Being and Craving

During the period covered in the foregoing account, the author wrote the following essay, which was never published nor prepared for publication. Found amongst his papers following his death, it is here published for its intrinsic value, as well as for whatever light it may throw upon the preceding chapters.


Upon the actual the possible perpetually casts its shadow. It is in this darkening that the actual discovers itself as bleakness.

I. Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to exemplify an approach to the Buddha’s Teaching and, in so doing, to indicate a method of thought which will prove of greater use in dealing with the problem with which that Teaching is concerned — the problem of suffering — than other approaches (scientific, rationalistic, scholastic, logistic, mystic, idealistic, and so on) which have repeatedly failed to resolve the problem. Although by way of introduction and contrast the familiar interpretations of tanha (craving) are discussed briefly, this paper is not a polemic and therefore no detailed discussion of the various approaches is provided. The reasons why they (necessarily) fail, however, will become evident as our approach is described.

This paper, then, will not merely disagree with the traditional interpretations of a particular term of basic significance to the Dhamma, but will illustrate a way in which both this and other equally basic aspects of the Teaching may be investigated; for, ultimately, it is the method of approach that will define and qualify the nature of our understanding. The method to be illustrated, then, may require not a minor adjustment of one’s understanding but a complete reorientation of one’s mode of thinking.

The problem of suffering, with which the Buddha’s Teaching is concerned, is a problem within the realm of experience, for outside of experience it is meaningless to speak of suffering. If we are to investigate suffering (in the belief that our increased knowledge of its nature will better equip us to do something about it) we must investigate it where it occurs, which is in (or as) experience. And since all the experience we can know of is our own experience — for if we know of it it is part of our experience — we must, of necessity, concern ourselves with our own experience of suffering.

Experience, moreover, is an organized phenomenon — that is to say, it is structured. It may be expected, then, that a description of it will attempt, firstly, to recognize the particular elements which, together, constitute an individual experience; secondly, to recognize which of these elements are essential for there to be any experience and which are gratuitous, or inhere only in this particular mode of experience; and thirdly, to describe the structure of the essential elements — that is to say, that way in which the elements are put together in order for experience to be what it is.

This paper will proceed, then, by taking a particular term of basic import to the Buddha’s Teaching — tanha, or craving — and will examine it in the context of experience itself, in order to exhibit (in part) the structure of experience, or the relationship between those elemental components of an experience that are essential, without which there could not be experience.

II. The Traditional Interpretation

The traditional interpretation of tanha is expounded in the Visuddhimagga, Chapter XVII. It is there pointed out, first, that craving arises through the medium of one of the various senses, and then it is said that the Buddha has stated three kinds of craving: kamatanha, bhavatanha, and vibhavatanha, here tentatively translated (so as not to beg the question) by the more familiar terms, sensuality craving, craving for being, and craving for non-being, respectively. Taking the example of craving as it occurs through the medium of the eye, the Visuddhimagga goes on:

“When the craving for matter [i.e. what is seen] manifests itself as a sensual delight, relishing the [visual] object that has come within the range of the eye, that is called sensuality craving. When that [craving] occurs with the eternalist view, ‘Lasting, eternal’, as basis, that is called craving for being, for it is the lust accompanying the eternalist view that is called craving for being. And when that [craving] occurs with the annihilationist view, ‘Breaking up, perishable’, as basis, that is called craving for non-being, for it is the lust accompanying the annihilationist view that is called craving for non-being.” [Vis. pp. 567-568]

Reference is here made, then, to the ‘eternalist view’ and the ‘annihilationist view’, defined in the Suttas[1] as the views that the world (and the self: so loko so atta, as the world, the self) is, in the first case, eternal and everlasting, and in the second case that it is, in one way or another, subject to annihilation. The Visuddhimagga then tells us that when one holds the eternalist view his craving is of the mode called craving for being; that when one holds the annihilationist view his craving is of the mode called craving for non-being; and that when one holds neither (or possibly both: the point is not made explicit) of these views his craving is of the mode called sensuality craving.

There can be no craving without a ‘thing craved’ (even though that thing may not always be readily identifiable), so let us take a specific example. Suppose three people, each representing respectively one of these three views, see a plate of chocolates, and that all of them experience craving for the chocolates. One of them (the ‘eternalist’) — according to the traditional interpretation — will experience ‘craving for being’ for the chocolates, the second (the ‘annihilationist’) will experience ‘craving for non-being’ for the chocolates, and the third will experience ‘sensuality craving’ for the chocolates. We are at once lost in incomprehensibility. We can, perhaps, understand what sensuality craving for the chocolates is: in this example it would involve sweetness, creaminess, a particular odour, a texture of smoothness, etc. — all the particular sensual perceptions we identify with “eating chocolate”, plus a craving for this set of particulars. This seems clear enough. But what are we to make of the other two terms? Between the view that ‘the world is eternal’ (or non-eternal) and the desire for a piece of chocolate what relationship can be established that is not wholly gratuitous? For it is not denied that a relationship could be established — indeed, in the assertion of a relationship a relationship is established; what is denied is that there is any essential or meaningful connection between these views and the craving. What is objected to is that such an identification does not advance our understanding of craving.

