As Observer

Say I observe systems around me --- economics of suffering, arising of crime, even the Dependent Origination --- without craving to maintain, defend, modify, control or destroy the systems.

I do have an inquisitive mind that intends (not craves) to observe, trace through and understand the systems. I'm a studious person.

Am I free of craving?

As Participant

Say I act to reduce suffering according to my understanding of the above-mentioned systems.

Can I say I don't crave but do intend to better the lives of my wards?

That may sound strange, so let me explain my community service.

The wards in my community service include elderly, criminals, intoxication substance users, and more.

I explain the category of "elderly" because an irony within is more illustrative than straightforward categories like "criminals".

Most elderly folks end up alone because of bad choices made when younger. Whether they were bad parents, abusive personalities, or sometimes merely (obsessively?) hardworking due to economic hardship, their choices were made, and the various systems in life continue to process those choices.

The point of what we do in community service, shocking to many, is that we don't aim to solve every problem. We merely reduce suffering, and only in rare cases where opportunities present do we reduce suffering to the point of its elimination.

Perhaps a quick detour into "Harm Reduction" can make this illustration more concrete.

Harm Reduction vs Positive Alternative

The Harm Reduction Model could be applied to our work in community service, since we don't turn down anyone who is not yet ready to take on solutions in life.

At the same time, our country's treasury is so well-managed that the country builds numerous "Positive Alternatives" (education, gainful livelihood, etc). (There is no such term as "Positive Alternatives Model", sorry for not giving you something to read on this!)

It is easily observed that the Harm Reduction Model takes a whole lot less resources than the Positive Alternatives Model. It is a lot cheaper to distribute clean needles to drug addicts than it is to build entire schools to facilitate gainful employment. But I don't argue for one model versus the other; it all depends on how much resources we have on hand.

Our specific work includes such "harm reduction" techniques as provision for social needs (regular visits, chats, counseling), provision for basic physical needs (rations), and so on.

As Policy Maker

The tricky part of all this non-craving is how policy makers are often admonished for spending on lost causes.

Granted, a lot of community service work draws from volunteerism, so spending isn't that big an issue.

Unfortunately, even the resource that is volunteerism is also finite (like any other resource in this material plane).

Without going into academic discussions on how Harm Reduction gives respite from suffering such that there is a window of calm for rational behavior and real solutions, it is clear that Harm Reduction reduces (if not removes) suffering.

Key questions

Is a non-discriminatory intention to alleviate suffering an unwise action? (We do detain people with dangerous behavior, but we still spend effort and resources to serve even the most hardcore criminals.)

(Suffering is indeed a good teacher, but I don't believe it is my duty to mete out suffering. The real world already has a system that dishes out suffering.)

Can the intention to alleviate suffering be volitional without craving?

It's actually difficult to explain why I even bother to alleviate suffering, rather than amass pleasure for myself. The closest I can explain is a Chinese proverb: 物尽其用, 人尽其才. Which brings me to the next key question.

Is it wrong to intend to build up our own faculties without craving to? Will such intention to amass strength and capabilities be seen as attachment?

The above questions come about because of my longstanding (internal?) debate between "sitting all day long in meditative sessions" and "going out to do stuff". Many temples I visit have large TV screens, in front of which many monks... well... sit in "meditative sessions" all day long; popular media plays on these TV screens. Even long-drawn proper lectures don't interest me (consider how speed reading has higher throughput than video for knowledge transfer).

Because of my natural tendency towards "love and service", I've been accused of clinging and craving.

4 Answers 4


In Udana 6.1, we see the Buddha having intentions and making plans for the afternoon - this showed that he still had mental formations, volition and intention as a living arahant. So, he still had sankhara.

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Vesālī at the Gabled Hall in the Great Forest. Then, early in the morning, he adjusted his under robe and — carrying his bowl & robes — went into Vesālī for alms. Then, having gone for alms in Vesālī, after the meal, returning from his alms round, he addressed Ven. Ānanda, "Get a sitting cloth, Ānanda. We will go to the Pāvāla shrine for the day's abiding."

Responding, "As you say, lord," to the Blessed One, Ven. Ānanda followed along behind the Blessed One, carrying the sitting cloth. Then the Blessed One went to the Pāvāla shrine and, on arrival, sat down on the seat laid out.

Seated, the Blessed One addressed Ven. Ānanda, "Vesālī is refreshing, Ānanda. Refreshing, too, are the Udena shrine, the Gotamaka shrine, the Sattamba shrine, the ManySon shrine, the Sāranda shrine, the Pāvāla shrine.

In SN 12.38, we read that intention and planning alone are insufficient for the continuation of suffering. There must also be latent tendencies (anusaya). This was discussed in this answer.

So, living arahants still have sankhara. What they do not have is latent tendencies (anusaya), defilements (kilesa), effluents (asava), fetters (samyojana), craving (tanha) and clinging (upadana).

More precisely, living arahants have the aggregate of sankhara but not the clinging-aggregate of sankhara, because they have stopped clinging. See SN 22.48.

