Distinguishing Wants and Needs

Distinguishing Wants and Needs

Discussion date: Thu, May 10, 2007 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

The notion of mindful consumption goes to the very heart of mindfulnesspractice. The Buddha in his discourses made acritical distinction between desires as wants and desiresas needs.

As the Thai Monk, Venerable P.A. Payutto, explains in his book Buddhist Economics,in the early Buddhist writings, the Pali term “tanha” isused to describe the reactive impulse to accumulate pleasant feelingsand avoid unpleasant feelings. Payutto translates tanha as craving,ambition, restlessness, or thirst. It is an automatic, unreflectiveresponse, and the objects of tanha are limitless. In the second of theFour Noble Truths, tanha is identified as the root cause of suffering.And in the third noble truth, it is the cessation of tanha which bringsabout the end of suffering.

Along with tanha, the early Buddhist scriptures also employ the Paliterm “chanda,” the desire for that which is right, good,skillful, or wholesome, for ourselves and for others. Chanda arisesfrom mindfulness, reflection, and insight.

When we eat “to nourish our bodies and prevent illness,” aswe say in the Five Contemplations, this is eating based on chanda. Wecan 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 weneed, for the pleasure of the food, or to satisfy psychologicalneeds unrelated to nutrition, then this is tanha driving us. 

In a sense, everything we call mindfulness practice is simplydeveloping behaviors and habits which strenthen our chanda lessen our tanha. Payutto explains:

As wisdom is developed, chandabecomes more dominant, while the blind craving of tanha loses itsstrength. By training and developing ourselves, we live less and lessat the directives of ignorance and tanha and more and more under theguidance of wisdom and chanda This leads to a more skillful life, and amuch better and more fruitful relationship with the things around us.

The distinction between tanha and chanda, wants andneeds, can inform not only to thesmall decisions of everyday life, but also the political andeconomic issues of our age. As Fritz Capra notes in the excerpt below,often American economic policy seems toglorify tanha, eliminating barriers to the ever increasingsatisfaction of wants, and neglects chanda, meeting the basic needs ofhuman beings, other species, and the planet.

In contemporary capitalist society, the central value of moneymakinggoes hand in hand with the glorification of material consumption. Anever ending stream of advertising messages reinforces people’sdelusion that the accumulation of material goods is the royal road tohappiness, the very purpose of our lives. The United States projectsits tremendous power around the world to maintain optimal conditionsfor the perpetuation and expansion of production. The central goal ofits vast empire, its overwhelming military might, impressive range ofintelligence agencies, and dominant positions in science, technology,media, and entertainment  is not to expand its territory, nor topromote freedom and democracy, but to make sure that it has globalaccess to natural resources and that markets around the world remainopen to its products.’ Accordingly, political rhetoric in America movesswiftly from “freedom” to “free trade” and “free markets.” The freeflow of capital and goods is equated with the lofty ideal of humanfreedom, 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.]

Youare invited to join us this Thursday evening for our sharedmeditation, a recitation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and aprogram focused on Mindful Consumption, the fifth training. We willfocus in particular on material consumption – the objects we own,purchase, and consume. As part of our program, we will refect on thesethree questions:

Arethere things I own which are not conducive to my well being, to thewell being of others, or to the well being of the planet?

Arethere things I have purchased or consumed this week that are notsupportive of my well being, to the well being of others, or to thewell being of the planet?

In reflecting on these two questions, are there concrete actions or changes of behavior that I would like to bring into my life?

Below are related quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dali Lama. Ven. Payutto’s informative book is available on the web at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Academy/9280/econ.htm#Contents.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


Thich Nhat Hanh, from For a Future to be Possible:
In modern life, people think that theirbody belongs to them and they can do anything they want to it. “We havethe right to live our own lives.” When you make such a declaration, thelaw 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 futuregenerations. It also belongs to society and to all the other livingbeings. All of them have come together to bring about the presence ofthis body–the trees, clouds, everything. Keeping your body healthy isto express gratitude to the whole cosmos, to all ancestors, and alsonot to betray the future generations. We practice this precept for thewhole cosmos, the whole society. If we are healthy, everyone canbenefit from it–not only everyone in the society of men and women, buteveryone in the society of animals, plants, and minerals. This is abodhisattva precept. When we practice the Five Precepts we are alreadyon the path of a bodhisattva.

When we are able to get out of theshell of our small self and see that we are interrelated to everyoneand everything, we see that our every act is linked with the whole ofhumankind, the whole cosmos. To keep yourself healthy is to be kind toyour ancestors, your parents, the future generations, and also yoursociety. Health is not only bodily health, but also mental health. TheFifth 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 ofsatisfaction which the physical level cannot provide…. I have metmany people who live in great material comfort and yet are full ofanxiety; and they tell me about their many problems. The counter forceto this mental disturbance is loving kindness. Human affection, caring,a sense of responsibility, and a sense of community — that isspirituality.

Discussion Date: Thu, May 10, 2007


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