buddha_handBuddhists (secular and non-secular alike) have it right: suffering is caused by craving. But that’s not the end of the story. While the Buddha’s views on suffering provide us with essential insights about how and why we suffer, we need to broaden our view of suffering beyond the explanation offered by mainstream Western Buddhists.


As with his other articles on various aspects of Buddhism on the SBA website, Doug Smith did an admirable job in his April 23, 2015 blog post on the Second Noble Truth, “On Craving”, of elucidating this basic element of Buddhism.[1] In this post, Doug explained how the cause of suffering/dukkha is craving; and that craving is due to both our tendency to prefer pleasant experiences, as well as a false view of the self and the phenomena which we experience as permanent, fixed, and solid.

The distinction between the hedonic nature of our various experiences and the way in which these “contact feelings” are transformed into forms of craving which cause suffering is one of the most important insights of Buddhism. Whether one is a secular or non-secular Buddhist, the view that all human beings cause unnecessary suffering to themselves – “the second arrow” – beyond the inevitable physical, emotional, and mental pains of life is an essential element of our understanding of the world.[2]

In this post, I want to offer a perspective which embraces this insight, but incorporates it into a broader view of the causes of suffering. First, I will explicate what I call the “mainstream view” among Western Buddhists about why we habitually move from feeling to craving, the role of craving in creating social harming, and why it is possible to break the link between feeling and craving so that the saṃsāric process of suffering can be ended (even momentarily).

Then, I will lay out a perspective which broadens the notion of suffering to encompass three interrelated and interacting sources of suffering. As noted, the distinction between the first two sources is an essential element of a Buddhist understanding of suffering: the primary pain caused by life’s vicissitudes (first arrow) and our biologically-driven and socially-conditioned tendency to move from feeling to craving (second arrow). However, I will argue that the harmful impact of exploitative and oppressive social institutions (third arrow) is an equally significant and relatively independent source of suffering.

The Mainstream View on the Cause of Unnecessary Suffering

The cause of unnecessary suffering is the move from feelings to craving. But why does that move occur seemingly automatically, yet with such negative consequences for us? And why is it so difficult to establish a gap or pause between the two in order to break the link?

The answer commonly provided by Western Buddhist teachers, regardless of lineage, is that we are biologically primed to crave pleasant phenomena and to be averse toward unpleasant phenomena. As Doug says in his post, “The basic idea is that pleasant sensations induce in us a craving for their continuation, painful feelings induce in us a craving for their cessation, and neutral sensations induce in us either dull passivity or a craving for pleasant sensations.” This biological mechanism is so strong that it affects not just our emotional and volitional tendencies; our very sense of our self is profoundly shaped by the preference for pleasant experiences. Because we are biological organisms whose survival depends on getting what we want and need in a perilous world (the evolutionary basis for the preference for pleasant experiences) , we are predisposed to see ourselves as the “center” of our experience, separate and distinct from other beings and the world. In short, biological preference, in conjunction with a false or deluded view of the self and the world – which in turn is shaped by this preference – is the primary basis for the universal tendency to crave.

Biological preference and false view have crucial social implications for Buddhists. Our modes of interpersonal interaction and our social institutions are based on and reflect the biological preference and false view. As a result, interpersonal interactions and social institutions are characterized by greed, hatred, and delusion. We treat each other badly and create social institutions which exploit and oppress individuals and groups. Individuals’ unskillful emotions, thoughts, speech, and action thus lead to patterns or “habits” of social harming on both micro and macro levels.

In turn, these patterns reinforce the primary mechanism of biological preference and false view. In addition to our biological imperative, modes of interpersonal and social conditioning cause us to keep suffering. We suffer because of the neurotic parenting which we experience, the unskillful cultural norms we are exposed to every day, and social institutions which disrespect, oppress, and exploit us. In short, biological preference and false view, reinforced by cultural/social conditioning rooted in biological preference and false view, cause us to be enmeshed in suffering.

The Mainstream View on How It Is Possible to End Suffering

This vicious cycle of individual craving leading to social harming, which in turn reinforces individual craving, would seem to be impervious to change. Yet, Buddhism is not just about the cause and process of suffering; it is also about the potential for human beings to create a pause, and then a break, between feelings and craving, thus ending (even momentarily) unnecessary suffering.

If biology and society promote craving, then, for most Buddhists, the source of freedom from suffering must lie elsewhere, in an “ultimate” or “absolute” dimension with which we, as human beings, can connect. This connection with the ultimate enables us to experience nirvana – the unconditioned – and gain freedom from suffering.

