The words of the Buddha, as they are given to us in the Pali Canon, can seem abstract, highly theoretical, dry. But dry-as-dust they are not, for there are so many other ways of being dry. Mountain air is gloriously, bracingly dry. Kindling for firewood is dry, and the drier it is, the fiercer the initial blaze. A ship’s cabin is a delightful haven of dryness when a sea storm rages all around; and when we come in from the storm, dry ourselves off, and put on dry clothes, we feel human again. The impression of dryness comes from the Buddha’s analytical rigor: in all of his teachings he analyzes and interrogates our experience, but the analysis is powerful only because his observation of experience is accurate, keen, respectful. Indeed, he challenges us to encounter our own experience truthfully and bravely — and not just believe our feelings because we simply go along with our fears and desires without asking what they really are. First we observe, and then we question. In doing this we will really risk something of ourselves, in return for something that we might not want right now: sanity, clarity, understanding.
This essay is the first in a series in which I will ponder small sections of the teaching as fully as I can, trying to read my own experience and to grasp how discontent arises and how to engage with it.
At the heart of the Buddha’s teaching is the Chain of Dependent Origination, which turns up throughout the texts in slightly different versions, with small variations, but substantially the same. In this chain the Buddha presents in shorthand form the origin of suffering through a series of conditions, starting with embodied existence. Everything in Buddhism can be found in the chain, and at the beginning of its most powerful presentation, the Mahanidana Sutta (Greater Discourse on Causation), the great disciple Ananda is told to beware of thinking that he has understood it, since it is a bottomless and subtle doctrine. In this essay I want to focus on the connection between feeling, craving, and clinging; indeed, the Buddha himself dwells on craving in this particular Sutta, as if of all the links it is the one we can see most clearly.
Here is the whole chain of dependent origination, from the Mahanidana:
“Thus, Ananda, with mentality-materality as condition there is consciousness; with consciousness as condition there is materiality-mentality; with mentality-materiality as condition there is contact; with contact as condition there is feeling; with feeling as condition there is craving; with craving as condition there is clinging; with clinging as condition there is existence; with existence as condition there is birth; and with birth as condition, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this entire mass of suffering.” (Mahanidana Sutta, 3; tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1984)
Contact signifies the contact of our sense organs (including the mind, the interior sense) with their objects, and feeling is the result of this contact. Crudely, feeling may be boiled down to pleasure, pain, and neutral, but there are infinite gradations of these, and infinite combinations of feelings not easy to categorize. The key is that we are embodied, conscious beings with various capacities for sensing and perceiving, and when we experience something, something happens at the sensory level that is more than merely sensing. For instance, when our taste buds encounter a new kind of ice cream we may experience sweetness and other taste sensations, but there is nearly always a feeling of something like pleasure or pain. And then what happens?
To answer this, we need to be aware of what we experience. Seeing what the Buddha is seeing always demands not just thinking but also the practice of mindfulness, which he describes in the various Suttas on Mindfulness (to be discussed in another essay): we have to attend to our experience, notice what happens, and see how it changes from moment to moment. When we are novices to this practice, the observations will be more crudely drawn, but with time and effort we become subtler and start to notice more. These Suttas speak to us when we root them in actual experience.
This is what happens. A friend gives us a scoop of a new brand of ice cream. We taste it. It is sweet, unique, vanilla and chocolate and some nut. Mmmmm. We like it. What’s it called? Can I have seconds? Next time we go to the store we will get some. In fact, it is so good that we need to keep some in the freezer all the time…All this usually takes place in a second, apparently as one reaction to the first taste. Occasionally the last part — the decision to keep some on hand always — might be delayed, but most of the time there is no transition between the first taste and the polishing off of the entire portion. If we focus carefully on this experience, there are three distinct phases, of which only the first may be unavoidable: 1) the actual sensation of taste: sweet, yum; 2) the desire for more; 3) the determination to secure it for the future. In Buddhist jargon, 1) is feeling, 2) is craving (tanha, literally “thirst”), 3) is clinging or attachment. The taste itself is innocuous; there is nothing unwholesome or hazardous about liking a sensation. But what happens after this? Is the move from feeling to craving inevitable?
We can always stop after the first spoonful of ice cream, the first square of chocolate, the first sip of wine — just as we can stop after the first bowl, the first bar, the first glass. Why do we usually not stop? We are trying to repeat the pleasurable experience of the first spoon, as if we really thought that it could be repeated. After all, we know rationally that we cannot experience the same thing twice in exactly the same way; things just don’t work that way. So we finish the bowl and even ask for a second helping; in fact, usually as we eat the next spoon is loaded while the current blob of ice cream is still in our mouths, as we attempt to experience an uninterrupted flow of the same pleasure. Someone who is trying to recover from sugar addiction is well aware of the heightened pleasure of allowing himself only one spoonful; the taste is better if we are not expecting to repeat it, and we relish it more. A friend of mine once weaned himself from the need to have five mugs of coffee every morning, and after a week of hard austerity he realized that one mug of coffee tasted much better and that he no longer felt he needed the other four. The desire to repeat is a compulsion, and when it is cured, we enjoy the present more. In fact, the compulsion — when it is experienced as an unavoidable necessity — leads to less pleasure, a kind of dullness, which, when it is how we experience everything we eat and drink, spreads like a grime of discontent over our everyday lives.
We drink one beer: why do we think we need another? We eat a scoop of ice cream: why do we think we have to have two? It takes a psychological genius like the Buddha to see clearly that we are, miraculously, capable of asking this question — which means that the step from one scoop of ice cream to two is not inevitable. If we think it is inevitable, we will suffer — because we will feel thwarted and dissatisfied if we cannot get it (and we can’t, because it won’t taste the same twice!). If we see that it is not inevitable, we start to free ourselves from imagined needs — and once we realize that this is possible, and that we might become happier because of it, we can practice it, first by paying attention, and then by interrogating the compulsion. We do not need to obey our desires blindly and helplessly.
Amazingly, once we break the fetter of compulsion between one beer and two, we find ourselves free of the compulsion for even one beer. If it is offered, great; if not, water tastes pretty good too — and when we realize that water is not intrinsically less of a sensation than beer, but indeed can be just as interesting and pleasurable, we will find ourselves journeying on a path towards more autonomy and contentment. Our joys will be more joyful if we don’t expect to repeat them; we will notice and feel with greater clarity, and to the extent that every moment is new, we will finally be able to experience the new and not just the repeated. Is it not sad, when we eat a bowl of ice cream, to discover that we only really tasted the first spoonful and that all the others were only repetitions of the memory?
So far the the examples I have chosen to understand the transition from feeling to craving have had to do with sensory pleasures. It is easy to see that our reaction to sensory pain or displeasure is just as much a form of craving, but a craving to flee. We taste something “bad,” and instantly move to wanting never again to meet this taste or anything resembling it. Craving includes both attraction and aversion. If we generalize the taste example to experiences through all the other senses — visual beauty, auditory pleasure, olfactory and tactile titillation — we can easily see how, if we think through this in all of our sensory experience and notice clearly that the bond between feeling and craving is not necessary, our lives would be transformed and much more interesting.