Thinking about Desire

A common misunderstanding that I am starting to better comprehend in Buddhism is on the matter of desire.

Generally speaking, the word most often translated from Pali as “desire” is Taṇhā. I am to understand that this word literally means “thirst,” and has been described by the Ajahn Chah as “sticky craving.” This is the unwholesome sort of desire that is clung to by beings, and relates directly to wanting sensual pleasures, the making of things to be “mine,” or the inclination to self-view.  This was often spoke of by the Buddha, and is to be abandoned through the practice of his teachings.

To do this, one must first have a desire to practice, of course, which leads some to declare that the Buddha’s teachings are paradoxical. Eliminating desire by means of desire is nonsense, surely. Of course, there is a translation issue taking place here. I think I realized that I needed to make a distinction between bad and good desire, just as much as I make a distinction between cookies sitting on a store shelf and those sitting on my kitchen counter when I want one.

In Pali, I have learned that there are two different words used by the Buddha that are both invariably translated as “desire.” The other word, Chanda, directly relates to wholesome intentions (desires), free of greed and sensual desire. The desire to practice Dhamma would be Chanda, not Taṇhā, thus eliminating any supposed conflict in terms.

I will liken this issue to that of the word “love” in English when translated from the Greek words agápe, éros, philía, or storgē. Each Greek word has a more nuanced meaning than simply “love.”

Think about this the next time you feel conflicted about your desires. Sometimes I think our wholesome desires become collateral damage in our crusade against the unwholesome. In either case, we must strive — and to strive, one must have some sort of desire.

Think on it and be well, friends. 🙂



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