The Buddha said:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence… (SN 56.11 Bodhi).

The common translation of taṇhā is “craving” (Bodhi, Sujato, Thanissaro, Ñanamoli, Peter Harvey, and Piyadassi). With so many translators using craving, why question it? Because I think it is off the mark. I think a better translation of taṇhā is “selfish desire.”

Here we must distinguish between a denotation and a connotation. The denotation is the literal meaning of the word, while the connotation is the feeling or indirect meaning of the word. With selfish desire, I am claiming that “desire” is the denotation while “selfish” is the connotation. The dictionary will give us the denotation, but only the context of the suttas will give us the connotation.

The Dictionaries

As we look at the dictionaries, it will be clear that the translation of “craving” is well supported. This is not in dispute. But what about the translation “desire.”

Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary explains that taṇhā literally means “thirst.” It gives its figurative meanings as “craving, hunger for, excitement the fever of unsatisfied longing.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines longing as “a yearning desire.” So desire is there, but hidden

The New Concise Pali English Dictionary defines taṇhā as “(a general) craving; strong desire.” Here desire is one of two possible translations. A.K. Warder, in his Introduction to Pali, gives the meaning of taṇhā as “desire, thirst, drive” (397).

According to Monier Williams, the Sanskrit tṛ́ṣṇā means, “desire, avidity.” The Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism by Damien Keown defines taṇhā (Skt. tṛṣṇā) as “Craving or excessive or inappropriate desire.” Under the entry desire, it says, “Desire for unwholesome things is generally known as tṛṣṇā….” Selfish desire is “inappropriate” and “unwholesome” desire

Oxford English Dictionary defines the English word desire as “strongly wish for or want (something).” In the case of thirst (the literal meaning of taṇhā, it would be to “strongly wish for or want” water. In life, it would be to “strongly wish for or want” lasting happiness for ourselves.

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary says that although to desire and to crave both “mean to have a longing for,” there is a difference. “Desire stresses the strength of feeling and often implies strong intention or aim.” While to crave, explains Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, “stresses the force of physical appetite or emotional need.” I would argue that taṇhā is not a “force of physical appetite.” Rather, it follows you even into the non-physical realms of rebirth. Therefore desire is a better fit.

Seven Arguments

There are other reasons I think that “selfish desire” is a better translation than “craving.” Here are seven for you to consider.

First, there is already a Pali word that is defined as “craving,” and that is lobha. It is usually paired with dosa, which means “aversion.” A milder version of lobha is rāga, which means something like “attraction.”

Second, it seems to me that taṇhā should include both craving (lobha) and aversion (dosa), otherwise it is not inclusive enough. But how can craving include its opposite aversion? One is pulling near, the other is pushing away. Only selfish desire is inclusive of both, it includes the desire for something and the desire to be free of something.

Third, I think selfish desire is a better Dharma fit for taṇhā. The cure for selfish desire is to give up the self, and unselfishness sounds very close to the Buddhist idea of blowing out (nibbana) the fires of craving, aversion, and delusion.

Fourth, since taṇhā should cover all three fires of craving, aversion, and delusion, only translating taṇhā as selfish desire makes sense to me. Selfish desire not only leads to attraction (rāga) and aversion, it also leads to ignoring what does not interest the self, resulting in ignorance and delusion.

Fifth, if the cure is selflessness, wouldn’t the sickness be selfishness. The fires of attraction, aversion, and delusion cause selfish desire, but it is at the selfish desire step that we have a choice. We know that the Buddha said that ignorance was at the root of it all. But ignorance is interdependent with selfish desire. We don’t want to know, because it would interfere with our selfish desires. The obstacle is I, me, mine.

I also should point out that not all desire is bad. The desire that others be safe, healthy, and happy is a good desire because it is unselfish. The desire for awakening so that you become a more loving person is a good desire because it is unselfish. So taṇhā does not refer to unselfish desire, it refers only to selfish desire and desires.

I am not the only one to see this. Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, in his book Under the Bodhi Tree, explained that taṇhā refers to Ignorant desire” (181). According to him, “Taṇhā refers only to foolish, ignorant desires.” I used use selfish rather than foolish, for similar reasons. “If the word desire is used by itself,” he says, “it must be understood as foolish desire” (53).

Sixth, selfish desire fits better with the flow of dependent origination.

The Buddha said:

And what is dependent origination? Ignorance is a condition for formations. Formations are a condition for consciousness. Consciousness is a condition for name and form. Name and form are conditions for the six sense fields. The six sense fields are conditions for contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. Feeling is a condition for selfish desire. Selfish desire is a condition for grasping. Grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be. That is how this entire mass of misfortune originates. This is called dependent origination (SN 12.1 R-Sujato).

Our senses come into contact with something, say the sight of a beautiful person. That sight produces a pleasant feeling. Instantly selfish desires arise. The self now wants to possess that person. We now have an attachment. All that can follow from this is “sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress.”

Seventh, I believe the translation “selfish desire” can be “elucidated by a delicate judging of the contexts in which” taṇhā appears. I think it better represents the Buddha’s teaching as a whole, his idea of selfless morality, the mark of existence known as no-self, and the ending of conditioned existence.

The importance of taṇhā in the Buddha’s teaching means that we should be very careful about how we translate it. Therefore we need to heed the words of A. K. Warder, “The meanings of the key terms cannot be guessed at, not determined by etymology (which in the study of philosophy especially is utterly irrelevant and misleading); they must be elucidated by a delicate judging of the contexts in which they occur, working if possible from concrete everyday language… to the less obvious dialogues of philosophers” (Introduction to Pali, xi).

Conclusion

It should not be thought that I think that craving is a wrong translation. It is not wrong, it is too thin. It does not take in the fullness of taṇhā. I contend the selfish desire is a fuller, more accurate dynamic equivalent translation.

References

  • Buddhadatta, A.P. Concise Pali-English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Delhpi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2014.
  • Davids, T.W. Rhys and William Stede. Pali English Dictionary. Waterloo, ON: Laurier Books Ltd, 2001.
  • Keown, Damien. The Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Warer, A. K. Introduction to Pali, 3rd ed. Bristol, U.K.: Pali Text Society, 2016.
  • Williams, Monier. Sanskrit-English Dictionary. University of Cologne, Germany, 1964.