The Pali word translated “craving” is tanha, which is the exact equivalent of the Sanskrit word trishna which means internal or external thirst, craving, or desire. Since this is the cause of so much activity and eventual suffering, and its elimination brings peace, an entire section of the Dhammapada is devoted to the subject.
Increase of craving
“The desire of a thoughtlessly living man grows like a creeper. He drifts from one life to another like a monkey looking for fruit in the forest” (Dhammapada 334).
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “When a person lives heedlessly, his craving grows like a creeping vine. He runs now here and now there, as if looking for fruit: a monkey in the forest.”
Heedless living is the order of the day. Narada Thera renders it “addicted to careless living,” reminiscent of Judge Robert Bork’s book title: Slouching Toward Gomorrah. In the main people dress, act, speak, and think like slouches. Cheapness and heedlessness are the marks of contemporary society. Some might call it “casual,” but only a fool lives casually, and Buddha explains why. Beneath the pretence of the easy-going mellowness of the “no sweat” slouchers intense craving festers, but since they are so indolent they crave the easily attained, especially turning to drugs to achieve mental and emotional states they are too lazy to pursue legitimately. Their “recreation” is equally banal and pointless–as are their lives in every aspect. Those who can afford it sometimes become hyper-active Beautiful People, but their cheapness and shallowness just costs a lot more.
Although those in the grip of desire do go from life to life, that is an interpretive translation. Thanissaro Bhikkhu renders it literally, which makes more sense. People run here and there, “channel surfing” their life, living like a restless monkey in the forest of desire.
Increase of sorrow
“When one is overcome by this wretched, clinging desire in the world, one’s sorrows increase like grass growing up after a lot of rain. But when one masters this wretched desire, which is so hard to overcome, then one’s sorrows just drop off, like a drop of water off a lotus” (Dhammapada 335, 336).
We are surrounded by a deluge of books, articles, talks, and seminars on “peace” but there is no peace. Yoga is touted as a way to peace, “getting saved” is a supposed way to peace, and of course there are the hostile endeavors of “peace activism” and the futility of “peace conferences” and “peace negotiations.” It is all totally without value or effect. Why? because craving increases sorrow like grass growing after rain. There is only one way out: the overcoming of desire. It is hard to do, but there is no other way. When desire is gone, sorrow is gone. The lotus is not touched by the water; its oily surface repels it. And wisdom repels desire.
The way to peace
“This is what I say to you–Good luck be with you, gathered here. Dig up the root of craving, as one does a weed for its fragrant root. Do not let Mara destroy you again and again, like a stream does its reeds” (Dhammapada 337).
Buddha truly wishes us well (“good luck be with you”), so he tells us the straight truth. Craving must not just be suppressed, made dormant, or lessened–it must be dug totally out of our minds and heart. Otherwise we will be drowned in the river of ignorance and negativity again and again–even from life to life. Let us face it: life in this world kills us; and the root of worldly life is desire. Otherwise:
“In the same way that even a felled tree will grow again if its root is strong and undamaged, so if latent desire has not been rooted out, then suffering shoots up again and again” (Dhammapada 338).
Streams of craving
“When the thirty six pleasure-bound streams of craving are strong in a man, then numerous desire-based thoughts pull the deluded man along. The streams (of craving) flow everywhere, and the creeper shoots up and establishes itself, so when you see the creeper shooting up, cut away its root with your understanding” (Dhammapada 339, 340).
It is insight alone, true intuitional wisdom, that can cut away craving.
Seekers of enjoyment
“The recollection and attraction of pleasures occur to a man, and those who are attached to the agreeable and seeking enjoyment, they are the people subject to birth and aging” (Dhammapada 341).
“Are you happy?” this is the mindless cant of “those who are attached to the agreeable and seeking enjoyment.” “The pursuit of happiness” is a pathetic exercise in futility when it is out-turned, for happiness (sukha) and joy (ananda) are found only within. “It tastes like ‘more’” is a kind of southern pleasantry when eating something good, but it unfortunately becomes a philosophy of life: “If it feels good, do it.” What insanity. It reminds me of the radio adaption of Arsenic and Old Lace. One of the poisoners fondly remembers that one of the old men they poisoned “lived long enough to say it tasted good.” Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John, wrote of people who ingest spiritual poison and “sweetly drink in their death.” Birth and decay are the bitterness within the “good things of life,” as they experience, but yet do not learn.
“People beset by desire run here and there, like a snared rabbit, and those trapped in the bonds of attachments keep returning for a long time to suffering. People beset by desire run here and there, like a snared rabbit, so one should get rid of one’s craving if it is freedom from desire that one wants” (Dhammapada 342, 343).
Hamsters run and run in their wheel and get absolutely nowhere; in the same way people rush here and there, busy and distracted, not knowing that they are really tied down. As Sri Ramakrishna said, a human’s “free will” is nothing more than the length of the rope an animal is tied to. It moves about freely in that area, but no more. Everyone is tied to the stake of death and does not know it. They are awaiting slaughter all unaware. One time in India I saw a herd of ducks obsessively and fearfully clustering around their owner as he went to market. When he got there, they crowded up to him and stood completely still. Every so often someone would approach and point out a duck they wanted to buy. He would reach down, pick up the duck, and deftly break its neck in one swift movement. And that duck had felt so secure, so safe, being near him. Freedom from desire in the only real freedom and safety.
