Three Cheers for Tanha
by Robert Morrison (Dharmachari Sagaramati)
Anyone acquainted with either the Paali suttas or the Theravaada tradition as a whole, if asked for an opinion on the spiritual status of ta.nhaa, usually translated as 'craving', would most likely answer along the lines that ta.nhaa is entirely antithetical to the Buddhist spiritual quest, the brahmacariya, and is almost akin to the Christian notion of 'original sin', in the sense that no one is born without it. As the second of the Four Noble Truths tells us, ta.nhaa is the cause of dukkha or 'suffering and unsatisfactoriness', the first Noble Truth, and the cessation of ta.nhaa, the third Noble Truth, is synonymous with nirvaa.na itself, the very goal of Buddhist practice. Ta.nhaa is said to be the 'seamstress' that 'sews one just into this ever-becoming rebirth'. It is that by 'which this world is smothered, enveloped, tangled like a ball of thread, covered as with a blight, twisted up like a grass-rope, so that it overpasses not sa.msaara, the Downfall, the Way of Woe, the Ruin'. It is likened to an 'arrow … thickly smeared with poison'. Selecting certain passages from the Paali suttas, one can build up a view of ta.nhaa as completely unwholesome and anti-spiritual, something that has simply to be negated. Notwithstanding this reprobation of ta.nhaa, in this essay I will present a more sympathetic view, a view that highlights the wider implications of ta.nhaa, and contends that without it there would be no Buddhist spiritual life – no brahmacariya or 'pursuit of excellence' – and therefore no Buddhas.
1. The Term Tanhaa
Ta.nhaa is literally 'drought' or 'thirst' and, as the Pali-English Dictionary informs us, 'is found mainly in poetry, or in prose passages charged with emotion. It is rarely used in the philosophy or the psychology'. Figuratively, it means 'craving, hunger for, excitement, the fever of unsatisfied longing'. Given its poetic pedigree, ta.nha can be said to be a term that appeals more to the imagination than reason, and this may be why it is hardly mentioned in the lists and abstract permutations of the later technical, not to say arid, literature of the Abhidhamma. To those who heard the word from the mouth of the Buddha or one of his disciples, ta.nhaa no doubt evoked an acute pathos which the translation 'craving' miserably fails to do. To understand ta.nhaa as simply one affect among other affects would be a mistake. For example ta.nhaa, as we shall see, is a term that has cosmic significance, and is a notion that is best understood metaphorically, as a metaphor that evokes the general condition that all unenlightened beings find themselves in in the world: a state of being characterized by a 'thirst' that compels a pursuit for appeasement, the urge to seek out some form of gratification. In other words, ta.nhaa is a metaphor for the existential and affective ground underlying the whole of sa.msaaric existence, the ground out of which spring the various strivings for satisfaction, fulfilment, and meaning. It can therefore be understood as an attempt to characterize, in a single metaphor, the general condition of unenlightened existence, as well as providing the primary reason why sa.msaara is deemed ultimately to be dukkha or 'unsatisfactory': as sa.msaara cannot fully quench our 'thirst', it must appear to one who fully understands this (i.e. an ariya) as dukkha.
2. The Cosmological Perspective
In the Aggañña Sutta, which is as near as Buddhism comes to having a kind of Genesis, at the end of the 'devolution' (sa.mva.t.ta) cycle of the cosmos, most beings are said to be reborn in the AAbhassara Brahmaa world, where they are said to 'dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious'. They remain in this condition for 'a very long time'. However, all things being impermanent, the ordinary world begins to evolve again, and those self-luminous beings, as a result of their 'merit' (puñña) running out, tumble down the Buddhist version of the 'great chain of being' and eventually hover around the now evolving earth. As the Buddha tells it to Vaase.t.tha:
At that period, Vaase.t.tha, there was just one mass of water, and all was darkness, blinding darkness. Neither moon nor sun appeared, no constellations or stars appeared, night and day were not distinguished, nor months and fortnights, nor years or seasons, and no male and female, beings being reckoned just as beings. And sooner or later, after a very long period, savoury earth spread itself over the waters where those beings were. It looked just like the skin that forms itself over hot milk as it cools. It was the colour of fine ghee or butter, and it was very sweet, like pure wild honey.
