On Craving

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last time we looked at the Noble Truth of suffering, of dukkha. As we saw, it is not easy to understand precisely what “suffering” amounts to in the Buddha’s dhamma, and part of what we need to do to understand it is to see how it is produced, how it relates to the Second Noble Truth in particular, the Noble Truth of the origin of dukkha.

If the First Noble Truth illustrates our existential problem as worldly beings, the Second Noble Truth illustrates the solution, for it is in the origin or cause of suffering that we can see its extinction, or at least the extinction of all that it is possible to extinguish.

In the Dhammacakkapptavattana Sutta, the Buddha describes it:

[I]t is this craving (taṇhā) which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination. (Saṃyutta Nikāya 56.11).

The proximate cause of dukkha is craving, taṇhā, literally “thirst”, the strong desire we have for pleasure. This desire has a positive and a negative side to it, illustrated by “craving for existence” and “craving for extermination”. In its most elemental form these are the cravings we have for pleasant experiences to continue and unpleasant experiences to end. The latter sort we generally call “aversion”.

The Cause of Craving

Just as we looked at how dukkha is produced to understand dukkha, so too we have to look at how craving is produced to understand craving. By the standard formula of dependent arising, craving is produced by feeling (vedanā). “Feeling” here is a technical term; it does not refer to the emotions. Instead it can be defined as something like “feeling tone”: pleasant, painful, and neutral sensations.

The basic idea is that pleasant sensations induce in us a craving for their continuation, painful feelings induce in us a craving for their cessation, and neutral sensations induce in us either dull passivity or a craving for pleasant sensations. It is this move from feeling to craving that the Buddha believed was the weak link in the chain of dependent origination, the place that the saṃsāric process could eventually be broken. So investigating this link is of paramount importance.

Of the five aggregates that make up the person, only feeling is given its own chapter in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. It is there we encounter the parable of the dart that we discussed last time. In the sutta just prior to that one, the Buddha outlines how these feelings should be seen in order to lead to an end of dukkha:

When, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu as seen pleasant feeling as painful, painful feeling as a dart, and neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling as impermanent, he is called a bhikkhu who sees rightly. … [H]e has made an end to suffering. (SN 36.5/IV.207).

So what is essential to suffering, and hence to the craving that produces suffering, is not doing these very things: it is not seeing pleasant feeling as painful, for example. That is, it is not seeing the impermanence in pleasant feeling, the fact that it will inevitably come to an end. Craving for pleasant feeling is the knee-jerk unwillingness to see this basic fact.

Similarly, what is essential to suffering, and hence to the craving that produces suffering, is not seeing painful feeling as a dart, to which sorrow, grief, and lamentation are but a second dart causing more pain. Craving for an end to unpleasant feeling is the knee-jerk unwillingness to see unpleasant feeling as just a dart.

The Buddha explains this process in more detail in the sutta of the Dart, in a very interesting passage. Here he talks about the typical “uninstructed worldling”. Recall that “aversion” is simply a form of craving directed towards the unpleasant:

Being contacted by that same painful feeling, he harbors aversion towards it. … Being contacted by painful feeling, he seeks delight in sensual pleasure. For what reason? Because the uninstructed worldling does not know of any escape from painful feeling other than sensual pleasure. (SN 36.6/IV.208).

This is aversion: our knee-jerk desire, when faced with pain, to “turn away” (avert) from it, to redirect our perceptual apparatus onto something pleasurable. It can also be a desire to exterminate the unpleasant sensation, to make it go away by destroying it.

Note that the Buddha here says that the uninstructed person “does not know of any escape other than sensual pleasure”; the problem is not that there is no escape, the problem is that the person doesn’t know the proper escape. He substitutes one form of sense experience for another, overlooking the fact that any sense experience is impermanent and hence itself dukkha. Of course, for someone in that predicament, an impermanent good may seem — and indeed may be — a better option than an impermanent bad. The problem is that this syndrome of searching out pleasant experiences is no secure refuge. Pleasant experiences fade with time, and what seemed new and exciting yesterday seems dull and routine today.

