© Jack Puccio / iStockPhoto.com
© Jack Puccio / iStockPhoto.com

The Pali word for craving is tanha, which means “thirst.” The Buddha identified three distinct kinds of tanha that you repeatedly experience; they are often unnoticed, because they arise and then are quickly preempted by yet another and then another. First is your craving for the six kinds of sense desires, or kama tanha:craving for certain food tastes or for pleasing sounds or for silence; craving for sexual, affectionate, or comforting touch or simple physical comfort in your body; craving for attractive, pleasant, comforting, inspiring sights as well as for pleasant, refreshing smells; and finally, craving for thoughts that are confirming, useful, stimulating, and reassuring to you. Just think of how many different sense desires you have in any given moment!

The second type of craving is the desire for existence and for becoming what you are not. In Pali this is called bhava tanha. You may want to be wealthy, or more athletic, or sexually desirable, or a better musician. The craving to “become” can be wholesome—to be a good parent or a better friend to others, or to be more generous, healthier, or more disciplined—yet still cause suffering. Even your longing for spiritual growth can be bhava tanha! It, too, can create suffering in the untrained mind: Will you get there? Are you going about it the right way? And it can result in greed, uncontrolled wanting, envy, impatience, selfjudgment, temptation of all sorts, and unskillful words and actions.

Bhava tanha is one of the most common causes of suffering in modern culture. You are exhorted to achieve and to accumulate to the point that you take birth as “one who does and gets.” Thus what might be healthy goals decay into obsession and compulsion. A tragic example of this is a story that was widely reported in the media in which a tennis father was so desirous of his children winning their matches that he drugged the water bottles of the young people with whom they competed. The dad could not stand the possibility of his children losing; it was torturous and drove him to act unskillfully. His behavior continued until one young man had an extreme reaction and died. It is easy to say the father was just crazy, but you, too, can become obsessive in a manner that causes suffering, only not as extreme. When you take birth in outcome, it is so torturous to you that even if you can refrain from acting unskillfully, the mind is still tormented.

The third type of tanha arises when you are so disillusioned with something in your life and want to get rid of it or want it to cease with such intensity that you crave nonexistence. This state of mind is called vibhava tanha. For instance, you may be so overwhelmed by chronic back pain or a difficult emotion that you are flooded with aversion to life itself. Or you have such antipathy toward your physical appearance, aging, or disease that life seems unbearable. In each of these instances, your nervous system is overcome by the energy generated by the craving, and it seems as if your whole being is rejecting existence. Vibhava tanha is annihilation. If you have ever felt suicidal, even briefly, then you have had flashes of vibhava tanha in the extreme. In its milder manifestations, vibhava tanha is part of everyday life. For example, you can feel so humiliated when you make a big mistake in front of others that for a brief moment your mind is filled with this craving.

Often students discover that before starting a vipassana practice they had been aware of cravings associated with sense desires but much less aware of suffering coming from the other two tanhas. One meditation student told me that upon hearing about the types of craving, he quickly realized that he was organized around bhava tanha— always judging himself on the basis of wanting to be someone he was not. He could see that it had caused him endless, needless suffering that he had been aware of without knowing its source.▼

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .