Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pali Discourses

Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pali Discourses

by Bhikkhu Analayo

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ISBN-13: 9781938754166
Publisher: Pariyatti Publishing
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Bhikkhu Analayo was ordained as a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, where he completed his PhD. His thesis was subsequently published as Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization. He is a leading scholar in research on early Buddhism, having written more than 200 academic publications, and is a professor of Buddhist Studies and Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy and is an associate professor at the Center for Buddhist Studies, University of Hamburg.

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Excursions Into the Thought-World of the Pali Discourses

By Bhikkhu Analayo

Pariyatti Publishing

Copyright © 2012 Analayo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-938754-16-6



According to the early Buddhist analysis of existence, craving, or tanha, is the very root cause of the samsaic predicament, being the central factor responsible for the arising of dukkha, as highlighted in the second noble truth. Due to its pivotal role as the chief cause of bondage, tanha features in numerous passages and contexts in the early discourses, and forms the topic of an entire chapter in the Dhammapada (Dhp 334-359).

In the present chapter, I will first of all explore the nature of tanha with the help of a number of similes from the Pali discourses, which bring out various aspects of tanha (1.1). Next I will survey different types of craving and examine in some detail the conception of craving for non-existence, vibhavatanha (1.2). Having explored the nature of craving, I will continue by examining the arising of craving (1.3), the implications of its cessation (1.4), and the steps to be undertaken in order to arrive at freedom from tanha (1.5).

1.1 Craving Imagery

The term tanha literally stands for "thirst", a meaning echoed also in its near synonym tasina. Tanha - as a figurative type of thirst that demands the satisfaction of desires - manifests as a sense of lack or want, and has its root in dissatisfaction. Various aspects of craving are reflected in the use of a range of imageries and similes in the discourses.

One such image speaks of being enmeshed by craving, of being caught in the net of craving. This image occurs in a discourse in the Anguttara-nikaya that examines one-hundred-and-eight manifestations of craving (AN II 211-213). The discourse begins by distinguishing eighteen forms of internal craving and eighteen forms of external craving. The internal manifestations of craving are various modes of imagination that begin with the basic notion "I am", which then leads to imaginations of the type "I am like this", "should I be otherwise?", "may I become like this", etc. Their external counterparts come into being when this same notion "I am" is related to the external world, as for example in the form "by this I am", etc. Adding these two modes together, and relating them to the past, the present and the future, results in one-hundred -and-eight ways of bondage, which according to this Anguttaranikaya discourse equals being enmeshed by craving, tanhajalina.

The relation provided in the above Anguttara-nikaya discourse between the net of craving and the issue of self notions recurs in the Mahatanhasankhaya-sutta. This discourse points out that the monk Sati, who stubbornly held on to the erroneous view that the same consciousness transmigrates in sam-sara, was caught in the great net of craving, mahatanha-jala (MN I 271). The relation between craving and views in general comes to light in a discourse in the Samyutta-nikaya, according to which speculative views about the future destiny of a Tathagata after death are simply a product of delighting in craving, tanha-rama, of enjoying and rejoicing in craving, tanha-rata tanha-samudita (SN IV 390).

The net imagery recurs in relation to craving in general in a verse in the Theragatha, which compares the condition of one who has destroyed the net of craving, tanha-jala, to the stainless moon on a clear night (Th 306). The Dhammapada also employs this imagery, when it contrasts the net-like nature of craving to the freedom attained by the Buddha who, in contrast to such forms of entrapment, has a limitless range, ananta-go-cara (Dhp 180).

The aspect of craving as a form of bondage, bandhana (SN I 8), which underlies the net imagery, recurs also in other similes. Overcome by craving, tasina, beings run around in circles comparable to a rabbit caught in a snare (Dhp 342). Covered by craving's cloak, tanha-chadana-chadita, they are in bondage like a fish in a trap (Ud 76).

The idea of bondage or binding together also underlies a simile that presents craving as a seamstress, tanha sibbani. This seamstress sews together contact, its arising and cessation; or else it sews together past, future and present; or else pleasure, pain, and neither-pleasure-nor-pain; or else name, form and consciousness; or else sense-organs, sense-objects and consciousness; or else personality, its arising and its cessation (AN III 399 - 402, commenting on Sn 1042). Whichever of these complementary perspectives is taken on the seamstress of craving, its result is the continuity of becoming, bhava, and hence the continuity of dukkha.

This sticky craving, tanha visattika (Dhp 335), is a yoke that binds beings to existence, tanha-yoga (It 50). It causes beings to take up the burden of the five aggregates, tanha vuccati bharadana? (SN III 26); in fact it is responsible for the very arising and existence of a being, satta (SN III 190). At death, such a being will be carried on to its next rebirth based on craving, tanhupadana, like a flame carried on by the wind (SN IV 400). That is, from the perspective of faring on in samsaa, craving is the fetter par excellence, tanha-samyojana (It 8).