Return to bondage
“When a man out of the forest of desire is drawn back into the forest, then free from the forest as he is, he runs back into it. Look at him–free, he is running back to chains” (Dhammapada 344).
A lot of people manage a momentary escape from the bonds of earthly life and then turn and run right back into the prison. In the same way people temporarily are free of desire–especially when great sorrow comes to them or death is witnessed. But it is only a momentary distraction, and in a little while they are gripped and driven by craving. Someone’s spouse dies and they swear they will never marry anyone else, but often in a matter of months “the old ball and chain” gets welded on again. People are grieved at the death of a beloved pet and declare that they will never get another one, but after a bit they get not one, but two. If freedom is not permanent it is not freedom at all.
“The wise say that it is not an iron, wooden or fiber fetter which is a strong one, but the besotted hankering after trinkets, children and wives, that, say the wise, is the strong fetter. It drags one down, and loose as it feels, it is hard to break. Breaking this fetter, people renounce the world, free from longing and abandoning sensuality” (Dhammapada 345, 346).
The wise say that it is not an iron, wooden or fiber fetter which is a strong one. No external bonds, even though forged of steel, are “strong” when compared with our mental bonds, for intense and powerful as the outer world is, the inner world is much more so. The result is that mental bonds are the strongest, but it also means that we have the inner power to shatter those bonds. So the message is also optimistic and should be kept in mind as we consider the rest of the verse.
But the besotted hankering after trinkets, children and wives, that, say the wise, is the strong fetter. What is to be said? Yearning for possessions, including “possessing” a family of one’s own, is the Strong Fetter. Buddha was speaking to monks, so naturally he spoke of “wives,” but his words apply equally to women who feel a dependent need for husbands. “Man must have his mate” is denied by Buddha, and he ought to know, because he had a wife and child along with great wealth, but freed himself by cutting the outer and inner bonds–and so can we. The bound do not like it, but the saying that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle is certainly true, and it applies equally to a man needing a woman. Actually, it applies to any “need” whatsoever. Freedom is a wonderful thing, and wonderful are those who seek and attain it.
It drags one down. Those who are in bondage often deny it. An acquaintance of mine was a psychologist in a federal prison. He had a patient who vehemently denied being a prisoner and insisted that she was a resident employee. He could not speak at all of her real situation or she would get hysterical. She was highly intelligent and capable, but unable to accept reality. In the same way, the slaves are insulted when their status is accurately named and analyzed. But Buddha is speaking to those who can face the facts: material life and material relationships drag us down and degrade us. From childhood I watched people being subjected and degraded by their wives and husbands. I saw the life crushed out of people so their personalities and ideas would not get in the way of a selfish and manipulative spouse’s wishes and ambitions. Many of them were completely unaware of it, and others were resigned to it like the prisoners they were. “The old ball and chain” is no joke. And when the horror is compounded by greedy and demanding children, it is inexpressible misery.
And loose as it feels, it is hard to break. Sri Ramakrishna often spoke of the way a washerman would pass a rope around the legs of his donkey at night. Thinking he was bound, the donkey would not move the entire night. That is the way of the bound: their bondage is false, only in their mind. In the same way, as Buddha points out here, the bound often feel free–after all, they chose to be bound and exerted their utmost power to win their “mate” and be tied to them. (Pathetic are those who think that if they do not get married to their “partner” they will not be bound. It is a case of self-delusion.)
Few things are more tragic than the ideal spouse who is loving, sacrificing, forgiving, generous and totally faithful to a worthless, undeserving, and often abusive mate. I have seen those, too. Their love and caring were also terrible bonds. One of my aunts was such a wife, married to an infantile, selfish and cold-hearted man who was never overtly abusive only because he was so indifferent to her. “I would not want to live if George died,” she told me with complete sincerity, but when he died she found what it was to live, and for nearly twenty years enjoyed herself as she had never done during the time she was his house-slave. (He would not wear clothes that were not warm from just being ironed. She would have to set up an ironing board outside the bathroom when he took a shower and hand the clothes in to him the moment they were ironed.) I will never forget the panic and outright fear displayed by a beautiful and intelligent friend of mine when she saw by her watch that she might not get home in time for her husband to see her bringing food to the table when he opened the house door at the end of his work day. (I do not exaggerate. He demanded that upon opening the door she should literally be bringing the food to the table.) She seemed to think it not at all unreasonable of him. How tight that “loose” bond was around her neck. For most people it is impossible to break. Some remain slaves even when the spouse has died. A cousin of mine was a genuine hellion. Although she died, for the rest of his life (decades) her husband would do things, saying: “Amy would want me to,” and would refuse to do other things, saying: “Amy wouldn’t like it.”
