Tanhā – How We Attach Via Greed, Hate, and Ignorance

Revised October 31, 2015; important revision October 7, 2017

In the previous post, “vēdanā (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways“, we discussed how feelings arise in two ways, and one type of feelings arise due to our own volition, i.e., due to tanhā.

1. In the post, “Paticca Samuppada – Introduction“, we discussed the origin of the term “tanhā” (“thán” + “”, where “thán” rhymes like in “thatch” and means a place and “” means getting fused), as attaching to some place, thing, or a person (anything in this world) via greed and hate (and ignorance). Note that “tan” in tanhā  is pronounced like in “thunder”.

  • Here we will see how that happens according to the natural process of paticca samuppada.

2. This is discussed in the Cha Chakka Sutta. But in standard translations, the real meaning does not come out; see, for example: “Cha Chakka Sutta (MN 148)“, where one can also find translations in several languages which are not quite correct.

We get to know ANYTHING about the external world via ONLY six ways:

  • we see vanna rūpa (visual things) with our eyes.
  • we hear sadda rūpa (sounds) with our ear.
  • we smell gandha rūpa (odors) with our nose.
  • we taste rasa rūpa (food) with our tongue.
  • we touch pottabba rūpa (touchable things) with our body.
  • we contemplate or think about dhamma (memories, concepts) with our mind.

This is what the Buddha called “sabba” or ALL. Our whole world is what we experience with our six senses. Take a moment and contemplate on this. Is there anything else “in this world” other than those six listed above?

3. It is important to realize that these INITIAL sense inputs come to us via kamma vipāka. Then based on whether we have asava/anusaya (or corresponding gati or habits), WE MAY act with avijjā to pursue that sense input.

  • All our greedy, hateful, or ignorant thoughts arise when we make contact with the outside world with one or more of these six senses; these initial sense inputs are generated via kamma vipāka. But not all sense inputs lead to acting with avijjā. (Please take time to think and contemplate on these ideas as you go along. It is critical to get these ideas to proceed further).
  • This important fact becomes apparent when we do not think along lines of an “established self” or “no-self”. There is no “person” who has avijjā all the time. avijjā arises due to asava/anusaya depending on the sense input; see, “‘Self’ and ‘no-self’: A Simple Analysis“.

4. Let us examine how we get “bonded” to something that we experience. Let us take, for example, someone listening to a new song. In this case the sound (sadda) impinging on the ear (sōta) leads to sound consciousness. There are several things that happen in a fraction of a second. This VERY FAST sequence is stated as:

(i). “sōtanca paticca sadda, uppaddati sōta viññānam“, where, sōta is ear; sadda is sound (song), uppaddati means gives rise to, sōta viññāna is sound consciousness, and paticca here means just the fact that sound is captured by the ears, and NOT “pati + icca” or “willingly getting bonded. Thus,

  • “Due to sound of the song being received by the ear, gives rise to sound consciousness”.
  • The mind is not involved in assessing that sound.

In order to be interested in anything, we need to have some liking for it. Everyday, we are exposed to million pictures, sounds, etc, but we remember only a selected number, and these are the ones that lead to tanhā. This “selection of what one is interested in” starts in the next step:

(ii). “Tinnan san gati phassaō“;

here, we need to spend a bit of time explaining the terms: “san” means defilements or fuel for sansāric journey (see, “What is “San”?“), and “gati” (pronounced “gathi”)are sansāric habits (see, “sansāric Habits and asavas“); thus “san gati” means sansāric habits; “phassa” means contact, and “tinnan” (pronounced “thinnan”) means three. Please go back and read those two links if you do not remember those terms.

  • Thus what the above line says is: those three things (sound, ear, and sound consciousness) make contact with one’s sansāric habits, and one’s mind is instantly  attracted to the subject (in this case the song) if it is something that matches with his “gati” or “likings”. Within a split second of hearing a few lines of the song, the teenager is “hooked”; his mind becomes totally absorbed in it.
  • It is really at this step that the teenager gets interested in the song and gets attached to it (via “pati + icca”), BECAUSE it matches his gati.

Then comes the next line:

(iii). “Samphassa jā vēdanā” (this comes from “San phassa jā vēdanā“; it rhymes as “samphassa“) means this “contact with san gati” leads to feelings.

