Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Dr. Paul Younger


The aim of this thesis is to show the soteriological significance of the concept of craving in early Buddhism. It is argued that more than any other single factor, craving is the central problem in early Buddhism, and that when properly understood, it can be seen as the crucial link holding the entire soteriological system of the Four Noble Truths together. Craving thus stands at the heart of the Buddha's gospel, and a correct interpretation of its complex and unique structure is essential for an adequate understanding of the Buddhist religion as a whole.

The concept of craving in early Buddhism is a theme that has not been adequately subjected to systematic analysis by Buddhist scholarship in the past. This study is undertaken in response to this deficiency.

Methodologically, this thesis investigates the concept of craving from both the phenomenological and the theological perspectives. It is not a semantic analysis of the word tanhā as such, but an attempt to get behind the general disposition indicated by that word, to see exactly what the Buddha meant when he said that to experience was 'to burn with thirst'. In one way, then, we must furnish a detailed phenomenological description of the origin, development and manifestation of craving as set down in the Pāli Nikāyas. In another way, however, we have an even more pressing responsibility as we attempt to interpret this data and give it meaning.

In order to best accommodate these aims, the thesis is divided into four parts. First we have to ascertain what primary textual sources we should use as the foundation of this study, and what the possible historical and theological problems are that we might encounter in understanding these sources. At the same time we review what scholarship has already been offered in this area, and establish our own approach and method.

Secondly, in order to see how craving is part of a much larger general theological structure, it is important to understand how it is related to the central Buddhist concept of painfulness (dukkha). Here the primary object is to see the psychological nature of this painfulness, and to examine how the early Buddhists described the psycho-physical structure of man.

Thirdly, we turn our attention specifically to how painfulness is provoked by grosser forms of craving. At this point our concern centres in upon the various mental factors which make up consciousness and unconsciousness. This is a strategic part of the thesis, for not only does it provide an in-depth study of the psychological structure of man, but it also demonstrates that the individual has the potential to control craving, and even use it as a positive force.

This lays the groundwork for part four, where we argue that in an important sense, craving has a definite soteriological value in early Buddhism. Here we investigate those passages which indicate the significance of conation in the Buddhist way (Magga), and show that even tanhā can be used as the instrument for its own purification, that it can be 'redirected' from deleterious aims to a more 'skilful' (kusala) form of intention. Only when this positive conative discipline has been undertaken can the individual fruitfully undertake the mindfulness (sati) and mediation (samādhi) necessary for insight (pannā) and thus enlightenment (nibbāna). In this final transcendent experience, craving of any kind is at last eradicated, its unconscious roots determined, and its relationship with painfulness at last fully understood.

It can be seen, then, that the central thesis concerning craving is woven into an entire framework of Buddhist soteriology, and that is cannot be properly understood as only a psychological phenomenon. For the early Buddhists, craving is of course partly a psychological dilemma. But unchecked and uncontrolled, it is also a serious obstacle in a spiritual sense, keeping the individual bound to ignorance and thus preventing the wholesome development of the mind and the transcending experience of enlightenment. In this sense, craving clearly is the ultimate soteriological problem in early Buddhism, yet it has often been taken out of its theological context and been inadequately understood.

The purpose of this thesis is to make a study of this central concept within the context of the religious system if Buddhism.

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