Translation issues (2): taṇhā and ‘craving’

In a previous essay, I explored the issue of how to translate the Pāli word dukkha, so often translated ‘suffering’. But ‘suffering’ is hardly ever the right English word. Sometimes dukkha means ‘painful’ and sometimes it means ‘unsatisfactory’. The Buddha’s first noble truth, that ‘this is dukkha’, is better understood as ‘this is unsatisfactory’. The first noble truth does not claim that life is painful and suffering, but that this existential situation that we find ourselves in is unsatisfactory and imperfect. Sometimes life is unsatisfactory because it is painful, and certainly it is imperfect because there is suffering, but pain and suffering are examples of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and not the whole of it.

In this post I turn to the Pāli word taṇhā, which is usually translated as ‘craving’. The second noble truth taught by the Buddha is that dukkha or unsatisfactoriness has an origin (samudaya), and that its origin or causal basis is taṇhā. The second noble truth is thus sometimes rendered, ‘the cause of suffering is craving’. This might be even more misleading than the translation of the first noble truth as ‘life is suffering’. The problem with the English word ‘craving’ is that it invariably suggests a strong desire for things like sex or chocolate or alcohol, as if psychological states such as strong desires for sensual pleasures were the root of all our problems. By contrast, taṇhā in fact means ‘thirst’, and thirst is fundamentally a metaphor for a general existential condition of  humanity, which is an unsatisfied longing.[1] So the second noble truth ought to be translated, ‘this is the origin of unsatisfactoriness – thirst’. 

The Buddha’s second noble truth is that taṇhā is the origin of dukkha:

Monks, this is the origin (samudaya) of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), a noble truth – the taṇhā leading to renewed existence, associated with enjoyment and passion, finding pleasure here and there – namely, taṇhā for sense-pleasures, taṇhā for continued existence, taṇhā not to exist.

So what is taṇhā? The most important thing to know about this word is that it is a metaphor. The word taṇhā literally means ‘thirst’. The equivalent word in Sanskrit is tṛṣṇā. The words taṇhā and tṛṣṇā come from the verbal root tṛṣ meaning ‘to be thirsty’.[2] In fact this Sanskrit verbal root goes back to a word in Proto-Indo-European from which our English word ‘thirst’ also derives.[3] In English we also use the word ‘thirst’ in a metaphorical way, for instance when we talk of a scholar’s ‘thirst for knowledge’ or a general’s ‘thirst for victory’. The problem is that the English word ‘thirst’ is not metaphorical enough. It primarily refers to the desire to drink. By contrast, the Pāli word taṇhā is never used in early Buddhist texts in reference to its literal meaning. Whenever anyone in early Buddhist texts wants to talk about actual thirst, they use the word pipāsā (which means ‘desire to drink’).[4]

The fact that the Pāli word taṇhā  means ‘thirst’, and yet is only used metaphorically and never as a word for actual thirst, suggests that taṇhā is used as a technical term, to name a specific concept in Buddhism. This concept is that of a general existential condition for all living beings – taṇhā is the condition of thirsting for satisfaction that, along with spiritual ignorance (avijjā), is responsible for the evolution of the cosmos and for the constant transmigration of living beings in the cosmos. 

But what is it about the experience of thirst that allows the word taṇhā to do the work of naming this big concept? When we are thirsty, our bodies lack water and we want to drink to satisfy an urgent longing. There is bodily and affective dimension to the experience of thirst, in that there is a certain discomfort felt distinctively as a lack of water and enjoyment in the satiation of it; and there is also a cognitive dimension to thirst, inseparable from the affective dimension, in the form of thoughts and plans connected with getting water and gaining satisfaction. Thirst involves emotions and beliefs that lead to action, and not just psychological states.

Bearing in mind the metaphorical nature of taṇhā, let us turn to the wording of the second noble truth. Thirst (taṇhā) is described as having three characteristics:

  1. it leads to renewed existence (ponobbhavikā): just as physical thirst is the urge to drink, so metaphorical ‘thirst’ (taṇhā) is the urge to find satisfaction, and this metaphorical ‘thirst’ is the driving force of transmigration (saṃsāra), whether within this life or over lifetimes;
  2. it is associated with enjoyment and passion (nandi-rāga-sahagatā): just as actual thirst involves affective states of enjoyment when drinking, so metaphorical ‘thirst’ (taṇhā) is the passionate pursuit and enjoyment of what gives satisfaction;
  3. it finds pleasure here and there (tatra-tatrābhinandinī): just as the thirsty body finds pleasure in the refreshment it can get, so metaphorical ‘thirst’ (taṇhā) becomes attuned to the kinds of pleasure possible while looking for the satisfaction of longing.

