The ice cream meets our tongue, we utter the sacred syllable mmmmmmm, and find ourselves automatically slurping the whole scoop and sometimes a second or a third one: this is the move from “feeling” to “clinging,” and while it may be a “natural” move, it is not an inevitable one. This is why the Buddha always speaks of “condition,” not “cause”: With feeling as condition there is craving; with craving as condition there is clinging; with clinging as condition there is existence. If feeling caused craving, whenever our senses met a sense object, craving would spring unavoidably from the sensation. But we have seen in our own experience that that is not so: we can be satisfied with one taste of ice cream, with one cup of tea. Therefore feeling is only a condition for craving: if there were no feeling, there would be no craving. A person deaf from birth would not crave Bach; a dog probably craves many more olfactory objects than we do, since dogs can smell whole universes of things that we cannot even notice. The Buddha is not telling us to stop feeling, just because it is a condition of craving; we can’t, as long as our senses bump into the things they are meant to sense. We can, however, sever the link between feeling and craving, once we become aware of this link and know that it is not necessary. It is not that we should not be subject to craving, but that when we glimpse that craving does not lead to happiness we will slow down and look more carefully whenever we experience feeling turning to craving.
One of the beauties of this is that the kind of attention that is enjoined can be practiced — not only understood, but embodied in our acts of attention: anywhere, at any time, by anybody. Understanding and practice are foundations for each other.
Before going on to feeling and craving in our relation to non-sensory objects, let’s dwell a little on the next two links in the chain: how craving conditions clinging (or attachment), and how clinging conditions “existence.” This will give us a deeper understanding of the significance of craving.
After polishing off all the ice cream in front of us, and if we decide that we like it, we usually have something resembling this thought: I’ve got to buy some and keep it in my freezer — or, This is so good I must never again be without it. A milder version is: I won’t get some now but I know where I can get some if I suddenly decide I want it. These three variations are basically the same thought, because they all involve the perceived need to secure the future supply of the beloved object. Thus, when we pay money for the ice cream, what we are buying is not only the present container but the certainty of future ice cream: the industrially farmed cows to make enough ice cream for millions of people with this craving, the people employed in the handling of cows and the production of ice cream, all the machines and the people who build them and the mining that provides materials for them, the freezer-trucks to guarantee a supply through all four seasons of the year, the truck-drivers, a stable and dependable source of oil for the trucks, the maintenance of that dependability through military action, and so on. This is true of attachment to any sense object — food, drink, clothes, and most other things we buy. Attachment or clinging is the attempt to secure the endless satisfaction of our cravings, most usually by funding the materials, construction, and labor in and around the objects of our desires: perpetual ice cream presupposes perpetuity of all the other things that go into ice cream. If you perform an analytical meditation on one or two things you know you cling to — chocolate, coffee, liquor — you will see in a very short time that while these things present a simple surface to us, what the surface masks is almost an entire world of activity that we feed into in order to satisfy craving. Moreover, we generally want to satisfy cravings as cheaply as possible, so that we have more money left over to satisfy other cravings; and this means we are perfectly okay with getting more from the world than we can pay for.
The same applies to the craving for biological life, in which clinging manifests in such phenomena as having children and health insurance, not to mention military defense — all of which are supported by billions of hours of labor and other sacrifices. The word translated as “clinging” or “attachment,” upadana, literally means fuel: fuel for craving, fuel for the world created by craving. This is what the Buddha means by “clinging conditions existence”: it makes the world, and the world is thus an expression of the collective cravings of all the beings in it. Characteristically, the Buddha does not instruct us to judge this state of things, but only to observe and understand it: when we look it fully in the face, do we like it, or does it disturb us? If it is possible for us to go through life never confronting craving and clinging, it will be because we secretly know that if we thought about it we would be disturbed.
When we apply the same analytical insight to non-sensory objects such as career, relationships, beliefs, and ideas about things like selves or souls, we might find ourselves even more deeply unsettled.