But this is not all: we are told only the individual holding neither the annihilationist nor the eternalist views experiences sensuality craving. But we learn from the Suttas that no one less than the sekha — one who has attained direct vision of the Dhamma — is free from these two views (the sekha has sammaditthi), and that the puthujjana, the commoner, who does not have direct vision of the Dhamma, always holds one or the other of these views (see, e.g., Mulapariyaya Sutta, Majjhima i,1). Are we to conclude, then, that only the sekha is capable of kamatanha? And still further, since the sekha is not able to hold the eternalist and annihilationist views (for his personal and direct knowledge of the Dhamma shows him, if he tries to hold either of these views, that the views are based upon misunderstanding), is he, then, incapable of experiencing craving for being and craving for non-being? And is the puthujjana equally incapable of experiencing sensuality craving? The Suttas, at any rate, give no indication that this is so. The difficulties raised by the Visuddhimagga’s account of craving are, in fact, insoluble and its account may be dismissed as unmeaningful.

Indeed, the Commentarial view is so evidently absurd that it seems to be deliberately ignored (or, perhaps, it is largely unknown) by those modern commentators who by and large follow the traditional views on most other points. In its place an alternative explanation has been advanced, which has been widely accepted and which may therefore be called the ‘popular’ interpretation. This view, in fact, is so prevalent that it seems to be assumed by most modern writers to represent the traditional interpretation and has therefore not been fully expounded in any recent major work on the Dhamma, but lies within these works as an implicit assumption.

III. The Popular Interpretation

This view is to the effect that there is sensuality craving, of which craving for chocolates (regardless of any views the craver might or might not hold) is one example; there is craving for being, which is the craving for one’s own continued existence (in its grosser formulations it is often called ‘lust for life’), and there is craving for non-being, which is the craving for one’s own non-existence (‘I wish I were dead’). This interpretation is, at any rate, less incomprehensible than that which the Visuddhimagga sets forth. Certainly we may agree that we experience sensuality craving at various times, certainly we sometimes experience the craving for continued existence (as, for example, when we feel fear of our existence being terminated), and — if we are honest with ourselves — we can admit to having known on occasion a craving for our non-existence. What, then, is wrong with all this? The answer is simple: it is wholly gratuitous.

Thus, we may look at a plate of chocolates and observe our experience. It will consist of a number of different items, some of which — such as intention, perception, and consciousness — are absolutely necessary for there to be any experience whatsoever, while others — such as chocolates, odour, whiteness — are no less certainly gratuitous and do not occur in all experience. The necessary items are structurally related in a way in which the gratuitous items are not (if they were not structured they could not be essential); and if we are to understand the nature of experience (and hence the nature of suffering) we must understand the structure of the essential components of experience. Thus, it is not merely a relationship which is sought (for a relationship, even of essentials, can be itself gratuitous) but rather a structure which is essential in order for the various elements comprising that structure to interact as we can observe within our experience that they do in fact interact. But the three items, kamatanha, bhavatanha, and vibhavatanha, as presented by the popular interpretation, are neither necessary nor structured; there is no essential relationship between them. We might select any three items and treat them in exactly the same way. Thus, we might discover a craving for happiness, a craving for cleanliness, and a craving for dirtiness, and go on to point out, exactly parallel to the popular interpretation of kamatanha, bhavatanha, and vibhavatanha, that these three experiences are common, that we often feel a desire to be happy, that we sometimes wish we were cleaner, and — if we are honest with ourselves — we all might sometimes enjoy a good roll in the mud (though we may never indulge the desire). But after this, what can we do except to shrug our shoulders and reply, ‘All right; but so what?’ And what more can we do with the popular interpretation of tanha? To what, we may ask, does it lead? For it is inherently impossible, after such a beginning, that the popular interpretation of tanha could go on to exhibit any structure essential to experience; for besides exhibiting a gratuitous relationship (dependent upon the chance coincidence of all three forms of craving within the same experience), the item kamatanha is craving for something that is — according to this interpretation — external and is, in a fundamental sense, not me, while the items bhavatanha and vibhavatanha are directed inwards towards something which is identified by me on a fundamental level as (inseparable from) my self. There is, then, a chasm separating the object of kamatanha from the object of bhavatanha and vibhavatanha which precludes any possibility of a synthesis which might yet lie within the sphere of experience. (It is possible that it was the recognition of this fact that persuaded the Visuddhimagga to adopt an interpretation wholly involved with craving from one side — unfortunately, and external side; but in its attempt to avoid the puddle of these subtle errors the Visuddhimagga has fallen into the ocean of a gross error.)

IV. Definitions of Kama, Bhava, and Vibhava

Having briefly described the difficulties met with by the traditional and the popular interpretations, we may now proceed to an investigation of the meaning of the three terms, kama, bhava, and vibhava.

A. Kama

Kama, sensuality, will be discussed more fully later. Here it will be sufficient to note that ‘sensuality’ should not be confused (as it sometimes is) with ‘of the senses’. All craving, whether or not it is kamatanha, is directed towards an object, and therefore will always come within the province of one (or more) ‘of the senses’. Later it will be shown that sensuality, far from meaning merely ‘of the senses’, refers to the intensity, or quantity, of craving, as opposed to the type, or quality, of the craving, which is either bhavatanha or vibhavatanha.

