Desire or tanha in Pali is an important thing to understand.
What is desire? Kama tanha is very easy to understand. This kind of desire is wanting sense pleasures through the body or the other senses and always seeking things to excite or please your senses – that is kama tanha. You can really contemplate: what is it like when you have desire for pleasure? For example, when you are eating, if you are hungry and the food tastes delicious, you can be aware of wanting to take another bite. Notice that feeling when you are tasting something pleasant; and notice how you want more of it. Don’t just believe this; try it out. Don’t think you know it because it has been that way in the past. Try it out when you eat. Taste something delicious and see what happens: a desire arises for more. That is kama tanha.
We also contemplate the feeling of wanting to become something. But if there is ignorance, then when we are not seeking something delicious to eat or some beautiful music to listen to, we can be caught in a realm of ambition and attainment – the desire to become. We get caught in that movement of striving to become happy, seeking to become wealthy; or we might attempt to make our life feel important by endeavouring to make the world right. So note this sense of wanting to become something other than what you are right now.
Listen to the bhava tanha of your life: ‘I want to practise meditation so I can become free from my pain. I want to become enlightened. I want to become a monk or a nun. I want to become enlightened as a lay person. I want to have a wife and children and a profession. I want to enjoy the sense world without having to give up anything and become an enlightened arahant too.’
When we get disillusioned with trying to become something, then there is the desire to get rid of things. So we contemplate vibhava tanha, the desire to get rid of: ‘I want to get rid of my suffering. I want to get rid of my anger. I’ve got this anger and I want to get rid of it. I want to get rid of jealousy, fear and anxiety.’ Notice this as a reflection on vibhava tanha. We are actually contemplating that within ourselves which wants to get rid of things; we are not trying to get rid of vibhava tanha. We are not taking a stand against the desire to get rid of things nor are we encouraging that desire. Instead, we are reflecting, ‘It’s like this; it feels like this to want to get rid of something; I’ve got to conquer my anger; I have to kill the Devil and get rid of my greed – then I will become….’ We can see from this train of thought that becoming and getting rid of are very much associated.
Bear in mind though that these three categories of kama tanha, bhava tanha and vibhava tanha are merely convenient ways of contemplating desire. They are not totally separate forms of desire but different aspects of it.
The second insight into the Second Noble Truth is:
‘Desire should be let go of.’ This is how letting go comes into our practice. You have an insight that desire should be let go of, but that insight is not a desire to let go of anything. If you are not very wise and are not really reflecting in your mind, you tend to follow the ‘I want to get rid of, I want to let go of all my desires’ – but this is just another desire. However, you can reflect upon it; you can see the desire to get rid of, the desire to become or the desire for sense pleasure. By understanding these three kinds of desire, you can let them go.
The Second Noble Truth does not ask you to think, ‘I have a lot of sensual desires’, or, ‘I’m really ambitious. I’m really bhava tanha plus, plus, plus!’ or, ‘I’m a real nihilist. I just want out. I’m a real vibhava tanha fanatic. That’s me.’ The Second Noble Truth is not that. It is not about identifying with desires in any way; it’s about recognising desire.
I used to spend a lot of time watching how much of my practice was desire to become something. For example, how much of the good intentions of my meditation practice as a monk was to become liked – how much of my relations with other monks or nuns or with lay people had to do with wanting to be liked and approved of. That is bhava tanha – desire for praise and success. As a monk, you have this bhava tanha: wanting people to understand everything and to appreciate the Dhamma. Even these subtle, almost noble, desires are bhava tanha.
Then there is vibhava tanha in spiritual life, which can be very self-righteous: ‘I want to get rid of, annihilate and exterminate these defilements.’ I really listened to myself thinking, ‘I want to get rid of desire. I want to get rid of anger. I don’t want to be frightened or jealous any more. I want to be brave. I want to have joy and gladness in my heart.’
This practice of Dhamma is not one of hating oneself for having such thoughts, but really seeing that these are conditioned into the mind. They are impermanent. Desire is not what we are but it is the way we tend to react out of ignorance when we have not understood these Four Noble Truths in their three aspects. We tend to react like this to everything. These are normal reactions due to ignorance.
But we need not continue to suffer. We are not just hopeless victims of desire. We can allow desire to be the way it is and so begin to let go of it. Desire has power over us and deludes us only as long as we grasp it, believe in it and react to it.