K.D. Lang: 'Constant Craving'
Tanha (craving, desire) lies at the heart of Buddha's teaching. In the four noble truths that form the core of his teachings, it is craving that causes dukkha (suffering, stress), and it is the removal of craving & suffering that is the aim of the Buddhist life. The basic formula of these truths is: 1) There is suffering, 2) Craving causes suffering, 3) Ending craving ends suffering, 4) The path that leads to the ending of suffering. Here, we are concerned with the second of thee four truths, that of craving. Understanding this truth - and seeing it as it occurs in us - is crucial to walking the Buddhist path to awakening.
As K.D. Lang sings so beautifully, craving is a constant in our lives - until we end it and become enlightened, that is! Craving causes us to do so much that is wicked & selfish, motivated by desire for money, possessions, sex, drugs, land, power, and much, much more! Now, we may not be ready to end all craving & suffering right now, but we can deal with much unnecessary desire & stress if we apply the simple Buddhist idea of the middle way. The middle way is also part of Buddha's essential teachings given in his first sermon, along with the four noble truths. In Pali, this sermon is known as the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta, or, 'The Discourse on Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma (Truth).' In it, he presents the middle way between the extremes of self-indulgence & self-asceticism.
We can use this idea of the middle way principle as a guiding rule in our everyday lives to avoid indulging in extreme craving & the resultant suffering. When about to eat a whole packet of cookies, we can contemplate as we look at it, "Is acting on this desire to eat it all beneficial or harmful? Is it an extreme behavior?" If the answer is yes to either of these questions, then we can heed the middle way ideal and not eat the whole packet of cookies, saving some for another occasion, or to share, and saving money. too. If craving drives us to push our partner for more and more sex despite their reluctance, if compassion for them doesn't check our behavior, perhaps considering sexual desire in the light of the middle way will help: "Is it beneficial or harmful to demand sex from our partner; is it an extreme behavior?"
Another important teaching in Buddha's first discourse is the noble eightfold path, which is a more detailed version of the middle way itself, also being the fourth noble truth of the way leading to the ending of suffering. The eight aspects of this path are: 1) right view, 2) right thought, 3) right speech, 4) right action, 5) right livelihood, 6) right effort, 7) right mindfulness, and 8) right concentration. These eight aspects are 'right' in that they lead to enlightenment, the goal of Buddhism, whereas their opposites will lead to further suffering. Applying the middle way principle helps us to cultivate the various facts of the path, for example in avoiding extreme views which will contradict right view, or extreme actions which would go against right action. Even in meditation, Buddha taught that one should avoid the extremes of forced attention and a wandering mind, instead following the middle way of relaxed attention. The middle way principle is of great assistance to walking the noble eightfold path, which should be of no surprise, as the latter is an elaboration of the former.
According to tradition, Buddha gave us five precepts to keep that help us avoid extreme, harmful behavior. These are 1) Not to kill, 2) Not to steal, 3) Not to commit sexual misconduct, 4) Not to lie, and 5) Not to take intoxicants. Applying the middle way principle to our life can help us to keep these precepts, encouraging us to contemplate our actions and their results, avoiding those extreme actions that are harmful to both ourselves and others. These precepts, along with the middle way principle, can help us to reduce stress in our lives, as well as in those that we come into contact with. Indeed, the two are wholly complementary, helping to sustain one another; so, if one applies the middle way to ones' moral behavior, this helps to keep the precepts, and if one keeps the precepts, this helps to develop the middle way principle.
So, applying the middle way principle to our lives can help in so many ways; it can help us to see and understand the truth of suffering in our lives - craving; it can help us develop the noble eightfold path in our lives, which also leads to a reduction (and eventually, the eradication) of suffering; it can assist us to keep the five precepts which make reduce our harmful actions and make us better members of society. As mentioned at the top of this article, according to Buddhist teaching, only this that are enlightened are completely free of suffering - and not many of us would claim to have achieved this! But, for the rest of us, the middle way principle can at least help to us to dramatically reduce the amount of craving and resultant stress in life - and that has to be good thing, doesn't it?