Within mainstream Buddhism, there are a variety of views about how human beings are connected with the ultimate. Bhikkhu Bodhi has argued that, for Theravada Buddhists, the ultimate is understood as the dualistic opposite to the biologically- and socially-driven samsaric, conditioned world of suffering. To connect with the unconditioned ultimate – nirvana – we need to overcome craving and false view through a long, dedicated process of spiritual practice.[3]

More commonly, the connection with the ultimate is understood as inherent in human beings; we just need to discover or realize that we are already part of or an aspect of the ultimate. The notion that all human beings possess Buddha Nature is a common way of expressing this idea. Whatever our flaws – our craving, aversion, and deluded views – we are, as Ethan Nichtern wrote in his new book, The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path, “basically good and endowed with inherent wisdom” (p.93). Because we have these Buddha-like qualities, we can pause, and then break the link between feelings and craving.[4]

Ethan Nichtern is a teacher and writer in the Shambhala tradition, a form of Vajryana Buddhism. The notion of Buddha Nature, however, is an essential element of other lineages as well, particularly Zen Buddhism and other Mahayana lineages. But even some Theravada Buddhist teachers subscribe to the notion of Buddha Nature. For example, Jack Kornfield, one of the co-founders of the insight meditation school, has argued that:

Beneath our struggles and beyond any desire to develop self, we can discover our Buddha nature, an inherent    fearlessness and connectedness, integrity, and belonging. Like groundwater these essential qualities are our true nature, manifesting whenever we are able to let go of our limited sense of ourselves, our unworthiness, our deficiency, and our longing.….(211)[5]

Whether viewed as the dual opposite to the samsaric world of suffering or as our inherent nature, our ability to connect with an ultimate dimension is the basis of ending suffering, of our freedom, according to the mainstream view.

Problems with the Mainstream View

From the perspective of a secular Buddhist who also believes in the need for transformative social change, I see two problems with the mainstream view.[6]

First, the notion of an absolute or ultimate dimension is inconsistent with a secular Buddhist’s belief that reality is composed of the processes, laws, and entities of nature (which range from sub-atomic particles to the products of human culture). While all Buddhist lineages reject the theistic notion of a God qua Creator, who exists “outside” the naturalistic world, mainstream Buddhism shares with all other religions the assumption of a non-naturalistic, ultimate as a central element of its world view.

Rather than posit an ultimate dimension as either the source or goal of our practice, secular Buddhists believe that the capacities for both unskillful and skillful thoughts, emotions, speech, and action are rooted in and develop in the naturalistic world. We have a biologically-driven and socially-conditioned tendency toward greed, hatred, and delusion, but our capacity to be kind, compassionate, and wise is similarly based on how we are socialized, as well as the unique, biologically-evolved human capacities for empathy and creative intelligence.

Second, social problems are, in the mainstream view, seen primarily as a reflection of individuals’ greed, hatred, and delusion. But these unskillful qualities of individuals, as well as their opposite skillful counterparts, are just as much a product of social processes. In fact, one can only be an individual human being – with distinctive characteristics and qualities – because one develops in and through various social processes, from a parent’s sensuous interaction with an infant, to the experience of going to school, to a person’s work life in a globalized capitalist economy. Further, society’s impact on individuals is enduring and profound; while social institutions are created and sustained by individuals, the particular character and quality of social institutions play an essential role in determining which capacities – skillful or unskillful – are most highly developed.

Why does this matter? The tendency of many Western Buddhists is to focus on meditation as a way to break the link between hedonic states and craving, and thus reduce suffering. Well, if we recognize that there is a two-way, complex relationship between the individual and society, then we can appreciate that both individual, spiritual practices like meditation and action or engagement to reduce social harming (exploitation, oppression, devaluation) are equally important in reducing suffering and facilitating human flourishing.

A Broader View of the Causes of Suffering

I have argued that, as secular Buddhists, we should reject any notion of an ultimate realm as a source or end point for the release from suffering, as well as recognize that human suffering occurs within the context of a complex, two way interaction between the individual and society, both of which can and do cause suffering.

If we now bring back in the “first arrow” of suffering caused by the inevitable physical, emotional, and mental pains which arise for all human beings due to life’s vicissitudes, we can identify three sources of suffering:

  • The inevitable suffering we experience as beings living in the conditioned, constantly changing world of Nature; and
  • The suffering caused by our own unskillful thoughts, emotions, speech, and actions, rooted in the automatic reflex of moving from hedonic state to craving, as part of the complex interaction between individual and society; and
  • The suffering caused by social institutions which, while created and sustained by individuals, have a profound and enduring impact as part of the complex interaction between individual and society.

