Icchā, Taṇhā, Kāma – Root Causes of Suffering

March 7, 2021; March 8, 2021 (#2 and #3)

An average human sees and perceives sensual pleasures are to be pursued. The Buddha taught that craving for sensual pleasures is the root cause of suffering. However, sensual pleasures can be experienced without having cravings for them.

Difference Between Kāma and Sensory Pleasures

1. As we discussed in the post, “What is “Kāma”? It is not Just Sex,” there is a huge difference between kāma and “good sensory experiences.”

  • Kāma is the DESIRE/CRAVING to enjoy more of those sensory experiences. That is why the word “icchā” and “taṇhā” are closely associated with kāma and kāma rāga.
  • Wealthy people, including Kings, offered the Buddha tasty meals. Jetavanārāmaya, where the Buddha lived for many years, was built like a palace.
  • Of course, the Buddha decided to spend the last several months of his life traveling, even while suffering some ailments. He could have stayed in Jetavanārāmaya or one of many such temples. He probably wanted to illustrate the suffering that he himself was experiencing in his old age.
  • The Buddha’s main message was that one would not be free of future suffering as long as one does not see the long-term bad consequences of sensory pleasures. But, one needs to get there in a step-by-step way. It is impossible to give up sensory pleasures willfully. One MUST first SEE the bad consequences of craving sensory pleasures.
The Analogy of a Drunkard

2. Let us consider person X an alcoholic. He likes to drink whenever he gets a chance because it is a pleasurable experience for him.

  • When X goes to a physical exam, he is asked about his alcohol consumption. Upon hearing how much X drinks, the physician advises him to cut down on drinking.
  • Yet, X has a hard time getting rid of the habit. He tries hard to “cut down,” but he is back to his routine drinking after a few days.
  • One day, he experiences severe abdominal pain and swelling. When admitted to the hospital, his physician takes a scan of his liver and explains to him that it has been damaged and that except for the brain, the liver is the most complex organ in the body. The physician explains that he will have serious health problems soon unless he stops drinking.

(i) Now, for the first time, X “sees” the dangers in drinking alcohol and can cut down his drinking habit drastically. He has lost “diṭṭhi vipallāsa” or “wrong/distorted views” regarding drinking.

(ii) After a year, X goes for a checkup, and the physician asks him about his drinking habit. X says he does not drink as much as he used to because he is afraid of dying at a young age. But he says he still likes to drink and would have a drink when the urge becomes too strong. He still has “saññā vipallāsa” or “wrong/distorted perceptions” regarding drinking.

  • The doctor gives the following advice: (i) keep contemplating on the dangers of damaging his liver and (ii) also keep contemplating on the relief that he has gained by stop drinking (no more abdominal pain/swelling, etc.), (iii) don’t associate with those who like to drink, (iv) associate with those who don’t drink in excess.
  • Following the advice of the physician, X gradually loses his desire to drink. After several months, he realizes that the desire to “have a drink” is not there anymore. Now he has lost “saññā vipallāsa” regarding drinking as well.
The Similarities in the Noble Path

3. Humans (and all living beings) are like the alcoholic X in the analogy in #2 above. They can only see the “immediate pleasures” that mind-pleasing things in this world provide.

  • The Buddha is like the physician who can see the dangers of that mindset. But it is hard to convince an average human that craving those “mind-pleasing things” can be not only unfruitful but also WILL HAVE  dangerous consequences in the future.
  • A Sotapanna learns the dangers of kāma assāda from a true disciple of the Buddha (an Ariya.) That transition to the Sotapanna stage happened when he started “seeing” the dangers of kāma assāda.
  • There is one difference between the two cases: Unlike the physician who was able to take a scan of the damaged liver and convince X of the dangers, it is harder to explain the dangers to those who don’t even believe in rebirth. However, once that stage is reached, the similarities are there as below.

(i) A Sotapanna “seeing the dangers in craving sensory pleasures” is similar to X, who started “seeing the dangers in heavy drinking.” He has now removed diṭṭhi vipallāsa about “sensual pleasures.”

