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  • Knowledge and Liberation:Philosophical Ruminations on a Buddhist Conundrum
  • David Burton

I have seen lay-followers, experts in the doctrine, saying "Sensual pleasures are impermanent.". . . Truly they do not know the doctrine as it really is, even though they say "Sensual pleasures are impermanent." They have no power to cut their desire, therefore they are attached to children, wives, and wealth.

Extract from Theragāthā 187-1881

Those people are disgraceful who say, adhering to the Buddha's path, that all is impermanent and yet remain attached to entities through their disputes.


The fundamental spiritual problem that Buddhism identifies and that it intends to solve is the problem of suffering (duḥkha).3 Buddhism is concerned with the eradication of suffering by means of the elimination of its cause. Suffering is often said to be caused by craving (tṛṢṇā), a mental state that leads to attachment (upādāna), attachment being the natural consequence of the acquisition of the object that one craves. Craving and attachment take many forms. There is craving for one's own continued existence and attachment to one's own self. And there is also craving for and attachment to various other internal and external entities. One can be attached to one's opinions, and one can crave and be attached to particular emotions or mental states, one's car, tasty foods, one's family and friends, and so forth. The Buddhist seeks to eliminate suffering by cutting off craving (and the resulting attachment) in all its manifold forms.

Why, though, does craving cause suffering? A common Buddhist explanation is that craving causes suffering because the objects that one craves are impermanent (anitya). Things have no permanent abiding essence, and in this sense are without self (anātman). Here the world is envisaged to be a vast complex of transient physical and mental events. This is thought to be the way things really are. Buddhism can thus be viewed as a form of process philosophy, which depicts the universe in terms of becoming and transformation rather than stasis. The truth about entities is that they do not stay the same and that they must eventually cease to exist. Things come into existence, undergo many alterations, and inevitably pass away. All phenomena are subject to the law of impermanence.4

Craving is essentially an attitude of possessiveness, an emotion of clinging. When one craves, one sticks, so to speak, to entities and does not accept the reality of change. Under the sway of craving, one attempts to make the coveted entity one's own, and one is unwilling to let go of the thing once it is in one's possession. Furthermore, one is unable to accept undesirable changes in the entity. So, craving is bound to lead to frustration, as the entity that one craves and to which one gets [End Page 326] attached will eventually no longer be one's possession either because it will pass away or because, given the changing circumstances of life, it will fall out of one's possession. And even before the entity passes away, and even if one does not lose possession of the entity in some other way, one has to suffer often disagreeable alterations in its state. When the objects of craving and attachment change in a disagreeable fashion, fall out of one's possession, or pass away, to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the intensity of the craving and attachment) one is disappointed, dissatisfied—one suffers.

The Buddhist might claim that if the world were static, then there would be no harm in one's craving for and attachment to entities, for they would then not be subject to alteration and dissolution, and one would not have to suffer their unpleasant changes and their loss. But this, the Buddhist says, is of course not the way things are, and thus craving and attachment must eventually bring suffering.

So, for example, my youthful, healthy, beautiful beloved, whom I crave and to whom I am attached, will eventually die. Or else my beloved may well stop being my beloved when her affections change and she no longer cares for...


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pp. 326-345
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