Then some being of a greedy nature said: 'I say, what can this be?' and tasted the savoury earth on his finger. In so doing, he became taken with the flavour, and ta.nhaa arose in him. Then other beings, taking their cue from him, also tasted the stuff with their fingers. They too were taken with the flavour, and ta.nhaa arose in them… And as a result their self-luminance disappeared … the sun and moon appeared, night and day were distinguished, months and fortnights appeared, and the year and its seasons. To that extent the world re-evolved. [D iii. 84-85]
The once self-luminous beings continue their 'fall', becoming coarser and coarser as they become more and more entangled in the world, until they eventually create the kind of troubled and divided world that surrounds us today, populated by people like us, driven by all sorts of affects. And, as we can see, it is ta.nhaa that replaces the infamous bite of the infamous apple, causing the world to re-evolve – a kind of Buddhist version of the 'fall' – but here the apple is replaced by what seems to be one of those delicious Indian sweets, and the 'fall' is only a part of a cycle that endlessly repeats itself. We also notice that ta.nhaa arose not in the mind of a crude, biologically conditioned being, stuck somewhere in the mid-reaches of the kaama-loka, but in the mind of a deva, a divine 'self-luminous' being from the reaches of the ruupa-loka. Elsewhere, the Buddha declares that ta.nhaa is the 'fuel' (upaadaana) that links one life with the next, implying that ta.nhaa is the radical condition for existing anywhere within the Buddhist cosmos, including its higher, more refined reaches.
The cosmic significance of ta.nhaa is also witnessed elsewhere. For example, in the A'nguttara Nikaaya we have:
Bhikkhus, a first beginning of bhava-ta.nhaa cannot be known [paññaayati] before which one could say bhava-ta.nhaa did not exist, it has since come to be'. [A v. 116.]
Although this sutta mentions bhava-ta.nhaa, which, together with kaama-ta.nhaa and vibhava-ta.nhaa is one of a group of three ta.nhaas mentioned in the suttas, and not ta.nhaa per se, I think it is rather obvious that bhava-ta.nhaa or the 'thirst-to-be', being the most general and basic of the three, is, in fact, ta.nhaa per se. For example, kaama-ta.nhaa is 'thirsting' after specifically sensual experiences and is, therefore, an aspect of the more general bhava-ta.nhaa, which is 'thirsting' after any form of being or experience – it is simply the urge to be, or, more correctly, to become (bhava). If we assume that existence does not have an inherent Freudian 'Death Wish', then the third ta.nhaa, vibhava-ta.nhaa or 'thirst for non-existence', is more likely to be the outcome of the continual frustration of bhava-ta.nhaa and kaama-ta.nhaa, and is therefore a secondary and derived state. The fundamental ta.nhaa is therefore bhava-ta.nhaa, which I would understand as being synonymous with ta.nhaa per se.
Given this, we can say that ta.nhaa has cosmic significance. Like the cosmos itself, its beginning is said to unknowable, and it is presented, in this Buddhist 'Genesis', as the primary and affective condition that sets in motion another cycle of the Buddhist cosmos, implying that it is understood to be the primal condition out of which all other affects can be said to develop. Ta.nhaa, from this perspective, can be understood as the all-pervasive and fundamental characteristic of the Buddhist cosmos; its raison d'être.
3. Ta.nhaa as a Metaphor
In the sutta before the one just quoted, what is said of ta.nhaa having no knowable first beginning is also said of 'spiritual ignorance' [avijjaa]. Commenting on these two suttas, Buddhaghosa asks: 'But why does the Bhagavant [i.e. the Buddha] give the exposition of sa.msaara with [ta.nhaa and avijjaa] as starting points?' He provides his own answer: 'Because they are the principal causes of action [kamman] that lead to happy and unhappy destinies'. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Buddhism does not posit any particular point in time when the universe first came into being, let alone posit any first cause: the cosmos has no known first beginning. Therefore, even these two 'principal causes' of ta.nhaa and avijjaa are not in any manner causa sui, but said to be 'conditionally connected' [idappaccayaa], not otherwise. In other words, they have no independent, autonomous existence. 'But', as Buddhaghosa adds, 'there is a metaphorical [pariyaaya] way in which [they] can be treated as the root cause [of sa.msaara]. What way is that? When [they are] made to serve as a starting point in an exposition of sa.msaara'. In other words, they are methodologically foremost in that they represent the basic and general condition of unenlightened, sa.msaaric existence, as well as being the last sa.msaaric tendencies to be eroded before attaining Arahantship or complete Buddhahood. In this sense, in one form or another, they characterize the whole of sa.msaaric existence, from its most primitive and crude depths to its most refined heights. They can, therefore, be said to be there from the very 'beginning' through to the final 'end' of sa.msaara. One could even add that, conjoined, these two are the twin pillars that support the whole edifice of sa.msaara. Ta.nhaa, therefore, according to this account, is clearly not some particular affect among other affects, but is best understood as a metaphor – a metaphor that