B. Bhava

Bhava has been variously translated, and it is clear at once that ‘being’ is not its only English equivalent; ‘existence’ is also a completely unobjectionable translation; for if I am, then I exist. It is impossible to assert the one without at the same time asserting the other. But we are concerned here with experience. If, then, I assert ‘this is’ or ‘this exists’, I can only do so because it is present. If it were not present such an assertion would be meaningless. It may be objected that — for instance — it is possible to assert that ‘this pelican exists’ even though a pelican is in no way present to me. And at this point we arrive at a major distinction which may require, as indicated earlier, a readjustment of one’s entire mode of thinking. To maintain that something exists which is not present to me may, of course, have validity in certain modes of thought — scientific thought, for example — and, within the limitations of that mode it may be meaningful. But, as pointed out, we are concerned with experience; and since experience, being personal and not subject to observation by more than one individual, lies outside the sphere with which all objective modes of thought are concerned, including the scientific mode, we cannot admit such modes of thought into our considerations without at once abrogating our original intention to investigate experience. Therefore we must limit ourselves to statements which are subjective. (This is not to suggest, of course, that we are to abandon precision and allow prejudices into our considerations. A subjective statement can be just as precise and unprejudiced as an objective statement. The statement, ‘I am thinking of a cow’, for example, is as precise as any statement the objective disciplines can offer, and as unprejudiced.)

In our considerations, then, to say that ‘this pelican exists’ while not having some perception of ‘pelican’ is invalid. I can, of course, assert that I am thinking of a pelican; but then it is not the pelican whose existence is asserted but the idea (or image) of the pelican. In existential terms, then, to assert the presence of a thing is to assert its existence; to assert its existence is to assert its presence and thus we have presence as a third term which might serve as a translation of bhava. And, in fact, there are a number of other words which could also be considered; but we have arrived at the one which we are seeking, as will become clear.

C. Vibhava

Let us proceed to vibhava. This word is usually translated as ‘non-being’. But the negative participle in Pali is ‘a‘, and not ‘vi‘; we might expect, therefore, if we were to speak of non-being in the sense of being totally non-existent, to find the word abhava rather than vibhava; but in fact nowhere in the Suttas does abhava occur in opposition to bhava. The word is certainly possible: it is used in the Commentaries[2] in the sense of non-existence or annihilation; and there are words similar to abhava to be found — not opposed to bhava — in the Suttas themselves,[3] so the construction seems to be etymologically unobjectionable. Furthermore, when the non-existence of something is asserted — as, e.g., the non-existence of lobha, dosa, and moha in the arahat — the term vibhava is never used in connection with such a description.

Why, then, we may ask, does abhava not occur? And what, then, is the distinction between it and vibhava? The prefix ‘vi‘ has the meaning of ‘apart from’, or ‘separation’, which is close to (i.e. is not) a negation.[4] Etymologically, then, vibhava would seem to mean ‘apart from bhava‘, apart from being, apart from existence, apart from presence: dis-presence. And if something is apart from presence does not this mean that it is absent? And is not absence similar to (i.e. not the same as) non-existence? Could it not be, then, that the Sutta usage of vibhava rather than abhava in this formal definition is due neither to careless choice of words nor to a quirk of language but, rather, that it is a careful distinction made on ontological rather than etymological grounds? Let us investigate and see if this is so.

V. Presence and Absence

If we see a chair we can say, ‘That chair is present; it exists; it is.’ If we see no chair we might say, ‘That chair is not present; it is absent,’ but we cannot say that it does not exist, that it is utterly and absolutely not for exactly the same reason that we cannot assert, when we do not see the chair, that it definitely and positively is: to assert that the chair is absent is to assert that it is not here now. This is a statement about what is present: we survey what is here, what is present, and find that none of those things that are present is that chair. If, however, we assert that the chair therefore does not exist (or that it does exist but is not present) we are making a statement which does not involve our experience,[5] a statement which is, ultimately, speculative, and which is therefore invalid in this investigation. While the assertion that, if something is present (or experienced) it exists is not merely valid but, strictly, tautologous, it by no means follows that to assert that if something is absent it does not exist, for — again — we are going beyond the limitations we have set for ourselves and, therefore, leaving experience out of account.

Let us take another example. I am sitting with a pen in my hand. I am present to my experience as being seated-with-a-pen-in-my-hand. Being-seated-with-a-pen-in-my-hand is present; of all possible arrangements of my world, that particular arrangement is, it exists, it is present. There are an infinite number of possible arrangements which are absent; e.g. being-seated-without-a-pen-in-my-hand; lying-down-with-a-book-in-my-hand, stand-up-with-an-itch-on-my-left-ankle, etc. None of these possibilities is present, and so I may assert their absence: they are not here-now. But while these possibilities are not here-now, I cannot say that they are non-existent, for it is evident at once that they do, in fact, exist as possibilities. I can, at any moment I choose, lay down my pen or change my bodily position or both, and therefore the possibility is constantly present to me. And precisely in order to maintain it as a possibility I must constantly intend to not do it; for if I do lay down my pen, stand up, and stretch my arms, then the possibility of doing so vanishes and becomes, instead, an actuality, something that is present; and the present thing, i.e. sitting-with-a-pen-in-my-hand, is no longer present, but absent. But it has not vanished utterly; it, in its turn, has become a possibility — for, after stretching it is possible that I will sit down and pick up the pen again.

