Distinguishing Wants and Needs
May 10, 2007
Dear Still Water Friends,
The notion of mindful consumption goes to the very heart of mindfulness practice. The Buddha in his discourses made a critical distinction between desires as wants and desires as needs.
As the Thai Monk, Venerable P.A. Payutto, explains in his book Buddhist Economics, in the early Buddhist writings, the Pali term “tanha” is used to describe the reactive impulse to accumulate pleasant feelings and avoid unpleasant feelings. Payutto translates tanha as craving, ambition, restlessness, or thirst. It is an automatic, unreflective response, and the objects of tanha are limitless. In the second of the Four Noble Truths, tanha is identified as the root cause of suffering. And in the third noble truth, it is the cessation of tanha which brings about the end of suffering.
Along with tanha, the early Buddhist scriptures also employ the Pali term “chanda,” the desire for that which is right, good, skillful, or wholesome, for ourselves and for others. Chanda arises from mindfulness, reflection, and insight.
When we eat “to nourish our bodies and prevent illness,” as we say in the Five Contemplations, this is eating based on chanda. We can enjoy our food, of course, but we eat in moderation. However, when we eat foods that are not good for us, or amounts beyond what we need, for the pleasure of the food, or to satisfy psychological needs unrelated to nutrition, then this is tanha driving us.
In a sense, everything we call mindfulness practice is simply
developing behaviors and habits which strenthen our chanda
lessen our tanha. Payutto explains:
The distinction between tanha and chanda, wants and needs, can inform not only to the small decisions of everyday life, but also the political and economic issues of our age. As Fritz Capra notes in the excerpt below, often American economic policy seems to glorify tanha, eliminating barriers to the ever increasing satisfaction of wants, and neglects chanda, meeting the basic needs of human beings, other species, and the planet.
In contemporary capitalist society, the central value of moneymaking goes hand in hand with the glorification of material consumption. A never ending stream of advertising messages reinforces people's delusion that the accumulation of material goods is the royal road to happiness, the very purpose of our lives. The United States projects its tremendous power around the world to maintain optimal conditions for the perpetuation and expansion of production. The central goal of its vast empire, its overwhelming military might, impressive range of intelligence agencies, and dominant positions in science, technology, media, and entertainment is not to expand its territory, nor to promote freedom and democracy, but to make sure that it has global access to natural resources and that markets around the world remain open to its products.' Accordingly, political rhetoric in America moves swiftly from "freedom" to "free trade" and "free markets." The free flow of capital and goods is equated with the lofty ideal of human freedom, and material acquisition is portrayed as a basic human right, increasingly even as an obligation. [From his essay in Mindfulness in the Marketplace: Compassionate Responses to Consumerism.]
are invited to join us this Thursday evening for our shared
meditation, a recitation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and a
program focused on Mindful Consumption, the fifth training. We will
focus in particular on material consumption – the objects we own,
purchase, and consume. As part of our program, we will refect on these
Thich Nhat Hanh, from For a Future to be Possible:
In modern life, people think that their body belongs to them and they can do anything they want to it. "We have the right to live our own lives." When you make such a declaration, the law supports you. This is one of the manifestations of individualism. But, according to the teaching of emptiness, your body is not yours. Your body belongs to your ancestors, your parents, and future generations. It also belongs to society and to all the other living beings. All of them have come together to bring about the presence of this body--the trees, clouds, everything. Keeping your body healthy is to express gratitude to the whole cosmos, to all ancestors, and also not to betray the future generations. We practice this precept for the whole cosmos, the whole society. If we are healthy, everyone can benefit from it--not only everyone in the society of men and women, but everyone in the society of animals, plants, and minerals. This is a bodhisattva precept. When we practice the Five Precepts we are already on the path of a bodhisattva.
When we are able to get out of the shell of our small self and see that we are interrelated to everyone and everything, we see that our every act is linked with the whole of humankind, the whole cosmos. To keep yourself healthy is to be kind to your ancestors, your parents, the future generations, and also your society. Health is not only bodily health, but also mental health. The Fifth Precept is about health and healing.
The Dali Lama, from the Keynote address to the Forum 2000 conference in Prague
Material fulfillment-- money, material goods, etc. -gives us satisfaction at the sensory level. But at the mental level, at the level of our imagination and desires, we need another kind of satisfaction which the physical level cannot provide.... I have met many people who live in great material comfort and yet are full of anxiety; and they tell me about their many problems. The counter force to this mental disturbance is loving kindness. Human affection, caring, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of community -- that is spirituality.