attempts to capture the most pervasive affective characteristic of sa.msaaric existence. Moreover, if we take these two suttas from the A'nguttara Nikaaya at face value, it appears that ta.nhaa, as bhava-ta.nhaa, is even more fundamental than avijjaa or 'spiritual ignorance'. In the sutta dealing with ta.nhaa it is said that ta.nhaa is 'nourished' by avijjaa, which in turn is nourished by the 'five hindrances', which are nourished by 'the three wrong ways of practice', and so on, whereas in the sutta dealing with avijjaa, it is said that avijjaa is nourished by 'the five hindrances', which are nourished by 'the three wrong ways of practice', and so on, making ta.nhaa more fundamental than even avijjaa. However, both are said to be conditionally dependent, implying that we can understand ta.nhaa and avijjaa as the affective and cognitive aspects of the one state. In other words, there is a conditional interdependence between affective state and perceived world which cannot be experientially separated. To use an image from the suttas, they are like two sheaves of reeds stacked together, which depend upon each other for support. The two sheaves of reeds in this case are naama-ruupa or 'mind and body' and viññaa.na or 'consciousness', which implies that 'consciousness' or 'discernment' (viññaa.na) is conditionally dependent upon the affects, and vice versa – taking naama or 'mind' as comprising vedanaa or 'feeling-sensation', saññaa or 'apperception', and the sa'nkhaaras or 'formative forces', which is where the affects are found. This interdependence can also be seen elsewhere in the suttas, where the Buddha exhorts his bhikkhus to cultivate meditative concentration (samaadhi): 'A bhikkhu who is concentrated knows (pajaanaati) things as they really are (yathaa-bhuuta)'. The state of samaadhi here being the necessary affective state for 'transformative insight' (paññaa) to arise, which, notwithstanding their interdependence, again intimates the primacy of the affective in relation to the cognitive.
4. Dependent Co-Arising and Ta.nhaa
That ta.nhaa can be understood as a general condition rather than a specific affect can also be seen in the most common twelve-membered nidaana chain of pa.ticca-samuppaada or 'dependent co-arising'. Here, it is said that in dependence upon our 'contact' [phassa] with the world, vedanaa or 'feeling-sensation' arises; in dependence upon vedanaa there arises ta.nhaa; and in dependence upon ta.nhaa arises upaadaana or 'clinging', which results in becoming even more bound up in sa.msaaric activities. However, I do not consider ta.nhaa here to refer to a particular affect arising in dependence upon 'feeling-sensation', but a term for a general condition: it is, as Buddhaghosa puts it, a 'metaphorical' [pariyaaya] expression for the primary and general condition of our being in the world, from which spring the manifold affects that arise through our contact with the world. For example, if a heterosexual man encounters a very attractive woman, this will probably give rise to a pleasurable 'feeling-sensation', which in turn can form the condition for the arising of affects such as 'lust' [raaga], 'infatuation' [pema], etc. Whereas, if we encounter someone who tells us that we are stupid, then the 'feeling-sensation' is more likely to be unpleasant, which in turn can form the condition for the arising of affects such as 'aversion' [pa.tigha] or 'hatred' [dosa], etc. The response to 'feeling-sensation' is going to be a particular affect, and ta.nhaa here, as I suggest, is not so much a particular affect, but is best understood metaphorically, as the general condition from which there can arise all manner of affects, including, as we shall see, what Buddhism regards as 'skilful' (kusala) affects, the kind of affects cultivated in an active spiritual life.
We get an intimation that tanhaa can give rise to skilful affects in a version of pa.ticca-samuppaada found in the Mahaanidaana Sutta of the Diigha Nikaaya. Here it is said that 'ta.nhaa conditions searching' (pariyesanaa), which in turn conditions 'acquisition' (laabha), and so on ending with 'the taking up of stick and sword, quarrels, disputes, arguments, strife, abuse, lying and other evil and unskilful states'. The sutta then goes on to say that 'ta.nhaa is the cause, the reason, the origin, the condition for all searching (pariyesanaa)'. However, elsewhere, it is clear that all searching does not necessarily lead to 'lying and other evil and unskilful states'. For example in the Majjhima Nikaaya, the Ariyapariyesanaa Sutta tells us there is a 'noble search' (ariyaa pariyesanaa) as well as an 'ignoble search' (anariyaa pariyesanaa). The noble search corresponds to Gotama's going forth, when, 'while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessing of youth, in the prime of life, though my mother and father wished otherwise and wept with tearful faces, I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and went forth from the home life into homelessness … seeking the supreme state of sublime peace'. If 'ta.nhaa is the cause, the reason, the origin, the condition for all searching (pariyesanaa)', can we not say that this noble search (ariyaa pariyesanaa) also has its origin in ta.nhaa? If ta.nhaa is, as I have said, simply a metaphor that sums up the state we find ourselves in in the world, a state of seeking we know not what, what other basic condition would this noble search spring from?