We habituate to pleasure. It often seems as though hedonic opportunities are like a ladder, stretching unbounded upwards: no matter where we are, there are people who seem to be having a better time of it at many, diverse levels above us. However while money and power do provide access to more diverse forms of sensual pleasure, there is no essential link between wealth, power and happiness, however one reasonably defines happiness. This is partly because impermanence and unsatisfactoriness are too basic and universal to be overcome by spending money or political power on them, much as money and power may ease the burden in some cases.

In the Raṭṭhapāla Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 82), the arahant Raṭṭhapāla discusses with King Koravya of the Kuru country the fact that “[Life in] any world is incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving.” As king over a wealthy land, Koravya has access to all the sense pleasures he might want. But as Raṭṭhapāla establishes,

[If] a trustworthy and reliable man came to you from the east and said: ‘Please know, great king, that I have come from the east, and there I saw a large country, powerful and rich, very populous and crowded with people. There are plenty of elephant troops there, plenty of cavalry, chariot troops and infantry; there is plenty of ivory there, and plenty of gold coins and bullion both unworked and worked, and plenty of women for wives. With your present forces you can conquer it. … ‘ What would you do? (MN 82.41/II.71).

The king says he would conquer it. And he would do precisely the same if someone later came with the same tidings from the west, the north, the south, and from across the sea. There is literally no end to the lands King Koravya would not crave to conquer. In that sense life is always “incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving”, even for the wealthiest and most powerful among us.

The basic, definitional aspects of dukkha are unavoidable: aging, illness, death; union with what is displeasing, separation from what is pleasing. None can be escaped completely.

They cannot be escaped completely, but what can be escaped is aversion from them. What can be escaped is craving for bread and circuses.

The Role of Self

All craving and aversion are also intimately related to our notions of self. We crave to possess things as ours. We are averse to things that seem unlike us. We identify with people, family, sports teams, religions, countries. We also identify very closely with views: in the Brahmajāla Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 1) all sixty two speculative views are said to be “only the agitation and vacillation of those who are immersed in craving.” In craving for continued existence we cling to views of an eternal soul, for example. Conversely, if we are not neutral to them, we may become averse to people, teams, religions, countries, and views that we do not identify with, that we think of as different or “other”, for whatever reason.

Neutrality in this respect is not the same as maintaining wise equanimity. Equanimity is the aim: to be able to confront, experience, and live with the pleasant and the painful without self-identifying, without clinging or aversion. Neutrality on the other hand is dull indifference: it is not caring. If we don’t follow ice hockey, we may be neutral as to which team wins the Stanley Cup this year. That does not mean we are equanimous. It means we don’t care, which is a different matter entirely.


Craving is the fulcrum around which dukkha, and its avoidance, turns our lives. It is also the weak point of the system, according to the Buddha. Strong though craving and aversion may be, they are not entirely impervious to our efforts to do away with them. We may, by diligence, work to reduce (and perhaps even eliminate) craving and aversion. But to do so we need to understand their arising.

Craving arises due to the pleasant feelings occasioned by sense experience. We do not want such experiences to end, we do not view them as essentially and inherently impermanent. We become averse to their ending, which is another form of craving. Not knowing any other escape, we pursue further sense pleasures in order to fill their void when they leave us, or to divert ourselves from the unpleasant aspects of life.

There is no escape from craving through pursuit of sense pleasures. Indeed, the very desire to escape through such pursuit is but a further manifestation of craving. If there is an escape from dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of life we find exhibited in obsessive mental proliferation (papañca), it will be by another route entirely.


Blog posts on the Noble Truths:

The First Noble Truth

The Third Noble Truth

The Fourth Noble Truth


Bhikkhu Anālayo. Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses (Pariyatti, 2012).

Bhikkhu Bodhi. “Brahmajāla Sutta: The All-embracing Net of Views” (DN 1). Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, Various Nikāyas (Wisdom).