  • There is a second difference between the two cases: While it is possible for X to “lose his willpower” and to go back to his “old ways” of being an alcoholic, the mindset of a Sotapanna WILL NEVER change, even in future lives.

(ii) Analogous to X, a Sotapanna still has not removed the MINDSET (saññā vipallāsa) that sensory pleasures can provide “enjoyment.” Of course, he/she will not engage in immoral deeds to experience such sensory pleasures.

  • Similar to X, a Sotapanna should contemplate the drawbacks of craving worldly pleasures (i.e., contemplate anicca, dukkha, anatta nature or engage in aniccānupassanā, dukkhānupassanā, anattānupassanā) and associate with like-minded people striving for Nibbāna.
  • As he contemplates the drawbacks of craving worldly pleasures, saññā vipallāsa fades away and one day he/she attains the Anāgāmi stage by completely eliminating saññā vipallāsa. After that, any desire for sensual pleasures will be gone.
  • Many people have a hard time understanding the difference between diṭṭhi vipallāsa and saññā vipallāsa. I hope the above analogy is useful.
Difference Between Kāmacchanda and Kāma Rāga

4. Another way to express the above is the following. A Sotapanna has removed kāmacchanda, but kāma rāga remains. When diṭṭhi vipallāsa is removed, one would NOT be “blinded” by sensual pleasures, i.e., kāmacchanda removed. But the tendency to like sensual pleasures (kāma rāga) remains because saññā vipallāsa is still there.

  • Thus, a Sotapanna can live the normal life of a householder. He/she can be married and bring up a family.
  • Only when kāma rāga intensifies may one be tempted to engage in activities harmful to others and oneself. That becomes likely when one drinks too much alcohol or takes drugs. A Sotapanna would instinctively abstain from such activities.
  • Association with “bad friends” could make an average person engage in harmful activities. For example, hunting and fishing are immoral activities to be abstained from. Such activities are considered to be accepted “sports activities,” and many people engaged in such activities without realizing the dangers. Such activities fall under the “vihiṃsā” category (hurting other living beings for one’s pleasure) in Buddha Dhamma.
  • Note that vihiṃsā is different from vyāpāda. With vyāpāda, one does immoral deeds with anger/hate. Actions with vihiṃsā are done with ignorance (avijjā.)
Jhāna Correspond to Mindset of Brahmas Who Have Overcome Kāma

5. One is born in Brahma realms when one has cultivated jhāna. To cultivate jhāna, one must overcome kāma at least temporarily.

  • Thus, one must at least temporarily suppress kāma rāga to cultivate jhāna. In fact, one MUST abstain from kāma, vyāpāda, and vihiṃsā saṅkappa (i.e.,  abstain from thoughts involving sensual, angry, or otherwise harmful thoughts towards other living beings.
  • This is why a Brahma in any Brahma realm is free of kāma rāga, vyāpāda, and vihiṃsā thoughts during that Brahma existence. But unless they have attained magga phala, they have all three “hidden” or “temporarily suppressed” during that existence (as anusaya.)
  • That is just a “side-track” to show the connection to jhāna.
Difference Between an Average Human and a Noble Person

6. The following table shows what we discussed above in summary form. The first and second columns show an average human and a Noble Person (Ariya). The four rows for the Noble Person depict the Four Noble Truths, as indicated by the third column.

Average HumanNoble Person 
Kāma (sensual experiences) are valuable.Sensual experiences are empty of value and are suffering.First Noble Truth (What suffering is)
Pursuing Kāma assāda is beneficial.Pursuing Kāma assāda leads to suffering.Second Noble Truth (root cause of suffering)
Not having enough sensual pleasures is suffering.Future suffering stopped by losing cravings for kāma.Third Noble Truth (stopping future suffering)
Noble Eightfold Path is not pleasurable.Noble Eightfold Path is the way to stop suffering (i.e., to lose cravings for kāma.Fourth Noble Truth (the way to eliminate suffering)