While earlier, following the Buddha, I used the metaphor of an “arrow” to indicate a source of suffering, it would be better to think of each of the above as part of an interrelated set of causes and conditions which, as a whole, lead human beings to suffer, rather than as different forms of the same thing – Arrow 1, Arrow 2, and Arrow 3. In particular, as part of a complex interaction, #2 & #3 are sources of suffering. But #2 and #3 are in turn embedded in #1, the inevitable suffering of changing, conditioned experience.

Here is how the relationship between the three sources of suffering can be graphically expressed:

The Three Sources of Suffering

From a secular, socially engaged Buddhist perspective, what are the implications of this broader notion of the causes of suffering for understanding how and why we can reduce suffering and facilitate human flourishing? Briefly put, they are the following:

  • As human beings living in a conditioned, constantly changing world, we cannot attain a complete release from craving, even momentarily. We are always in and of the naturalistic world.
  • While a complete release from craving is not possible, we can significantly shift the balance between skillful and unskillful modes of being more toward the former. That shift is not inconsequential; it is, in fact, the basic process for reducing suffering and promoting human flourishing.
  • The causes and conditions which lead to suffering are quite pervasive and powerful; we should not blame ourselves for the difficulty of what Stephen Batchelor has called “going against the stream” (p.343).[7] We need to have a sense of humility and modesty as we strive to become more mindful, gain wisdom, and act with kindness and compassion.
  • At the same time, we, as human beings, have the biologically-rooted and socially-conditioned capacity for empathy, creative intelligence, and kindness. How we respond to our suffering and the suffering of others does make a difference. Within our embedded home in the world of causes and conditions, we have a responsibility to strive to develop skillful modes of being in the world.
  • Given the powerful impact of social institutions on human beings, social action to reform or transform oppressive and exploitative social institutions is not a “supplement” to meditation and other spiritual practices, but is as essential for reducing human suffering.
  • The crucial role of social action means that the sangha should not be seen just as a support for individual, spiritual practice, but also as a group which can engage in meaningful social action, through which sangha members can further develop mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion.

I hope to develop some of these ideas in future blog posts.

1 Smith, Doug. April 23, 2015. “On Craving” –Accessed at https://secularbuddhism.org/2015/04/23/on-craving/

2 Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (Tr.). 1997b. Upaddha Sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya – 45.2 Accessed at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html

3 Bodhi, Bikkhu. 1998. “Dhamma and Non-Duality.” Accessed at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_27.html

4 Nichtern, Ethan. 2015. The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path. Macmillan.

5 Kornfield, Jack. 1993. A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. New York: Bantam Books.

6 In my article, “Secular, Radically Engaged Buddhism: At the Crossroads of Individual and Social Transformation”, I discuss these two problems in much more detail and depth. The link to the article is http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2015.1021567 or you can email me and I will send you a copy of the article.

7 Batchelor, Stephen. 1994. The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.null

No Comments

  1. Robert Schenck on July 5, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    Yes, this is how I, too, understand it.

  2. Doug Smith on July 7, 2015 at 4:34 am

    Thanks very much for the article, Michael, you are right to focus on the social as well as the personal dimension of craving. I would say that at base the social dimension becomes the personal: the facts of social harming all are based on particular individuals doing particular harmful things. Hence by working on the personal we are, or at least may be, working on the social as well.

    That said, there is more to social justice than meditation alone. What is needed is political will and leadership as well. There is at least the potential for meditative insight to change individual minds, and hence move us in the right direction towards gaining that political will.

    I wonder about your claim that there is no release from craving. Without a release from craving there is no Third Noble Truth. Now, I have also written about problems I see in the traditional view of nibbāna; in particular I don’t quite understand how a naturalized understanding of the world is consistent with nibbāna’s permanency. As I take it, you are saying that naturalism is not consistent with nibbāna’s release from craving. I do not see that. Craving is a natural state, but so too might be the absence of craving.

    There are times when I find myself without craving; the issue within the tradition is to make those states permanent (to uproot the tendency for craving). If this is correct then there is no essential conflict between naturalism and the ending of craving.

    To be sure, this is an empirical question. It might be we find that craving can only be mitigated, and that our task therefore is to mitigate it as best we can. If that proved the correct understanding of the Third Noble Truth (viz., that craving can be mitigated to a certain great degree, but not terminated), then we would of course have to make our peace with that. As you say, even such a fact “is not inconsequential”.