To be absent, then, is not to be non-existent, but to be possible. An absent is a present possibility, and something truly non-existent could only be an absent possibility, or, in other words, an impossibility — something which does not present itself to us as possible. But if something which does not present itself to us as possible it does not present itself to us at all; for even the most remote and unlikely thing that we can think of is never a logical impossibility (we can at this moment begin to make plans to go to the moon), and, indeed, we may indulge ourselves, if we wish, in the most fanciful and extravagant daydreams involving the most wildly unlikely circumstances, and, while we indulge them, they will appear to us as valid images. It is only when we investigate them reflexively, by taking a step away from them, so to speak — an observing of them rather than an existing of them — that we will recognize their unlikelihood and, perhaps, dismiss them. We cannot ever speak, then, of a true non-existent, of an absent possibility; for as soon as we do so it ceases to be an absent possibility and presents itself to us as a present possibility.

We have made here a crucial distinction. As mentioned previously there are other words that might be used for bhava/vibhava. Now we are no longer restricted to the simple dichotomy of is/is-not, but instead we have a trichotomy between:

bhava vibhava abhava
present absent non-existent
certain possible impossible
being becoming[6] non-being
real imaginary unreal
central peripheral ?
positive negative null
here-now here-then
(ditthe va
there-now nowhere

to name a few of the possible choices.

It may be objected that in some cases ‘present’ is not a suitable translation for bhava. ‘What about bhava paccaya jati?’, we may be asked. ‘Certainly bhava cannot here be translated as “present”, as opposed to “absent”: it means “being”, or “existence”, and includes both what is present to experience as present and what is present as possible, does it not?’ It does. The point is that in bhava paccaya jati, bhava stands alone, whereas in bhavatanha/vibhavatanha it is opposed to vibhava. Where bhava stands by itself, as ‘being’, it clearly includes both present and absent: the word is not used with the same equivalence in both cases: Pali is a language, not a set of symbols like mathematics, and words, in any language, have varied meanings in different contexts. To assume that any word (let alone a word as difficult to handle as bhava) must always have the same meaning in all contexts is to assume an attitude that will prevent any understanding. (For a specific example, notice the two distinctly different uses of the word ‘assume’ in the preceding sentence.) What is maintained here is that when bhava is used in opposition to, or in conjunction with, vibhava, then it must be understood as ‘present’ (real, central, positive, etc.) in some sense in order for vibhava to have any real significance at all. And in such a case the word ‘non-existence’ will have no valid use, nor need it have.

VI. The Three Modes of Craving

A. Quality: bhavatanha and vibhavatanha

We have, through examination of the nature of experience and the use of specific examples, found ontological meanings for bhava and vibhava, and also found etymological justification (which is, however, of no more than confirmatory value — etymology will not by itself suffice to derive the meanings of technical terms). We have now to return to our experience to seek the meaning of the complex terms bhavatanha and vibhavatanha. We may now translate these as:

bhavatanha vibhavatanha
craving for present (experience)* craving for absent (experiences)
craving for certain (experience) craving for possible (experiences)
craving for being (experience) craving for becoming (experiences)
craving for real (experience) craving for imaginary (experiences)
craving for central (experience) craving for peripheral (experiences)
craving for positive (experience) craving for negative (experiences)

as we choose. [* The parenthetical expressions may be used throughout this paper.] Each possibility will have its own particular emphasis; each will illustrate a different facet of the same structure; but though the shades of meaning differ the basic concept remains intact. It will be convenient for our present purposes to retain, generally, the translations ‘craving for presence’ and ‘craving for absents’. Any of the other terms, however, may be substituted throughout this paper to examine how the various nuances which will be revealed compare with one another.

To begin with, we may note that presence is singular while absents is plural. Experience demands this distinction, for in our experience there is always only one total present experience but many total absent experiences. Thus, at this moment what is present is a complex entity which may be partially described as ‘sitting at a desk writing a paper’. The sitting, the desk, the writing, and so on, are not separate entities but integral parts of a single composite whole: the present experience. The absent, or possible, experiences, however, are manifold: I could be standing or lying; at a table or beneath a tree; scratching, pondering, or talking; holding a pencil, a book, a pose, or nothing at all. I could be seeking, sighing, or sweeping. Many of these things are exclusive of each other (I cannot be simultaneously standing and sitting) but, one and all, they have the characteristic of being what I might do, of being possible, and, as possible, they infect and determine the actual (the sitting at a desk, etc.) for what it is; for at each moment that I remain seated I do so only because I choose to remain seated, and I can only choose to remain seated if there are other things I might choose but in fact do not. Being seated at a desk, however, is only one experience: it is singular, while the possible (absent) experiences are manifold.

Craving for presence. Now we have introduced the notion of choice. We can observe that any experience we are (presently engaged in) we are (so engaged) because we are (choosing) it. We have at any moment many possible things we might do (or be, or have) and we choose one of them. The choice is made, always, because, as a totality our present experience is the most satisfactory (or, at minimum; the least unsatisfactory) available choice.[7] Certainly a carefully reflexive attitude will reveal soon enough that we have chosen this particular experience out of all possible experiences because it is the one we most crave. And this is craving for presence: the craving for our present experience as being the most desirable of all experiences possible to us. Indeed, if we did not crave our present experience we would not have (or be) that experience; and if we craved no experience we would not be (any experience) so that by a careful examination of the negative character of intentionality we can see clearly, through practice of reflexion, that craving for presence is a structural necessity. So understood, there is nothing gratuitous about craving for presence: if it were not, there could be no experience whatsoever.

