Tanha; usually translated for the Pali as craving or desire. Tanha is at the root of dukkha which is usually translated as suffering, this is the second Noble Truth that the Buddha discovered.
A more literal translation of tanha is “thirst”. When desire becomes a motivation for our actions, thoughts, speech, then it is very much like we are thirsty for whatever the object of that desire may be. It could be ice cream (a favorite of mine!), the desire to find the end of suffering or discontent, music, money, power, sex, intoxicants, the desire to be generous, kind, loving, truthful, patient, or just to be a bit warmer on a cold day. Tanha can be strong or weak, can last for a short or long time. When desire becomes overwhelming, taking precedence over all we do or think, it is called addiction. Desire can be skillful (wholesome) or unskillful (unwholesome). Indeed, for most of us, without desire we would not be exploring the path that the Buddha laid out for us. Some desires are “hardwired” into our very being, the desire to reproduce, the desire to eat, to survive; these are powerful instincts that are deeply ingrained into the behavior of even such simple beings as insects, or worms.
So, how are we to play with desire, tanha, thirst? How to use tanha as a tool to further our understanding and our progress toward liberation from dukkha?
First, we must see that until we are fully liberated or very close, desire in itself is neutral, it is the object, the mental processes that accompany the desire, and the pursuit of the object of desire that will determine whether the desire leads toward or away from dukkha. If the desire is to be kind, and the mental process that comes with the desire to be kind is pure (no ulterior motives), then the desire is skillful or wholesome and will tend to lead toward a wholesome outcome, lessening or at least not increasing dukkha in ourselves or others. If the desire is to kill, and especially if there is an accompanying harmful mental state like anger, then tanha is unwholesome, unskillful and will tend to lead to an unwholesome outcome, harm and suffering.
While all of this is pretty obvious, we often are not mindful of the process of becoming “thirsty” so craving can get a hold of us before we are fully aware. By the time we realize what is happening, we are caught or have even reacted blindly to our desires. At this point it becomes more difficult to work with desire, and we often try to suppress it with will power. Then the wrestling match with tanha starts, so we are constantly doing battle with our desires. Or, if we are of a different personality, we feed our desires by trying to satiate them. Eventually we are trying to obtain the object of our cravings not for the object itself, but to make the craving go away. This is a key point, we notice that craving, desire, thirst is not pleasant, indeed it can be so painful that it can drive people to do harm that they did not believe they were capable of.
There is a middle way. Just notice that there is craving. See if you can stay with the mindful, clear knowing that there is desire. Notice if it is skillful or unskillful if you can. Notice if it stays the same or changes, notice when it passes away. Joseph Goldstein points out that if we can experience the passing of craving without reacting, we notice that there is a sense of release, as if we were caught in the grip of something. This careful mindful investigation will allow for seeing tanha as it really is, and then when the wisdom and discernment arise to allow for it, an appropriate response. If we have acted unskillfully, we see that as well, and remember our aspiration to be mindful, to observe and not react in the future.
Now, there is a big difference between craving and eating the second ice cream sandwich and having an affair with your best friend’s spouse. If it is obvious and we see there is serious harm that will come to us or others, we must use whatever tools we have to stop the offending speech, thought or behavior. When things become this difficult, it is often wise to seek out a good and wise Dhamma friend to talk with, or a mental health professional, or anything else that will prevent the craving from coming to fruition.
In this way coming out of tanha can be like a drink of cool water in the desert, brining real relief, peace and contentment to those who are willing to do the work.
May all beings be peaceful, well and content.
By Mark Wiesman