Tanhā – The Origin of Suffering

November 9, 2019

Tanhā Is Attachment, Not Craving

1. Tanhā is a badly misunderstood Pāli word. The common translation is “craving,” and that is wrong. The craving usually is associated with a pleasurable ārammana.

  • Tanhā means attachment to ANY ārammana. It could be something that one likes OR dislikes OR even neutral (it may be just curiosity.)
  • We may attach to a beautiful object or a person to varying degrees. It could just mean pausing to take a “second look” at something. It could be a much stronger attachment like “falling in love at first sight” with a person.
  • But we also stop and take a second look at a person who just got run over by a car and died. That is not a pleasant sight, but we still got “attached” to that sight. We may think about it for a little while and then forget about it. But seeing one’s worse enemy on the street will lead to a stronger “attachment.” One may generate repulsive thoughts and may even say something harsh to that person.
  • The point is that tanhā leads to further “mind action” or “conscious thoughts” about a ārammana. We discussed that in, “Kāma Guṇa – Origin of Attachment (Tanhā).”
Tanhā – The Origin of Suffering

2. Tanhā is also the origin of future suffering. The Buddha defined the “origin of suffering” or “dukkha samudaya” as follows in his first discourse, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)“: “Idaṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, duk­kha­sa­muda­yaṃ ariyasaccaṃ—yāyaṃ taṇhā ponobbhavikā nandi­rāga­saha­gatā tatra­tat­rā­bhinan­dinī, seyyathidaṃkāma taṇhā, bhava taṇhā, vibhava taṇhā.”

  • Translated: “Bhikkhus, what is the Noble Truth of the origin of sufferingIt is attachments (taṇhā) based on seeking delight (nandi­rāga) in various things here and there, which leads to rebirth that is, attachments to sensual pleasures (kāma taṇhā), to the existence (bhava taṇhā), and the view of a single life (vibhava taṇhā.)
  • The three types of tanhā discussed at “Kāma Tanhā, Bhava Tanhā, Vibhava Tanhā.”

3. Interestingly, in the “Cūḷa­ve­dalla Sutta (MN 44), the same verse describes the origin of sakkāya diṭṭhi: “‘sakkā­ya­sa­mudayo sakkā­ya­sa­mudayo’ti, ayye, vuccati. Katamo nu kho, ayye, sakkā­ya­sa­mudayo vutto bhagavatā” ti? “Yāyaṃ, āvuso visākha, taṇhā ponobbhavikā nandī­rāga­saha­gatā tatra­tat­rā­bhinan­dinī, seyyathidaṃ—kāma taṇhā bhava taṇhā vibhava taṇhā; ayaṃ kho, āvuso visākha, sakkā­ya­sa­mudayo vutto bhagavatā” ti.

  • That is not surprising since all immoral actions originate with the wrong view that worldly pleasures need to be pursued at any cost.
  • If one does strong immoral deeds (pāpa kamma), one will be eligible for suffering in the apāyās. Even the desire to enjoy sensory pleasures will bind one to the kāma loka. The desire for jhanic pleasures leads to getting trapped in rupa and arupa loka. But there is no long-term happiness anywhere in any realm.
  • That is because regardless of where the next birth is, one is not free from the apāyās in the long run. The possibility of rebirth in the apāyās will be there until one attains the Sōtapanna stage by removing sakkāya diṭṭhi. All possible suffering ends when one fully comprehends dukkha samudaya at the Arahant stage. We will discuss that in detail in the future.
The Meaning of Tanhā (Pada Nirutti)

4. Many Pāli words have their meanings in the word itself. Uncovering the meaning of a word that way is “pada nirutti.” For example, “sakkāya” comes from “sath” + “kāya” or taking an aggregate of things or a collection (kāya) to be beneficial (sath.) That is why sakkāya diṭṭhi originates when one considers that the five aggregates to be one’s own and thus beneficial.

