Holding the Hammer by the Handle
The First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering. It is a self-evident truth. Like a blow to the head, it hits us immediately. Even in our most pleasant days, we can remember moments of pain, sorrow, and anguish. We know these times will return, though we may avoid thinking about them. But what do we do about it? The most common route is simply to seek after pleasure and avoid pain as much as possible, but this does not address the underlying roots of our suffering. It only salves the symptoms.
The Second Noble Truth is the truth of the cause of suffering – craving. This is not quite so easy to see. In the Pali cannon, the word for craving is tanha, which can also be translated as ‘thirst’ and is frequently spoken of in modern teaching as ‘desire.’ Access to Insight has a compilation of references to tanha in the various suttas. Many Mahayana teaching stress the role of ignorance in the creation of suffering, often listing it with craving or as an underlying condition for craving in discussion of the Second Noble Truth. According to Zen Guide:
Craving or desire is like a great tree having many branches. There are branches of greed, of ill will and of anger. The fruit of this tree is suffering, but how does the tree of craving arise? Where does it grow? The answer is that the tree of craving is rooted in ignorance. It grows out of ignorance.
Buddhist psychologist Christopher Germer explains that pain x resistance = suffering in his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. Of Course, Dr. Germer is writing an essentially self-help book for general audiences who are not even necessarily Buddhist. This formulation may be helpful when dealing with personal stress and trauma, but it is of limited value if the ultimate goal is enlightenment. Rather than dealing directly with craving as the source of suffering, it deals with the flip side, aversion to pain as a source of suffering. It encourages people to face and deal with their pain in a way which does not compound it with additional, unnecessary suffering.
In fact, greed, aversion, and delusion are a common trio, understood in Pali as akusala-mula or the three unskillful or unwholesome roots. In Mahayana they are also known as trivisa or the three poisons. Although the word for craving, tanha, and the word for greed, lobha, used in the Pali suttas is not the same, I believe the two concepts are similar enough to be analogous. Lobha is understood as greed, passion, or unskillful desire. This suggests that there may be such a thing as ‘skillful’ desire.
Some teachers go so far as to claim it is not desire itself which is the cause of suffering, but attachment to our desires and their outcomes. According to Luna Kadampa,
[Attachment] is not the same as desire – we need desires, but we don’t need attachment. Attachment is “dö chag” in Tibetan, which literally means “sticky desire”. There is a stickiness, neediness, dependency, and self-centeredness associated with attachment.
This is a distinction not readily evident in the Theravada teachings. It is more articulated in Mahayana, and particularly Vajrayana teachings. The Pali word for attachment is upadana, which is understood as “Clinging; attachment; sustenance for becoming and birth — attachment to sensuality, to views, to precepts and practices, and to theories of the self.” In the upadana sutta it states:
From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. Such is the origin of this entire mass of suffering & stress.
Therefore, to have desire is to have attachment. Desire precedes attachment and leads to samsara and suffering. The only way to avoid suffering is to cease all craving.
Now, in one who keeps focusing on the drawbacks of clingable [sic] phenomena, craving ceases. From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging/sustenance. From the cessation of clinging/sustenance comes the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth. From the cessation of birth, then aging, illness & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering & stress.
Whether one takes the earlier view and seeks to reduce craving or the later view and seeks to reduce attachment, I believe the goal to be similar – the elimination of suffering and achievement of enlightenment. So how do we apply this theoretical situation in our daily lives?
There are a few methods. One is to contemplate the drawbacks of the desired objects. (This have often used to explain the wild misogyny of certain scriptural and commentarial descriptions of women.) Another is to practice ethics in order to develop positive habits and discipline. A third is the cultivation of insight, of wisdom, and seeing through the transitory and unsatisfactory nature of craving. Each has its own merits and drawbacks and may be useful in different situations.