In this sutta, the Buddha mentions that, before his enlightenment, he too was caught up in the ignoble search. The switch from the ignoble to the noble search came about as a result of his reflecting on his experience of the unsatisfactoriness of his former searching, i.e. the ignoble search, which led him to set out in search of something more spiritually worthy and meaningful, i.e. the noble search, by means of which he discovered the 'supreme state of sublime peace', Nibbaana. Although the sutta tells us that he went forth in search of 'the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, and undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbaana', I think we must assume that when he set out on this noble search he did not know if there were such a state as nirvaa.na to be attained; he did not know if he would find an answer. We only know this as a result of his noble search. From this episode, we can say that the Buddha-to-be was a human being who, because of his ta.nhaa – his urge for satisfaction – sought to gratify this urge through the ignoble search, seeking satisfaction, security, happiness, fulfillment in those things which cannot provide real satisfaction (in the sutta they are said to be 'Wife and children … men and women slaves, goats and sheep … gold and silver,' etc). The result of searching for happiness and meaning in these areas was that his ta.nhaa was not appeased: he experienced dissatisfaction and frustration (dukkha), which led him to reflect more deeply on life. His reflections led him to try another way of life to satisfy his longing – to appease his ta.nhaa – by setting out on the brahmacariya or 'life in pursuit of excellence': he left home, became a sama.na, studied under various teachers, attained what they had attained, was still not satisfied, became an ascetic, nearly killed himself in the process, and eventually went off on his own and finally attained what he was searching for – nirvaa.na. Reading the text in this way, it is clear that although ta.nhaa is the urge that leads to the ignoble search, it can also be understood as the urge that leads to the noble search as well, and the eventual attainment of nirvaa.na. The shift from the ignoble to the noble search is not a matter of restraining ta.nhaa, or of attempting to annihilate it, but arises as a consequence of reflection: reflecting on the fact that the life one is leading leaves one's basic desire for fulfillment (ta.nhaa) unsatisfied. Ta.nhaa remains to goad one onto a new search, to look for new possibilities. Therefore, we can say that because Gotama's ta.nhaa remained unsatisfied, and his reflections led him to see that the worldly life is inherently unsatisfactory, when he saw the Fourth Sight he was able to respond to the religious ideal the wandering mendicant symbolized, and 'went forth from home into the homeless life' as a sama.na, the pursuit of which eventually led to him becoming a Buddha, an 'Awakened One'. Ta.nhaa, therefore, can be understood as the basis from which both the ignoble and the noble search can spring. The cause of the shift from the ignoble to the noble search is a matter of seeing that the life one is leading, although it may have its pleasures and moments of happiness and fulfillment, leaves one's basic existential state (ta.nhaa) untouched. Only the noble search can affect that more basic existential condition.
5. Skilful and Unskilful Ta.nhaa
Although, as I have said, the common and accepted traditional view of ta.nhaa is of a state antithetical to the Buddhist spiritual life, there are some rarely commented-upon passages which indicate that ta.nhaa also has a more wholesome aspect.
In the A'nguttara Nikaaya we have the statement: 'he abandons ta.nhaa by means of ta.nhaa'. But as to what this statement might imply, the sutta itself provides only a hint, and is in need of exegesis. Fortunately, the commentary provides some:
Based on the present craving [ta.nhaa] (i. e., desire for becoming an Arahant), he gives up previous craving that was the root-cause of (one's involvement in) the cycle of rebirth. Now (it may be asked) whether such present craving (for Arahantship) is wholesome [kusala] or unwholesome [akusala]? — It is unwholesome. — Should it be pursued or not? — It should be pursued [sevitabbaa]. — Does it drag one into rebirth [pa.tisandhi.m aaka.d.dhati] or not? — It does not drag one into rebirth.
As Nyanaponika adds at the end of this quote, 'Such permissible (sevitabbaa) craving is abandoned when its object is attained'. In other words, the 'desire for becoming an Arahant', which is identified here as 'present ta.nhaa', is abandoned only when one attains Arahantship. However, it seems rather odd that although this 'present ta.nhaa', which Nyanaponika understands as the 'desire for becoming an Arahant', 'should be pursued' and 'does not drag one into rebirth', nevertheless it is regarded by the commentator as unskilful (akusala). How can the desire to become an Arahant be 'unwholesome' (akusala)? Perhaps the commentator has in mind a similar theme found in the Sa.myutta Nikaaya, where chanda or 'desire to do' replaces ta.nhaa, and which makes the matter a little clearer. There the brahmin U.n.naabha asks AAnanda:
What is it, master AAnanda, for which the 'life of excellence' [brahmacariya] is lived under the recluse Gotama?
