again, see what time it is and lay it aside when necessary.

You can apply this insight into ‘letting go’ to the desire for sense pleasures. Maybe you want to have a lot of fun. How would you lay aside that desire without any aversion? Simply recognise the desire without judging it. You can contemplate wanting to get rid of it — because you feel guilty about having such a foolish desire — but just lay it aside. Then, when you see it as it is, recognising that it’s just desire, you are no longer attached to it.

So the way is always working with the moments of daily life. When you are feeling depressed and negative, just the moment that you refuse to indulge in that feeling is an enlightenment experience. When you see that, you need not sink into the sea of depression and despair and wallow in it. You can actually stop by learning not to give things a second thought.

You have to find this out through practice so that you will know for yourself how to let go of the origin of suffering. Can you let go of desire by wanting to let go of it? What is it that is really letting go in a given moment? You have to contemplate the experience of letting go and really examine and investigate until the insight comes. Keep with it until that insight comes: ‘Ah, letting go, yes, now I understand. Desire is being let go of.’ This does not mean that you are going to let go of desire forever but, at that one moment, you actually have let go and you have done it in full conscious awareness. There is an insight then. This is what we call insight knowledge. In Pali, we call it ñanadassana or profound understanding.

I had my first insight into letting go in my first year of meditation. I figured out intellectually that you had to let go of everything and then I thought: ‘How do you let go?’ It seemed impossible to let go of anything. I kept on contemplating: ‘How do you let go?’ Then I would say, ‘You let go by letting go.’ ‘Well then, let go!’ Then I would say: ‘But have I let go yet?’ and, ‘How do you let go?’ ‘Well just let go!’ I went on like that, getting more frustrated. But eventually it became obvious what was happening. If you try to analyse letting go in detail, you get caught up in making it very complicated. It was not something that you could figure out in words any more, but something you actually did. So I just let go for a moment, just like that.

Now with personal problems and obsessions, to let go of them is just that much. It is not a matter of analysing and endlessly making more of a problem about them, but of practising that state of leaving things alone, letting go of them. At first, you let go but then you pick them up again because the habit of grasping is so strong. But at least you have the idea. Even when I had that insight into letting go, I let go for a moment but then I started grasping by thinking: ‘I can’t do it, I have so many bad habits!’ But don’t trust that kind of nagging, disparaging thing in yourself. It is totally untrustworthy. It is just a matter of practising letting go. The more you begin to see how to do it, then the more you are able to sustain the state of non-attachment.


It is important to know when you have let go of desire: when you no longer judge or try to get rid of it; when you recognise that it’s just the way it is. When you are really calm and peaceful, then you will find that there is no attachment to anything. You are not caught up, trying to get something or trying to get rid of something. Well-being is just knowing things as they are without feeling the necessity to pass judgment upon them.

We say all the time, ‘This shouldn’t be like this!’, ‘I shouldn’t be this way!’ and, ‘You shouldn’t be like this and you shouldn’t do that!’ and so on. I’m sure I could tell you what you.should be — and you could tell me what I should be. We should be kind, loving, generous, good-hearted, hard-working, diligent, courageous, brave and compassionate. I don’t have to know you at all tell you that! But to really know you, I would have to open up to you rather than start from an ideal about what a woman or man should be, what a Buddhist should be or what a Christian should be. It’s not that we don’t know what we should be.

Our suffering comes from the attachment that we have to ideals, and the complexities we create about the way things are. We are never what we should be according to our highest ideals. Life, others, the country we are in, the world we live in — things never seem to be what they should be. We become very critical of everything and of ourselves: ‘I know I should be more patient, but I just CAN’T be patient!’ … Listen to all the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘should nots’ and the desires: wanting the pleasant, wanting to become or wanting to get rid of the ugly and the painful. It’s like listening to somebody talking over the fence saying, ‘I want this and I don’t like that. It should be this way and it shouldn’t be that way.’ Really take time to listen to the complaining mind; bring it into consciousness.

I used to do a lot of this when I felt discontented or critical. I would close my eyes and start thinking, ‘I don’t like this and I don’t want that’, ‘That person shouldn’t be like this’, and ‘The world shouldn’t be like that.’ I would keep listening to this kind of critical demon that would go on and on, criticising me, you and the world. Then I would think, ‘I want happiness and comfort; I want to feel safe; I want to be loved!’ I would deliberately think these things out and listen to them in order to know them simply as conditions that arise in the mind. So bring them up in your mind — arouse all the hopes, desires and criticisms. Bring them into consciousness. Then you will know desire and be able to lay it aside.

The more we contemplate and investigate grasping, the more the insight arises: ‘Desire should be let go of.’ Then, through the actual practice and understanding of what letting go really is, we have the third insight into the Second Noble Truth, which is: ‘Desire has been let go of.’ We actually know letting go. It is not a theoretical letting go, but a direct insight. You know letting go has been accomplished. This is what practice is all about.


Venerable Ajahn Sumedho: Preface
Venerable Ajahn Sumedho: Introduction
Venerable Ajahn Sumedho: The First Noble Truth
Venerable Ajahn Sumedho: The Second Noble Truth
Venerable Ajahn Sumedho: The Third Noble Truth
Venerable Ajahn Sumedho: The Four Noble Truth

Sources : Dharmaweb

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