I heard a talk by Ajahn Amaro that says that wherever I encounter dukkha, it is a sign that there is an attachment involved, that I can let go of and this way free myself from the dukkha.


But this way, what prevents me from laying down and dying from hunger or thirst - if I feel hunger, it may be dukkha from my attachment to food, or to survival...

What is the difference between attachment and legitimate needs?

Thanks for answering a noob question.


6 Answers 6


Nyom Alex,

"What is the difference between attachment and legitimate needs?"

Whats a legitimate need? One one would tolerate because having still the same incapacity, like laws are usually made, or common-society conducts. Desires are endless and most cause harm. Therefore better to actions than "material" things or fruits.

The Dhamma is not about "rights" but about "duties" to be fulfilled if wishing for certain aim. No right and legitimizations of improper given!

A legitimate action (by thoughts, words or deeds) is one that does neither take live, take others possession, takes away the truth, takes sensuality from others, takes away ones heedfullness (i.e. the precepts). That's probably not so good matched if just saying "let go" and the precepts help that defilements would not have a change to cheat and argue.

What then might be left as attachment, fine. One might just look inside in a more refined way, since dukkha would probably again arise.

As the Buddha told: it's much better to bear dukkha then to break the precepts.

And at least one could go just for alms. That's the highest way of conduct to provide ones "needs" (4 paccaya) to be able to cross to the other shore and/or to give others a possibility to make good and fruitful merits (to get a little bond to liberation).

Train Your Hunger (The Sea Squirt) might be a useful talk in addition here.

And what worth would it have to just let go before really free of Dukkha? It's most legitimate to seek for overcoming all Dukkha, since it benefits all, incl. oneself. Proper way (without violating precepts) to maintain one body (for ones safety here and later) and the entertainment of mind, livelihood for the mind, is also important, best if dwelling in Jhana 3+ or talk, deeds around Dhamma.

{Note: not given for trade, exchange, stacks and other entertaining's of and for the world but for release from bounds.}

And expanded answer and space for which might be no space here, like discussing, asking back... share ones merits..., can be found here.

  • Thanks a lot! I was very happy to read this talk - very inspiring and clarifying things! And also directly answers the question I asked!
    – alex440
    Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 17:41
  • 2
    +1 for the talk link.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 20:54

In modern terms, Buddhism defines dukkha as a state of mind that is in conflict between "is" and "should". The logical opposite of dukkha is a state of peace and harmony with no such conflict.

The conflict between "is" and "should" can be resolved in one of three ways:

  1. By changing the "is" (acting externally)
  2. By changing our perception of "is" (acting internally)
  3. By changing our idea of "should" (acting internally)

Now, when it comes to acting (whether internally or externally) all our actions and choices can be broadly classified in two types:

  1. Those that lead to eventual peace and harmony.
  2. Those that explicitly or implicitly provoke / sustain the state of unsatisfaction and cyclic pursuit.

When you feel hunger, would suppressing the hunger lead to peace (of health) or to unsatisfaction (of sickness)? It depends on your dietary condition, of course. If you are overweight, abstaining from food intake may have a positive effect on your overall health. Alternatively, would acting externally to obtain food lead to peace or would it lead to trouble? It depends on how you obtain food, doesn't it? If you steal it, it would lead to short-term peace but long-term suffering.

This is the basic formula of Buddhist karma.

What's called "attachment" in Buddhism refers to a mistaken idea about either the "is" side or about the "should" side, due to some sort of misinformation or overgeneralization. For example, in case of hunger, attachment could be an invalid idea about priorities. You could be mistakenly prioritizing feeling of cheap satisfaction from eating pastries or fast food over genuine goodness of healthy diet. Or, on the opposite end of spectrum, it could be an invalid idea about spirituality vis-a-vis fasting - that extreme fasting leads to spiritual breakthroughs etc. In short, attachment is always some kind of irrational idea the person is stuck on.

Like, when you're in love and the person is irreturnably gone, an irrational idea (attachment) would be to keep wanting the person back. Or as you get old an irrational idea (attachment) would be to keep wanting to stay young. That kind of stuff.

Why do we get stuck on irrational ideas? Because they carry emotional significance to us. They bring us a (fake) sense of comfort. They help us sustain a comfortable image of ourselves (Ego) and its mirror projection, comfortable image of the World. So in a way, attachment to irrational ideas is a primitive coping mechanism against dukkha, just not a very efficient one. Sooner or later, reality gives us a wake up call, and then we get hit by dukkha really hard. So holding on to attachments, to illusions, to an idealized image of self (ego), to generalizations about the world is definitely something that long-term leads to eventual suffering, not to peace.

Understanding this in practice was a big part of my own training back when I started. In Mahayana we are taught to prioritize the Global Good over individual gratification. From this perspective, any idea that we hold on to, out of a subconscious desire to protect our ego, as opposed to it being objectively-strategically-globally good, is considered an attachment.

So the rule of thumb for recognizing attachments is to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will this lead to long-term good (peace, health, harmony) for myself and others? Or will it serve to sustain conflict, pursuit, and passions?
  2. Is this truly objectively so or am I being biased because of subconscious desire to protect my ego or my generalizations?
  3. Even if both 1 and 2 are true, what is my primary motivator? If it looks like it's genuinely good, but the reason I'm doing it is to congratulate myself on being holy and awesome, then it still counts as an attachment.