Characteristic (3) looks very much like an account of psychological hedonism: the claim that living beings do in fact seek pleasure and avoid pain. Characteristic (2) similarly looks like the related claim that it is pleasure and pain that motivates us to act. Characteristic (1) is the wider claim that motivational hedonism drives the round of birth and death. This suggests a cosmological context for the Buddha’s teaching that taṇhā is the cause of unsatisfactoriness. In the Vedic tradition, the related term ‘desire’ (kāma) is a force that creates the many from the one and drives creation. The Nāsādiya Sūkta, a famous hymn from the Ṛg Veda, includes the lines:

Then, in the beginning, from thought there evolved desire (kāma), which existed as the primal semen. 

Searching in their hearts through inspired thought, poets found the connection of the existent in the nonexistent.[5]

In the Upaniṣads, this same desire (kāma), a cosmic and metaphysical force, becomes the necessary condition for karma and reincarnation: 

A man turns into something good by good action and into something bad by bad action. And so people say: ‘A person here consists simply of desire (kāma)’. A man resolves in accordance with his desire, acts in accordance with his resolve, and turns out to be in accordance with his action.[6]

The Buddha appears to accept the ancient Indian metaphysics of desire, but he alters it by renaming this force of desire ‘thirst’, and shifting attention from cosmic and metaphysical desire to the driving force of biological organisms, which get thirsty and need to drink. By doing this, the Buddha shifts attention from a force of creation to an existential condition of life.

There are fascinating parallels with the Indian metaphysics of desire in the western philosophical tradition. In his Symposium, Plato presents eros (passionate love) as a force running through the living world, driving all beings to seek beauty. He teaches the sublimation of eros, from the bodily urge to reproduce, to an appreciation of philosophy, and finally to knowledge of beauty itself. In the medieval period, the concept of conatus was used to explain the innate tendency for things to continue in being. The evidence for conatus in human beings is willing, our active efforts to survive and thrive. Schopenhauer took up this theme, making ‘will’ the metaphysical reality behind appearances. Freud saw the libido as the energy of our drives and instincts, and as the basis of much of psychic life. The Buddha’s concept of taṇhāhas something in common with all of these concepts, although the Buddha taught more practically that taṇhā is a general existential condition, evident in our motivational hedonism.  

Going back to the second noble truth, the Buddha, having characterised taṇhā in a threefold way as the existential condition of life, goes on to say that taṇhā manifests in three ways:

  1. taṇhā for sense-pleasures (kāma-taṇhā): this is a metaphorical ‘thirst’ not just for pleasurable objects of sense, such as food and sex, but more broadly for an enjoyable worldly life, involving for instance family, house and wealth;
  2. taṇhā for continued existence (bhava-taṇhā): this kind of metaphorical ‘thirst’ is for more life in whatever state we find ourselves, based on an eternalist view, and could also be for continuation in a refined or formless realm of existence through meditation;
  3. taṇhā for non-existence (vibhava-taṇhā): a ‘thirst’ to no longer exist, based on an annihilationist view; Anālayo also relates this form of taṇhā to ‘the aspiration for leaving behind the sense of selfhood through a mystic merger with an ultimate reality’, which might be found for instance through meditation.[7]

With this analysis of three ways in which taṇhā appears, it is possible to understand why taṇhā is the origin of unsatisfactoriness. Firstly, all sense-pleasures (from chocolate to children) are impermanent and unreliable. To live one’s life in search of that which, like oneself, is liable to arise and cease, is an ‘ignoble quest’ (anariya-pariyesanā),[8] for sense-pleasures cannot finally satisfy us. Secondly, any form of continued existence is in fact subject to ageing, illness and death, and so to live one’s life in pursuit of the eternal cannot lead to actual satisfaction. Thirdly, neither suicide nor a mystic merger with reality will keep one from the ongoing process of rebirth. But this is not the end of the story. As Sāgaramati explains, there can be a wholesome taṇhā, a thirst for the end of thirst, a desire for awakening, a wholesome longing for the end of longing, desire and thirst.[9] This is the cessation of dukkha, the subject of the third noble truth, nirvāṇa, which comes about through practising the eightfold path, the subject of the fourth noble truth. 

Metaphorical ‘thirst’, our basic unsatisfied longing, can be fulfilled with the realisation of awakening. This could be seen as a ‘vertical’ ending of thirst. But the human experience of thirst suggests another way of thinking about metaphorical ‘thirst’. Physical thirst is not a social emotion, but an individual and personalised bodily experience. I cannot experience your thirst, and you cannot quench mine by drinking. Likewise, the Buddha describes how metaphorical ‘thirst’ (seeking for the satisfaction of longings) tends to depend on appropriating inner and outer objects (making them my own):

Now, monks, there are these eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is inside, and eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is outside.

‘And what are those eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is inside? Monks, when there are the ideas of “I am”, there are the ideas of “I am this”, “I am like that”, “I am otherwise”, “I am lasting”, “I am transient”, there are the ideas of “I might be”, “I might be this”, “I might be like that”, “I might be otherwise”, “might I be?”, “might I be this?”, “might I be like that?”, “might I be otherwise?”, there are the ideas of “I will be”, “I will be this”, “I will be like that”, “I will be otherwise”. These are the eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is inside.