For the sake of abandoning 'desire to do' [chanda], brahmin, the life of excellence is lived under the Exalted One. [S v. 271ff.] 
When asked whether there is any practice for abandoning this chanda, AAnanda replies that chanda is to be abandoned by developing the four iddhi-paadas or 'paths to power', the first of which is chanda-samaadhi or 'concentration of will'. U.n.naabha retorts: 'That he should get rid of one chanda by means of another chanda is an impossible thing'. AAnanda then asks U.n.naabha whether, before setting out to visit him, he had the chanda to visit him, and when he arrived at the Park, whether that chanda was not now abated? U.n.naabha agrees that this is the case:
Very well then, brahmin. That monk who is [an] Arahant, in whom the aasavas are destroyed, who has reached perfection, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached the highest good, who has outworn the fetters of becoming and is freed by perfect knowledge [sammadaññaa] – that chanda which he previously had to attain Arahantship, now that Arahantship is won, that appropriate [tajja] chanda is appeased [pa.tippassaddha].
The chanda to be 'abandoned' [pahaana], which, interestingly, the commentator construes as ta.nhaa, is to be abandoned by means of developing the 'appropriate' chanda, which, here, is the chanda or 'desire' for Arahantship. And, as the text tells us, this 'appropriate' chanda is not said to be simply negated at the attainment of Arahantship, but is said to be 'appeased', or, we could say, satisfied and fulfilled. All that is negated is the possibility of chanda having aims and objects whose pursuit would lead to frustration and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). Using this model, we can therefore fill out the statement 'he abandons ta.nhaa by means of ta.nhaa': ta.nhaa, whose aims and objects are within sa.msaara, is to be abandoned by developing 'appropriate' [tajja] ta.nhaa, which is a form of ta.nhaa that can become 'appeased' as its aim is Arahantship. But what form would this appropriate ta.nhaa take? Although there are no such terms in the suttas as 'thirsting after Arahantship' (arahatta-ta.nhaa), or 'thirsting after the Dhamma' (dhamma-ta.nhaa), the notion that ta.nhaa can have Arahantship as its aim is found in the post-canonical Nettippakara.na:
There are two kinds of ta.nhaa: skilful [kusala] and unskilful [akusala]. Unskilful ta.nhaa leads to sa.msaara, skilful ta.nhaa is for abandoning, which leads to diminishing [of sa.msaaric activities]. 
As the text goes on to tell us, quoting a passage from the Majjhima Nikaaya, such skilful ta.nhaa is synonymous with an 'eager desire [pihaa] to enter the peaceful sphere that the ariyas, who having realized it by themselves, dwell in'. Thus, having 'liberation of mind' (ceto-vimutti) due to the 'fading away of [unskilful] desire' (raaga-viraaga) as its object, such ta.nhaa is skilful, and, in the manner of chanda, can therefore be said to be eventually 'appeased'.
The Paali commentator, Buddhaghosa, also understands ta.nhaa as having a wholesome aspect:
just as … [a] cow, through her ta.nhaa for cold water, starts drinking cold water, which gives her satisfaction and allays her torment, so the worldly man in the grip of bhava-ta.nhaa performs actions of various kinds beginning with abstention from killing living beings. This leads to happy destinies and gives satisfaction because it is free from the burning defilements and, by bringing him to a happy destiny, allays the torment of suffering [that would be experienced] in those unhappy destinies.
Buddhaghosa points out that the spiritually ignorant person is like a thirsty cow who tries to slake her thirst by drinking hot water, 'which gives no satisfaction', and represents unskilful action leading to continual frustration and sorrow (dukkha). Given these examples, we can therefore say that 'getting rid of ta.nhaa by means of ta.nhaa' implies that ta.nhaa can only be 'appeased' by becoming skilful, by 'thirsting' after those things that, from the Buddhist point of view, can actually bring real satisfaction. In other words, ta.nhaa, as the general condition of unenlightened existence, can only be 'appeased' by taking up the Buddhist brahmacariya or 'pursuit of excellence', whose goal is nirvaa.na.
It is also interesting to note that two affects closely related to ta.nhaa – raaga and kaama – also have this twofold aspect. For example, we have the terms dhamma-raaga or 'desire for the Dhamma', and dhamma-kaama or 'love of the Dhamma', both of which are understood as kusala affects to be developed. Yet raaga is listed as one of the three akusala-muulas or 'roots of unskilfulness' from which other secondary unskilful affects are said to develop, and is, as far as I am aware – at least in the Theravaada tradition – always considered an akusala affect, as is kaama. Raaga and kaama, therefore, like ta.nhaa and chanda, can also be said to have their kusala and akusala aspects, their ariya and anariya aspects, and, when their objects are 'appropriate', can be said to form part of the affective aspect of the Buddhist path, and eventually find satisfaction. However, if, as I have argued, ta.nhaa is not simply an affect among other affects, but is best understood as the affective ground out of which all the affects can be said to spring, then these kusala forms of chanda, raaga, and kaama can be said to be the affective expressions of kusalaa ta.nhaa.
