Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tanhavagga: Craving

Ah, craving – the very heart of the Buddha’s teaching. That all of our dissatisfaction with life – all our unhappiness, disappointment, frustration, everything that is contained within the word dukkha – is largely the result of our craving. We get ideas in our heads that things have special intrinsic value and qualities that make them appealing and desirable and so we want them. And when we don’t get them, we feel sad.

It started when we were children because at that time we didn’t know any better. We didn’t know that a Sears bicycle functioned the same as a Schwinn; we just wanted the Schwinn because all the other kids did. Well, all the other kids that mattered. We wanted the latest game or toy, but a new game or toy always came along later that we had to have as well. And oh, we can only pick one?

“When a person lives heedlessly,
his craving grows like a creeping vine.
He runs now here
& now there,
as if looking for fruit:
a monkey in the forest.”

With the first verse the Tanhavagga makes use of the monkey mind metaphor to describe this craving of ours, because as we grew older and allegedly wiser, we dropped many of our childhood cravings. But did we drop craving altogether? Not likely; in my case I believe my cravings just became more sophisticated.

Am I supposed to not want anything? Have no desire at all? I don’t think that is what the Buddha was saying, particularly with reference to laypeople. We are social animals; we desire companionship and we have a desire to feel secure as well as useful to others. But craving, to me, is more than just mere desire.

Let’s examine sex for example. I like sex. Do you? I would like to have sex more often than I do, and I would guess most of you are of similar mind. But when does a desire for sex become a craving like what the Buddha described?

“Cleared of the underbrush
but obsessed with the forest,
set free from the forest,
right back to the forest he runs.
Come, see the person set free
who runs right back to the same old chains!”

I picked this verse because I believe it gets close to describing how a craving is different from a desire. In some ways, we are bordering on the concept of addiction. But addiction is one of those words that person can easily distance him or herself from. Craving is more subtle.

Let’s say you have a partner or spouse. And you see someone really hot. I mean, this person is so hot you can’t stop looking at them even though you know you ought to look away. The person walks away, but you’re still thinking about him or her. My god he was hot! Oh man, and did you see that ass?

When you see your partner or spouse, do you say, “Hey honey, I saw this really hot guy today with the most fantastic ass, it was like, man, I wanted to butter him up and have him for dinner!”

I know I wouldn’t, and I don’t think many of you would either. Because we know what the reaction would be. Saying something like that would create stress, it would cause harm. So we keep it to our self. It’s harmless, right?

But that was craving in action. And the Buddha in many places instructs us to learn how to recognize this craving immediately and put an end to it! We need to begin questioning ourselves, asking why am I thinking about this person? This only leads to harm. I need to re-focus my mind. And when do that, when we follow this guidance, the craving does dissipate.

Of course, now that I’m single, well, that’s a different line of thinking entirely!

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