‘And what are those eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is outside? Monks, when there are the ideas of “this is me”, there are the ideas of “this makes me like this”, “this makes me like that”, “this makes me otherwise”, “this makes me lasting”, “this makes me transient”, there are the ideas of “this might be me”, “this might make me like this”, “this might make me like that”, “this might make me otherwise”, “might this be me?”, “might this make me like this?”, “might this make me like that?”, “might this make me otherwise?”, there are the ideas of “this will be me”, “this will make me like this”, “this will make me like that”, “this will make me otherwise”. These are the eighteen ways that taṇhā wanders about dependent on the appropriation of what is outside.[10]

In this discourse, the Buddha evokes some of the very many ways in which unsatisfied longing manifests in an individual’s thoughts and feelings, dependent on identifying with them as ‘myself’ and dependent on appropriating objects of various sorts as ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Such egotistical desire could be for sense-pleasures, continued existence, or non-existence. Deep-rooted egotism wraps us up, ties us down, and drives us on. The discourse just quoted ends like this:

Now this, monks, is that taṇhā, which is ensnaring, a river, entanglement, pervasive, by which this world has become smothered and overgrown, has become like a tangle of string covered in mould and matted like grass, unable to escape from saṃsāra with its miseries, disasters and bad destinies.

This suggests that metaphorical thirst involves an impossible egotism about satisfaction. Living one’s life expecting a personal satisfaction of desire may leave one tangled and mouldy. A ‘horizontal’ ending of such thirst would be the overcoming of egotism, involving for instance the development of the brahmā-vihāras or ‘divine abodes’ of kindness, compassion, gladness and equanimity; qualities which extend one’s sphere of concern beyond oneself. Such meditation may lead to a liberating insight into the lack of a fixed permanent self in experience, and hence a liberation from the ensnaring, entangled river of egotistical desire.

I began this essay with a translation issue: is ‘craving’ the best translation of taṇhā? I argued that taṇhā means ‘thirst’ and is a metaphor. But it turns out that the way the Buddha uses this metaphor to characterise our human predicament goes well beyond a comparison with desiring to drink. Taṇhā has taken on a life of its own as a technical term in Buddhist thought. I would argue that translating taṇhā as ‘craving’ suggests to the unwary that the problem with the human predicament is a psychological state of strong desire. Whereas translating taṇhā as ‘thirst’, and making this literal translation of taṇhā the standard one, might help remind students of Buddhism, old and new, to remember to think metaphorically, and to reflect on the unsatisfied longing that constitutes the existential ground of human life.


[1] This point is argued at length in Dharmacārin Sāgaramati (1994), ‘Three Cheers for Taṇhā’, Western Buddhist Review 1, esp. pp.144–8 ().

[2] Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, s.v. tṛṣ.

[3] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pāli-English Dictionary, s.v. taṇhā.

[4] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pāli-English Dictionary, s.v. pipāsā. This word is from the desiderative form of the verb , ‘to drink’, which derives from another Indo-European root, pō(i), evident in English words coming from Latin, like ‘potable’ (from pōtus) and ‘imbibe’ (from bibere).

[5] Ṛg Veda 10.129.4, trans. Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton (2014), The Rig Veda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India, New York: Oxford University Press, p.1609.

[6] Bṛhadāraṅyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.5, trans. Patrick Olivelle (1998), The Early Upaniṣads, New York: Oxford University Press, p.121.

[7] Anālayo (2012), Excursions Into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses, Onalaska WA: Pariyatti Press, p.16.

[8] From ‘Discourse on the Noble Quest’ (Ariyapariyesanā Sutta), Majjhima Nikāya 18.

[9] Dharmacārin Sāgaramati (1994), ‘Three Cheers for Taṇhā’, Western Buddhist Review 1, esp. pp.151–3 (www.westernbuddhistreview.com).

[10] From ‘Discourse on Thirst’ (Taṇhā Sutta), Aṅguttara Nikāya 4: 199. This is my translation, but also see Sujato’s and Ṭhanissaro’s translations at https://suttacentral.net/an4.199

3 thoughts on “Translation issues (2): taṇhā and ‘craving’

  1. Great essay, thank you so much for taking the time to write it. I think you might be right in that using the word thirst instead of craving helps in remembering that it is a metaphor, keeping us more connected with the original meaning and message of the Buddha. Also somehow thirst – both metaphorical and literal – is really something that is felt with the whole body, something that colours the whole experience, whereas craving is maybe a feeling that is felt more narrowly, focused in a smaller way on an object of desire. Anyway, thank you for sharing this. I will definitely keep these questions in mind and in my meditation in the upcoming week.
    My best from Finland, Maija

  2. Thanks Maija, and lovely to hear from you. You’ve added a really good additional point here – that ‘thirst’ can be felt with the whole body. So the metaphor of thirst is less likely to be understood narrowly as doctrine.

  3. Thank you Dhivan for this explanation of tanha.
    I struggle to digest much of it limited as I am by cognitive impairment and memory loss.
    How ever I’m encouraged by your writings even if not comprehending very much.
    Thank you
    Ajitasena

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s