Craving for absents. If, however, we were to have only craving for presence there could never be the choice of any experience other than our present one, for it is only through intention that we alter (our experience); we must choose that which is as yet only possible, or absent, for it to become actual or present. Thus, I am now choosing to be seated-writing-this-paper. If I could experience only craving for presence I could never wish to be doing anything other than being seated-writing-this-paper, and I should never do anything else for all eternity.[8] But in fact I can put my pen down, stand up, and stretch; and I can do so whenever I wish (or intend) to do so. But I am not now doing so; if I do do so it will only be to satisfy a craving for what is not my present experience. This, however, is craving for only one particular absent; it is not structural because any one absent could vanish, become no longer even possible (i.e. no longer considered in any degree) so that I could no longer crave it (or, conversely, it may become actual, present, no longer merely possible, in which case I could not crave it as an absent), and yet the structure of experience would remain. Craving for an absent is not essential; it is not craving for absents.

If we examine our experience more closely we will find that at any moment we have certain inclinations: I might stand up to stretch; in fact I am on the point of doing so; but — no, it’s too much trouble. Perhaps I will lie down and read a book? I consider the possibility; that is to say, I pay more attention to it; it looms larger in my sphere of thought, obliterating other possibilities, then I reject it — and so on. We are constantly faced with an infinite number of possible modes of being; we have chosen our present mode of being because it is the most satisfactory; but it is not all possible satisfaction; and we constantly “examine” other possible modes, seeking one that is more satisfactory. There is, then, an inherent unsatisfactoriness in our present (most satisfactory) experience: namely, that it is not wholly satisfactory; it is not all possible satisfaction. Sometimes it is so slightly satisfactory that we pay very little attention to it, and pay relatively more attention to various other possible experiences: this is either boredom or anxiety according to the specific nature of the experience. Sooner or later a “switch” will occur: one particular absent experience will be found to be more desirable than our present experience; and we will intend the absent experience which, in the act of intending it, will become the present experience, while our (former) present experience will now be absent, or possible.

All of this describes the method of choosing a present experience; that is to say, it describes craving for presence. But we have not yet got to craving for absents. We have noted that at any time our present experience, while the most desirable of all possible individual absent experiences, is not wholly desirable. Examining each individual absent experience, none will be more desirable than our present experience. (If it were more desirable, it would be our present experience.) But we also have an awareness of the total potential desirability of all absent experiences as a whole, and this is craving for absents. Most of the time the total desirability of all absent experiences combined will be greater than the desirability of the particular present experience. But though we crave that absent totality (for it is desirable), we cannot grasp it in its totality; so we feel a ‘lack’, an incompleteness: there is pleasure which presents itself as possible but which we cannot grasp, and in the face of this impossible possibility we flit from one particular absent experience to another, ‘tasting’ them, trying to retain them as we grasp simultaneously towards other possibilities which we envisage. In the nature of things we cannot experience all possible worlds. Thus, craving for absents takes the form of being an unattainable goal.

Since there are always more than one absent modes of being available, and since we always have some degree of awareness of them as possible, this awareness of their desirableness is always present to experience: it is structurally involved in experience; for were it not, there could not be the phenomenon of choice with which we are constantly faced (‘Should I do this, or that, or that, or that?’). If we were only conscious of one absent it would always be absent, for we would already have determined our present experience as being more desirable than that one absent experience. There must be a multiplicity (and an infinite multiplicity) for choice to have any meaning, for without such a multiplicity it would be impossible to account for the observed fact of change. And since intention is bound up with choice (we intend something: we choose it), intention (cetana) could not be were there not this craving for absents as we have described it.

It seems, then, that we have arrived at an understanding of bhavatanha and vibhavatanha as they are involved in experience which shows them to be always present and structurally necessary for experience to be what it is. We have already come a long way beyond the traditional and the popular interpretations, which succeed in doing neither. Our description could be carried further in several directions (a few indications have been given); but we are not yet finished. There is a third aspect of craving which is also ontologically essential — kamatanha, or sensuality craving.

B. Quantity: Kamatanha

The most essential feature of the relationship between bhavatanha and vibhavatanha is that of opposition. We crave, on the one hand, the most desirable of all possible experiences — our present experience — and on the other hand all possible desirability — our absent experiences. We crave, on the one hand, to retain what is, and, on the other hand, to obtain all that is not. We seek to resolve this perpetual conflict; and there are two ways in which we may seek this resolution: quality and quantity.

