According to Buddhism,

"There is suffering in this world; suffering has a cause; and the cause is desire."

So, the desire to stay alive, forces us to work which causes suffering in the form of depression.

Does this mean that life is the root cause of all suffering and it is impractical to stay alive?

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    Hmm... some say that not working causes depression... others say they love their work. If work causes you to suffer, then you can choose not to work, and get your suffering elsewhere, such as from hunger. Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 18:07
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    It's not quite accurate to say it's "desire". Usually better translated from Pali/Sanskrit as "craving". It's the "excess craving" and the attachment that results that causes suffering. So desire life, but don't desire it so much that it trigger behaviors that could engender suffering. No excess.
    – Frank
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 18:23
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    Buddhism is not nihilism, and Nirvāṇa is not a state of nothingness, although it is beyond the realm of conceptual understanding. To really understand the dynamic of the chain of dependent origination takes study, application and practice.
    – Wayfarer
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 21:11
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    There is a very nice Buddhism Stack Exchange site. I got a lot from participating there.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 23:58
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    You can't suffer if you're not alive... But whether you consider that a "cause" or not is another matter Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 13:43

7 Answers 7


Many teachings point to the concept of desire being a cause of suffering.


  • You do not have an expensive watch
  • You see someone else with an expensive watch
  • You desire that watch, and now (even though you are exactly the same as you were before you saw the other person's watch) you are in a state of suffering

Your question seems to unravel a bit with the "staying alive". Desire causing suffering around this subject would be more applicable to e.g. terminally ill people wishing they could live instead.

it is impractical to stay alive?

You could reword your question to "if feeling pain and suffering only happens to living beings, could the solution to pain and suffering be the death of all things?"

And yes, that would end all pain and suffering. It would also end all joy and beauty. Most people's conclusion is that the value of life outweighs the suffering. A lot of self-harm occurs when a person's suffering outweighs their joy, and they don't see that changing in the future. Veering away from philosophy, this becomes more of a medical question as we consider that state of being as "mentally ill", a sickness that should be treated with professional help.

  • You say "we consider that state of being as 'mentally ill'". Do you mean the state when people's suffering outweighs their joy, or self-harming? Many people would label both mental illness. But that's not a well defined term, so it is best to be cautious about how you use it. Generalizations are probably not a good idea in this area. A good judgement here would depend on careful attention to individual cases.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 19:56
  • @LudwigV the state of mind, that "my suffering overrules any joy I have, and that's never going to change", is considered illness, since it's a subjective perspective rather than a measurable objective fact
    – Mirror318
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 21:21
  • I'm sorry to do this. I see that you are a new contributor. But could I suggest that you think a bit more carefully about what you write? It looks as if you're saying that any subjective perspective is a mental illness. You can't have meant that.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 17:49
  • @LudwigV sorry, I mean to say that the mental (subjective) state of feeling like life is not worth living, that's considered medically to be a disorder. That's why I say it becomes a medical issue more than a philosophical one. Perhaps in cases of extreme suffering, e.g. In places of war or slavery or ongoing abuse, then one could argue objectively that life is not worth living. But even in those situations the typical human behavior is to still desire to live
    – Mirror318
    Commented Apr 1, 2023 at 19:40
  • That makes a lot more sense. But then, as someone interested in philosophy, I think it's reasonable to say that while such a feeling can be disordered, it can also be reasonable, or at least not disordered. It's a difficult judgement and needs careful attention to the circumstances of each case. Fair?
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Apr 1, 2023 at 20:25

According to Buddha's Theory,

It is not a theory; it is large set of traditional philosophy, world-view, precept or partly religion.

The word "theory" implies that there is something here that needs to be proven. But there are no proofs required for the overall works. The accounts of Buddha are either (1) history (i.e., accounts of historic figures, with the obvious caveat that the main figure is so far back in time, and has been subject to phases of oral traditions, that any "truth value" has the same problems as in any other history and is very hard to discern from only being an allegorical vehicle to give the content a "vehicle" that can be written down or transferred orally); or on (2) experience (i.e., things you can try to reproduce experimentally yourself; such as meditation, sticking with the precepts etc.); or on (3) purely "internal" logic (i.e., building up the statements learned from experience to more abstract or powerful ones); or (4) partly on belief-based spiritual claims (i.e., about reincarnation) which are by their nature not provable or disprovable.

"There is suffering in this world; suffering has a cause; and the cause is desire."

No. There are three main causes of suffering according to buddhist traditions: ignorance, attachment, and aversion. "Desire" could be sorted within "attachment", but it certainly is not the only or main cause of suffering.

So, the desire to stay alive, forces us to work which causes suffering in the form of depression. Does this mean that life is the root cause of all suffering and it is impractical to stay alive?

This sounds like a very confused mix-up of all kinds of words, with no real semantics behind it.

