The cause of suffering, the Second Noble Truth, is desire (tanha)—attachment to desire out of ignorance. Here we’re not trying to rid ourselves of desire, or become somebody who doesn’t have any desires. We’re recognizing desire: desire is like this, it’s an object. So you begin to notice the desire to have something, desire for sense pleasures. Desire is a kind of energy, it takes us over. If we’re not aware of it, if we don’t recognize or understand it, we become slaves to it.
If you’re cynical or want to put down humanity, you could think of all human beings as just desire-formations. In this position of the Buddha, that of the Buddho or awareness, desire becomes an object; you can actually notice it. It’s that compulsive feeling of having, wanting. It’s ambition, isn’t it? It’s that driving sense of “I’ve got to get something I don’t have” or “I’ve got to get rid of desire or anger or greed.” These desires for becoming, desire for annihilation, sensual desires, illustrate the way we create desires. When we see something beautiful then we create a desire. “I want it.” Or we see something ugly and we want to get rid of it.
This is knowing the way it is; desire arises and ceases, changes. So it’s not self. Desire is a normal condition, it arises, ceases. We create it when we’re heedless, and then we get caught in the power of the sensual—in the sense world and habit formations. When we get caught in desire, we have no perspective, no understanding. So from this position of knowing, of awareness, then desire—the Second Noble Truth—is recognized; you understand it, you know it for what it is. This is not judging. We can desire good things: world peace and altruistic goals. It’s not that desire always means something negative or bad, but it’s important to recognize it, to be the knower of desire rather than to become the desire.
The insight into the Second Noble Truth is a letting go. Once you see that attachment to desire is the cause of suffering you don’t get rid of desire, but you let it be. You see the suffering you create by following it or trying to get rid of it. So you know desire—not making a problem about it, letting it be what it is. Then you’re aware of its nature; desire is impermanent, not-self, it ceases. Desires can’t sustain themselves—they cease. So the Third Noble Truth is realizing, recognizing desirelessness, a natural state of being.
As you begin to cultivate this awareness, desire ceases to be a problem. We’re no longer blinded, victimized, enslaved, exploited, or persecuted by desires. Then the Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth, is the way of awareness. What I’m doing is taking these Four Noble Truths and reflecting on them, when there’s a level of calm and I’m not caught in a mad mind, a monkey mind. We can start then reflecting on, observing, and using dhukka, the First Noble Truth, as a reference point—this sense of suffering or unsatisfactoriness—and investigate it with sati-panna, or mindful discernment, rather than with our views and opinions.
So there is an opportunity to investigate, experiment, and develop—begin to recognize awareness. This is what you can really trust. This is perfection itself. It’s something to value, to respect—not as some kind of personal quality, but within the experience that I’m having right now, of consciousness, in a human form. It’s just this simple attention to life that is the liberation from suffering. In worldly terms it doesn’t seem like much of anything. Your worldly mind says, “So what? I want to get high, I want to feel blissed out, space out into a realm where I can forget all the coarseness and misery of life and live in a world of eternal bliss.” But that’s not the way it is. The way it is, is like this, so awareness isn’t about making conditions, bargaining, or complaining, but recognizing. It seems to me the whole purpose of being a human is to understand the lessons we need to learn, to free ourselves from ignorance, and that’s possible only through awareness, not through some kind of personal achievement.
from “The Sound of Silence: The Selected Teachings of Ajahn Sumedho (Wisdom)
NOTE: Vol. 4 is available as a free .pdf download at this link)