These are the discussion notes accompanying my first ‘Budcast’ talk at the North London Buddhist Centre, October 2018.
The podcast of the talk itself is here.
According to Buddhism, our craving – being dominated by need – is the basic cause of suffering, our sense of frustration and lack.
The opposite of craving is a freedom of the heart and mind, which is the goal of Buddhism. Happiness does not come from getting what you want, but from liberation from craving.
What is craving?
“Craving… Is painful.… Craving is the longing for pleasure that we are not yet enjoying. It is a state of privation or lack, and hence of uncomfortable tension. As long as we have some hope of satisfying the craving, we usually fail to notice its unpleasant side, because the anticipation of future pleasure conceals the present pain, as sugar might mask sharp taste.” (Subhuti , Mind In Harmony, 24.)
For example, one can crave for material things, for other people, and for status or a secure identity. None of these things are reliable, they change, so if the craving leads on to grasping and clinging, it will inevitably result in a sense of insecurity, loss and frustration. If it becomes habitual, it is an addiction.
Likes and dislikes.
The succession of our experiences, some pleasant and some unpleasant, is pulling us and pushing us. They’re pulling us and pushing us because of our preferences, because of our likes and dislikes. The question is who is the boss? A lot of what we like and dislike is fairly arbitrary, yet we allow it to govern our lives. Can you ever arrange your life so that you will always get what you want, and never get what you don’t want?
If we govern our lives by our likes and dislikes, by the search for gratification, when will we have time to find meaning and significance, to make a real difference to the world? Pleasant experiences are wonderful, they refresh your life, but they can easily be contaminated by craving.
One of the big radical, and perhaps counterintuitive, Buddhist suggestions is no longer to let your preferences be the boss. You don’t use that scale of judging things anymore. Instead, you start to learn what is skilful and what is unskilful, to use the Buddhist terminology. You don’t try to go for experiences, instead you try to decide how to act. It’s a radically different way of living a human life.
And a skilful action is one which leads you into more expansive and freer states of mind, and which causes benefit to both yourself and others. An unskilful action is one that yields experiences which are contracted, self protective, anxious and tense, and which causes harm to both yourself and others.
The precepts – training in skilfulness.
- I take on the training not to harm anything that breathes. [Kindness]
- I take on the training not to take what is not given. [Generosity]
- I take on the training not to lose my way through sense desire. [Contentment & Simplicity]
- I take on the training not to speak falsely. [Truthfulness]
- I take on the training to avoid intoxicants which cause carelessness. [Mindfulness]
Desire/intention is okay
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with desire. It’s craving that’s the problem. But there are different kinds of desire – there’s the desire for stimulation and gratification, which tends to cause us problems. But there are also wholesome desires. Hunger, thirst, sex, well-being, love, acceptance – these come from our evolutionary past and our upbringing. As our species evolved, we needed to look out for food and shelter, companionship and belonging, protection, affection and sex.
There’s also the desire for the unknown, for a creative life, for a life bringing happiness to oneself and others. Desire for truth and authenticity. These are positive.
How to work with craving.
- Noticing craving, staying with the experience/feeling. Imagine being interested in what’s happening, but without needing it to be just right, without needing it to be as if designed just for you.
- Noticing discomfort, and staying with it. Renunciation is a great virtue in Buddhism – it means not acting on craving, not letting it turn to grasping.
- Mindfulness of experiences, starting with the body.
- Cultivating aesthetic appreciation, kindness, contentment
- Learn and internalise how craving leads to suffering because of impermanence. Because everything changes, if you hang onto anything, you will be hurt and disappointed. Realising this deeply is insight.
- Learn meditation: meditation is doing nothing. Imagine the calm delight of not needing anything, simply sitting still.
“The craving of one who lives carelessly increases like a fast-growing creeper. One races from place to place, like a monkey in the jungle leaping from tree to tree in search of fruit.” (The Buddha, Dhammapada, 334.)
There are three chains or fetters (from The Essential Sangharakshita, 198-201). Breaking them yields what the Buddha calls ‘the taste of freedom’.
- Habit. We are the sum total of our habits “a habit that a certain stream of consciousness has got into”. This knot can be untied, getting rid of the old self, becoming continually aware, positive, responsible, sensitive and creative of oneself.
- Superficiality. Acting from the surface, without thoroughness, without care, in appearance rather
than genuinely, because we are divided, especially the rational mind from the deep emotions. You may be very busy, but lacking singleness of purpose, not doing things with the whole force of your being. “A small part of us is prospecting ahead, but the greater part is lagging far behind.” Commitment to something you really care about is the solution to superficiality.
- Vagueness. Not wanting to decide, shrinking from the pains of growth, keeping options open with several interests and aims. Break it by thinking clearly, sorting out priorities between alternatives, not postponing the moment of decision.
Our essential need as human beings, once food clothing shelter and leisure needs have been
met, is freedom – which is needed in order to grow. We need space to grow into. Freedom from all that restricts us externally and internally, from our conditioning and our old self.
Bhikkhu Bodhi (The Taste of Freedom, 1994): Freedom is spiritual autonomy, not simply licence to do what you feel like. Consider the sequence: complete bondage in prison, then unshackled in prison, then released into a life with many responsibilities, then a dictator who can do whatever he wants. However, even for the dictator, pleasant and unpleasant experiences still lead on to craving, hostility and delusion, compulsively, so one is not really free, there is no mastery, which shows that licence is not the same thing as freedom. You need to be free from craving, hostility and delusion.
“Prisoner, tell me who was it that wrought this unbreakable chain? It was I, said the prisoner, who forged this chain very carefully. I thought my invincible power would hold the world captive, leaving me in a freedom undisturbed. Thus night and day I worked at the chain with huge fires and cruel, hard strokes. When as last the work was done and the links were complete and unbreakable, I found that it held me in its grip.”
(Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, 31.)
Notes by Ratnaprabha, http://www.northlondonbuddhistcentre.com