The quality, or type or experience, involves such adjectives as ‘happy’, ‘peaceful’, ‘anxious’, ‘anticipatory’, ‘repulsive’, and so on. By quantity is meant the intensity of a particular experience. At any moment we can attend to just so much. We can divide this attention any way we choose: I can pay a great deal of attention to my present experience of writing, much less to, say, my in-and-out breaths, and hardly any at all to the chirping of birds outside my window. Also, if I choose, I can pay more attention to my breathing, to the sound of the bird, or to any other aspect of my present experience. I will continue to be aware of all aspects of this present experience; but the degree of awareness of any particular aspect may vary according to my intention. It can be observed that one aspect of any experience is essentially different from all other aspects: I can, in a very real sense, experience the absent experiences as part of my present experience: they are present as absents. I am aware of them as potential, for if I were not, it would be impossible for me to make any of them present as actual. If, for example, I were not aware that I could stand up and stretch then it would be inherently impossible for me to do so. I am aware of the experience ‘standing-up-and-stretching’ as possible, as absent. It has an essentially negative character; and it is negativity which is at the core of intention. Part of my present experience of writing, then, is the awareness of the possibility ‘standing-up-and-stretching’. All possible experiences are present as absent; and in some degree, however slight, I am aware of them all (for if I were not aware of them they would not be possible, or absent, but impossible, or non-existent). I can pay as much attention to them as I choose. If I pay a great deal of attention to one absent it will “loom larger” in my present experience; it will become a less distant horizon. And all the various aspects of that absent experience — the idea of putting down my pen, the idea of the pleasure of stretching, the idea of not-doing-my-task, etc. — all of these aspects will take up a relatively larger share of my attention. Whatever desirability there is in that absent aspect of my present experience will also appear more clearly: not that the absent aspect itself will appear more desirable, but rather that the desirability is more intensely presented. And the same holds true of the present aspect of experience: if I attend more carefully to what I am (doing) and pay little attention to what I might be (doing) there will be as much less awareness of the desirability of the absent aspects of experience as there is less awareness of the absent aspects of experience themselves. Their desirability will not present itself as less, but as less present. And, correspondingly, the desirability of the present aspect of experience will appear more prominently (more presently: we can see here why there must be degrees of absence) and I will be less likely to intend a different experience.

VII. Intensity

We are at the cinema. The audience is silent; the only sound is the background music, tense and discordant. We see on the screen the silhouette of a man; it is night: he is dressed in dark clothing. Stealthily he walks towards the open lighted window of a house. Inside the house we see the hero talking quietly, earnestly, to the heroine, both of them unsuspecting of the intruder. The stranger takes a pistol from his pocket; we know, from the plot, that he is going to try to murder the hero: he is going to try to murder us, for we have been identifying ourselves throughout the film with the hero. We are tense, expectant: will he succeed? Will we be, vicariously, murdered? Suddenly the film stops, the lights go on, and a voice from the projection room calls out: ‘Anyone who wants to leave the theatre can do so now.’ Will we leave? Will anyone leave? If anyone does go it could only be because he was not experiencing the threat, the thrill, of (vicarious) assassination. Certainly we will stay: we want to experience the danger, the excitement, the intensely stimulating experience of the expectation of death. We know, of course, that the hero will not, after all, be done away with: the film is only half-finished, the hero is never done away with, and besides, even if he were, we could escape death by merely ceasing to identify with him; these facts, however, do not lessen our fear. But: Is this pleasure? Can we truly tell ourselves that the expectation of death, even vicariously, is a pleasurable experience? It may be desirable (it must be desirable, for we will go to a great deal of trouble to seek the experience), but ‘pleasurable’ is hardly an appropriate word for our feelings. We may be nervous, we may be tense; we may be scared silly (if it is a particularly good film); but we could never describe our experience in terms of pleasure. The word which most adequately describes our feelings is intensity. Whatever it is that we actually feel, we do so, in this most dangerous moment, with the greatest possible intensity we can muster. Our attention is fixed firmly upon the screen; the stopping of the film and the subsequent announcement, far from being welcome relief from the expectation of death, were sufficient to make us angry, because the particular intense experience we were involved in had been shattered. Again, we will wait in long lines to get a chance to ride a roller coaster. Do we do so because the experience of plummeting at incredible speed down an unbelievably steep incline, and the expectation that we shall be derailed and smashed to pieces at any moment (for during the descent itself we have no doubt that there is no other possibility) is pleasurable? Of course not: we do so because the experience is intense. So too the hedonist, the masochist, the sadist, and similar types of individuals can be readily understood if it is once seen that the goal of their activities is not pleasurable experience (which is quality) but intensity of experience (quantity). And, of course, many examples of a more subtle nature could be adduced as well, examples taken from the daily routine of our lives, for if we observe our experience closely enough we will see that (for most people most of the time) what is normally sought is not pleasurable experiences but exciting ones.