Another set of images revolves around the theme of growth in nature. These images alert us to the danger of allowing craving to follow its natural course, thereby becoming forever stronger. This aspect can be seen in a Dhammapada verse that compares the fertility of the underlying tendency to craving, tanhanusaya, to a tree that grows again after being cut down. Similarly, as long as its roots are left intact, craving will grow again (Dhp 338). Hence craving together with its root need to be removed (SN I 16).

The idea of growth recurs also in a discourse in the Anguttara-nikaya, according to which craving is the moisture, tanha sineho, due to which the seed of consciousness grows in the field of karma (AN I 223). Craving is like a creeper, tanha-lata (Th 1094), that needs to be cut in order to reach liberation. A verse in the Dhammapada takes up the same image, pointing out that in the case of those who are heedless, craving will grow like a creeper, maluva viya (Dhp 334). As a result, the same verse explains, beings proceed from one life to another, comparable to a monkey that leaps from tree to tree in search of fruit.

The simile of the monkey that leaps from tree to tree provides a convenient lead over to the idea of faring on endlessly, an idea that comes to the fore in another set of images that relate craving to a stream. There is no stream like craving, n' atthi tanhasama nadi, warns a verse in the Dhammapada (Dhp 251). Another passage points out that those who are under the power of craving are carried along by the stream, tanhadhipanna anusota-gamino (AN II 6). Hence the task is to completely cut off craving just like drying up a fast flowing river (Sn 3). By thorough comprehension of craving the flood will be crossed (Sn 1082), and one who has completely eradicated craving, an arahant, is one who has cut the stream, chinna-soto (SN IV 292).

A more detailed treatment of the stream imagery can be found in a discourse in the Itivuttaka (It 113-115). This discourse describes a man who allows himself to be carried along by a pleasant stream. An onlooker from the bank of that river warns the man that soon this river will lead to a pool with whirlpools and dangerous beings. Encountering these dangers, the man carried along by the river will suffer death or meet with suffering similar to death. This image draws out the treacherous nature of the stream of craving and sounds a stern warning against succumbing to its all too powerful pull. The whole world, in fact, is being led here and there by this powerful pull of craving, tanhaya niyati loko (SN I 39). The helpless predicament that results from falling prey to craving is highlighted again in another simile, which compares beings under the influence of craving for existence, tanha-gatam bhavesu, to fish wriggling in water that is about to dry up (Sn 776-777).

The danger inherent in succumbing to craving, to which this simile alerts, becomes even more conspicuous in another set of similes that compare craving to a dart or an arrow. The world is afflicted by this dart of craving, tanha-sallena otinno (SN I 40), always burning with desires. The same image also recurs in several verses in the Theragatha, where monks formulate the strong determination that they will neither take food nor leave their hut (Th 223 and 313), or even sit down at all (Th 514), until the dart of craving has finally been removed.

The Sunakkhatta-sutta provides additional background to the dart imagery (MN II 260), explaining that the dart of craving is smeared with the poison of ignorance and has hit the wound of the six internal sense-bases. The surgeon who pulls out the dart of craving from this wound is the Tathagata, and to remove this dart requires mindfulness as the probe and noble wisdom as the knife. The Buddha as the good physician who teaches the path to freedom from craving is therefore called the destroyer of the dart of craving, tanha-sallassa hantara (SN I 192). A complementary image, also taken from the realm of physical affliction, presents craving as the tumour's root, gan-da-mula (SN IV 83), that needs to be removed in order to arrive at a state of mental health.

A discourse in the Samyutta-nikaya indicates that even if a monk should be living in remote places, far removed from contact with others, as long as this monk has not removed craving, he cannot really be reckoned as one who dwells in solitude. The reason is that he has craving as his second, that is, as his companion (SN IV 36).

The same discourse thus introduces yet another image related to craving: that of one's second, one's ever-present companion, tanha dutiyo puriso (Sn 740). This image brings out the ever-present deep seated feeling of dissatisfaction engendered by craving, a wanting so ingrained in one's habitual experience of the world that it is almost taken for granted. In fact, according to another passage tanha can be appropriated as a self, 'tanha atta 'ti (MN III 284). That is, craving is so well entrenched in experience that it has become part of one's sense of identity. This makes the removal of craving all the more difficult, since to reach freedom from craving not only requires developing the insight that craving is inexorably bound up with dissatisfaction and frustration, but also requires giving up part of what is experienced as "I" and "mine".

This ever-present companion is quite powerful and often enough takes the leading role, so much so that, with craving as one's second, one easily becomes a slave to craving, tanhadasa. The implications of being a slave to craving are drawn out in the Ratthapala-sutta (MN II 71). According to this discourse, King Koravya was puzzled by the fact that the young and healthy Ratthapala, son of the wealthiest house in town, had decided to leave all possessions and relatives behind in order to go forth as a Buddhist monk. When explaining to the king what had motivated him, Ratthapala referred to the image of being a slave to craving, tanha-daso.

Asked by the king to draw out the implications of this image, Ratthapala inquired what the king would do if he heard that among the neighbouring territories to the east a land could be found full of riches and easy to conquer. The king replied that he would certainly conquer it. Ratthapala kept on asking the same question for territories found in the other directions, including territories found far beyond the sea. In each case the king had to admit that he would wish to conquer them. In this way, Ratthapala was able to bring home to the king the insatiability of his thirst for power, a mode of craving suitably drawn from the king's own field of experience. Paradoxically enough, the very craving for more power turns the king into a slave, a slave of craving.

