The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth: Is It Graspable In Terms Of Non-acceptance?

Can we get a better conceptual grip on Buddha’s Second Noble Truth?

I. Dukkha

Huston Smith, in The World’s Religions, provides us with an elegant articulation of the First Noble Truth. Loosely, it is that “life is suffering.” But this is too loose by far. Instead, we might say, thanks to Smith, that “Life (in the condition it has got itself into) is dislocated” (p. 101). Indeed, “Something has gone wrong” (p. 101).

If you’re sensitive enough, then you should be able to notice, in your own experience that is, this sense of ‘not quite,’ of ‘offness,’ of dislocation. It’s not only that the bone comes out of the joint–and hurts; it’s also that life feels sprained, limp, or tight. All of these.

All of this semantic richness should be regarded as dwelling within the Pali concept of dukkha.

II. Tanha

But what are we to make of the Second Noble of Truth–namely, that the cause of dukkha is tanha? The latter is translated variously as clinging, craving, thirst, attachment, and so on. For his part, Smith writes of “a specific kind of desire, a desire for private fulfillment” (p. 102), of “selfish craving” (p. 103), of any sort of desire that (citing Humpfrey’s book on Buddhism) “tend[s] to continue or increase separateness” (p. 102). In brief, for Smith, tanha signifies an “egoistic drive for separate existence.”

III. Making Sense of Tanha

I confess that, for some years, the First Noble Truth has made good intuitive sense while I’ve tended to speak, in Vedantic terms, of avidya (or ignorance) as the cause of suffering. After all, if I do not know what I truly am but instead live my life out of deep forgetfulness, I shall be living in suffering. Or as Francis Lucille said on retreat: “If you’re suffering, it’s due to ignorance.” There you have it (in Vedantic terms).

What sense, then, can we make of the Buddha’s articulation of the source of our suffering?

I would deign to reduce tanha to non-acceptance: I want what is not the case, or I do not want what is the case. Ergo, non-acceptance of what is. On this construal, there is ignorance involved (e.g., ignorance of impermanence), yet that ignorance could be said to be most evident in desire, i.e., in selfish desire.

  • (1) What is the case I cannot bear, so I desire another.
  • (2) What is not the case I cannot bear, so I desire another.

Concerning (1), I cannot (e.g.) bear to even think of the loss of my beloved, so I desire–while pretending–that she will always exist.

Concerning (2), I cannot (e.g.) bear not being successful, so I desire–hungrily, maddeningly–to be successful.

IV. Does It Start with Understanding?

With good reason did the Buddha place Right View as the first step on the Eightfold Path of Waking Up. Similarly, Advaita Vedanta suggests that the teaching, once heard, needs to be pondered until it is well understood at a conceptual level.

At this point in my investigation of tanha, though, I admit that I can’t help but continue to think that non-acceptance is still slightly downstream from ignorance. I do not accept because I do not know. If only I truly knew, then I would accept.

In fact, I find that, however hard I try, I cannot shake the preeminent need for self-knowledge. In my book, it must come first.

Have You Ever Seen Your Own Brain?

On Experiencing No Brain

“Have you ever seen your own brain?”

This could have been a question that Bernardo Kastrup could have posed in his book consisting of popular essays: Science Ideated: The Fall Of Matter And The Contours Of The Next Mainstream Scientific Worldview (2021).

Obviously, you haven’t experienced your own brain–because you can’t.

On Having No Head

I’m reminded of Douglas Harding’s book on Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious (1961/2014). Harding’s discovery is that he has–that is, can experience–no head. When he sought to describe this experience to others, most balked at the seeming absurdity of his professed discovery. In his words:

Discussion… proved almost invariably quite fruitless. “Naturally I can’t see my head,” my friends would say. “So what?” And foolishly I would begin to reply: “So everything! So you and the whole world are turned upside down and inside out…” It was no good. I was unable to describe my experience in a way that interested the hearers, or conveyed to them anything of its quality or significance. They really had no idea what I was talk-ing about – for both sides an embarrassing situation. Here was something perfectly obvious, immensely significant, a revelation of pure and astonished delight – to me and nobody else! When people start seeing things others can’t see, eyebrows are raised, doctors sent for. And here was I in much the same condition except that mine was a case of not seeing things. Some loneliness and frustration were inevitable. This is how a real madman must feel (I thought) – cut off, unable to communicate.

On Being Almost an Idiot

When it comes to deeper introspective investigations, you need to be almost an idiot–or at least an innocent. Zen, as you’ve no doubt heard, speaks of “beginner’s mind,” but I find that such is even, perhaps, too sophisticated. Be very simple.