Also, Thanissaro Bhikkhu's commentary of Iti 44 implies that living arahants still have the five aggregates operating till physical death (sa-upadisesa), but there is no continuation of suffering or clinging or craving from the point of their enlightenment.

Not just this, the enlightened ones can experience most, if not all, of the 25 beautiful mental factors mentioned in this answer, including compassion (karuna). These beautiful mental factors do not arise because of the latent tendencies (anusaya).

  • So "clinging" taints an aggregate? For "end of suffering", it seems we must also give up intention and planning. Should we then starve to death from inactivity, esp those who already understood non-attachment? (Those who crossed the "river" and should give up the "boat" that is the Dhamma itself?)
    – jhannwong
    Mar 2, 2021 at 10:11
  • "Should we then starve to death from inactivity" -> No. Just look at the examples of the Buddha and his chief disciples who did not starve themselves to death from inactivity. If someone is telling you otherwise, then ask them to kindly look at the examples of the Buddha and his chief disciples.
    – user13375
    Jul 29, 2021 at 15:59

There's a great koan from the Blue Cliff record that goes something like this. I think it speaks directly to your situation:

Yunyan asked Daowu, "What use does the great Bodhisattva of Mercy make of all those hands and eyes?"
Daowu said, "It is like a man straightening his pillow with his outstretched hand in the middle of the night."
Yunyan said, "I have understood."
Daowu said, "How do you understand?"
Yunyan said, "The whole body is hand and eye."
Daowu said, "You have had your say, but you have given only eight-tenths of the truth."
Yunyan sai, "How would you put it?"
Daowu said, "The entire body is hand and eye."

Who better to alleviate the suffering of the world than the Bodhisattva of Mercy? Who better to act in the world with her innumerable hands holding implements that would meet every need? But how does she meet the suffering of the world? Does she go out looking for someone to save? Does she cultivate her skills and build up her faculties in order to serve?

The actions of the Bodhisattvas are rarified - so much higher than our conventional understanding. But in order to understand their motivations, the koan asks us to investigate something so simple - what it means to act like a man straightening his pillow in the middle of the night. How is the great compassion of a Bodhisattva like a man straightening his pillow? How is all true action in the world complete, entire, whole, and without remainder?

If you can be like that man, reaching for his pillow, you will know what it is to see with Kanon's many eyes and possess the many hands that will save all sentient beings without volition.


Can volition be without craving?

Yes. For example, about himself, the Buddha is reported to have said:

There is the case where a teacher teaches the Dhamma to his students sympathetically, seeking their well-being, out of sympathy: 'This is for your well-being; this is for your happiness.'

Maha-suññata Sutta

Yet the Buddha declared in his 1st words attaining the destruction of craving, as follows:

  1. O house-builder, you are seen! You will not build this house again. For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered. My mind has reached the Unconditioned; I have attained the destruction of craving


Say I observe systems around me --- economics of suffering, arising of crime, even the Dependent Origination --- without craving to maintain, defend, modify, control or destroy the systems.

Dependent origination is about the arising of mental suffering and nothing else.


Unsullied intentions are indeed a requirement of the Noble Eightfold Path.

AN10.20:9.1: And how does a mendicant have unsullied intentions?
AN10.20:9.2: It’s when a mendicant has given up intentions of sensuality, malice, and cruelty.

Because of my natural tendency towards "love and service", I've been accused of clinging and craving.

Love and service do generate merit and are worthy of praise. However, there is one further consideration:

AN10.91:20.2: They seek for wealth using legitimate, non-coercive means. This is the first ground for praise.
AN10.91:20.3: They make themselves happy and pleased. This is the second ground for praise.
AN10.91:20.4: They share it and make merit. This is the third ground for praise.
AN10.91:20.5: They enjoy that wealth tied, infatuated, attached, blind to the drawbacks, and not understanding the escape. This is the one ground for criticism.

For example, if we have a good job and share our wealth, that is wonderful. But if we start counting and comparing the amount we share, then perhaps we have become infatuated and attached to feeling "I am good".

DN15:9.1: So it is, Ānanda, that feeling is a cause of craving. Craving is a cause of seeking. Seeking is a cause of gaining material possessions. Gaining material possessions is a cause of assessing. Assessing is a cause of desire and lust. Desire and lust is a cause of attachment. Attachment is a cause of possessiveness. Possessiveness is a cause of stinginess. Stinginess is a cause of safeguarding.

  • I had the impression that the OP and your answer is also concerned with the gaining of spiritual wealth i.e., 'merit' ... are your citations from sutta about wealth also applicable for spiritual wealth and not just material possessions?
    – user13375
    Jul 31, 2021 at 12:47
  • Yes. If merit is heavenly, then we should also be aware that > SN56.108-110:1.1: “… the sentient beings who die as gods and are reborn as gods are few, while those who die as gods and are reborn in hell, or the animal realm, or the ghost realm are many.”
    – OyaMist
    Jul 31, 2021 at 12:56

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