Difference Between Tanhā and Upādāna

October 25, 2018


1. The difference between tanhā and upādāna is subtle, and it is critical to understand that difference. It is the key to understanding how one can get rid of bad gati and also cultivate good gati. That is the way to Nibbāna.

  • That is also critically important to understand the basic idea behind the Satipatthāna (and Anapāna) bhāvanā.

2. Satipatthāna (and Anapāna) bhāvanā are about being mindful and catching new BAD thoughts that arise in one’s mind. One should stop such thoughts immediately. If the thought is a good one (say about a Dhamma concept), then one should stay on it.

  • The English word “thought” is too simplified. It includes védanā, sañña, sankhāra, and viññāna, each of which is complex; see, “Mental Aggregates” and “Viññāna – What It Really Means.”
  • Sankhāra is especially crucial since kammic energy for future vipāka is created by the three types of sankhāra: manō sankhāra, vaci sankhāra, and kāya sankhāra; see, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means.”
  • Therefore, we will stay with those Pāli words.
Manō sankhāra Arise Automatically Due to Gati

3. Manō sankhāra are those automatically arise in mind due to a sensory input, based on one’s gati.

  • We don’t experience those initial manō sankhāra, and we only experience when it comes to the next stage called vaci sankhāra (“talking to oneself”).
  • That is an important point. Even if one does not say a word when one is “thinking to oneself.” That is called vaci sankhāra. If one gets interested, one may speak out, and that is still a vaci sankhāra; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
  • If one’s interest builds up, one may even take bodily action. Kāya sankhāra that arise in mind leads to those physical actions.
  • The strength of kammic energy created increases in the following order: manō, vaci, kāya sankhāra.

4. As we discussed many times, we get “attached” to something AUTOMATICALLY based on our gati and arise as manō sankhāra. That will happen as long as we have tanhā (either via kāma rāga or patigha; avijjā is present in both cases). We automatically get attracted; see, “Tanhā – How We Attach Via Greed, Hate, and Ignorance.“

  • As pointed out in that post, the term “tanhā” means getting fused or attached (“thán” meaning “place” + “” meaning getting welded or attached (හා වීම in Sinhala).
  • That initial attachment arises AUTOMATICALLY based on our gati. We don’t have direct control over it.
Importance of Vaci Sankhāra

5. If the attachment is strong enough, the mind will now start thinking about it consciously, i.e., vaci sankhāra arise, and we become aware of these vaci sankhāra.

  • As soon as we become aware of this “attachment” to something, we CAN BE mindful, think about its consequences, and move away from it. Therefore, we can stop such thoughts at the vaci sankhāra stage; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.“
  • However, our minds like to enjoy such vaci sankhāra. It is easy to do and is very tempting. Many people get their sexual satisfaction from just “daydreaming” about either an event in the past or sexual encounters that one would like to have in the future.

6. In the “Na Santi Sutta (SN 1.34)“, the Buddha defined “kāma” to be this “daydreaming” or “generating more and more thoughts about it”: “Na te kāmā yāni citrāni loke, Saṅkapparāgo purisassa kāmo..”.

Translated: “World’s pretty things are not kāma, a person creates his/her kāma by thinking about it (rāga sankalpanā)..”.

  • That is a critical point.
  • Furthermore, we “daydream” about not just sex, but on other sense pleasures too. See, “What is “Kāma”? It is not Just Sex“.
  • Even if one did not physically do anything, one could accumulate a lot of bad kamma just by generating such vaci sankhāra.
  • The world is full of beautiful things, tasteful foods, sweet smells, etc., but seeing, tasting, smelling them is not NECESSARILY kāma. For example, the Buddha accepted delicious foods but never generated manō/vaci sankhāra about them. He had removed all gati.
Vaci Sankhāra Responsible for Upādāna

7. Anyone who is not yet an Anāgāmi is likely to automatically generate such manō sankhāra. Then that leads to generating vaci sankhāra or “kāma sankalpanā” at some level.

  • If we “go with the flow” and go along enjoying this “daydreaming” or generating vaci sankhāra, that is what is called “upādāna.
  • Upādāna means “pulling it closer (in one’s mind)” (“upa” + “ādāna,” where “upa” means “close” and “ādāna” means “pull”).

8. So, we do not have control over the “tanhā” or “initial attachment” step. It happens with manō sankhāra that arise due to our gati.

