— (a) Want

1 May 2535

(a) Want

I would like to begin dealing with the subject of human nature by looking at demand or wants. Modern economics and Buddhism both agree that mankind has unlimited wants. There are a great number of sayings of the Buddha concerning this point, e.g. natthi tahāsamā nadī – there is no river like craving. Rivers can sometimes fill their banks but the wants of human beings never come to an end. In some places in the Buddhist texts it says that even if money were to fall from the skies like rain, man’s sensual desires would not be fulfilled. Elsewhere the Buddha says that if one could magically transform a whole mountain into solid gold ore it would still not provide complete and lasting satisfaction to even one person. Thus, there are a large number of teachings in the Buddhist tradition that deal with the unlimited nature of human want. Here I would like to relate a story that appears in the Jātaka Tales.

In the far and ancient past there lived a king called Mandhātu. He was a very powerful ruler, an emperor who is known in legend for having lived a very long life. Mandhātuhad all the classic requisites of an emperor; he was an exceptional human being. He had everything that anyone could wish for. He was a prince for 84,000 years, then the heir apparent for 84,000 years, and then emperor for 84,000 years. One day, after having been emperor for 84,000 years, King Mandhātu started to show signs of boredom. The great wealth that he possessed was no longer enough to satisfy him. The King’s courtiers saw that something was wrong and asked what was ailing his Majesty. He replied, ‘The wealth and pleasure I enjoy here is trifling: tell me, is there anywhere superior to this?’ ‘Heaven, your Majesty,’ the courtiers replied. Now, one of the King’s treasures was the cakkaratana, a magic wheel shaped object that could transport him anywhere at his command. So King Mandhātu used it to take him to the Heaven of the Four Great Kings. The Four Great Kings themselves came out to welcome him and on learning of his desire, invited him to take over the whole of their heavenly realm.

King Mandhātu ruled over the Heaven of the Four Great Kings for a very long time until one day he began to feel bored again. It was no longer enough, the pleasure that could be derived from the wealth and delights of that realm could satisfy him no more. He conferred with his attendants and was informed of the superior enjoyments of the Tāvatiṃsā Heaven realm. So King Mandhātu picked up his cakkaratana and ascended to the Tāvatiṃsā Heaven where he was greeted by its ruler, Lord Indra, who promptly made him a gift of half of his kingdom.

King Mandhātu ruled over the Tāvatiṃsā Heaven with Lord Indra for another very long time until Lord Indra came to the end of the merit that had sustained him in his high station, and was replaced by a new Lord Indra. The new Lord Indra ruled on until he too reached the end of his lifespan. In all thirty-six Lord Indras came and went while King Mandhātucarried on enjoying the pleasures of his position. Then, finally he began to feel dissatisfied, half of heaven was not enough, he wanted to rule over all of it. So King Mandhātu began to think of how to kill Lord Indra and depose him. But it is impossible for a human being to kill Lord Indra, because humans cannot kill deities, and so his wish went unfulfilled. King Mandhātu‘s inability to satisfy this craving made it start to rot the very root of his being, and caused the aging process to begin. Suddenly he fell out of Tāvatiṃsā Heaven down to earth, where he landed in an orchard with a resounding bump. When the workers in the orchard saw that a great king had arrived some set off to inform the Palace, and others improvised a make-shift throne for him to sit on. By now King Mandhātuwas on the verge of death. The Royal Family came out to visit and asked if he had any last words. King Mandhātuproclaimed his greatness. He told them of the great power and wealth he had possessed on earth and in heaven, but then finally admitted that his desires remained unfulfilled.

There the story of King Mandhātu ends. It shows how Buddhism shares with economics the view that the wants of humanity are unlimited or endless. But Buddhism does not stop there. It goes on to speak of two features of human nature that are relevant to economics and need to be understood. First, Buddhism distinguishes two kinds of want or desire:

(a) the desire for pleasurable experience (both physical and mental) together with the desire for the things that feed the sense of self, i.e. the cravings known in Buddhist terminology as taṇhā,

(b) the desire for true well-being or quality of life, (chanda).

The second point, also related to this principle of wanting, is that Buddhism holds that we are beings that have the ability to train and develop ourselves. Desire for well-being or for a quality of life indicates a desire for self-development or in other words the development of human potential. The one essential point of human development is thus the diverting, or exchanging of desire for things that provide pleasant experiences and feed the sense of self, into the desire for true well-being. Whereas the first kind of desire is unlimited, the second is not and therefore tends to be in frequent conflict with the first, as for example in the matter of eating. When we eat, both kinds of desire are present, although for most people the desire for well-being is not usually conscious; we tend only to be aware of the desire for pleasurable experience.

Why do human beings eat? Surely it is to nourish the body, to give it strength and good health. But the desire that arises in peoples’ minds is for enjoyment, food that is ‘good’ in terms of taste. This desire may oppose the desire for wellbeing, and even destroy the quality of life. The desire for the experience of delicious flavours leads us to search for the tastiest food and it may be, for instance, that the most delicious food contains artificial additives which enhance the smell, colour, and taste of the food but are harmful to our body, and thus our well-being. Also, people who eat primarily for taste often eat immoderately. They may eat so much that afterwards they suffer from indigestion and flatulence. In the long run they may become overweight, which is also dangerous to health. Food that provides well-being is usually quite cheap but food consumed to satisfy the desire for taste, or food that is currently fashionable, may be unnecessarily expensive. People endlessly pursuing their cravings may even spend as much as a hundred dollars a day on food.

So the two kinds of desire are in frequent conflict. The more that human beings seek to gratify their desire for pleasure the more they destroy their true well-being. The principle applies not only to the consumption of food, but to all human activities, even to the use of technology. We must learn how to distinguish between the two kinds of desire and then reflect on them wisely.

The principle of desire leads us to the subject of value, because desire (or demand) creates value. The two-fold nature of desire creates two kinds of value, which may be termed as true, and artificial value. The true value of something is decided by its ability to meet the desire for well-being, artificial value by its capacity to gratify the desire for pleasure. In any one object, the true value will tend to be outweighed by an artificial value created out of craving and conceit. Desire for the sensually appealing, or for trendy things to serve as status symbols together with popular values and prejudices all crowd into our reckoning of the value of things.

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