  • The First Noble Truth states what suffering is. It is not the suffering that one FEELS. Sensual pleasures are devoid of value and cause suffering even during this life (by stressing the mind). Of course, more suffering will materialize in future lives too.
  • The root cause of suffering in this life, and future lives, is craving sensory pleasures (kāma). That is the Second Noble Truth.
  • The average human (puthujjano) believes that lack of sensual pleasures is suffering. That is why he/she strives for more sensory pleasures. But the Third Noble Truth says that all suffering can be stopped by losing cravings for sensory pleasures (kāma.)
  • The average human (puthujjano) cannot understand why a Noble Person lives a life staying away from sensual pleasures. He/she perceives such a life to be suffering. But the Noble Person lives a stress-free life and is free from the births in the apāyā where there is unimaginable suffering. The way to become a Noble Person (i.e., the way to lose cravings) is the Eightfold Noble Path. That is the Fourth Noble Truth.
  • Again, remember that kāma means “saṅkappa rāga” or “having a mindset that sensual pleasures (and even jhānic pleasures) are beneficial. Of course, one must first remove the craving for sensual pleasures (kāma rāga) before tackling rupa rāga and arupa rāga (cravings for jhānic pleasures.)
Icchā Is the Root Cause of Suffering – In the First Sutta

7. In his first sutta, the Buddha defined suffering to arise originating with icchā. The First Noble Truth is stated as: “jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ—saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā.” See, “Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta.”

  • There, he stated that suffering arises when one does not get the desired outcome: “yam pi icchāṃ na labhati tam pi dukkhaṃ” OR “one suffers when one does not get (na labhati) what one desired (icchāṃ.)
  • Because of that desires (icchā), one would try to keep close (upādāna) those things that one desires. Those things are parts of the pañckkhandhā that one likes, i.e., pañcupādānakkhandhā.
  • For details, see “Icchā (Cravings) Lead to Upādāna and to Eventual Suffering.”

8. The connection between icchā, taṇhā, and kāma comes in the Second Noble Truth on how that suffering arises: “yāyaṃ taṇhā ponobbhavikā nandirāgasahagatā tatratatrābhinandinī, seyyathidaṃ—kāma taṇhā, bhava taṇhā, vibhava taṇhā.”

  • Because of the icchā (or liking/desire), we get attached (taṇhā): “it is this attachment (taṇhā) which leads to renewed existence. That taṇhā is just for those delightful things in this world (kāma taṇhā), for continued existence (for those who believe in rebirth, i.e., bhava taṇhā), and for optimum pleasures while this life lasts (for those who do not believe in rebirth, i.e., vibhava taṇhā)
  • Here we note that kāma taṇhā is common to both groups with bhava taṇhā and vibhava taṇhā.

9. The Third Noble Truth states how that suffering can be stopped from arising (nirodha): “yo tassāyeva taṇhāya asesa virāga nirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo” OR “it is the remainder-less fading away and cessation of that taṇhā, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, losing all affection for it.”

  • Of course, the way to stop future suffering is in the Fourth Noble Truth: “ayameva ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo, seyyathidaṃ—sammādiṭṭhi … pe … sammāsamādhi” OR ” it is this Noble Eightfold Path. That is, Sammā Diṭṭhi … Sammā Samādhi.
Icchā, Taṇhā, Kāma – Can be Removed Only via Noble Eightfold Path

10. The key point here is that those three (icchā, taṇhā, and kāma) CANNOT be removed directly by willpower or rituals. First, one needs to comprehend WHY icchā, taṇhā, and kāma GIVE RISE to suffering. That is the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path: Sammā Diṭṭhi.

  • Once that is understood, one will automatically follow the Noble Path. First, one will think accordingly (Sammā Saṅkappa.) Then the rest will also follow. One will speak (Sammā Vācā), act (Sammā Kammanta), make an effort (Sammā Vāyāma), live (Sammā Ājiva), with that mindset (Sammā Sati). Then one will automatically get to Sammā Samādhi.
  • There are two descriptive ways to understand the suffering hidden in icchā, taṇhā, and kāma. One is to comprehend Paṭicca Samuppāda, and the other is to comprehend Tilakkhana.
  • Of course, those two ways are inter-related. That will become more clear as we proceeded. It should already be clear to some extent by now.

11. All posts in this subsection at, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – Essential Concepts.”

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