Craving As The Key to Suffering And Non-craving As The Key To Liberation

This morning I had an excellent conversation with a young man about SN 56, “Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma.” I now understand more deeply–conceptually as well as experientially–“what the Buddha taught” (to cite Walpola Rahula).

The Middle Path: Neti Neti and Non-craving

The reason the Buddha begins by speaking with the five bhikkus he encounters as he does is that he is meeting them where they are. These monks are ascetics, and he’s telling them, in essence, that they’re going the wrong way. Neither the “pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures” (my emphasis) nor “the pursuit of self-mortification,” or austerities, is the path to enlightenment. The Buddha knows both by experience and has taken both paths as far as they can go. He has come back to say: not this! and not this either!

The middle path, which will be none other than the eight-fold noble path, is the result of experiencing neti neti (so to speak). It’s important, then, not to take the middle path to be a midpoint between two extremes. No, it is a lived understanding that neither path will do, and the key is that both pursuits are based (though he does not say as much) on craving. Hence, the middle path just is the path of non-craving.

Therefore, it makes perfectly good sense that the Buddha will then turn to discuss the four noble truths at the heart of which will be a discussion of craving.

The First Two Noble Truths

It is often said that the first noble truth is this: there is suffering. While this is not untrue, it is vague, because trivially true, and potentially misleading. It is, after all, trivially true that in human life one will, at some point or another, experience suffering. Nobody–secular or religious–disputes this. The fact of occasional suffering, however, will never get the religious quest off the ground.

It would be far-fetched to say that there is always suffering in every experience. Though such a claim might shock, it would likely be summarily dismissed.

So, what is the Buddha really saying? I believe the key is to be found in his summary of the noble truth of suffering: “in brief,” he tells the bhikkus, “the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering” (my emphasis).

In this post, I don’t want to dwell on the nature of the five aggregates, which are (1) body/matter/form, (2) feeling-tone/sensation, (3) perception, (4) mental formations/concoctions, and (5) consciousness (consciousness of something or other). Let me simply say for now that the aggregates are ways of analyzing our direct experience into its basic elements. In which case, it’s enough to see that “direct experience, which is subject to clinging, is suffering.”

The crux is the qualifier: our direct experience as it is is fine. It is only when that direct experience is “subject to clinging” that we encounter suffering. Here’s my gloss:

Whenever there is clinging to any experience whatsoever, there is suffering.

Following Rob Burbea’s lead in Seeing That Frees, we can also say:

Whenever there is a self-sense (or ego-self), there is clinging. And whenever there is clinging, there is a self-sense.

Long Argument So Far: Self-sense

  1. If there is a self-sense “involved” in or allegedly “behind” this experience, then there is clinging.
  2. If there is clinging to this experience, then there is suffering.
  3. There is a self-sense.
  4. Therefore, there is suffering.

Short Argument So Far: Clinging

  1. If there is clinging to this experience, then there is suffering.
  2. There is clinging.
  3. Therefore, there is suffering.

We must now turn to the nature of craving.

What is Craving/clinging?

Let’s set aside the self-sense or ego-self since the Buddha does not explicitly discuss it in SN 56. Then what is clinging or craving?

It has to do, the Buddha says, with “craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence [or being], craving for extermination [or non-being].” This seems to me a clue but not yet a definition.

We come closer to the nature of craving when we think of it as a kind of dynamic process starting with lack (or: “no to this“) and seeking fullness (or: “yes to that“). You are craving, then, whenever anything about your present experience is felt to be lacking and thus whenever something else, something not present, is what you seek. Often you only notice craving “on the back end,” so to speak, as you find yourself now conscious of your having been seeking after that.

Now it becomes clear that the Buddha is really “tightening the screws” on us. How so? Well, ask yourself, “How often do I feel that something about the present experience is lacking, and how often do I find myself wandering in search of something that would allegedly be fullness?” My hunch is: “Quite often.” Through our own experience of clinging, we begin to feel the cogency of the Buddha’s teaching.

What is Non-craving? The Third Noble Truth

The third noble truth could not be stated any clearer: our suffering ceases whenever there is “the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.”

If you are able to let a craving arise, to mindfully observe it until it fades away, and throughout not to be involved in it, then you can witness its cessation. In this connection, a good question to ask is: “Can I just leave this alone? Can I let it be?”

Putting It All Together (Setting Aside the Ego-self)

1. If you can allow experience to simply arise, then there is no craving at all.

One bhikku understood this experientially, i.e., directly, when he said, “Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to cessation.” We might say that this is a smooth, frictionless letting be whatever is arising or, for that matter, whatever is not arising. This is why The Daodejing says that “the highest goodness flows like water.”

2. Now, if there emerges some clinging to an experience, if you can simply leave that clinging alone, it will finally subside.

3. If clinging subsides or if there is no clinging, then there is no suffering.

In this way, we reverse the process of suffering and begin to experience true freedom.