I've looked at other responses on Buddhism exchange and googled it too, and I'm still confused about the cause of suffering. Is there one root cause? Multiple causes? Or does Buddhism claim not to know the root cause but only causes later in the chain of causation?

Britannica seems to equate craving and attachment and suggest that is what Buddha considered the cause:

"The second truth is the origin (Pali and Sanskrit: samudaya) or cause of suffering, which the Buddha associated with craving or attachment in his first sermon. In other Buddhist texts the causes of suffering are understood as stemming from negative actions (e.g., killing, stealing, and lying) and the negative mental states that motivate negative actions (e.g., desire, hatred, and ignorance)."

Four Noble Truths

My initial understanding had been that it was not desire that caused suffering (we all desire things, like if we're cold we desire warmth, and even experienced meditators will feel that way) but becoming attached to a desire or identifying with it. But now I don't know anymore.


4 Answers 4


If we get down to brass tacks, the root of the Buddhist problematic is the human ability to 'imagine otherwise'. Say (for a dumb example) that you're out on a date and you see someone and think: "I wonder if I'd be happier dating that person?" That mere thought might ruin the date you're on; it might fill you with longing for that once-seen stranger; it might make you feel confused, or sour, or lustful, or bitter... If you couldn't imagine dating anyone other than the person you were dating right at that moment — a state people commonly call 'true love' — you'd potentially save yourself a lot of mental anguish.

We have desire because we can imagine the world to be otherwise than it actually is. That means we can be dissatisfied, or frustrated, or arrogant, or greedy, etc... If we acknowledge that we can't have what we want it can lead to bitterness and resignation; if we don't acknowledge it, it can lead to craving and obsession.

There's confusion in the anglophone world — and likely elsewhere too, though I can't speak to that — because in English the the term 'desire' covers everything from milquetoast wishes to fanatical demands. The word doesn't allow for much discrimination, so that a somewhat random wish for a tuna salad sandwich uses the same term as a passionate, obsessive, irrational need to 'possess' another human. In the Buddhist worldview it isn't wrong to 'imagine otherwise' — that's the root of the problem, not the fruit — nor is it exactly wrong to have a desire. Trouble begins when we treat the world we 'imagine otherwise' as though it has more reality than the world as it actually is.

I understand that some readings of the Four Noble Truths imply that dukkha leads to tanhā (discontentment leads to craving), and that other readings of imply that tanhā leads to dukkha (craving leads to discontentment). I think the former is a better reading, but both are essentially true. It's a dynamic that spirals out of control. But if we go back to the root — the act of imagining something other than what is — we can bring them both into perspective.


Chief Bhadraka once asked the Buddha:

SN42.11:1.3: “Please, sir, teach me the origin and cessation of suffering.”

And the Buddha responded at length, eventually saying:

SN42.11:2.10: ‘All the suffering that arose in the past was rooted and sourced in desire.
SN42.11:2.11: For desire is the root of suffering.
SN42.11:2.12: All the suffering that will arise in the future will be rooted and sourced in desire.
SN42.11:2.13: For desire is the root of suffering.’”

Given that desire is the root of suffering, we learn to be careful. Instead of running into a burning house to escape the winter, we might just put on a jacket. And here with the donning of a jacket, we notice a problem.

That problem is identification. The thought arises, "my jacket". Saying, "mine" is an obstruction to others.

The world is full of cold people. It is also full of closets with unworn jackets held as "my jacket".

MN22:3.2: “Is it really true, Reverend Ariṭṭha, that you have such a harmful misconception:
MN22:3.3: ‘As I understand the Buddha’s teachings, the acts that he says are obstructions are not really obstructions for the one who performs them’?”

Understanding this, it only makes sense to be wary of desire, thinking:

MN22:27.1: “So, mendicants, you should truly see any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all form—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’

So desire is the root of suffering. We can choose to hoard the world's jackets. Or we might instead choose to practice for the benefit of ourselves and others. We might choose a skillful desire:

SN55.43:5.1: “One who desires merit, grounded in the skillful,
SN55.43:5.2: develops the eightfold path for realizing the deathless.
SN55.43:5.3: Once they’ve reached the heart of the teaching, delighting in ending,
SN55.43:5.4: they don’t tremble at the approach of the King of Death.”


Don't all suffer and hurt each other, get sick, old and die? Yet the cause of desire after suffering (unkowenly) is not-knowing that craving sits at the root, at first place, good householder, and if, not knowing the way out.


There are three root cause of sufferings.

  1. Greed or desire
  2. Aversion or hatred
  3. Delusion or ignorance

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .