Scratching the Itch

by John Stella

From the Introduction to Samanera Bodhesako’s Beginnings, Collected Essays (BPS, 2008).

Where does one begin? One begins, writes our author, from where one is. Yet wherever I am, I either want to stay here or go there; I either want my circumstances to change or to remain the same. Depending on my situation, to a subtle or great degree I am clinging to what is happening now, dissatisfied and hoping for something better or fretting about what might happen. So, wherever one is, whether in a routine, a crisis or even bliss, it is in a state of recurring craving, care and concern: wanting pleasure and not wanting pain, yet powerless to control fate or know the future.

To realise this intrinsic insecurity is to admit there is an underlying problem, manifested in various ways:

Herein the intelligent person, he who does not shrink from unpleasant truths … may describe it in any of a number of ways—anxiety, loneliness, insufficiency, frustration, inconstancy, boredom, uncertainty, bondage, meaninglessness, impermanence, despair—but however it appears it will be seen, if it is seen at all, to be fundamental.1

Obviously, each of us at times feels anxious, bored, lonely, frustrated, etc. But intelligent as we are, is not our instinctive reaction in those instances to avoid the confrontation, to look away from the fundamental or chronic problem, to ‘shrink from unpleasant truths’ and existential doubts by keeping busy, going on holiday, taking a pill, calling a friend, turning on the radio? The distress is acute, immediate, and we want instant, even if temporary, relief. 2

Yet when we treat only acute symptoms we are fooled into thinking we are cured of the disease. In Ven. Bodhesako’s autobiographical novel he recalls a limerick having to do with a lady from Natchez whose clothing is all in patches because, as she puts it, ‘Where Ah itches Ah scratches’. After our initial chuckle or surprise at the droll verses3 it may occur to us that she must be afflicted by a persistent, or better, recurring itching and subsequent scratching to have worn through all her clothing; so, while her words are comic, her situation is undeniably tragic, for her scratching can only exacerbate the itch, not cure it.4 Those of us familiar with the Saṃyuttanikāya may recall the references to the flayed cow chewed upon whether exposed to air, water or ‘wherever it were to stand’; and to the jackal tormented by mange who cannot be at ease no matter where he goes.5 Unfortunately, the cow, the jackal and even our Natchez lady are unable to assuage their suffering by changing location, standing still or scratching.

Throughout his works Ven. Bodhesako draws upon the image of the itch and its implications to explain the nature of our existence, which, he informs us, is ironically determined by a never mollified craving for it. His insight into the ‘recursive structures’ inherent in experience and his expositions by reason, simile and analogy have accurately diagnosed the puthujjana’s inflammation—yours and mine—and our impulsive reaction to intensify it.

A thorough reading of this compilation, especially Change and the illuminating essay entitled “Being and Craving”, reveals that taṇhā is more than skin deep: the puthujjana’s very being is predicated upon desire for not only the scratch but also the itch and their recurrence. Hence, they reinforce each other, and this truly vicious circle will spin out of control as long as it is not brought to a standstill by reflexion.6 Our author himself, while a young monk, was astonished to find that he was ‘itching all over’. Once in robes he realised as never before the extent of his latent dependency on women, tobacco, afternoon meals, music, fond memories and books for stimulation and satisfaction (books being the hardest of all to give up), and how severe were the symptoms of withdrawal.

Yet we know that an austere lifestyle alone cannot solve the issue of taṇhā; otherwise, ancient ascetics would have been enlightened long before the birth of the Buddha. As Ven. Bodhesako emphasises, the Pali term implies not craving solely for this or that, for love or money, but also wanting to want. For example, as a former smoker he realised that one takes another cigarette because one wants to feel the invigorating effects of nicotine and the instant relief from the craving for it; but if there were no craving, the next potential (or absent) cigarette would not hold out the promise of pleasure. Similarly, never truly content with any single present experience, we look forward to the next—one cigarette, one kiss, or one book is not enough—because the satisfaction derived therefrom arouses desire for another. Thus we understand more profoundly the nature of addiction, which does not merely crave another dose, but also the state of craving another dose. The addict does not want to stop wanting. And the puthujjana is the addict par excellence:

The itch being present, there is the search for a scratch. Although we can never discover a lasting and satisfactory scratch we can always rediscover the itch. But the itch is never the scratch and we are unable to effect the magic that would turn the torment of endless itching into the supposed bliss of an endless Perfect Scratch.7

Moreover, the ongoing search for a Perfect Scratch is in vain because it is dependent on an intentional imperception of the structural necessity of Change, which although not continuous or ‘in flux’8 is always, if not now occurring, at least lurking in ‘my self’ or ‘the world’. Therefore, every experience is haunted by impermanence, and because of it sweetness and light are soured and dimmed. This job provides a good living, but I may lose it; today this body feels healthy, but perhaps tomorrow, perhaps ten years from tomorrow, it may be in pain and cause me suffering; what fascinates me now may eventually annoy me. Even if my circumstances are not noticeably changing, the mere awareness that they can at any time is disconcerting, like the apprehension of a black cat crossing one’s path. Involvement with and in things is the foundation of the rickety construct of me-and-mine, doomed to collapse, because it is ever undermined by the structural necessity of Change:

There are two sources of dukkha in the world, not just one: the uncertainty inherent in the world (inasmuch as I could suffer loss, failure, or death at any time) and the certainty inherent in the world (inasmuch as sooner or later I certainly will suffer loss, failure and death). Craving tends to stabilize pleasure, but the uncertainty of the world tends to destabilize it. Craving tends to destabilize dukkha, but the certainty of the world tends to stabilize it. Invariably the world wins; but craving always demands another chance.9

And the puthujjana will always give craving another chance, because it dupes him into believing that if this experience is not fulfilling, then that one will be, so he tries again … and again. Ignoring the unpleasant truths of impermanence and uncertainty, he will get a new car, a bigger house, a ‘more secure’ job in his non-stop search for the ‘supposed bliss’.

Furthermore, as our author explains in his fresh approach to the concept of kāmataṇhā, we want both the itch and scratch to be as intense or exciting as possible. Whatever I experience is just an event, but if it is exhilarating I infuse a greater value to it. For example, we often hear of the wish ‘To Live Life to the Fullest’, which implies that as in a Hollywood movie there ought to be as much action and as many thrills as possible—from travelling to faraway lands, winning a marathon, or performing life-saving surgery. It is not enough to stick to the same routine; we want our lives to be meaningful, worthy of legacy, and entitled to more than the normally allotted fifteen minutes of fame. Yet kāmataṇhā can be even more insidious. We need to have as much ‘fulfilment’ as possible not just for ego-gratification, but also in order to fill time, so that we do not become bored, or worse, compelled to reflect on this pressing need. If we are not busy enough, if we are not accomplishing something or sufficiently entertained by phenomena10 we become anxious, uneasy, or even desperate. Then every passing hour seems maddeningly dull, trivial, tedious and futile, ‘the same old stuff, endlessly repeated’. Ven. Bodhesako found that whilst on cārika, wandering alone in the Ceylonese countryside with neither diversion nor destination, he craved experience, being and doing in themselves:

Something to do: that’s what was needed. My eyes roamed about, seeking anything which the gaze could seize upon. Ears, nose, body mind, all were prowling, hunting as the bear or leopard. I kept waiting for something to happen … I kept seeking something to distract me …
Something to do: Being requires activity … and so my identity was always contingent upon my involvement with, and in things.11

Our starting point, therefore, must be our subjective recognition of the inherent restlessness of the six senses and their prowling for contact, for something to do, for intense and exciting events. One outbreak in particular is merely a symptom of our chronic condition, which resembles the jackal’s mange: the craving that goads us to go wherever, and then goads us wherever we go. In sum, says our author, ‘if we scratch the itch what we invariably find is more itch. If we scratch the surface what we invariably find is more surface’.12 Until we realise the absurdity of all this, there is no true beginning, no further reflexion, and a largely unexamined life continues in Natchez, spent in an ‘endless round of pastimes’.13

So, instead of searching for the Perfect Scratch, Ven. Bodhesako prescribes the topical application of what he calls the ‘calamine lotion of reality’. Its after-effects are neither exhilarating nor intoxicating (hence unlike those of ‘Living Life to the Full’), but instead palliating and tranquilising. Simply put, but by no means simply followed, is the protocol:

To cure an itching skin disease the first thing to do is to prevent the patient from scratching and making it worse. Unless this can be done there is no hope of successfully treating the condition. But the patient will not forgo the satisfaction of scratching unless he is made to understand that scratching aggravates the condition, and that there can be no cure unless he voluntarily restrains his desire to scratch and put up with the temporarily increased discomfort of unrelieved itching.14

As Ven. Bodhesako observes, the task cannot be easy, for we have already noted that in most instances the patient does not even understand that he is afflicted; consequently, he does not want to be cured. It would mean forgoing the fervour enjoyed from pastimes, from desire and satisfaction, from experience itself. Moreover, the understated prediction of ‘temporarily increased discomfort of unrelieved itching’ at first sounds worse than the disease. The calamine lotion of reality seems, if we may be permitted the expression, hard to swallow.

However, the remedy will begin to work as we acquire a ‘vertical view’ of the predicament, one not overwhelmed by the inflammation of taṇhā, or better, no longer succumbing to it,. Then it is possible to appreciate the efficacy of the treatment and thereby undertake it.15 In the following works by Ven. Bodhesako it becomes clear that the ultimate relief from suffering, the fundamental problem, is found in reflexion, which ‘detensifies’ experience. As he will demonstrate, ‘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’.

—Dr M. John Stella

January, 2551


1 Beginnings, p. 1.

2 ‘In other words depending on any feeling there arises a specific craving which seeks escape from dukkha and synonimity with the pleasure it conceives of (as its own).’ Change,§ 9.

3 From Getting Off: A Portrait, p. 176 (not yet published). Ven. Bodhesako occasionally injected humour into his writings, even amidst the most serious discussions of our existential dilemmas. From his university studies of literature and creative writing he would have been familiar with the striking effects of juxtaposing the serious and comic. For examples we may recall the comic episodes in tragic works such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and of course Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Hence, the apt title Ven. Bodhesako chose for his selection of Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s letters (The Tragic, the Comic and the Personal), since his mentor was himself noted for ‘black humour’ in his correspondence.

4 Technically the term tragic implies more than mere misfortune; the situation is such that a protagonist’s action (kamma?), instead of solving his or her dilemma, only makes it worse. Everything Oedipus does in order to avoid committing the prophesised incest and parricide in fact works to fulfil it.

5 Puttamansa Sutta (SN: 12, 63); Sigala Sutta (SN: 17, 8).

6 It is crucial to remember that Ven. Bodhesako and Ven. Ñāṇavīra before him distinguish between the states of ‘reflection’ (thinking about something) and ‘reflexion’ (self-examination).

7 Change, §12.

8 For Ven. Bodhesako’s vigorous argument against the notion of flux, see Change, §§ 1–5.

9Change, § 10.

10 In its original sense, meaning ‘what appears before me’.

11 Getting Off, p. 245.

12 Change, § 12.

13 Beginnings, § 1.

14 Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera, Letter 13. Our author greatly admired Ven. Ñāṇavīra and was responsible for the publication of his Clearing the Path (Colombo: Path Press, 1988; reprinted by Buddhist Cultural Centre, 2003). Clearly Ven. Bodhesako uses the ‘existential’ or ‘subjective’ approach to the Dhamma he learned from the British bhikkhu. Therefore I strongly recommend that those who find this collection beneficial also read the writings of Ven. Ñāṇavīra. For more on Ñāṇavīra Thera see

15 See the Māgandiya Sutta (MN I: 75), where the Buddha is compared to a physician who administers uddhavirecana (‘purgatives and emetics’) to restore the sight of his patient, so that he may then be cured of his former blind attachment to sensual craving.

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