Consider what Sri Ramana Maharshi often suggested as a starting point for visitors’ investigations of their true nature. “You know,” he would tell them, “‘I am’ or ‘I exist.’ Of this, you can have no doubt. In which case, begin by investigating what this ‘I am’ truly is. Find out by going all the way.”

Few are naive enough to heed his words. What he suggests seems altogether too intellectually obvious–or perhaps too unsophisticated. But if you want to engage in what Nisargadatta called “authentic spirituality”–by which he meant finding out who you really are–then such naivete is of the first importance. Indeed, such almost stupidity can’t be bypassed since it is the way, or gateless gate.

Back to the Brain and Mind…: Feels Like Versus Looks Like

Suppose you’ve become quite convinced that materialism (or, what is the same thing, physicalism) is very probably metaphysically unjustifiable; suppose, that is, that you’ve come to reject the view that matter is fundamental. Perhaps, then, you’re open to the position of Advaita Vedanta, which is that consciousness is fundamental and, as such, everything is, in some form or another, consciousness.

“OK then, smarty pants, how do you describe the brain, huh?”

One way of clearly stating Kastrup’s point about how to redescribe the brain within an analytic idealist metaphysic would be to appeal to a distinction between “feels like” and “looks like.”

As in meditation, so too in this way of doing philosophy: we must begin with conscious experience. From a first person point of view, my conscious experience consists of perceptions (strictly speaking: just hearing, just seeing, just smelling, and so on arising), thoughts (just thinking arising), emotions (just feeling arising), sensations (just sensing arising), and desires (just desiring arising). I can describe–or be metacognitively aware of–what it feels like for seeing-red to arise, for thinking-of-elephants to arise, and so forth.

“Have I, from a first person point of view, ever seen my brain–or my head?” I’ve seen neither, nor from a first person point of view can I ever see either.

But someone else, from a third person point of view, can see an image–for her, a mental representation–of my thinking. From her third person point of view, my brain is what thinking looks like as a certain representation of an appearance. So Kastrup writes, “The idea is merely that what we call ‘matter’ is the extrinsic appearance of inner mental activity, just as our brain is what our thoughts look like when observed from the outside” (p. 165, my emphasis).

My brain could be called her schema of my arising thoughts.

To be sure, what my thinking feels like for me is correlative–but this only–with what my thinking looks like for her. The former could be called mind, the latter brain.

But where is this brain? The brain, being her representation, is still mental, is still–that is to say–an appearance in the field of consciousness.

‘That Which Rises as “I”… Is The Self, Is It Not?’

Questions about Self-inquiry

A visitor at Ramanashram asks an especially helpful question that reveals a common confusion. “A little while later Ramamurti [a visitor] asked, ‘That which rises as ‘I’ within us is the Self, is it not?'”

Ramana Maharshi replies, “No; it is the ego that rises as ‘I.’ That from which it arises is the Self.”

To which, Ramamurti replies: “They speak of a lower and a higher atman.”

Ramana Maharshi ably rejects the distinction, saying: “There is no such thing as lower or higher in atman. Lower and higher apply to the forms, not to the Self or atman” (Day by Day with Bhagavan, p. 281).


Any time the thought arises, “I am walking,” “I am upset,” “I need to get this done,” and so on, it arises as the I-thought or, what is the same thing, the ego thought. Verse 25 of “Forty Verses on Reality” confirms the ego’s dependency on form:

Know that this formless ghost (the ego or “I”) springs up in a form (body). Taking a form it lives, feeds and grows. Leaving a form it picks up another, but when it is inquired into, it drops the form and takes to flight.

Ramana Maharshi, “Forty Verses on Reality”

Given that there is no ego I apart from thought and given also that the ego I is what rises in the mode of thought, it follows that the first part of Self-inquiry is concerned with pinpointing–or, in essence, with failing to pinpoint–this illusory ego as when it is asked: “To whom does this thought arises?” The answer, “To me,” refers to the belief in a separate self.

In which case, “Who am I?” is indeed a question analyzed into (i) “I” = ego-self, (ii) “am” = existence, being (sat), and (iii) “Who” = Self.

“Who?” can be regarded not as equivalent not just to a “What?” question but also to a “Whence?” question. Bhagavan makes this clear in his elegant reply: “No; it is the ego that rises as ‘I.’ That from which it arises is the Self(my italics).

Self-inquiry, then, is concerned first with deconstructing the ego I and second with revealing the source of all, including–most centrally–the illusory ego.

Bhagavan, then, won’t allow us to hold onto any duality as would be true were there to exist a lower atman and a higher atman. No, there exists only atman, or Self.

