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

Revised October 31, 2015; October 7, 2017; August 24, 2019; May 28, 2023

What is Tanhā?

1.  Taṇhā means “getting attached.” The word taṇhā comes from “thán” meaning “place” + “” meaning getting fused/welded or attached (හා වීම  in Sinhala). Note that “tan” in taṇhā pronounced like in “thunder.”

  • In the previous post, “Vēdanā (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways,” we discussed how feelings arise in two ways. The “mind-made” feelings occur due to our tendency to attach (taṇhā) to various sensory inputs.
  • Here we will see how that happens according to the natural process of Paṭicca Samuppāda.
What Is in the World?

2. Cha Chakka Sutta describes how we experience the world. 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.

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

  • We see vaṇṇa rūpa (visual things) with our eyes.
  • Sadda rūpa (sounds) are heard with our ears.
  • We smell gandha rūpa (odors) with our noses.
  • Rasa rūpa (food) tasted with our tongue.
  • We touch pottabba rūpa (touchable things) with our bodies.
  • Finally, we contemplate or think about dhammā (memories, concepts) with our minds.

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

3. We must 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 sensory input.

  • Our greedy, hateful, or ignorant thoughts arise when we contact the outside world with one or more of these six senses. Kamma vipāka leads to sensory inputs. 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).
  • That critical fact becomes apparent when we do not think 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.”
How Do We Get Attached?

4. How do we get “bonded” to something 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. Several things happen in a fraction of a second. This VERY FAST sequence is:

(i). “Sōtañca paṭicca saddē ca uppajjāti sōtaviññāṇaṃ“, where sōta is ear; saddē is sound (song), uppajjāti means it gives rise to, sōta viññāna is hearing consciousness, and Paṭicca here means just the fact that sound makes contact with the ears, and NOT “pati + icca” or “willingly getting bonded. Thus,

  • “Due to the sound of the song received by the ear, gives rise to sound consciousness.”
  • The mind does not generate any saṅkhāra in assessing that sound. It just RECEIVES the sound signal.

We need to have a liking for something to be interested in it. Every day, we see a million pictures, sounds, etc., but we remember only a selected number, and these are the ones that lead to taṇhā. The “Getting interested” step is next:

(ii). “Tinnan san gati phassaō“;

Here, we need to spend a bit of time explaining the terms: “san” means defilements or fuel for the saṃsāric journey (see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Saṃsāra)“), and “gati” (pronounced “gathi”)are saṃsāric habits (see, “saṃsāric Habits and āsavā“); thus “san gati” means saṃsāric habits; “phassa” means contact, and “tinnan” (pronounced “thinnan”) means three. See “Pāli Words – Writing and Pronunciation (with chart C).”

  • In summary: Those three things (sound, ear, and sound consciousness) lead the mind to make contact with one’s saṃsāric habits. If the sensory input matches his “gati” or “likings,” he will instantly be attached. Within a split second of hearing a few lines of the song, the teenager is “hooked”; his mind becomes absorbed in it.
  • It is really at this step that the teenager becomes interested in the song. Then he 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.

  • If one has the matching “gati,” the corresponding feelings arise automatically. We cannot stop it, at least in the initial cittā or thoughts. But we can certainly stop progressing further and uttering bad speech or doing immoral acts.
  • That is why it is essential to eliminate bad “gati.” Satipaṭṭhāna sutta describes how one becomes a “sampajannō” by figuring out how to get rid of bad “gati“; see, “Kāyānupassanā – The Section on Habits (Sampajanapabba).”
  • The way to eliminate such “bad gati” is to be fully aware of our speech and actions and stop such unsuitable speech or actions. That is what Kāyānupassanā is.

That is a VERY IMPORTANT step. The resulting feeling depends on whether someone will get attached 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 heard it, the grandfather may instantly form a dukha vēdanā (unhappy feeling). That is if he dislikes heavy metal songs (different gati than the teenager). That is the reason that different people feel differently about the same “event” (a picture, sound, smell, taste, touch, or a thought about something).

Attachment (Tanhā) Leads to Existences (Bhava

Let us further analyze the above example:

The teenager could be walking a noisy street, but if he likes the song, he may not even hear any other sound. He will get “attached” to the song and be absorbed in it. Even after the song, he thinks about it in many ways. He may want to find the identity of the singer, may wish to see whether the singer has more albums, how he is going to tell his friends about this, etc. That is the “saṃsāric wheeling” process, see “Nibbāna – Is it Difficult to Understand?,” where we discussed how one becomes an Ariya by taking the wheels off of the saṃsāric vehicle (riya).

Now the teenager is attached (i.e., forms taṇhā):

(iv). “vēdanā paccayā taṇhā, taṇhā 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 and moves on to something else. RATHER, he wants to hear it again, maybe hear more songs like that too. That is taṇhā. Because of that, he starts craving it repeatedly and also craves similar songs. Maybe he would form a liking for anything associated with the song: its composer, or 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:

Sōtañca paṭicca saddē ca uppajjāti sōta viññāṇaṃ,” or “Due to the sound of the song received by the ear, gives rise to sound consciousness.”

  • That is just the ear receiving the sound. The teenager may hear many other sounds on the road. The next step is a critical one for him. Would he get interested in that song?
  • 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 “saṃsāric Habits and āsavā“).

(vi). Now, at step #iv above, the sequence ends with further strengthening “his tendency (gati)” to listen to this type of music; that is taṇhā. That is a crucial point. If we have an ingrained liking for something, we will get attached to it. Furthermore, repeated attachments strengthen such an affection or habit or “gati.” That is the law of attraction (see “The Law of Attraction, Habits (gati), and Cravings (Āsavas)“). Thus it becomes a vicious circle. That is why it is hard to break habits (good or bad).


5. Please spend some time contemplating the above material. It is best to analyze your situation and see how taṇhā arises via greed (likes) and hate (dislikes). Details on Paṭicca Samuppāda at “Paṭicca Samuppāda in Plain English.” It is VERY IMPORTANT to understand these fundamental ideas.

  • In the earlier post, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – Overview,” we pointed out that 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. In this case,  “samphassa jā vēdanā” does not lead to sukha or dukha vēdanā.
  • We, on the other hand, generate “self-induced” suffering and happiness via this mechanism. Any happiness generated will not be not long-lasting. This mechanism is, for example, the leading cause for many “sleepless nights” or even depression. Let us discuss this next.

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

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