I consider this now in light of the previous week. For a few short days, I had two things I want most dearly: a dog and a car. I was dog-sitting for my boss, which necessitated the car to get back and forth. It was her mother’s car, a nice Mazda which she hasn’t driven since a recent accident, despite the repairs. Walking Wally, their stubborn German Shepherd, was lovely. I deeply enjoyed his steady presence and our ongoing battle of wills regarding the issue of sitting. Relationships with dogs are different from any type of relationship humans can otherwise have, and very satisfying. Caring for a dog also reminded me of how difficult it would be to fit that level of commitment into our present schedule. Able to see the drawbacks clearly, I am now firmer in my resolve not to get a dog right now and the suffering of wanting what I have denied myself is reduced. I feel this is because the craving itself is less. In this case, the first method prevailed.
It is quite the opposite with the car. I took full advantage to accomplish as much as I could in the short time that I had it, stocking up on kitty litter and toilet paper. Yet even after shoveling gas into the thing at extortionist rates, my desire was not diminished. For two and a half years I’ve been telling myself it’s not such a big deal to get around on bicycles and buses and trains, but in the relentless car-culture of Los Angeles, even I am getting a bit tired of it all. I feel the second method must be employed in this situation – discipline.
This type of discipline is more mental than anything else. After all, a car is not an impulse buy for someone of my income level, unlike a candy bar in the checkout isle. Physically avoiding temptation is not the issue, but rather controlling my mind so as not to uselessly pine for the thing I do not have. Rumination, or the repetition of unwanted and often harmful thoughts, is the greatest danger. It leads to a kind of poverty mentality which can spawn stress, envy, and, worst of all, greed – one of the three unwholesome roots.
Finally, in both cases, I cultivate wisdom, constantly reminding myself that these very desires, as cherished and reasonable as they seem, are the source of much of my suffering. The dog will eventually die. I remember well the pain of that loss. The car will break down in ways I do not understand, leading to frustration and financial stress. Worse still, the dog may not bond with me, may in fact dislike me. The car may lead me into an accident, harming myself and others. However, wisdom requires more than merely the contemplation of drawbacks and worse case scenarios leading to useless pessimism. They merely breed aversion which itself is one of the three unwholesome roots.
For insight to occur, it is necessary to intimately experience these drawbacks and to recognize that experience for exactly what it is. This involves recognizing the three hallmarks of existence within samsara – suffering, impermanence, and nonself. In Pali, these are called dukkha, anicca, and anatta. It is important not just to understand these on a theoretical level, but to integrate this knowledge into our everyday awareness. This can be done through meditation and carried through into moment-to-moment mindfulness as we go about our daily activities. Of course, this is much, much harder than it sounds, which is no doubt why so few people actually achieve enlightenment. To make matters worse, even a little glimpse of insight can be easily misunderstood if we’re not able to maintain our equanimity. Thus, even this method has its danger – delusion, the last of the three unwholesome roots.
We may then wonder, what’s the point? Craving leads to suffering and our attempts to free ourselves from craving lead to the three unwholesome roots – so called because they are roots of suffering. Yet this is not the vicious cycle it seems. It is a matter of habit. These methods do not themselves cause us to fall into unskillful patterns. Instead, lifetimes of habit lead us into these patterns which cause the methods to fail. Even the best hammer will fail to drive in a nail if you grasp it by the head instead of the handle. If you’ve been grasping the hammer by the head, as taught by your parents and grandparents and every member of your society, you would not think to take it by the handle unless shown how.
Luckily, we have been shown how. The Buddha showed us all how to grasp the hammer by the handle and strike the nail a mighty blow, driving home the lesson with his own life, lived free from suffering for over thirty years following his enlightenment. Once he managed this, he no longer needed the hammer, or any other attachment. He let it go. But he did more, he also gave it to us to pick up – by the handle. The Buddha gave us many tools, many methods, all of which we can use if we just grasp them properly. The Buddha showed us freedom from craving is possible (the Third Noble Truth). “This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Nibbana,” according to AN 3.32.
Uttama, one of the elder nuns who is recorded in the Therigatha recalls:
Four times, five, I ran amok from my dwelling,
having gained no peace of awareness,
my thoughts out of control.
So I went to a trustworthy nun.
She taught me the Dhamma:
aggregates, sense spheres, & elements.
Hearing the Dhamma,
I did as she said.
For seven days I sat in one spot,
absorbed in rapture & bliss.
On the eighth, I stretched out my legs,
having burst the mass