Difference Between Tanhā and Upādāna

October 25, 2018; revised November 4, 2019

Introduction

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 understanding is also critically important to get the basic idea behind the Satipatthāna (and Ānapāna) bhāvanā.

2. Satipatthāna (and Anapānabhāvanā 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. If we get interested in sight, sound, etc., manō sankhāra automatically arise in our minds due to a sensory input, based on our 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 a single word is not spoken, vaci sankhāra accumulate if one is “thinking to oneself” about that object. If one gets more interested, one may speak out, and that is still a vaci sankhāra; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.” Both types of vaci sankhāra involve vitakka and vicāra cetasika.
  • If the interest builds up, one may take bodily action. Such bodily actions are initiated by kāya sankhāra.
  • All three types of sankhāra arise in mind.
  • 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. Then manō sankhāra arise automatically according to gati. 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.
  • In order to change manō sankhāra, we need to change our gati over time.
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 might take place 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 those pretty things (rāga saṅkappa)..”.

  • That is a critical point.
  • Furthermore, we “daydream” about not just sex, but in 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 saṅkappa” 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 sensory events.
  • First, we need to reduce our gati to attach to that kind of sensory inputs. Stopping those vaci sankhāra as soon as we become aware of them is the way to reduce bad gati. Those vaci sankhāra are really “nutrients” or “food/water” for cultivating of those gati.
  •  If we keep the bad habit of generating vaci sankhāra, then that gati will only get stronger with time. It is essential to stop giving such “mental food” for those bad gati.
Killing Bad Habits by Stopping Vaci Sankhāra 

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

  • But if We stop taking solid food, but take in just water, We can live for several weeks.
  • However, during that time, one may be tempted to take in some food. That will break the process and the clock re-starts.

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).

  • But if we stop doing the activities (kāya sankhāra), but 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).
  • The more times we break that discipline, the longer it takes to break that habit or gati. That is why we need to be mindful of our thoughts, speech, and actions all the time. That is the key to Ānapāna and Satipatthāna bhāvanā.

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 over-eating. 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.”

  • As we can see, the key is to stop generating vaci sankhāra. As soon as we become aware of “bad thoughts” we need to stop them. Then, over time, that “bad gati” will reduce in strength and eventually disappear. 
  • 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 Anapānabhāvanā; 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. Thereby, 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, we may get angry with someone and may start saying something harsh. But as soon as we realize that we are going back to our “bad old habit”, we can even stop in the mid-sentence. If we realize our mistake even after saying something bad, we NEED TO apologize for our harsh speech. That may be difficult to do in the beginning, but that is the only way to get rid of such bad habits.

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 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.
Summary

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, the progress will be much faster.
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