Now we may ask: Why do we seek experiences of intensity? And the answer seems to be: the more intense our present experience is — the more attention we are paying to it — the less attention we have available to attend to the modes of experience which present themselves as absent. The less attention we pay to those absent modes, the greater, in comparison, will seem the desirability of our present experience. In fact, if we could ever succeed — to postulate an impossibility[9] — in paying full attention to our present experience, then the absents would cease to exist as such and with them would cease to exist the awareness of their desirability-not-realized. In seeking intense present experience we attempt to come as close as possible to this goal of an experience which contains all desirability. This is why people will go far out of their way for experiences which in themselves — the expectation of vicarious death, as in our previous examples — cannot be called pleasurable in any sense of the word (not to deny, of course, that some experiences may be both intense and pleasurable: this makes them all the more desirable — see the Culavedallasutta, Majjhima v,4 (M.i,299), where quality and quantity (delight and lust) are specifically associated with tanha as leading to the arising of the person (sakkaya). These experiences have a certain positive value (for we know that the hero will not be killed; and we know too that even if he were we should lose not our lives but no more than that which is involved in identifying ourselves with him; we know that the roller coaster really won’t be derailed, etc.); we anticipate (in the above examples) the feeling of having-cheated-death; and it is this feeling (and not the expectation of death, which is what is experienced intensely) which may be considered as containing an element of pleasure (in addition to other elements, both positive and negative); and this is desirable to us. Whatever desirability there may be in an intense experience, however slight, is magnified to our awareness. When we hold our hand before our eyes we can block out the sun; and yet we are told that the sun is ‘in reality’ (in a sort of ‘reality’ which is of a totally different nature from the reality of experience) billions of times larger than our hand. Yet the nearness of our hand and the distance of the sun make our hand loom larger to our awareness than the sun. So too, the intensity of an experience can be so great that the desirability of that experience looms larger to our awareness than the perhaps much more desirable but very slightly attended to totality of possible experiences.

This craving for intensity is kamatanha, sensuality craving. It is in the realm of sensuality that intensity occurs: with reflexion we can observe that the experience in the cinema was almost entirely sensual in nature. And the more sensual an experience, the more intense it will be. Certainly an orgasm is one of the most intense experiences we know. Thus kamatanha, sensuality craving, is the component of our experience which is the craving to make our present experience more intense.[10]

VIII. Pleasure

It may be asked at this point: Why does the Buddha not speak of a craving-for-pleasure? Is there no ‘sukha-tanha‘? There is, but it is certainly not structural, or essential, in character. There can be experience which does not involve craving for pleasure. Pleasure, we may note, is a widely misunderstood term. It is qualitative in nature, yet it is often incorrectly identified with intensity, which is quantitative. Intensity is, in its nature, difficult to examine, simply because examination requires reflexion, and reflexion robs an experience of some of its intensity: we must attend to the immediate (intense) experience, which removes part of the total experience from immediacy and thus from the intensity. The more we reflect, the less intense an experience can be. Our observation of intensity is self-limiting. Pleasure, on the other hand, is difficult to perceive because it is a very quiet feeling. In fact, it may be equated with quietness. By ‘quietness’ is meant simply the lack of intensity, or, we might say, the ‘detensity’. It is only by seeking out detense experience and then practicing reflexion on such experience that we can arrive at an understanding of pleasure. But since this sort of experience (one mode of which is meditation) is in conflict with kamatanha, few people take the trouble to develop it to the extent necessary for adequate observation. An indication of the nature of pleasure may be taken from the Suttas, however. Nibbana is defined (at Nidana Samyutta 69 (S.ii,_)) as bhavanirodha, cessation of being. This, it would seem, is as far as one can go in detense experience; in fact, it is so detense that it is reduced to zero (‘it is tensionless’, we might say) and one cannot properly speak of it as ‘experience’ at all, which must always have some intensity. Let us turn, then, to A.IX,iv,3 (A.iv,414): “The Venerable Sariputta said this: — “It is extinction (nibbana), friends, that is pleasant! It is extinction, friends, that is pleasant!” When this was said, the Venerable Udayi said to the Venerable Sariputta, — “But what herein is pleasant, friend Sariputta, since herein there is nothing felt?” — “Just this herein is pleasant, friend, that herein there is nothing felt.”[11] If there were a structurally necessary ‘sukha-tanha‘ we should all have attained nibbana.

Part of the difficulty in working towards this cessation of being may be accounted for by the fact that ‘sukha-tanha‘, craving for pleasure, for lack of experience (or, in the ultimate form, cessation of being) is purely gratuitous, so that in developing it one must oppose it to its structurally necessary counterpart, kamatanha. The ‘turning down’ of kamatanha is a gratuitous event, for there is no structural reason why it should be turned down, while there is structural reason for it to try to maintain itself. For if it disappears completely experience can no longer be possible, and — since ontologically experience is being — we arrive at cessation of being, or nibbana.

IX. Conclusion

Now we have examined the three aspects of craving in terms of experience. Let us summarize our results. We have craving for our present experience, which is structurally necessary for our present experience to exist. We have craving for absent experiences, which is structurally necessary for change to occur. These two cravings are in conflict — the one tending towards stability and the other towards change — and we attempt, with sometimes more and sometimes less success, but never with total success, to resolve them by intensifying present experience so that there is to our attention less absent experience for which to crave. All three aspects of craving can be observed by reflexion in our experience at any moment, and their structural necessity may (under proper conditions) also be observed.

Similes, like razors, are dangerous instruments when applied overzealously or pushed too far. A simile can never be a proof; it can only serve as an illustration of what has already been evinced. And even so one may be led astray if the parallel is followed too far. With these precautions the following simile is offered as an aid to working with the central concepts already presented.

