The Truth of Tanha We are vulnerable to suffering because of the way human nature is constituted Specifically we are a bundle of urges that push and pull from within

The Buddha places the ultimate cause of suffering squarely within the individual. It is our cravings that keep us in Dukkha. This is an important shift of emphasis from the external to the more immediate internal cause of suffering. For example, we tend to think that being deprived of food is a cause of suffering. In the Buddhist view, it is the hunger we experience and the craving for food that is the immediate cause of our suffering. Deprivation of food is clearly a critical part of the causal sequence, but is one step removed from the final cause of suffering. I have known people who would periodically go on 3-day fasts, believing that this was healthy for the body. A common report was how wonderful (one of them used the term euphoric) they felt halfway through the fast. Clearly, deprivation of food for a couple of days is not, by itself, sufficient to cause suffering. On a fast, deprivation is clearly present. However, the craving for food, the final link in the chain leading to suffering, appears to be absent.

Again, we may think that a person who cheats us is the cause of our suffering. In the Buddhist view, it is our anger at being cheated, our craving to retrieve our money, our brooding over the event that is the immediate cause of our suffering. The fact of being cheated is an important event in the causal sequence, but is one step removed from the final cause of suffering. This view, then, focuses not on the external, more distant causes of our suffering, but on the immediate inner links of the causal chain, on our motivational and emotional makeup.

This contrast of outer and inner causes of suffering may be seen in the following Hindu tale:

An ancient forest hermit, with the begging bowl and the dress of a holy man, settled himself beneath a tree in the outskirts of a small city. He told the people who first saw him and who came to pay their respects that he would spend the season in this grove. Because this was considered a great blessing for the city, word was sent to the prince. On hearing the news, the prince felt that it would be proper for him to go out personally to welcome the saintly visitor. He gathered his guards and courtiers about him to take part in the procession. The prince and his retinue, arriving at the place to which they had been directed, found no one. They looked about fruitlessly until someone pointed up at the top of a tall tree. There, perched on one of the highest branches, was the visitor. The prince called up to him and introduced himself. After exchanging pleasantries of welcome the prince urged "Please come down. You are surely in danger sitting there like that." The old man responded, "I am not in half the danger that you are in oh Prince." "I?" exclaimed the startled prince. "These are my guards, the strongest in the land. My land extends further than the eye can see. What danger am I in?" The sage replied, "I speak of the dangers of anger, lust, and greed."

This tale brings out the subtlety of the Eastern view. For the prince, the outer world was well controlled. He saw, therefore, no risks, no danger to his well being. The sage, however, saw the dependence of happiness on the inner conditions—on the pushes and pulls of our being.

Just what are these cravings, these urges and passions that cause us pain? These amount to nothing less than almost the entire motivational system of the human being. It is worth, however, mentioning a few categories.

1. Basic biological needs. We are a species that has evolved and survived via sexual reproduction. Part of the mechanism for this is, of course, the sexual urge. Furthermore, we must live long enough to be able to reproduce. Therefore, we have evolved mechanisms for taking in energy (food and drink) to sustain ourselves, for organizing socially (family, group), and for escaping threats (pain, predators).

Within each of us, these mechanisms are manifested as urges: to obtain food, drink, sexuality, companionship, and children; to escape pain and to eliminate danger to our physical well-being. Whenever these urges are strong and unsatisfied, suffering is the likely experience.

Our biologically-based urges also include a variety of more or less conditioned reactions. When others frustrate us we experience anger; threats may evoke fear (or anger); mutilated forms or certain odors may produce feelings of disgust or aversion. Modern research suggests that the pain of boredom is also biologically based, that we are evolved to seek stimulation, to explore. Thus, our nature is such that biological forces can produce within us a variety of states that can range from unpleasant to acutely painful.

2. Ego needs. We strive for success and we fear failure. Like the little boy in class who waves his arm imploring "Teacher, call on me," we strive to show off. We seek praise and are pained by criticism. We're vulnerable to insults and put-downs; we become depressed or feel guilty when we've performed badly. In general, we strive to maintain and enhance a sense of self-worth, a striving that makes us vulnerable to mental pain.

3. Culture-conditioned needs. These take two forms. On the one hand, the culture we're born into has a system of values. Gradually, as we mature in this culture, it insinuates these values into our heads. We see these most obviously around sexuality. The 1930s middle-class American culture, in which I grew up had me believe that promiscuous girls were bad, homosexuals were bad, and it was important that I marry a virgin. Such values not only make us vulnerable to pain but lead us to action—action that frequently causes pain in others.

Other examples are many and varied. Our culture—through its use of the media—stuffs into our heads the importance of striving for fashionable clothing, expensive cars, swimming pools, and so forth. Holly wood movies constantly used to show our glamorous film stars smoking, arousing the desire to imitate them.

A second form of the needs conditioned by our culture is, perhaps, more subtle. The Buddhists have pointed out that our concepts, the very terms in which we think, create needs and urges toward action. For example, our conceptual system fosters stereotypes of people different from ourselves, leading us to commit injustices against others, to experience anger and hatred against others, and to be victimized by others.

It is clear that there is a great variety of human motives. In fact, there is a Buddhist vow that begins "The number of passions is infinite " (This and other Buddhist vows are discussed in more detail later.) The passions we have reviewed are all potential sources of pain not only to ourselves but frequently to others whom we are impelled to hurt.

Of course, not all motives have this character. There are two other categories of motives that, it is fair to say, are not sources of Dukkha. These are what I call the gentle passions and the noble passions.

The gentle passions include desires to read, listen to music, and play a game. The character of these is that (a) we are not generally overwhelmed by a desperate urge to satisfy these needs, and (b) frustration of these needs is not especially painful. We want to listen to a Beethoven symphony and are about to play it on our stereo when we are interrupted. We generally do not find such a frustration particularly painful. In a way these gentle passions are ideal: We don't lust for the activity; we enjoy the satisfaction when it occurs; we are not pained when it does not occur. In the next chapter, where we discuss transforming the cravings, we do not necessarily mean having them disappear. Rather, we want them (cf. hunger, sexuality) to become like the gentle passions: We don't burn with need; we enjoy it when the need is being satisfied; we are comfortable when it is not. To put this another way, the eastern ideal is that our motives are no longer our masters, but our servants.

The second category of positive needs consists of the noble passions. These are of two types. First, there is the desire to become enlightened and liberated. No limits are placed on how strong this can be. Where other motives are to be reduced, this motive is to be encouraged. A senior monk told some novices:

"Imagine if your hair were on fire, how energetic and focused you would be to put that fire out. That is how you must strive for enlightenment"

The second type of noble passion is concerned with the world outside of ourselves, which I call altruism. It includes love, compassion, the desire to help others, and to correct injustice. We see this passion manifested at the very outset of Buddhism. Siddhartha has attained the deepest enlightenment. He recognizes that he is now freed of Dukkha. He is no longer vulnerable to the sufferings, large and small, that life can inflict. He can now, if he wishes, wander through life for the rest of his days, enjoying the "peace that passeth all understanding." He, however, does not do this. He recognizes that suffering is more abstract than his own personal experience. Yes, he is freed of suffering, but there are countless numbers of beings who are still in Dukkha. He decides, therefore, to return to the world and to teach. This became the model for later monks to follow. Other examples of altruism are shown throughout the book. Simply stated, one value in diminishing the cravings is that the altruistic passions can be more readily expressed.

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