Another interesting distinction made in the suttas, which also has relevance here, is that between the aamisa or 'carnal' affects and the dhamma or 'spiritual' affects. For example, there is both a 'carnal' or 'unregenerate' and a 'spiritual' or 'regenerate' form of 'longing' (esanaa), 'searching' (pariyesanaa), 'enjoyment' (bhoga), 'compassion' (anukampaa), 'generosity' (caaga), 'prosperity' (vu.d.dhi), 'favour' (anuggaha), 'sharing' (sa.mvibhaaga), 'worship' (puujaa), 'power' (iddhi), etc. Although no examples are given to illustrate this distinction, I would conjecture that, for example in the case of 'longing' (esanaa), as we have already have the distinction between the 'ignoble search' (anariyaa pariyesanaa) and the 'spiritual search' (ariyaa pariyesanaa), 'longing' in its aamisa form would be for material objects and pleasures, whereas 'longing' in its dhamma form would have spiritual objects in mind. Therefore, as we have a whole list of affects having a kusala, or ariya, or dhamma form, as well as an akusala, or anariya, or aamisa form, it can be said that neither ta.nhaa, raaga, kaama, pihaa, esanaa, pariyesanaa nor chanda are intrinsically unskilful, ignoble, or unregenerate, but it is the objects sought after that determine whether they are either skilful or unskilful, noble or ignoble, generate or unregenerate. Given this, we could say that there are four conditions of ta.nhaa: (1) as the affective ground of existence, or simply ta.nhaa per se, which is ethically neutral, but which, as the methodological starting point, can give rise both to skilful and to unskilful affects; (2) unskilful ta.nhaa, when it is the general condition for the arising of unskilful affects; (3) skilful ta.nhaa, when it is the general condition for the arising of skilful affects; (4) the 'appeasement' of ta.nhaa, or, we could say, the 'quenching' or even 'satiation' of ta.nhaa, which is nirvaa.na. Ta.nhaa per se is simply the general condition out of which all kinds of affects, both skilful and unskilful, can arise. When those affects are skilful, we can say that the general condition out of which they arise is skilful; when unskilful, the general condition is unskilful. Given that Buddhist doctrine teaches that all things come to be only in dependence upon conditions, and that, as I see it, ta.nhaa per se has no ethical apriority, this raises the interesting question as to the conditions under which ta.nhaa can be said to become either skilful or unskilful.
In the section on 'Ta.nhaa as metaphor', we saw that besides ta.nhaa, avijjaa or 'spiritual ignorance' also had no knowable or perceptible 'first beginning'. Further, according to Buddhaghosa, ta.nhaa and avijjaa, 'being the principle causes of action [kamman]', 'can be treated as the root cause [of sa.msaara]', and, methodologically, can therefore be 'made to serve as the starting point in an exposition of sa.msaara' – which, like ta.nhaa and avijjaa, has no knowable beginning. As ta.nhaa and avijjaa are so fundamental and are so inextricably linked – one cannot have one without the other – within the individual they can be understood as the basic affective and cognitive aspects that inform experience, which implies that how one sees and understands one's self and the world is influenced by one's affective state, and one's affective state is in turn influenced by the way one sees and understands one's self and the world. As we saw above, according to Buddhaghosa, they are 'conditionally connected' [idappaccayaa]. Yet if ta.nhaa can be skilful as well as unskilful, and skilful activity is spiritual activity, then 'spiritual ignorance' (avijjaa) cannot be the cognitive counterpart of skilful ta.nhaa, whose object is nirvaa.na. The cognitive counterpart of skilful ta.nhaa must be something like 'right-view' (sammaa-di.t.thi), the first member of the Noble Eightfold Path. Further, if ta.nhaa per se has no knowable beginning, and is simply the general condition that all beings find themselves in in the world, it would be rather absurd to hold them all culpable for being in a condition of ta.nhaa. And, as 'spiritual ignorance' (avijjaa) is ta.nhaa's beginningless cognitive counterpart, then beings cannot be held ultimately responsible for being born in the condition of 'spiritual ignorance' either, implying that 'spiritual ignorance' is also an ethically neutral state. To do otherwise would be to hold all beings culpable for not being born fully fledged Buddhas from that 'unknowable beginning', which is clearly ridiculous. Given this, we can draw up a correspondence between the various forms of ta.nhaa and their cognitive counterparts:
ta.nhaa per se...........................................avijjaa or 'spiritual ignorance'
unskilful ta.nhaa.....................................micchaa-di.t.thi or 'wrong-view'
skilful ta.nhaa.........................................sammaa-di.t.thi or 'right-view'
ta.nhaa 'appeased'.................................vijjaa or 'wisdom' (i.e. nirvaa.na).