  • "Desire to stay alive": it is not generally considered bad to be alive by Buddhism; and most living beings are already alive. Therefore you cannot have a "desire" to stay alive. You can have an aversion of dieing, but this again would not be an "aversion" in the sense of Buddhism (as cause of suffering) as living is the natural base state of living beings. There is nothing good or bad about it, it just is. When Buddhism speaks about the desire for immortality as a cause of suffering, it does not mean that the day-to-day business of staying alive is the cause, but that people cannot stomach the thought of eventually ending (as all things must). Consider that if you subscribe to the more spiritual parts of Buddhism, namely reincarnation, killing yourself would do nothing at all except probably put you right back into a lower life-form as karmic punishment for killing.
  • "Forces us to work": doing the necessary things to stay alive is not generally viewed by Buddhism as cause for suffering. It is perfectly possible, and a great many people have found ways to do so, to be alive and work, and not to have these activities be the main source of their suffering. Working is part of being alive (with a general meaning of what "work" means - anything from tilling your own plot of earth for your own consumption to working in a factory or being the boss of a multinational IT company). You could say that teaching how to live your life as a regular human being, including work, responsibility etc., with minimal amounts of suffering, is one of the primary values within the Buddhist teachings.
  • "which causes suffering" - as said before. Living itself is not considered to be in general something that is to be avoided to avoid suffering, it is just neutral.
  • "in the form of depression". No, absolutely not. "Suffering" in Buddhism has nothing in particular to do with "depression". Yes sure, if you have clinical depression, you are probably suffering, and if you suffer a lot you can maybe develop depression, but there is no immediate general cause that living and doing the necessary stuff to keep living (i.e., working) automatically leads to depression. And there are a great many ways to suffer while having absolutely no sign of depression.
  • "it is impractical to stay alive" implies that one should seriously consider suicide, if even by neglect (i.e., stop eating to avoid having to work for money to be able to buy food) or even subscribe to an anti-natalism philosophy. Buddhism couldn't be further away from this viewpoint. The very first of the five precepts in Buddhism is to abstain from killing (including oneself of course). Killing a living being is considered an incredible waste of potential and will lead to untold amounts of suffering (i.e., if you have relatives that need to mourn you and so on).

"Desire" is one possible translation for "tanha" in Pali. But other translations would be "thirst" or even "craving". I think "craving" is more useful here. It's the "excessive craving" and the attachment that results from it that causes suffering. You can very well enjoy life, but don't get attached to it so much that it would trigger behaviors that could engender suffering.


Yes, but only in a fairly boring and trivial way. Any experience requires an experiencer, without life there would be nobody to experience suffering, hence there would be no suffering.

But there would also be no joy. There would be no pain, but there would also be no pleasure. There would be no happiness, no excitement, and no inspiration.

Moreover, in practical terms, the destruction of life (however done) causes pain, depression and suffering. So while a lifeless universe would not have any suffering, this is not a goal to aim for, nor an ideal. You can't get to a better universe by "snapping your fingers" and willing everybody to be dead.

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    Another way of looking at it: Life is a prerequisite of suffering. But are prerequisites really the same thing as causes?
    – Shane
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 19:06

Assumption that life causes suffering is a paralogism. Try applying this logic to another example. Is water the cause of swimming for fish? Is space the cause of movement? Life is just an abstract set of objects which share similar properties, like metabolism for example. Suffering is one of the subjective properties of these objects, so suffering is observed, thus occurs in life. Same as fish are doomed to swim, the humans are to suffer. I would say that suffering is caused by the mechanics of which life is structured. You need to struggle and feel the pain, otherwise you won't figure out what is best for you and your surroundings. Nietzsche said that those who are able to suffer and persevere have a greater capacity for meaning and purpose in life. Suffering is the price you pay for figuring out what is really valuable to your true self, thus is a natural mechanism which occurs in living creatures to help them finding an orientation in this reality.

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    "What the heck is suffering?" (like the anecdotal story where one fish asks another, "what the heck is water?")
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 0:40

The first mistake is to ask about Buddhism in a Philosophy ("knowledge") forum.

Philosophers think and ponder, rationalise and analyse. However, the Buddhist/Yogic way is to "look".

What is suffering? If you meditate on why you are driven to ask this question, your answer is probably there.

That is the Buddhist/Yogic way to attain enlightenment. To put it in another way, enlightenment is already within you. The answer is already within you and around you. But you (and I), are clouded, diluted, distracted, confused by thousand thoughts, emotions, impulses.

So adding a bunch of other thoughts and questions will not lead to clarity - rather the opposite.

To sit, to concentrate, to observe deeply is the way to "see" the answer; the answer that is already there.

To put it in another way, Buddhism is experiential - Philosophy is knowledge and debate.

We can trade knowledge and debate all day about the experience of riding a bicycle - but only when you get on a bicycle and ride for yourself, you will know.

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    “Buddhism claims to have lots of knowledge.” about what? I’d also like to know where the Buddha (not his followers or interpreters) claim to have knowledge .. I’m only aware that he lectured about the way to attain nirvana .. or ultimate freedom (via meditation) .. where did he preach knowledge and more knowledge?
    – a20
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 10:20
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    If I was the first to discover how to ride the bicycle, and I tell you “step 1, step 2, step 3 .. is how you get to riding the bicycle ..” .. yes that is the knowledge about riding the bicycle .. but until you try the steps and experience the riding .. you have theories; 2nd-hand, 3rd-hand and nth-hand knowledge .. volumes of which .. you might even be considered an “expert” and even a “leader” .. without the experience of putting your ass on a bicycle seat :) All religions are like this today. Jesus was simple. Buddha was simple. Those claiming to follow them are mostly complicated.
    – a20
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 11:53
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    Also I will not be participating in this comment section any more - I’m being too egoistic. Wish you well.
    – a20
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 11:56
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    I am not sure why Buddhism cannot be examined through the lens of rationalism. Any proposition can be examined through the lens of rationalism, regardless of where the proposition comes from Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 19:00
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    @AgnishomChattopadhyay perhaps Buddhism isn't about propositions?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 0:45

As it says: desire is the root of suffering.

Desire to live is not life. To live is to let your body to function autonomically. To desire is to add something to the autonomic functions of the body: to live a certain way... which typically fails, or requires effort, and is nonetheless always subject to the law of impermanence, which practically means that you will eventually always lose what you desire, and you will always be somewhat afraid of when it happens.

You can live a fulfilling life of desire, but it can never be guaranteed, no matter what. Loss always accompanies desire, and that is why there is misery, or suffering.

  • Yes, like the saying by Byron Katie: "When you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 1:44

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