tanhã, craving

Wheel.of.Life-largeOLD NOTEBOOKS: Craving perpetuates the fever of unsatisfied longing, this is the state of tanhã. The opposite of a sense of well-being, tanhã is not a happy bunny. It constantly feeds the hunger of desire but the action of feeding it only sharpens the edge of appetite. Too much is never enough. It explains very well the reason why some people are committed to ‘wrong view’ with an intensity that takes your breath away. Tanhã is this deep craving for the ‘self’ we construct in fear of ‘no self’, a result of tanhã. I am ‘me’, in this world, due to tanhã, 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, because of tanhã which is delighting in whatever sense object presents itself and wherever it finds rebirth. Reborn as a dog, it takes delight in a dog’s existence; reborn as a pig, as a chicken, there is always delight in each existence. [‘Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective’ by Mark Epstein].

In the causality sequence that forms the 12 step cycle of the wheel of existence (paticcasamuppada), tanhã is step 8. The way to stop tanhã arising, is to cut off the conditions that lead to its beginning; interrupt the sequence before tanhã happens, and bring the whole thing to an end. The entry point in the cycle is just before tanhã: step 7 feeling (vedana). At the vedana stage, there are three possibilities: pleasure, pain or neutral feelings. If feelings of pleasure or pain arise, then craving or aversion will take place and tanha will be the result. If, by an act of will, only the neutral feeling is allowed to arise, the 7th link will be neutralized, de-activated. That being so, tanhã cannot arise, and the next link (upadana) will fail to arise and so on. [See “Fundamentals of Mainstream Buddhism”, p214-215, Eric Cheetham]

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 my whole attitude changed. 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. The cessation took place when I noticed it was the way out of the cycle of repetition, and I understood then how to be free of it. The neutral feeling didn’t register as anything, just the awareness that there’s a space, a gap that wasn’t there before; a vantage point where I could see how to change the cycle of events. It’s in the nature of tanhã (as with everything else) to be transient like this, it’s something that comes and goes. Knowing it leads to Suffering, we can stay distant from tanhã for a moment, and allow it  to start the process of cessation by itself. Trying to confront or defeat tanhã will not work because willed action only causes it to arise again.

Situations that used to completely overwhelm and demolish me disappeared; other habitual behaviour began to fall away. I began to notice the wonderful emptiness, the wholeness, a peace of mind that comes about when you understand there is a way out of Suffering; everything that arises, ceases.

…there is a noble truth about the cessation of suffering. It is the complete fading away and cessation of this craving [tanha]; its abandonment and relinquishment; getting free from and being independent of it. [Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta]


Source for header image
this is a summarized form of an earlier post titled, ‘too much is never enough

30 thoughts on “tanhã, craving

  1. Enlightening post! I love the Bhavachackra as well. Such an useful map of human psychology. There is something I don’t quite understand about this neutral feeling you describe though. What I don’t understand is its relation to creativity. The human being is a creative animal. Many creations are led by human emotions. What would happen to the drive to create if one trains him/herself to see things from that neutral perspective? Would this neutrality bring us to a cessation of the creative drive? If so, would that be a loss of humanity overall? I recognise that as I write I can feel the fear of emptiness that you describe. My mind tells me that if I’d step into neutrality that would mean the cessation of all activities connected with “me”. Nonetheless, I would be interested in your view on this. Thanks!

    • Here’s an excerpt from a comment by Ajahn Succito: “Desire as an eagerness to offer, to commit, to apply oneself to meditation, is called chanda. It’s a psychological “yes,” a choice, not a pathology. In fact, you could summarize Dhamma training as the transformation of taṇhā into chanda. It’s a process whereby we guide volition, grab and hold on to the steering wheel, and travel with clarity toward our deeper well-being. So we’re not trying to get rid of desire (which would take another kind of desire, wouldn’t it). Instead, we are trying to transmute it, take it out of the shadow of gratification and need, and use its aspiration and vigor to bring us into light and clarity.”
      My own feeling is that the discovery of ‘neutrality’ is necessary because we have to be able to discriminate between the wholesome nature of the Path and unwholesome alternatives. After developing the skill in discriminating which is which and seeing the difference between Right Understanding and ‘Wrong’ Understanding, in the same way – although this may be an ongoing development – it becomes possible to apply creative thought etc.