A radio, we all know, has two control knobs, usually labeled ‘tuning’ and ‘volume’. By use of the tuning knob we can switch from the ‘station to which we are now listening’ to any of the ‘absent’ stations, as we will. There is never more than one waveband tuned in at a time, but the other wavebands are not, therefore, non-existent, but simply not present, not tuned in. The correspondence to bhava/vibhava is obvious: we can only listen to the ‘present’ station, and however many good things (we think) are being broadcast by the many other stations, it is inherently impossible to attend to more than one of them at a time (though that does not stop some from trying — see footnote 9). The other dial, ‘volume’, corresponds to kama, in the sense of intensity: many people have their ‘volumes’ turned up full in their search for excitement, intensity; but however loud the broadcast (however intense the experience) it does not thereby become enjoyable — merely loud. Therefore there is constant use made of the tuning knob in the attempt to find a pleasurable broadcast. The normal principle is, then: keep the volume high and switch from station to station rapidly (keep the experience intense and seek as much variety as possible). The Buddha, of course, reverses this principle: by the practice of samatha bhavana — development of calmness — one ‘turns the volume down’, while concentration on one’s subject of meditation is analogous to keeping tuned to the same station. Only by staying tuned to one station can one begin to understand what is being broadcast (the best example, in literature, of this constant ‘switching stations’ is the internal monologue of Molly Bloom, the last chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses), and only by first turning down the volume will one be in a position to be able — given certain other conditions as well — to switch the knob to ‘off’. And ‘off’ is bhavanirodha, cessation of being, nibbana.

Finally, it may be said: ‘This is all very well, this detailed description of tanha, but in practicing the Buddha’s Teaching is it really necessary to make such detailed analyses? Do all arahats, for example, prepare themselves in such wise?’ The answer is, of course, that such a detailed description is not necessary. What is necessary is that one could describe one’s experience in some detail (this ability is acquired through the practice of reflexion, without which there is no practice of the Dhamma). But for certain people, at certain times, describing to themselves what they observe (by reflexion) may be of great use, and these people may find that actually committing their thoughts to paper — to make sure that they are not omitting, in their thinking, any essentials — may well prove worthwhile. For these individuals the making of detailed descriptions, even beyond what is found in any individual Sutta, may prove to be of value in their practice of the Buddha’s Teaching and a help to them in their progress.

The present is never merely present: it is always pregnant — about to give birth to — with the possible.


1. See Brahmajala Suttanta, Digha i.1. For the eternalist view (sassatavada) see pp. 14-16; for the annihilationist view (ucchedavada) see pp. 34-35. Although it would involve a more complicated analysis, the traditional views regarding these two terms are subject to investigation by the same method used here to investigate tanha. see, in particular, Khandha Samy. 81.

2. At, e.g., Abh. 1103; 1165; Abhidh-av 11; Dhp-a III 1; III 453; Sv I 121; Pv-a 9; 17; Mogg-v III 2; Sadd 885-6.

3. E.g. abhavita at Dhp 13, Th 133, A i,5; v,299; S ii, 264, etc; itibhavabhava, being and non-being, D.1 (D.i,8); nabhavissa at A i,233, etc. See also the frequent use of asati, ‘is not’, D.ii,33 etc. etc. in opposition to sati, ‘is’, as well as atthi/natthi and other forms elsewhere.

4. In the later Pali of the commentaries the prefix ‘vi‘ is made to do service for other meanings as well; we need not here concern ourselves with them. ‘Vi‘ is sometimes equivalent to the English prefix ‘dis’ and Pali ‘a‘ to English ‘un’: cover, discover, uncover; joined, disjoined, unjoined; placed, displaced, unplaced; etc.

5. So, too, the Buddha does not say that there is no self, but rather that the self is not to be found, and that all things are not-self. To assert either self or not-self is to go beyond one’s experience into the realm of speculation: it is here that there is valid application of the terms ucchedavada and sassatavada (see footnote 1).

6. Note that ‘becoming’ must be considered as equivalent not to bhava (for which it is sometimes used as an English equivalent) but to vibhava!

7. It is true, of course, that we sometimes refrain from choosing an experience which might bring us the greatest possible immediate satisfaction; but we are then experiencing a reflexive satisfaction; we savour, we anticipate, the future benefit to be derived by foregoing the immediate pleasure, and this anticipation is part of our total (present) experience.

8. Strictly speaking, if there were no choice there would not even be time (thus the Dhamma, realization of which involves cessation of intention, is described as akalika, non-temporal), and it would be incorrect to speak of eternity, time, doing, or — for that matter — experience.

9. An impossibility, however, which lies at the root of the conception of ‘heaven’ in Judeo-Christianity as well as many other traditions.

10. Perhaps it may be asked what we are to make of the unique passage at Digha iii,3 (D.iii,216):

Three cravings: sensuality craving, craving for present, craving for absents.
A further three cravings: sensuality craving, craving for matter, craving for non-matter.
A further three cravings: craving for matter, craving for non-matter, craving for ceasing.

Are the second two sets structural or not? Although these items appear as part of a long and very diverse collection of ‘threes’, and might therefore be thought not to be formal definitions, it will be suggested here, without going into a discussion of rupa (which — let alone discussions of arupa and nirodha — would take us far beyond the scope of this paper) that in fact these three definitions may be alternate and equivalent statements of the same principle which determines the structure of tanha and, though the second and third formulations are more complex, they are, ultimately, reducible to the first. There may well be several avenues of approach, but the second may be examined in terms of tanhapaccaya upadanam upadanapaccaya bhavo, while the third may be approached by means of the ariyasacca (see Majj.xiv,12 (M.iii,250)). Some individuals may find exploration of these approaches of profit.

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