Are there many causes of "suffering" (the first noble truth) or do they all stem from one cause (namely, unsatisfactory impermanence)? Encyclopedia Britannica lists unsatisfactory impermanence as one of the many causes of suffering:

[T]he 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). In those texts, the mental state of ignorance refers to an active misconception of the nature of things: seeing pleasure where there is pain, beauty where there is ugliness, permanence where there is impermanence, and self where there is no self. [Four Noble Truths]

Yet some scholars only list unsatisfactory impermanence as the lone cause of suffering.


2 Answers 2


"some scholars".. Not ones of Buddhism.

Anicca anatta and dukha are the three marks of existence. These are usually translated, unsatisfactoriness, impermanence and not-self. They are not the causes of suffering, they are intrinsic to reality, to being itself. Denying or ignoring this, is what contributes to suffering.

The Pratītyasamutpāda or cycle of dependent origination, is usually given as having 12 nidanas or steps. Each of these contributes to suffering, forming a vicious circle. But the first step is ignorance, falling away from the true knowledge of things. And enlightenment, awakening, unshakeable liberation, should be understood as above all arrival back at understanding the true nature of things.

A modern 'atheist' interpretation of The Four Noble Truths:

"The Four Noble Truths are pragmatic rather than dogmatic. They suggest a course of action to be followed rather than a set of dogmas to be believed. The four truths are prescriptions for behavior rather than descriptions of reality. The Buddha compares himself to a doctor who offers a course of therapeutic treatment to heal one’s ills. To embark on such a therapy is not designed to bring one any closer to ‘the Truth’ but to enable one’s life to flourish here and now, hopefully leaving a legacy that will continue to have beneficial repercussions after one’s death." -Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist

Discussed further here: Which discipline of philosophy is most interested and relevant to studying the nature of change?

This path of these Four Noble Truths, the core of Buddhism, does not mean an end to facing your karma from past action, but ceasing to cause suffering. This is deeply related to the Buddhist challenge to our intuitions about the self, as having some unchanging quality, some unique essence. As well as anatta, this relates to sunyata: dependent origination, or emptiness, or interbeing. The principle that everything results from causes and conditions. Easy to state, hard to practice the truth of.

What is usually called in English 'oneness', is better understood I think as intersubjectivity, following the ancient Indian metaphor 'Indra's Net'. Discussed here: According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from?


One of the common difficulties in understanding the Four Noble Truths comes from the natural human tendency to project our own inner state onto the world. If we read the FNT as an answer to the question "Why does the world make me miserable?" we're going to get drawn off in the wrong direction. The world doesn't make us miserable. We make ourselves miserable by imagining the world as something other than it is.

So, deeper... It is the nature of the thinking mind — the problem-solving mind; the egoic mind — to find problems with the world and conceptualize ways to overcome them. If we're cold, we learn to make a fire; if that doesn't satisfy, we learn to make clothes; if that doesn't satisfy we learn to build a shelter... The question is: are we ever satisfied? It's the proverbial hamster wheel: the egoic mind gets bored and looks for something to relieve its boredom, which means it fabricates or magnifies some problem it can work to solve. But it forgets that it is the ultimate source of the problem, and demands that the problem is in the world at large. That leads to struggling and striving, the (sick) thrill of victory and the (desperate) agony of defeat, all from trying to 'fix' a world that wasn't broken in the first place.

The FNT boils down to the superficial bullet point that if we see this is something we are doing to ourselves, not something being done to us, we can stop doing it. Easier said than done, obviously...

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