Revised April 27, 2021
How to end suffering by ending craving.
The Four Noble Truths are a summary of the Buddha's teachings. The second Truth is that suffering is caused by craving.
An elaboration of this Truth is found in the chain of conditionality called Dependent Origination. Three of the links is this chain are:
- craving (tanha)
- taking up (upadana)
- lifestyle or type of existence (bhava)
This article will address these three links
Craving is based on ignorance of the Four Noble Truths. We mistakenly think that getting things or having experiences will lead to lasting happiness. The most that satisfying cravings can give us is temporary happiness...which sometimes comes at great cost: all the extra work we have to do or the sacrifices we have to make to satisfy our cravings.
The immediate precursor to craving is vedana: the pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feelings that accompany every sensory experience. If something is pleasant this can lead us craving more of that experience. If something is unpleasant that can lead us to feeling aversion, wanting to push it away or lead us to ill will, wishing harm to what we perceive as unpleasant. Aversion and ill will are also categorized as craving. Instead of craving to have they are craving to get rid of.
Craving is the precursor of upadana which means both taking up and fuel. We crave something and then we take it up. But it also refers to fuel i.e. that which is taken up. AND craving is called fuel by the Buddha. So for this meaning of upadana, craving and upadana are synonyms. The Buddha said that craving is the fuel for rebirth.
The objects of craving can range from hedonism to very fulfilling, meaningful activities.
How do we sever the link between vedana and craving?
It's through the gradual training:
- we need to stand back from our experiences
- be mindful
- see things as they actually are: see reality
- keep the five precepts
- live with kindness
- reflect on our thoughts
Reflection is connected to right view. Right View, the first step on the Noble Eightfold Path, means viewing the world through the Four Noble Truths. We reflect on how our conduct of body, speech and mind accords with right view. So we reflect: if I do x, does it lead to suffering or to happiness?
Reflection is part of The Two Powers (Bala) sutta: AN 2:12
A power has the effect of driving us forward on the spiritual path.
The two powers are:
- development (Bhavana) usually refers to our meditation practice but sometimes it refers to the entire Eightfold Path.
Our ability to meditate depends on the first power: reflection. Reflection gives our mind the ability to incline towards meditation. If we are struggling with our meditation practice i.e. not able to stay steadily with the breath, it means we haven't developed enough of the power of reflection.
How do we reflect? (MN 19: Two Kinds of Thoughts)
The Buddha said he divided his thoughts into two categories:
one category second category
sensual thoughts renunciation thoughts
angry thoughts non-anger thoughts
ruthless thoughts i.e. compassionate thoughts
And then he reflected:
"This angry thought has arisen in me. This leads to my own suffering and to other's suffering, to the suffering of both. It obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties and leads away from awakening. When I considered thus, it subsided in me."
When we pause and reflect we see the suffering contained in the thought. When we feel this suffering, feel the "hot coal" we instantly drop the thought. Thus it's not a matter of will power. It is wisdom power that allows us to let go of unskillful thoughts.
For example, when we are stuck ruminating about problems we can reflect on how these ruminations are endless. We feel the hot coal and drop them.
Or, when we are attracted to something beautiful we can reflect on the negative aspects of the object or experience i.e. how it will fall apart, need repair, how we'll become bored with it, what the environmental cost is of the experience etc. So not being blinded by stars in our eyes but soberly standing back and reflecting on the whole "story" of the craving can help us feel the hot coal and drop it.
The Buddha gives a simile of a bird that has found a piece of meat. As it flies off with it, other birds see the meat and want it. So they mob the first bird. If the bird doesn't drop the meat it is in danger of being injured or even killed. This is the Buddha's simile of the sensory world. People are always fighting over things. Ill will and sensual desire are so intertwined.
Once we have let go of the grosser aspects of our unskillful conduct of body, speech and mind, then we need to use reflection to look at our subtle underlying tendencies.
Our underlying tendencies are the basis for the stationing of our consciousness: where our consciousness "hangs out". Just as a train, "hangs out" in the station when it isn't going anywhere, our mind "hangs out" in the station of our underlying tendencies. Where does our mind go when it wanders in meditation? Does it go to:
- contentment with the present moment
- reviewing a grudge, anger
When we are reborn, we will be reborn into a state that fits with the default state of our mind - our underlying tendencies. Reflect: "Do I want to be reborn in a state where.....I'm angry all the time, planning all the time, worrying all the time etc"? We can use this reflection as a strong wake up call to inspire us to put in the practice needed to change our underlying tendencies.
If our tendency is desire, the realms associated with desire, the sensory worlds in Buddhist cosmology, range from the animal realm to the first six heavenly realms. Our kamma determines which level in the sensory realm that we are reborn into.
If our mind goes to peace, to the stillness of jhanas we'll be reborn in the heavenly Brahma realms associated with jhana.
A large part of our Buddhist practice is thinking in the right way, gaining right view.
Other aspects of our mind states to reflect on include: arising and passing. This helps us gain insight into impermanence. Then reflecting on the pleasures from pleasant things. This helps us understand why we desire certain things. But then to reflect on the drawbacks of these same things. This helps us to really see the full price we are paying for our desires and our aversive behviours. And finally, what is the escape from desires and other defilements? The escape from ill will is metta, the escape from harming is compassion the escaoe from discontent is mudita, the escape from doubt is discarding the notion "I am" i.e. I am something solid, immutable rather than I am a verb, always changing depending on causes and conditions. In this list of escapes mentioned by the Buddha in Anguttara Nikaya, as escape wasn't mentioned for desire. Probably contentment would be one escape from desire.
We should be practicing reflection throughout our daily life. It is in daily life that the grosser aspects of our defilements are transformed through reflection. In meditation, when we emerge from samadhi, reflecting then allows us to see and let go of the subtler defilements.
Gradually our view starts to align with right view and then our meditation really takes off.
After upadana, the next link in the chain of Dependent Origination is lifestyle or type of existence. This refers to the personal world we create for ourselves based on all the things we take up. For example, if we take up a partner, have children, buy a house, have a career, we create an existence based on all these taken up things. This will be a very different lifestyle or existence than someone who takes up the monastic robes and lives in a monastery. There are countless types of lifestyles or existences. Reflect on "Have I created the lifestyle with which I"m content"?
Overview of our practice:
1st: The gradual reduction of craving through precepts, kindness and reflection that allows us to drop unskillful actions, speech and thoughts. This takes care of the grosser aspects of craving.
2nd: Meditation practice then deals with the subtler aspects of craving and with jhana we get a temporary but complete elimination of craving.
3rd: Final abandoning of craving with Awakening. This occurs when we emerge from jhana and reflect, gaining insight into the Four Noble Truths.
This article is based on a workshop on Dependent Origination given by Ajahn Brahmali and Ven. Sunyo.