  • Tanhā means getting “fused” or firmly attached. The word tanhā comes from two words. “Thána” (pronounced like “thatch”) means “place” (තැන in Sinhala) and “” meaning getting fused/welded or attached (හා වීම  in Sinhala). Note that “tan” in tanhā pronounced like in “thunder” and “” is pronounced like in “harm.”
  • That is consistent with the meaning derived from the Chachakka Sutta. See “Kāma Guṇa – Origin of Attachment (Tanhā).”
Three Types of Tanhā

5. The verses in #2 and #3 refer to three types of tanhā. They are kāma tanhā, bhava tanhā, vibhava tanhā.

  • Each category represents the origin of a particular way attachment can happen. As we can imagine, kāma tanhā originates due to our inherent kāma guna. There are sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and dhammā that we like to experience. If access to such things is blocked, we again get attached, but this time with anger.
  • Bhava tanhā arises in those who believe in rebirth. They would like to be born as a human, deva, or a Brahma based on their gati.
  • Those who do not believe in rebirth have vibhava tanhā.
  • Let us discuss them briefly.
Kāma Tanhā

6. In kāma lōka, all five physical sense faculties are present. Getting attached to anything via the five sense faculties is kāma tanhā.

  • Furthermore, attachment arising from the desire to enjoy taste, smell, and body touch can happen only in kāma lōka. Those three require a “solid body” as we can imagine.
  • In the rūpa lōkas, living beings do not have “solid bodies.” Yet, they can see and hear without having physical eyes or ears.
  • Therefore, in rūpa lōkas, tanhā arise only due to sights and sounds. Thus an Anāgami, who will be born in a rūpa lōka has some rūpa tanhā and sadda tanhā because he/she may like to see a Buddha statue or listen to a discourse.
  • In arūpa lōkas, there is only the mind. Therefore, an attachment can be only to dhammā.
Bhava Tanhā

7. Bhava tanhā arises from attachment to “any existence.” Thus bhava tanhā is present in kāma lōka, rūpa lōka, and arūpa lōka, i.e., all 31 realms.

  • Even in the kāma lōka, there may be people who do not enjoy the “kāma” or sense pleasures; but they still want to live a quiet, peaceful life. They mostly have bhava tanhā. They may like to be in a secluded place, cultivating jhāna; that is their desired “bhava.” If they develop jhānas, they will be born in rūpa lōka or arūpa lōka due to their new “gati.”
  • There are other subtle forms of “bhava” too. Some like to become famous, earn a title, to get a high-profile job or a responsibility, etc. These attachments are not associated with sensual pleasures. They are due to bhava tanhā.
Vibhava Tanhā

8. Vibhava tanhā arises from the wrong view of materialism (uccēda ditthi in the time of the Buddha; uccēda pronounced “uchchēda”). One believes that life ends at death. Here the mind is assumed to be a byproduct of the body (brain). And thus, when the body dies, that is the end of the story.

  • Therefore one believes that one needs to enjoy all possible pleasures of this life before dying. Such a person would typically have kāma tanhā as well as vibhava tanhā.
  • It is easy to have vibhava tanhā in modern society. That is especially true if one has not heard about the Buddha’s message about a more complex world with 31 realms and a rebirth process. Our human sensory faculties cannot access such “hidden” aspects of this world. One believes only what one can see.
Tanhā Does Not Directly Lead to Rebirth

As we have seen in previous posts, for an average human, SOME ārammana WILL automatically generate tanhā within a split second. Only in an Arahant, tanhā would NOT arise for ANY ārammana. That is a crucial message of the Chacakka Sutta (MN 148.)

9. However, tanhā does not directly lead to rebirth (new existence). Paticca Samuppāda does not say, “tanhā paccayā bhavo.” Instead, it is, “tanhā paccayā upādāna,” followed by “upādāna paccayā bhavo.”

  • To make a new existence (bhava), the mind needs to “pull that ārammana close” and start generating conscious thoughts about it. That happens because one either likes it or dislikes it. That is the “tanhā paccayā upādāna” step.
  • That “tanhā paccayā upādāna” step is a bit involved. When the mind attaches to a ārammana, it starts “examining” that ārammana. That “examination” involves vitakka/vicāra or vaci saṅkhāra.
  • That is when one STARTS acting with avijja and generate saṅkhāra (and thereby kamma viññāṇa via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa.”) That is the start of a new Paticca Samuppāda cycle.
  • We will start discussing Paticca Samuppāda in the next post.

All relevant posts are at, “Origin of Life.”

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