The question as to how ta.nhaa can become either skilful or unskilful can therefore be linked to the question as to how 'wrong-views' and 'right-views' arise. However, as this list of correspondences is not found as such in the Paali tradition, I will put this question into a simplified evolutionary setting so as to provide an alternative perspective.
6. Ta.nhaa in an Evolutionary Setting
As ta.nhaa per se is the general existential condition we find ourselves in, it is the source from which spring the various means of seeking some form of gratification and purpose in life. Using Buddhist traditional terms, we can see this search for gratification as expressive of the two 'root' affects of raaga or 'desire' in general, and dosa or 'aversion', the former being the basic response to that which appears attractive, the latter to what appears threatening. Together with their cognitive aspect, moha or 'bewilderment', these form the three akusala-muulas or 'unskilful-roots' of existence. Although Buddhism is concerned solely with the spiritual life, and these unskilful-roots are always regarded ethically as hindrances to the individual's spiritual development, in their cruder forms they are also regarded as hindrances to civilized society itself. Notwithstanding this, for the purposes of this illustration, I will transfer them from their traditional conception and view them from the perspective of a non-moral evolutionary setting, as the most general and basic natural forces that were necessary for the evolution and survival of early man: raaga as the urge to acquire the necessities for survival; dosa as the aggressive drive needed when one is acquiring those necessities in a contest with others, as well as to defend one's possessions and family/tribe against aggressors. As moha is the dimness of the bewildered mind in relation to the truth of the spiritual life, it is simply the general state of mind that the other affects inhabit. In early man it would be a state of mind with very limited horizons: eating, copulating, hunting, basic co-operation with other members of the tribe and, in moments of quiet consciousness, perhaps the first glimmerings of 'why?' The view that simply satisfying basic needs will ever quench ta.nhaa would be in Buddhist terms a micchaa-di.t.thi or 'wrong-view'. But because ta.nhaa cannot be fully satisfied with such basic needs, some will eventually experience this state of affairs as unsatisfactory (dukkha), and will therefore seek out more satisfying ways of living – other views on life – which can lead, eventually, at least in some instances, to the emergence of more developed and civilized societies. As life in such a society, at least for some, is not so dominated by the ends of pure survival and satisfying basic needs, there will arise the necessary freedom for more co-operative and cultivated social interaction to arise, providing the necessary conditions for a wider range of more purely human and cultivated responses and affects to emerge. Such a progression is compatible with the general Buddhist doctrine of pa.ticca-samuppaada: affects arise in dependence upon conditions. Therefore, within such conditions, more developed and civilized affects can emerge – including those which Buddhism would regard as being to some degree kusala – as well as their interrelated cognitive counterparts expressed in such cultural forms as literature, philosophy, art, religion, etc. Some of these forms would embody, to some degree, what Buddhism would recognize as 'mundane' (lokiya) sammaa-di.t.thi or 'right-view', in that they would 'understand that it is good to be generous, make offerings and sacrifices; that both good and evil actions will bear fruit and have consequences; that there is this world and the other world', etc., views that are found in most civilized cultures. Such a state of affairs can arise out of the fact that man is driven by his 'thirst' for satisfaction and meaning in life, and that, as long as he has not seen the way to satisfy his deeper longings, in other words, as long as 'right-view' has not arisen, he will continually experience dissatisfaction (dukkha), which, in turn, is the primary condition for the search to continue.