      • Very clear! Thank you! What you write reminds me of the Bhagavadgita as well. In there Khrisna does not ask Arjuna to leave the battle. On the contrary, he convinces him to take action and leave doubt aside. Yet Khrisna also warns Arjuna to leave his attachment for an outcome of his actions aside. In a sense there is then a parallelism with what you are saying. Neutrality can arise, and the desire to create can be there as well. We just redirect it towards a greater good, the well-being of all sentient beings with an attitude of non-attachment. I believe this is freedom.

      • Yes, that would seem to be the same kind of thing; leaving aside the attachment for a particular outcome and going ahead with action. I think there’s some skill in that though – it’s something I’ve had difficulty with and I’m working on it. It’s about allowing the form to take place of its own accord…

      • Your excerpt from Ajahn Succito’s commentary just doesn’t ring true to me. Hard to put my finger on why. Something about the duality and judgementalism of ‘good volition’ (chanda) vs ‘bad volition’ (tanha). I don’t get the disposable raft metaphor for the dhamma for what seems a very similar reason. Or the common refrain of Western Buddhists that to get rid of your ego you have to have one in the first place.

        The Zen concept of the ‘journeyless journey’ is what speaks to me. Practice certainly has its place but it’s not about getting you somewhere you’re not. It’s sure not about grabbing the steering wheel and exerting your will upon direction. Or surrendering the wheel to the whims of fate for that matter. Its about realising you’re already exactly where you should be. And being there.

      • Don’t see what you mean exactly; chanda is aspiration and tanha is pathological. The raft metaphor is okay for me; apply the dhamma when the situation calls for it – you don’t have to carry it around like a heavy doctrine. The common refrain of Western… As soon as that kind of thing comes up I just know there’s something not right about it (‘right’ as in Right Understanding) and pay no heed to it. The Zen concept of the ‘journeyless journey’ is meaningful to me also. The way I understand the grabbing of the wheel analogy is the sense of a driver has a heart attack while driving and his front seat passenger grabs the wheel to prevent a car crash and the car comes to a halt.

      • I think we live in a society in which aspiration itself can be easily (and perhaps healthily) cast as pathological. That’s what I’m driving at really. It’s weird enough that I could imagine I can stand outside my own desires/cravings/aspirations and somehow determine which are pathological and which are healthy, but to think it could be done at one remove via a doctrine or belief system I’ve so judged …

        It’s a kookaburra thing. If you imagine yourself directing yourself towards a particular goal there is your self doing it. There is separation. There is craving. It’s neither healthy nor pathological. It just is. Not cause nor effect. It’s already neutral unless/until you make it not so. If you imagine a vehicle you’re directing to that goal you’ve only appropriated something else as an extension of yourself while keeping yourself, the vehicle and your steering of it apart from the goal itself.

        You see the kookaburra because you see the kookaburra. For no reasons. For all reasons. By the time you start dividing your universe into what enables you to see kookaburras and what does not – even whether you want to see kookaburras – you’ve separated yourself from the experience. No wonder they laugh.

      • Yep, it’s that kookaburra thing I read about in your post. Interesting, I was thinking about what you’re saying, sitting at the desk and staring out the window at a bird in the garden darting around from twig to branch to leaf-stalk, always some action, a movement of the head and my eyes follow it, then flit, fly, stop to peck at something. At the time of watching this bird I was in a state of neutrality, there was an awareness of your kookaburra example. No action on my part could be taken, I’d have liked to reach for my camera, jump up to the window and taken a photo. But it was going too quick. In a moment it disappeared.
        What I’m saying is there was a short period before I imagined myself taking the photo and the self doing it – but still in the zone of neutrality. The quick bird gets my attention, for no reason at all and that space… maybe the predatory thing just before I reach for my spear, or take aim with my bow and arrow. But that didn’t happen, there was no separation, no cause/effect, it was an event like other events. Now in hindsight I’m thinking that kind of experience could go towards a knowledge base about reactions to the object that might trigger craving. There’s a space that occurs just before the self arises.

      • Funny you mention the predatory thing.

        As you know I keep rabbits. As you may not know I once spent considerable time hunting rabbits. Although I haven’t killed and eaten a rabbit for over thirty years some of the reflexes remain. Every now and then I get a whiff of one of my rabbits and am immediately alert, sometimes with anticipatory hunger.