As Marley’s ghost told Scrooge: “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
Breaking this fetter, people renounce the world, free from longing and abandoning sensuality. This is the only way, however the slaves and slave traders–and slave owners–may screech and deny it. Freedom has a price–a blessed casting aside of bonds and binders. It can be done.
Those on fire
“Those on fire with desire follow the stream of their desires, like a spider follows the strands of its self-made web. Breaking the bond, the wise walk on free from longing, and leaving all suffering behind” (Dhammapada 347).
Desire is not an external force–it is completely internal, as is “temptation” and the other passions. In other words, desire is totally self-created, just as is the web of the spider. As the spider roams around in its web, in the same way we roam around in the desires and passions we have created and are working to maintain and increase. We are the only “Satan” we have to fear and the only “Savior” in which we can hope. As Buddha points out, we can break the bond and be free from suffering.
“Let go the past, let go the future, and let go what is in between, transcending the things of time. With your mind free in every direction, you will not return to birth and aging” (Dhammapada 348).
We must let go of our obsessions, pleasant or painful, with past, present and future, and we must expunge the conditionings of all three as well. For in the present we are forming conditionings, part of which is expectation for the future. Though the future is theoretical, nevertheless our ideas and emotions about it color our present and will carry on into the actual future. Time itself must be transcended by entering into the Transcendent Reality that is beyond time. Buddha called this the Birthless and Deathless where birth, aging and death cannot exist.
How it works
“When a man is stimulated by his own thoughts, full of desire and dwelling on what is attractive, his craving increases even more. He is making the fetter even stronger. But he who takes pleasure in stilling his thoughts, practicing the contemplation of what is repulsive, and remaining recollected, now he will make an end of craving, he will snap the bonds of Mara. His aim is accomplished, he is without fear, rid of craving and without stain. He has removed the arrows of changing existence. This is his last body. Rid of craving and without clinging, an expert in the study of texts, and understanding the right sequence of the words, he may indeed be called ‘In his last body,’ ‘Great in wisdom’ and a ‘Great man’” (Dhammapada 349-352).
This is completely clear. The only thing I want to point out is the fact that this is all done by us. We bind ourselves and we free ourselves, and the way we do it is right here in this verse. Buddha indicates that such a freed person is conversant with the teachings of the wise, studying and applying them correctly. Such a one may truly be called “great.”
The free man speaks
“‘All-conquering and all-knowing am I. Amidst all states of mind, unaffected am I. By abandoning everything, I am liberated by the cessation of desire. Having achieved Realization by myself, who should I point to as my teacher?’” (Dhammapada 353).
Once again Buddha shows us that it is all a matter of our doing–discipline, practice, understanding, and liberation. Certainly we all have temporary teachers–including Buddha through his recorded teachings–but ultimately it is our own application and our own experience and insight that free us. Teachers are like highway signs; they point out the way to go, but do not take us a single inch–we go on our own. We are self-taught in the sense that we made the effort on our own and therefore reap the effects on our own. Spiritual self-sufficiency is an absolute requirement, for dependence is delusion and destruction.
“The gift of Truth (dhamma) excels all other gifts; the flavor of Truth excels all other flavors; the delight in Truth surpasses all delights. The destruction of craving overcomes all suffering” (Dhammapada 354–Harischandra Kaviratna).
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “The gift of Dharma conquers all gifts; the taste of Dharma [conquers], all tastes; a delight in Dharma [conquers], all delights; the ending of craving, all suffering and stress.”
When Truth (sabba/satya) comes to us and is assimilated fully by us, only truth remains; all other gifts, tastes, and delights are vanquished from our minds and hearts along with the craving, suffering, and stress they bring.
“Riches destroy a fool, but not those who are seeking the other shore. The fool destroys himself by his craving for riches, as he destroys others too” (Dhammapada 355).
Those who seek “the other shore” of Nirvana cannot be harmed by materiality, for they do not let it enter their heart. But those who crave material gain destroy themselves and others associated with them in this pursuit, whether supporters and adversaries. It is poison all around.
Offerings to the wise
“Fields have the blight of weeds; mankind has the blight of passion; therefore, offerings given to those devoid of passion bring forth abundant fruit.
“Fields have the blight of weeds; mankind has the blight of hatred; therefore, offerings given to those devoid of hatred bring forth abundant fruit.
“Fields have the blight of weeds; mankind has the blight of delusion; therefore, offerings given to those devoid of delusion bring forth abundant fruit.
“Fields have the blight of weeds; mankind has the blight of desire; therefore, offerings given to those devoid of desire bring forth abundant fruit” (Dhammapada 356-359–Harischandra Kaviratna).
It is good to give alms to those in need, but Buddha is saying that there is no greater merit in alms than giving to those monks who are free from passion, hatred, delusion, and desire–or who genuinely seek to be free from them.
Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: The Bhikkhu
Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:
- The Twin Verses
- The Mind
- The Fool
- The Wise Man
- The Enlightened
- The Thousands
- The Rod
- Old Age
- The Self (Atta Vagga)
- The World
- The Buddhas
- Impurities (Taints)
- The Righteous (Dharmic) One
- The Way
- A Woeful State
- The Elephant
- The Bhikkhu
- The Brahmin
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