All this, however, is contingent. Buddhism has no notion of any divinely ordained and necessary progress up through the 'Great Chain of Being', or any of its modern secular counterparts (there are no fatherly Buddhas looking after us). Apart from natural forces, the main factors in the nexus of conditions within which human development and progress can be said to happen are the all-too-fickle human desires and aspirations. Thus the greater freedom offered by more civilized societies also gives the opportunity for base unskilful affects to arise, which create various unwholesome ideologies such as fascism, racialism, despotism, and express themselves in religious bigotry and intolerance, etc. Therefore at times and for various reasons, the crude and atavistic urges – primitive raaga and dosa – erupt under conditions such as war and social strife, and, in the process, being framed in rationalized ideologies, become much more destructive and inhuman than the raaga and dosa counterparts found among the 'beasts'. As long as moha or 'bewilderment' is still present, all kinds of 'wrong-views' can emerge, and where there are 'wrong-views' there is the possibility of falling victim to these atavistic urges. Nevertheless, all things being contingent, the more civilized affects can be seen as arising in dependence upon the more primitive urges: the fact that the more basic urges cannot fully satisfy ta.nhaa will inevitably result in the arising of dukkha, and as long as there is dukkha there is the possibility that man will keep searching for something more. As long as some keep searching, there is the possibility that one will find something. And, of course, there is also the possibility that some who start the search will give up and decide that it is all just human vanity, and settle into some materialistic or nihilistic creed, as did some contemporaries of the Buddha. The greater freedom offered by civilized society offers a greater range of objects to respond to and, therefore, a correspondingly greater potential for the development of more peculiarly human and even spiritual affects and institutions to emerge. As no form of existence short of nirvaa.na can quench our 'thirst', some will find even the most civilized and cultured forms of life, including the accepted religious forms, to be dukkha, and will therefore venture out on the Ariyan Quest (ariyaa pariyesnaa) and search for that which, according to Buddhism, will finally quench our 'thirst': nirvaa.na. Yet without the initial attempts of primitive raaga and dosa to find security and satisfaction, civilization as we know it would not have arisen, and the very conditions necessary for spiritual development in the Buddhist sense would not have arisen. After all, without ta.nhaa there would be no existential Angst (dukkha), and without existential Angst there would be no search for an answer to the human predicament, and without such a search there would be no Buddhas.
7. The Teleology of Ta.nhaa
As we have seen, Buddhism envisages the universe as characterized by the metaphor of ta.nhaa, the thirst or urge to find happiness, well-being, satisfaction, meaning, or whatever else one wants to call it. As the Buddhist universe is always a universe of beings – there being no time when there are no beings of some form around – ta.nhaa is simply a term that symbolizes the condition we find ourselves in in the world, a general state of wanting we know not what. And as there is no such notion as original sin in Buddhism, we are not to blame for being in this condition (at least not 'originally'): the general condition of ta.nhaa is just the way things are, and no one can be said to have created it as such. This universe of beings, characterized by ta.nhaa, is what we might call the subjective aspect of existence. But Buddhism also posits a universal law, which is understood to exist independently of beings, including Buddhas. This is the law of pa.ticca-samuppaada, or 'conditioned co-arising'. All the Buddhas do is simply reveal what is there, and make it known. The most concise expression of this law of conditioned co-arising states that whatever comes into being does so only in dependence upon conditions, conditions which themselves only exist by way of other conditions, etc. and when the conditions change, whatever came to be ceases to exist. Therefore we can say that this universal law of conditioned co-arising represents the universe in its objective aspect, in the sense that it is how the universe is independent of how we might feel about it, or want it to be.
Seeing ta.nhaa and the law of conditioned co-arising as the subjective and objective aspects of existence, we can say it is the coming together of these two aspects that creates human existence as we know and see it. However, such a universe cannot be said to manifest any kind of teleology: there is no preordained end for which it can be said to exist, towards which we must inevitably roll. There is no providential force that ultimately guarantees our future welfare. Nevertheless, it could be argued that although this is the case, this universe is structured in such a way that it can be said to favour spiritual evolution, even though it cannot guarantee that it will happen. This comes about because, from the Buddhist perspective, human beings will only find real satisfaction, fulfilment and meaning in their lives by venturing upon something like the Buddhist spiritual path. The reason for this is simply that such fulfilment and meaning only come to be in dependence upon certain conditions, those conditions being what the Buddhist spiritual path is. The Buddhist spiritual path is nothing other than the application of the universal law of conditioned co-arising as a guide to the kind of actions that will lead to fulfilment and meaning. Therefore our ta.nhaa will only be fully appeased by following some such path of skilful action. If we act with self-centred greed, ill-will, seek no more than sensual satisfaction, then, according to the nature of the way things are, although we might find a certain amount of satisfaction, we will eventually run into continual frustration (dukkha). This is just the way things are. The universe, therefore, although it manifests no providence, can, nevertheless, be said to 'favour' the spiritual life in the sense that it is only by leading such a life that one will eventually become a fulfilled human being, or, further, what Buddhism calls an Awakened human being, a Buddha, even though there is no power or force in the universe that can guarantee that such will happen. Notwithstanding this, given the vast incalculable vistas of time that Buddhist cosmology presents to us, and that beings grounded in ta.nhaa will continually ferret for ultimate satisfaction and meaning within a universe whose nature is best described as 'conditioned co-arising', then it becomes a statistical probability that some being will find nirvaa.na, that some being will become a Buddha, and reveal the way to the rest of us. Yet for such to come about, all we need posit are these two aspects: the subjective aspect of ta.nhaa per se inherent in all beings, and a universe whose objective aspect is revealed in the doctrine of 'conditioned co-arising'.
Robert Morrison is the author of Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities, Oxford University Press, 1997.
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