        It happened again at almost the exact time I heard the ping of the incoming email containing your previous comment.

      • I’m thinking of the line: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Yep I suppose that’s an option, if the worst came to the worst, but it would have be to really bad before that eventuality took place. Mind you farmers have free-range chickens wandering around and they’re unaware that one day they will be eaten by their benefactor

      • I used to tell myself that when one of my pet rabbits died I’d skin and eat it. Waste not want not and all that. Needless to say when the possibility arose it was out of the question.

        Odd arrangements of meat, we people. I’m sure your neurologist would agree.

      • Hmmm yes I’m sure he would concur… there’s something a little sinister about him. I sit there and what he sees is a living organism with buzzing neural pathways, synapses spark with a kind of electricity. I don’t know what motivates him to do what he does…

      • Check with the chemicals in someone else’s head? Why not? Maybe his hammer hits better nails.

        It must be nice to be able to explain everything in terms of the activity of a lump of grey jelly. But I think I prefer seeing the universe in a grain of sand. Easier to clean up if you drop it on the carpet.

        Did you know there’s even a specific neuron that makes us think about Pamela Anderson? Apparently our primate ancestors smashing rocks on the African savannah in an attempt to increase their brain capacity had the foresight to anticipate Baywatch. Hopefully this discovery will eventually lead to a cure for those who don’t think about Pamela Anderson.

      • Oh. you mean ‘those’ kinds of chemicals… and the first thing I did was to click on the Pamela Anderson link, magnetic fields and the association with holding infinity in the palm of your hand, that kind of thing.

  2. Ah, if only overcoming my own addictions were as simple as you make quitting cigarettes sound.

    Problem is there’s no one craving. There’s the physical craving. There’s the emotional craving. There’s the craving for the ritual. There’s the craving for the social context (e.g. drug friends). There’s the craving for the place it takes in your life from musing on it to acquiring it to using it to cleaning up afterwards to the abilities and disabilities you attribute to it.

    I guess it’s because, as you point out, tanha is ultimately the craving for the self. And no matter where you go, there you are.

    • Yes it’s a longish road, there’s some skill in accomplishing the goal and for me, things still go haywire at times. But so far I’ve been able to return stay on the rails – that’s the best I can hope for at my age. I notice that sometimes the form takes place of its own accord, all I need to do is guide it a bit. This is the direction I’d like the story to go in. But often it’s touch-and-go. There’s this craving in all its different forms as you’ve described, and the selective memory of how it used to be. It’s just there sometimes and you see it for what it is. There’s the neutrality around vedana always, and the four factors of accomplishment: 1. Chanda – Will or aspiration. 2. Viriya – Action and effort. 3. Citta – Contemplation or active thinking. 4. Vimansa – Investigation and examination.

  3. I very much enjoyed this description of neutrality. It is interesting for me to note that neutrality is a big theme in A Course in Miracles also. Recognizing that every “thing” is neutral– the body, the desk, the sky. While I was reading this I had one of those flickering recognitions, like a bird darting through a mind, about how this practice could defuse a craving. How feeling the neutrality of a phenomenon sort of takes the edge off. Suddenly your seated beside one another on the bus ride through the city, two beings, just watching the colors and faces go by. Sharing a moment, sharing a space, sharing an experience. There’s a neutrality to that… A joining almost…


    • Interesting for me too that neutrality is a big theme in A Course in Miracles. Regrets that I haven’t yet been able to devote enough time and energy in that direction. About neutrality, I see it in the way you describe; suddenly there’s the recognition that everything is neutral when the ordinary self is not included for whatever reason. There’s the flash of recognition that I don’t have to go one way or the other, or be pulled, repelled, drawn into any one of a whole range of the subtle pull/push desires – I can stay in neutrality for a moment before the pull/push takes place. And it’s this practice that can defuse craving, as you say. Or something happens that makes the knowing relationship with craving one of friendship…

  4. I appreciate your acknowledgement of my post and your reference to the book on the “Fundamentals of Buddhism” by Eric Cheetham. This is exactly why I started my blog, hoping to get more insight and resources from people like you who have been on the path. Thank you. I look forward to following your blog.

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