  • As long as one has matching “gati“, the corresponding feelings arise automatically. We cannot stop it, at least in the initial cittas or thoughts; but we can certainly stop progressing further and uttering bad speech or doing bad acts.
  • This is why it is important to get rid of bad “gati“. In the Satipatthana sutta, it is described how one becomes a “sampajannō” by figuring out how to get rid of bad “gati“; see, “Kayanupassana – The Section on Habits (Sampajanapabba)“.
  • The way to getting rid of such “bad gati” is to be fully aware of our speech and actions and stop such unsuitable speech or actions. That is what Kayanupassana is.

This is a VERY IMPORTANT step. The feeling depends on whether someone gets attracted to the subject matter via greed or hate. If it is greed (or liking) as in the case of the teenager listening to a song he likes, he gets a sukha vēdanā (happy feeling). On the other hand, if it was a heavy metal song and if his grandfather hears it, the grandfather may instantly form a dukha vēdanā (unhappy feeling) if he has a dislike for heavy metal songs (different gati than the teenager). This is the reason that different people feel differently about the same “event” (a picture, sound, smell, taste, touch, or a thought about something).

Let us further analyze this example:

The teenage could be walking a noisy street, but if he really likes the song he may not even hear any other sound. He is absorbed in the song; he gets “attached” to the song. Even after the song, he thinks about it in many ways: he may want to find the identity of the singer, may want to see whether the singer has more albums, how he is going to tell his friends about this, etc. This is the “sansāric wheeling” process, see, “Nibbana – Stopping of the sansāric Vehicle“, where we discussed how one becomes an Ariya by taking the wheels off of the sansāric vehicle (riya).

Thus the teenager gets attached (forms tanhā) as shown in the next step:

(iv). “vēdanā paccayā tanhā, tanhā paccayā upādāna, upādāna paccayā bhava, …”

The song became his existence or “bhava” (i.e., total awareness, existence) while he was listening. He does not  just listen, enjoy it while it lasts and move onto something else; RATHER, he wants to hear it again, may be hear more songs like that too. This is tanhā, he gets bound to it. Because of that he starts craving for it again and again, and also crave songs similar to that. May be he would form a liking for anything associated with the song: its composer, singer, and may join the singer’s fan club. His mind spends a lot of time “wheeling around” or “thinking about” things associated with the song; temporarily, his existence or “bhava” becomes that song.

(v). Now let us go back to (i) of the sequence:

sōtanca paticca sadda uppaddati sōta viññānam“, or “Due to sound of the song being willingly received by the ear, gives rise to sound consciousness”.

  • This is just the ear receiving the sound. The teenage may hear many other sounds on the road. But inorder for him to get interested, the next step is the critical one:
  • Tinnan san gati phassaō“. Out of all the sounds that come in through the ears, he will be attached only to the one that matches his “gati“.

Thus we get attracted to something due to our “old habits” (see, “Habits and Goals“), which are even likely to be habits formed over many lives (see, “sansāric Habits and asavas“).

(vi). Now at the step #iv above, the sequence ends with further strengthening “his tendency (gati)” to listen to this type of music; that is tanhā. This is a key point. We get attach to things that we have an ingrained liking for and more and more attachments will strengthen such a liking or habit or “gati“; this is the law of attraction (see, “The Law of Attraction, Habits (gati), and Cravings (Asavas)“). Thus it becomes a vicious circle. This is why it is hard to break habits (good or bad).

5. Please spend some time contemplating the above material. It is best if you can take your own situations and analyze those situations and see how tanhā arises via greed (likes) and hate (dislikes) by taking examples of other sense inputs (seeing, tasting, etc). I will discuss more examples before moving on to discuss paticca samuppada in detail. It is VERY IMPORTANT to understand these fundamental ideas that are described in these initial posts.

  • In the earier post, “Paticca Samuppada – Overview“, we pointed out that an Arahant experiences suffering only due to kamma vipāka; An Arahant does not generate sorrow or happiness via the mechanism discussed in this post; he/she will not have any “immoral or sense craving” gati. Therefore, there will be no vēdanā generated via “Samphassa jā vēdanā“.
  • We, on the other hand, generate “self-induced” suffering and happiness via this mechanism; the problem is that even any happiness generated is not long-lasting. This mechanism is, for example, the main cause for many “sleepless nights” or even depression. Let us discuss this next.

Next, “What is “Käma”? It is not Sex“, ………..

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