    Nevertheless as I say my experience is that craving can end, or can at least be mitigated to the extent that it is difficult to distinguish the state from one in which craving (temporarily) ends. And I am not a very advanced practitioner. So I would at least hold out the possibility that craving might end completely.

    • Michael Slott on July 8, 2015 at 2:21 pm


      I appreciate your response to the article. You raised two points that I’d like to discuss a bit more.

      First, the relationship between the individual and the social. In the article I argued not just that we need to take account of the social dimension of craving, but that mainstream Buddhists fail to understand that the individual and society mutually presuppose and determine each other. Many engaged Buddhists recognize the social dimension of craving, including Bhikkhu Bodhi and David Loy, but they still believe that the root or “base” of social problems lies with the individual. For example, David Loy argues that the “existential lack” experienced by all individuals is the basis for the unskillful ways in which we separate ourselves from “others”, who we then see as enemies and competitors. This dualistic way of being in the world then leads to various social problems.

      You say that “…..at base the social dimension becomes the personal: the facts of social harming all are based on particular individuals doing particular harmful things.” But the opposite is just as true – at our core, as individual human beings, we are biologically-evolved and socially-conditioned creatures, and our particular actions (whether skillful or unskillful) are based on
      biological and social causes and conditions.

      Second, you raise the issue of whether my blanket rejection of any notion of a release from craving (whether for a moment or permanently)goes too far, that it may be possible to have moments of release and that this is not inconsistent with a naturalistic perspective.

      On one level, as you say, this is an empirical question. While I don’t believe that it is possible for a human being to be completely free of craving at any time (in the sense of, being and having an experience of the unconditioned), I recognize that many people do believe that they have experienced an absence of craving, and I respect their accounts of their experience. Like you, I would not characterize myself as a very advanced practitioner. I have had moments in meditation of profound peace and release, but I didn’t experience these as states of absolute non-craving. However, as an agnostic on these types of questions, I am certainly open to the possibility of new understandings and new experiences.

      Whether or not an absolute release from craving can occur, I do think that secular Buddhists should be cautious in accepting the notion of nirvana (a state of absolute non-craving). I know that this is an essential element of all lineages in Buddhism, but it is not one that I cannot accept, insofar as it assumes an “ultimate” dimension characteristic of all religions. As secular Buddhists, I think we should be striving to move toward more skillful ways of thinking, feeling, speaking,and acting, rather than seeking an ultimate realm.

  3. mufi on July 7, 2015 at 10:32 am

    Even if we assume that a durable absence of craving is humanly possible (a permanent one does indeed connote to me a supernatural concept of an “ultimate” or “absolute” reality), there nonetheless remain questions about accessibility and adaptiveness, given what we know of real-world, historical demands on most people by their environment and culture.

    After all, it’s not hard to imagine a drug that suppresses craving to such a degree that leads to long-term social problems, if the effect of popular use (or abuse, as the case may be) is a loss of motivation to pursue the kinds of activities that produce decent living standards (i.e. even those that are much more modest than the standards of today’s economic elites). By extension, it’s not hard to imagine a strict routine of meditation with a similar effect, if enough folks take up a practice of that level of seriousness.

    Perhaps that’s why we find a class division in Buddhist tradition between monastics and householders, in which the latter class supports the former in a more intense pursuit of nirvana, while the myths of rebirth & karma serve to reassure folks that, so long as they behave well, they’ll get another shot at nirvana in the next life.

    By contrast, our more egalitarian “one life to live” model may level the playing field, but it also seems to lower expectations regarding realistic goals of practice.

    • Michael Slott on July 8, 2015 at 2:51 pm


      You have identified an important distinction between whether and to what extent the absence of craving can be achieved (ranging from no release possible to moments of the absence of craving to durable periods of the absence of craving to permanent release) versus the social, cultural, and economic conditions which affect what actually is achieved. The latter is not often discussed by Buddhists, but it should be.

      I’m not sure that the current, predominant view among Western Buddhists that we have one life to live necessarily lowers expectations about the goals of practice. A lot of the teachers and practitioners that I’ve met have fairly high expectations for what they want to achieve. But you’re definitely right that cultural and social conditions have a big impact in determining what is considered “realistic”.

      • mufi on July 9, 2015 at 8:32 am

        Thanks, Michael.

        I may have mis-worded that last sentence. I didn’t mean to generalize about actual Western Buddhists’ expectations – which, after all, have the potential to be quite unrealistic – so much as to express an opinion about what’s realistic to expect for most folks, at least given historical and contemporary demands by environment and culture.

        Nice work, by the way!

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