Which is to say that what Self-inquiry (atma vichara) discloses is that (a) the ego was believed to be an existing entity but that belief was born of ignorance and that (b) the “I” in “Who am I?” dissolves as “it” returns to its Source, i.e., the sole Reality which is the Self.

Is The World Real? Some Arguments To The Contrary

Advaita Vedanta teaches the young, earnest disciple to deny that the world is real.

Common Sense

The commonly held belief that the world is real can be broken down into two parts:

  1. The world is a separate, independent (or independently existing) thing.
  2. The world is quasi-permanent (quasi-sat in Sanskrit).

In today’s post, I touch on some arguments related to 1. Soon I’ll discuss 2.


Is The World An Independently Existing Thing?

Argument #1: On Kant and Vedanta

  1. The only access we have to ‘the world’ is via perception and conception.
  2. In this sense, ‘the world’ is always already for us.
  3. To say that it is “for us” is to suggest what is experienciable is already percepts: touches, tastes, smells, sounds, and sights.
  4. But that isn’t quite right, actually, because we don’t experience percepts, or objects of perception. Rather, we only ever experience touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing.
  5. And who is this “we” or, really, this “I” anyway?
  6. The “I” in this case is witnessing awareness: seeing is seeing “for me” in the sense that seeing is arising to witnessing awareness. More simply, witnessing awareness is seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing.

Argument #2: On Space and Time in Direct Experience

  1. When you stand in a meadow and point to the mountain, ask yourself, “Where is the mountain in my direct experience?”
  2. You may be tempted to say that it’s “way over there” or “over yonder,” but is it?
  3. In actuality, the mountain is right here in your direct experience. In fact, there is, in direct experience, nothing that answers to “over yonder.” Every phenomenon is right here.
  4. And when, in that same meadow, ask yourself, “When is the mountain in my direct experience?”
  5. You may be inclined to say that it will be reached in some future state when you get there.
  6. But that’s not right either. In truth, the mountain so seen and so pointed to is occurring now.
  7. So, the mountain–seen, pointed to, imagined, and so on–is only ever here and now.

So what? Well, is there any ascertainable separate, independent thing discovered so far in our inquiry?

So what? Well, might it be the case–and I come to this too soon in our inquiry together–that a separate, independent world is an unintelligible idea and that Awareness is an all-encompassing, all-pervasive, non-dual reality?

How Can We Discern Progress In Spiritual Practice?


This is a question raised by earnest spiritual seekers. It’s clearly not a question for ignoramuses–that is, for those, strictly speaking, who are ignorant and who are ignorant of their ignorance–nor is it a question for fully realized beings (for whom there can be no question of progress or the lack thereof). It’s only, therefore, a relevant question for those who are very much ‘on the Way.’


The reason the question is raised is that one earnestly wants to know whether he or she is practicing correctly. If it’s raised for unwholesome reasons (like pride or envy), then the matter, by the answerer, should be summarily dismissed or the vice directly pointed to.


A Neo-Advaitist might say, “There is no progress because there is no self keen on making progress. There is no discerning and thus there is no question at all.”

Reply: this is a cheap trick, it’s uttered out of quiet self-righteousness, and, as such, it is not to be taken seriously. This objection reveals, in the very least, a lack of compassion.

From the depths of compassion, then, we should offer an answer to the question.

Peacefulness, Love, & the Diminution of Suffering

When asked how a potential student can tell whether a teacher is legit, Sri Ramana Maharshi answers by suggesting that a legitimate teacher, established in and as peace itself, is one around whom one experiences great peace. If, that is, one is ripe enough and if one experiences no such peace, then it would be wise not to take this one as your teacher.

A similar line of thought can be applied to the case of progress. If others can discern not just that one is more peaceful but also more loving, then one has every reason to believe that one’s practice is heading in the right direction. Of course, one, at this stage, won’t always be peaceful or loving, but the question is really whether there has been noticeable, if unspoken, improvements to overall peacefulness and to overall lovingness.

I add in the loving condition because we should, over time and if our practice is going well enough, notice not only a greater sense of peace but also a more capacious, loving openness. Our sense of poignancy should increase appreciably.

In addition to greater peace and love, we should, concomitantly, observe that the trend of suffering is downward. Meaning, perhaps, that we get into fewer funks or ruts than we used to. Meaning that we’re able to use sadhana to get out of negativity more swiftly (the recovery time, as it were, is quicker). Meaning that fewer events are bound to ‘throw us off’ in the first place. And so on.


If one is not noticing, over a long enough period of time (hence one must be discerningly patient), greater peace, more love, and less suffering, then one should seek out help with a view to making earnest corrections to one’s practice. And if one is noticing all three, then one should carry on with earnestness, gratitude, and humility.