I was wondering if for example an obsession or craving that someone has for attaining Nirvana would be considered something unwholesome. On one hand it seems to me like it would, since that person would be reinforcing the habit of craving, but on the other hand how else could they actually achieve the goal? Like for example how could they decide to become a monk and devote themselves fully to the practice etc. I don't think the Buddha would have left his palace if he wasn't motivated by some sort of craving, at least in the beginning.
A strong craving (Taṇhā) for enlightenment would not get you there as it is unwholesome.
You need some desire or motivation (Chanda) to get to enlightenment. But when you get there this desire is also no more. Say you want to go to the park you need some desire to get there. When you are there you no longer have the desire to go there.
Craving for enlightenment would be unwholesome, the intention to achieve enlightenment would be wholesome.
In the Mahayana, the apparent contradiction of craving enlightenment for one's own benefit is resolved by the notion of Bodhicitta, the mind that seeks enlightenment specifically for the benefit of others. One who is has this motivation and constantly acts to manifest it is called a Bodhisattva. Often but incorrectly interpreted simply as compassion, Bodhicitta is motivated by great compassion, the inability to bear the suffering of others, but it goes beyond compassion in two ways.
First, one identifies enlightenment as the best and most powerful tool or capacity to actually relieve the suffering of others. An enlightened being can see what each being needs to relieve their suffering and also provide the best possible assistance to them in that endeavor. Ultimately, that means helping others toward their own enlightenment, but since not all beings are in a position to undertake that journey at present, Bodhicitta can also manifest as the motivation to relieve suffering in more mundane ways. In fact, everyday suffering is an impediment to seeking enlightenment -- if you don't have enough food, clothing, shelter and so on, or are wracked by physical or emotional pain, it is difficult to even conceive of undertaking the path to enlightenment. So relieving everyday suffering opens up that possibility and is part of the activities of a Bodhisattva.
Second, combining boundless compassion and that understanding of enlightenment, one resolves to fully dedicate their lives to achieving enlightenment for exactly that purpose. That is what makes one a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is often said to postpone their own enlightenment until all other beings are enlightened, but that is more of a metaphor -- achieving enlightenment with this motivation is the best thing one can do for others.
Thus, Bodhicitta is indeed craving of the most powerful sort. Because it is focused on the ultimate welfare of others, however, it has none of the faults of ordinary craving. We can understand Shakyamuni's resolve to attain enlightenment after seeing the various forms of suffering as exactly this, Bodhicitta.
There are many published teachings on Bodhicitta:
I have read in a book by Ajahn Jayasaro that cravings or desires can be divided into two groups, which are tanha (unwholesome desires) and chanda (wholesome desires). Desire which drives you towards dhamma practice and motivates you to stay on the Path certainly falls within the second group.
Nevertheless, there should be a subtle balance between effort and desire. Merely wanting to practice does not necessarily mean you will attain the fruits any time sooner, it’s just an indicator of to what extent you are determined right at a given moment.
Here you can listen to the very first question about cravings and Ajahn Jayasaro’s answer to it
The distinction would be that craving tends to focus on feelings, and desire for some particular feeling, or some particular state of being; whereas the wholesome kind of desire (which is called chanda or dhamma-chanda) is the desire to do -- it's not a desire for the result of doing.
So, working: some people work with craving, so the work itself is merely a means towards wealth, fame, status, and so on, that's like working with craving; whereas someone who's working with wholeome desire really just wants to do a good job.
Sadhu for this important question householder Sirangelo,
No desire, no craving, is more wholesome, more of use, then this for long time happiness, awakening, ending of suffering, and the prerequisite for awakening, by seeing Dukkha.
Yet it can not be reached by only wishing for it, but requires the path, the skill, and those point it out and follow them.
And at the same time, no more aversion is more skillful as that toward what is not real, not conductive for long lasting happiness, awakening, ending of suffering.
People who think that lobha, desire and craving are unwholesome per-se don't understand that this path requires will, right will.
Only this four factors are always related to unwholsome, akusala mental-states:
- Delusion (moha)
- Lack of moral shame (ahirika)
- Lack of moral dread (anottappa)
- Restlessness (uddhacca)
The same, in this relation, counts for becoming, better using, the opportunity to live the holy life as monk, since this is the straight path to awakening, perfection of virtue. And also here it's important to take care on the four primarily factors in an unskillful mind.
And not to misunderstand it, this strong desire, strong craving, strong will, needs to be nourished till having reached the Unbound, Arahathood, the state where it can be, will be abound and ends.
Most, as seen at this question, although listening and read much of the Budddhas teachings are incapable to understand that will, desire, and aversion, at the right places, is what makes the path. Most do not understand, like a spoon next the soup, that the path consists of kusala (wholesome) deeds, do not understand that there is kusala which leads beyond this world and suffering, placing it toward wrong objects, again and again.
May householder strongly seek for the holy life, strongly seek after giving strong conditions, associating with what heads toward liberation, or already is.
It was strong desire to go beyond aging, sickness and death, metta for oneself, that leaded the Bodhisatta to renounce the world and seek for refined happiness and ending of stress.
For one wishing for such a noble goal, the Devas open the doors wish might be closed otherwise.
This path begins by leaving home, by seeing the dangers and meaninglessness, faculties in ones stand.
Once this right craving reaches it's fullness by gaining right view, the path, on it's given causes, develops on them by itself, no more danger to return.
Note that this gift of Dhamma is not dedicated for trade, exchange, stacks or entertainment but as a means to make merits toward release from this wheel)
As others have said, people distinguish between an always-unwholesome "craving" (tanha), compared with a potentially-wholesome "desire" (chanda).
I guess the difference might be two-fold:
- Whether the object of the desire is wholesome
- Whether there's a corresponding skilful effort
I suppose you're right that the pre-enlightened Gautama experienced a desire for liberation, and must have also learned to identify craving and suffering -- and their cessation -- e.g. because he was eventually able to identify or describe those, in the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths.
The Brahmana Sutta seems relevant too. A Brahman asks a question like the one you're asking ...
... This, Brahman, is the path, this is the practice for the abandoning of that desire.
If that's so, Master Ananda, then it's an endless path, and not one with an end, for it's impossible that one could abandon desire by means of desire.
... and has Ananda's reply to that question.
It is called path desire: when you have no desires other than pursuing enlightenment. As you make spiritual progress, material things becme pale and no longer interesting. Your interest shifts to spiritual values. In the Bhagavad-gita this milestone on the spiritual path, whey you become fully commited to spiritual life, is called vyavasayatmika buddhi:
bahu-śākhā hy anantāś ca
vyavasāyātmikā—resolute Kṛṣṇa consciousness; buddhiḥ—intelligence; ekā—only one; iha—in this world; kuru-nandana—O beloved child of the Kurus; bahu-śākhāḥ—various branches; hi—indeed; anantāḥ—unlimited; ca—also; buddhayaḥ—intelligence; avyavasāyinām—of those who are not in Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
Those who are on this path are resolute in purpose, and their aim is one. O beloved child of the Kurus, the intelligence of those who are irresolute is many-branched.