As the example provided in the Ratthapala-sutta shows, the arising of craving can take place quite independent of any real need, since even the king of the country, in spite of being more powerful than anyone else in his kingdom, will never be satisfied with his dominion, always ready to exert himself in order to further extend his domain.

1.2 Types of Craving

The standard exposition of the second noble truth differentiates between sensual craving, kama-tanha, craving for existence, bhava-tanha, and craving for non-existence, vibhavatanha (e.g. SN V 421). The first of these, sensual craving, could manifest in relation to any of the six senses, resulting in six modes of craving according to each sense-object. These are the six tanha-kaya, which comprise rupa-tanha, sadda-tanha, gandha-tanha, rasa-tanha, photthabba-tanha, and dhammatanha (e.g. DN III 244). Craving for existence could be for material or immaterial forms of existence, resulting in rupa-tanha and arupa-tanha, which the Sangiti-sutta lists together with nirodha-tanha, "craving for cessation"(DN III 216).

The Sangiti-sutta also presents a set of four types of craving more specifically related to the life of a monk or a nun, the cattaro tanhuppada, which comprise craving related to robes, to food, to lodging and to forms of existence (DN III 228). The first three of these four recur in a verse in the Sutta-nipata (Sn 339).

In addition, craving could also be related to views, ditthitanha (AN II 12), to the four nutriments (SN II 101), to wealth (Dhp 355), or to appropriating in general, adana-tanha (Sn 1103).

Of the three types of craving mentioned in the second noble truth, a particularly intriguing concept is that of craving for "non -existence" or "non-becoming", vibhava. In order to ascertain the implications of this type of craving, I will at first survey the term vibhava on its own, after which I will turn to vibhava-tanha

Vibhava occurs regularly in the early discourses together with such synonyms as "annihilation", uccheda, and "destruction", vinasa. A view that propounds future non-existence, vibhava-ditthi, is an extreme that has its counterpart in views that propose eternal existence. Those who uphold either of these two types of views are at odds with each other and, being under the influence of craving and clinging, will be unable to reach liberation (MN I 65). Caught up in these two types of views, mankind either lags behind or else overshoots the goal (It 43). Upholding vibhava-ditthi overshoots the goal, as out of disgust with existence one develops delight in the notion of non-existence, perceiving the cessation of the self at death as peaceful and sublime.

A stark instance of annihilationist types of view that propound future non-existence would be the stance that according to the Samaññaphala-sutta was taken by Ajita Kesakambali (DN I 55). The position attributed to him holds that a human being merely consists of the four elements. When someone passes away, all that happens is that the body will be carried to the cremation ground, the bones will turn white and all offerings turn into ashes. To assume some form of survival after death is, according to this doctrine, merely empty prattle, as fools and wise alike will be annihilated at death and perish entirely. As the Sandaka-sutta points out, to uphold such a doctrine renders the living of a life dedicated to spiritual progress meaningless (MN I 515).

The situation of those who uphold annihilationism is quite vividly depicted in the Pañcattaya-sutta, which compares their predicament to a dog that is bound to a pillar and keeps running in circles around this pillar (MN II 232). The point of this image is that, in spite of being motivated by disenchantment with personal existence, sakkaya, annihilationism is unable to go beyond the inherent sense of identity. Instead, the annihilationists keep on running, as it were, in circles around the same personal existence they try to abandon. In whatever way such Brahmins and recluses may proclaim vibhava to be the escape from bhava, they will be unable to escape from existence (Ud 33). Only by leaving behind concern with vibhava and with bhava can future becoming be transcended, vibhavañca bhavañca vippahaya ... khinapunabbhavo (Sn 514).


Excerpted from Excursions Into the Thought-World of the Pali Discourses by Bhikkhu Analayo. Copyright © 2012 Analayo. Excerpted by permission of Pariyatti Publishing.
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Table of Contents


1. Craving / Tanha,
2. Grasping / Upadana,
3. Passion / Raga,
4. Ill-will / Vyapada,
5. Sloth-and-torpor / Thinamiddha,
6. Restlessness-and-worry / Uddhaccakukkucca,
7. Doubt / Vicikiccha,
8. Personality View / Sakkayaditthi,
9. Right View / Sammaditthi,
10. Volitional Formations / Sankhara,
11. Thought / Vitakka,
12. Feeling / Vedana,
13. Contemplation of feelings / Vedananupassana,
14. Happiness / Sukha,
15. Equanimity / Upekkha,
16. Knowledge and Vision according to Reality / Yathabhutañanadassana,
17. Wise Attention / Yoniso Manasikara,
18. Insight / Vipassana,
19. Tranquillity & Insight / Samatha & Vipassana,
20. Concentration / Samadhi,
21. Seclusion / Viveka,
22. Letting go / Vossagga,
23. Emptiness / Suññata,
24. Liberation / Vimutti,

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