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                                           Tanha


If you notice, in my essay on the Four Noble Truths, I frame the second truth as: greed, hatred, and delusion arise with dukkha. These factors are known in Buddhism as the three poisons. The actual word for this truth is “samudaya,” which is “what comes up with [dukkha].”


“Suffering” is a misleading translation of dukkha because it has different connotations in Judeo-Christian thought. Suffering can actually have a positive meaning in that tradition, bringing us closer to God, as the most noble among us suffer for righteous causes, notably, the passion of the Christ.  


Buddhist philosophy is based on a different set of assumptions. There isn't a single, divine creator with the master controls, one to whom people owe their allegiance. Rather, in Buddhism, all sentient beings, even deities, are subject to the laws of karma and can experience dukkha, and these are limiting conditions affecting all sentient beings.


“Pain” is also a misleading translation of dukkha because that implies something merely physical. Although pain, suffering, misery, etc. do convey its unsatisfactory and unpleasant nature, to understand dukkha you have to take into account that it is related to the idea of rebirth. Dukkha is inherited from previous lives (or moments), created during this present life, and its effects continue in future lives, unless we become enlightened and end the cycle of existence. Its semantic opposite, “sukkha,” has connotations of satisfaction, delight, or ease. 


Another way to look at it is as the primary activity of feeding. Dukkha is all experiences that taste sour or bad, sukkha is all that tastes sweet.

However, the Buddha denied that nirodha or nirvana are conditional pleasures; true liberation is freedom from want itself and the demands of desire.


So while the typical English translations get the point across, it’s better to understand dukkha on a practical level.


Dukkha literally means “dislocation,” (a bad hole or axl space) such as a carriage wheel that is bent, or a bone twisted out of its socket. It’s an intense cramping, with limited room to move, leading to friction or conflict (e.g. a thwarted desire). The Heart Sutra states that Buddhas have no obstacles for their minds, which run effortlessly and smoothly. To paraphrase another quote, the novel Siddhartha compares spiritual enlightenment to the Ganges River. It is simultaneously a stream from the Himalayas, receiving worshipers from the ghats, ferrying travelers across towns, and emptying itself into the Indian Ocean. The Ganges is all these things, all at once, all at the same time. But we don’t feel this way. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, this is ahamkara, which literally means “I-maker,” but more broadly is the process of self-contraction. This contraction hurts, and the remedy is to first be aware of it.


According to Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn, the reason tanha (Pali), trishna in Sanskrit, is considered the primary Second Noble Truth is because it was always at the top of the list of factors listed in the sutras. The first item sort of summarized the rest of the list, like an etcetera. But obviously tanha is important. Why? Because tanha and dukkha are always associated with each other. When you are unsatisfied, you want satisfaction.


Tanha means “thirst.” (I also think of it as hunger, but psychological and not physiological.) A need itself is not good or bad, so this is not a moral judgment. We all have biological and psychological (or social) needs. There is also thirst for becoming (continuing life) and thirst for non-becoming (ending life). All types of desire fit in these categories. 


Is tanha always a bad thing? Indeed, if we dream of something better, this can motivate us to make great contributions to the world. Passivity is not always virtuous, especially if one is nonchalant about confronting personal delusions. Some desires in Buddhism are even considered necessary for the path, such as the desire to seek wisdom. And the desire to help others is good, if it is based upon loving-kindness rather than power-seeking (unfortunately, these motivations can both be present and it is not always clear which one is operative).


Therein lies the secret - wisdom is not complete without compassion, nor compassion without wisdom. As the Dalai Lama says, if you can’t help someone, at least don’t hurt them. Either way, whether doing good or not doing evil, your being-in-the-world is positive and beneficial.


So what does it mean to be without tanha? It is an attitude of non-grasping, not just for objects, but freedom from motives based on I, me, or mine. You can’t be thirsty for the water if you already are the water. Ramana Maharshi likened it to the state of deep dreamless sleep. In deep dreamless sleep there is no being or non-being, acting or not acting, having or not having. The only thing you can be aware of is... awareness itself.