  • And those gati cannot be removed just by abstaining from experiencing such sense events physically.
  • First, one needs to reduce the gati to attach to that kind of sensory input. Stopping those vaci sankhāra as soon as one becomes aware of them is the way to reduce bad gati. Those vaci sankhāra are really “nutrients” or “food/water” for the growing of those gati.
  • If we keep the bad habit of generating vaci sankhāra, then that gati will only get stronger with time. We need to stop giving such “mental food” for those bad gati.
Killing Bad Habits by Stopping Vaci Sankhāra

9. The Buddha explained it this way: One cannot live more than seven days without food AND water. One will die.

  • But if one stops taking solid food, but takes in just water, one can live for several weeks.
  • And then during that time, one may be tempted to take in some food. That will break the process and one needs to start all over again.

10. That is the analogy for killing a habit. One can kill the habit (or the addiction) in a relatively short time by doing the following. Stop kāya sankhāra (actual act, which is like solid food) and vaci sankhāra (thinking/talking about it, which is like water).

  • If one stops taking solid food and lives on the water, one cannot live for more than a month or so.
  • But if we stop doing the action (kāya sankhāra), yet keep generating vaci sankhāra, then it may NEVER be removed entirely.
  • So, the analogy is not that good. Vaci sankhāra are almost as bad as kāya sankhāra, i.e., vaci sankhāra are like “snacks” (more than just water in that analogy).

11. For example, one can break the addiction to drugs in a shorter time (say a month) if he has the discipline to stop taking it AND also stop thinking about it.

  • If he stops taking the drug but goes on enjoying thinking about it (vaci sankhāra), it will not work. He may go on without using drugs for months and months, but one day, he may lose the resolve and go back to drugs.
  • That happens to a lot of people addicted to different things like alcohol, smoking, or even overeating. They may temporarily stop those activities, but months later they break it. That is because they had not stopped generating vaci sankhāra or engaging in upādāna for that actively.
Breaking the Tanhā to Upādāna Step

12. The following chart illustrates the processes involved.

For a pdf file for printing: “Tanha and Upadana.”

  • Therefore, by being mindful and acting with paññā (wisdom, which is vijjā or the opposite of avijjā), one can reduce upādāna and gradually get rid of bad gati.
  • We can also see that, in addition to contributing to bad gati, it is those vaci sankhāra that make one grasp a new “bad bhava” at the cuti-patisandhi moment.
Basis of Satipatthāna and Anapāna Bhāvanā

13. That is the basis of the Satipatthāna (and Anapāna) bhāvanā; see, “7. What is Ānāpāna?” and “Maha Satipatthana Sutta.”

  • If we are mindful, we can immediately become aware of a “bad thought” at the vaci sankhāra stage. Then, we CAN stop the upādāna step, i.e., we can decide not to “pull it closer.”
  • For example, if we see an attractive person, we may automatically start looking at him/her. But once we become aware of it, we can look away, and start thinking about something else.
  • In another extreme example, a person who is trying to control anger may start talking back to someone who just said something harsh. But as soon as one realizes that one is going back to the old habit, one can even stop in the mid-sentence.

14. When we start controlling the CRITICAL upādāna step, our gati will slowly change. Then, with time, the first step of “tanhā” will reduce, and eventually go away.

  • That is the basis of Anapāna and Satipatthana meditations.
Tanhā to Upādāna to Bad Gati

15. As we have discussed before, a poison bottle sitting on a table will not do us any harm. It can kill someone only if he/she takes it and drinks.

  • It is the same with upādāna. There could be many “pleasing things” out there in the world. But if we understand the anicca nature (that those things will only lead to suffering at the end), then our minds will not crave for them. That will stop upādāna.
  • In an example, we know that some flies who are attracted to light get burned. They don’t know that even if the shiny light looks attractive, it can kill them. In the same way, a fish sees only the bait. It does not see the hook.
  • We don’t touch a hot stove that is glowing red, because we know that it can burn us.
  • But most of us don’t realize that sense pleasures will eventually lead only to suffering. Of course, one needs to take care of the extreme sense-pleasures first. As I always say, it is a step-by-step process; see, “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?“.

16. Gradually controlling upādāna is the way to reduce bad gati, cultivate good gati, and to eventually get rid tanhā.

  • Removal of tanhā is the same as removing anusaya.
  • To be more effective in this, one must also reduce avijjā by learning Dhamma, and specifically by comprehending Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta nature).
Cultivating Good Gati via Vaci Sankhāra

17. Of course, it works in reverse too. We can cultivate “good gati” by continually thinking about related things.

  • For example, if a Dhamma concept comes to mind, we should continue with it. Then it will become a habit to think about Dhamma concepts.
  • Nowadays, when I get up, the first thing that comes to my mind is a Dhamma concept or a problem that I had been thinking about the previous day.

18. Finally, there are two things one must do to make progress on the Path.

  • One is to reduce avijjā by learning Dhamma.
  • The other is to reduce upādāna by controlling vaci sankhāra as we discussed above.
  • If we do both, they will help each other and make progress much faster.
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