“If this sticky, uncouth craving overcomes you in the world, your sorrows grow like wild grass after rain.” (Dhammapada 335)
Tanha perpetuates ‘the fever of unsatisfied longing’; the opposite of bien être (sense of well-being). Tanha is not a happy bunny. It attempts to feed the hunger of ‘wanting’ but the action of feeding it only sharpens the edge of appetite; there’s never enough. Tanha is a deep craving for ‘self’. It is astonishing to think that the ‘self’ we have constructed to fill the void of ‘no self’ is the direct result of tanha. I am ‘me’, here in this world, because of tanha.
Tanha is the cause of Suffering, the 2nd Noble Truth, the 7th step in the Paticcasamuppada. Tanha is the reason for rebirth. In the story of King Assaka and Queen Upari, Queen Upari died and became a cow dung beetle in the next life. But she felt quite at home in her lowly existence as a cow dung beetle and this is due to tanhã (craving) which finds delight everywhere. Tanhã gives pleasure, delighting in whatever sense object presents itself – tanhã has the tendency to delight wherever it finds rebirth. Reborn as a dog, it takes delight in a dog’s existence; reborn as a pig, as a fowl, there is always delight in each existence.
It explains very well the reason why some people you meet are absolutely committed to ‘wrong view’ with an intensity that takes your breath away. They believe they’re right and the rest of the world is wrong. No matter what anybody says, they continue to do it the wrong way. Life is pretty difficult for somebody like that. I’m reminded of a song from the 60s: ‘The original discriminating buffalo man. He’ll do what’s wrong as long as he can.’ (Lyrics: The Minotaur’s Song’ by Incredible String Band [link])
Tanha is step 7/8 in the paticcasamuppada causality sequence. Interrupt the sequence there and bring the whole thing to an end. I first came across it in Walpole Rahula’s ‘What the Buddha Taught’, then later in Ajahn Buddhadasa [link] The way to deal with tanha is to cut off the conditions that lead to its arising. The entry point here is the step before it: 7. Vedana. At the vedana stage, there are three possibilities: the arising of pleasure, or pain or neutral feelings. If feelings of pleasure or pain arise, then craving or aversion will follow and tanha will be the result.
‘… if, by an act of will, only the neutral feeling was allowed to arise from contact with the object… the seventh link would be neutralized, de-activated. That being so, tanha could not arise, and the next link (upadana) would fail to arise and so on …” Eric Cheetham, “Fundamentals of Mainstream Buddhism”, p214-215
For me, the discovery that interrupting the sequence at Vedana changed the momentum of everything was awesome, to say the least. This is how I quit the tobacco habit (and other things). By allowing the neutral response (at Vedana) to be present for a moment, I noticed an easing in the craving, a cessation – just enough to trigger my curiosity… what is going on here? The first time this happened, the cessation took place just as my recognition of it clicked as (possibly) ‘the way out’, and I knew then I’d cracked it. Now I see it’s about staying a little distant from it, and allowing the craving to start the process of cessation by itself. Trying to confront/defeat the craving will not work because willed action only causes it to arise again.
Time went on and the craving would arise but there was always cessation. By my continuing to recognize that it’s in the nature of Tanha (as with everything else) to be transient like this, it was seen as something that comes and goes – bye-bye craving. The neutral feeling didn’t register as anything (that’s the thing about neutral feeling) and there was a space, a gap that wasn’t there before. Curiosity about this new space, just discovered, led to extra motivation. I could see that I was changed. Situations that used to completely overwhelm and demolish me seemed more distant; I’d found a way of looking at them as if they were something quite separate.
Other habitual behaviour began to fall away. I began to notice the wonderful emptiness or the wholeness or … (whatever word you use isn’t quite it), a great peace in the space of the mind that comes about when you understand that there is a way out of Suffering. I figured out that I am not dependent on the ‘dependent’ mind state tanha. I can walk away from it; everything that arises, ceases.