You have to question yourself really hard, especially regarding #2 and 3 - because the normal mind has a very strong tendency to not see its own biases.

  • Thanks for the detailed answer. Well it's really common sense that it's better to live in harmony, peace and health. The real trick is the question 2. Most of us don't harm others or indulge in things for the sheer fun of it, we do it with the best intentions or as a "necessary" evil. You know, should you become a meth lord to provide for your handicapped son types of rationalizations ;) What does buddhism have to say about overcoming these biases?
    – alex440
    Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 16:25
  • Buddhism teaches us to analyze things in depth, instead of getting stuck on superficial generalizations. In Mahayana Buddhism there's this thing called Emptiness, which basically signifies that everything we ever deal with is inevitably an abstraction subject to leaking. Once you really get this idea, you don't get attached.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 19:31

It is possible that the body can feel hunger but the person can be mentally free from that hunger. Or the person can feel physical pain but can be mentally free from that physical pain. It's just "hunger" and "pain". Not "my hunger" or "my pain". That's how life is for the people who achieved these two goals: Becoming free from belief to self and completely disidentifying from it. Then people can rationally decide to eat food without mentally being attached to the food when their body feel hunger.

  • Yes, but how can I differ pain from "dukha" of pain, or differ pain from "my pain"?
    – alex440
    Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 16:31

If it were taken literally then your question would be related to Apocarteresis in Buddhism (and even to other topics, labeled ). There is another religion, i.e. Jainism, with a practice or doctrine which may be like what you describe (i.e. Sallekhana) -- I don't know about Jainism, and it's even not on-topic on this site; but if that were meant as a holy death or something, I think that isn't Buddhist and that Buddhism is in contrast about life and how to "live the holy life".

The sutta MN 36 says that before the Buddha's enlightenment, he tried various practices -- including not eating, or eating very little, however ...

But with this racking practice of austerities I haven't attained any superior human state, any distinction in knowledge or vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to Awakening?

I think that hunger is treated as an illness and that you'd take food as medicine (and not e.g. for gluttony).

In the rules of monastic discipline, which Buddhist monks take on, there are some things considered "necessities" or "requisites" -- these include food (perhaps only each morning, not all day), clothing (kind of minimal though, i.e. pieces of cloth as robes), medicines (if needed and available), maybe shelter of some kind too, and a few trifles like a water filter, a bowl, razor, needle -- I think these are what are considered necessary for a monk to live and therefore what it's "allowable" for a monk to accept. Some other things too, I think a monk is allowed to accept a ride in a vehicle, my point is that some food (e.g. enough to live) is considered a necessity, a "legitimate need".

I'm not sure, maybe there's doctrine too which says that because you can't simply stop eating altogether, therefore the attachment to eating is harder to overcome (compared with other attachments perhaps to bad habits which you can simply try to simply stop altogether and live without).

I think too that doctrine says that in general (i.e. including but not limited to "eating") attachment arises as a result of e.g. delighting in something, for example:

  • You eat -- that's "sensory contact" with food
  • You "perceive" the sensory contact
  • You have feelings associated with the perception

If you "delight in" those feelings (e.g. "Oh yeah I love this, I love eating!") then that's a condition for the arising of "attachment", and I think you're meant to be "mindful" not to do that, which is one of the Buddhist practices and called "guarding the senses".

As for food in particular, here's a quote from a description of how a monk might use The Four Requisites:

Properly considering almsfood, I use it: not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on weight, nor for beautification; but simply for the survival and continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the chaste life, (thinking) I will destroy old feelings (of hunger) and not create new feelings (from overeating). Thus I will maintain myself, be blameless, and live in comfort.


Clearly, your physical body needs food, and water, and you must sustain your physical body if you are to continue fulfilling your mundane responsibilities in the six directions.

But... do you enjoy food and water?

My understanding of Buddhism is that, to be fully pursuing the dharma (at least as a non-householder, a monk, an arhat), you must attempt to give up enjoying all sensual pleasures, even those as benign and morally blameless as food and water. (You also must give up disliking anything at all pertaining to your bodily existence: hunger, thirst, sickness, etc. Giving up all likes and dislikes is called equanimity.) Only then do you open up the possibility of being reborn in a higher state of existence, without base bodily needs.

The Buddha taught about the dangers of all sensual pleasures to his more enlightened disciples. Aside from the three marks, suffering, impermanence, non-self, there is also the fact that bodily pleasures, and even bodily needs, are the sole cause of strife and conflicts. Your innocent need for food and water could potentially put you in violent conflict with another person if food and water become scarce.

For that reason alone, one should not like food and water. One should desire to eventually give up the need for food and water, which is possible only through rebirth in a immaterial realm, or total nibanna.


Attachment is only one of a list of things that cause affliction. It could be any of the 3 root poisons: attachment, aversion, or delusion.


Attachment is only one of the root poisons.

There are many systems in Buddhist teaching that can more narrowly define what aspect of a root poison could be causing dukkha (suffering)


Unwholesome activities will cause suffering, wholesome ones lead to freedom. If you have a normally functioning conscience it should be possible to discern the difference.

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