According to the teachings of Buddhism, human beings are born in a state of ignorance. Ignorance is lack of knowledge, and it is this lack of knowledge that causes problems in life. That human beings are born with ignorance, and are troubled by it right from birth, is obvious when observing the plight of a newborn baby, who cannot talk, look for food or even feed itself.
Ignorance is a real limitation in life; it is a burden, a problem. In Buddhism this burden is called dukkha or suffering. Because human beings are born with ignorance, they do not really know how to conduct their lives. Without the guidance of knowledge or wisdom, they simply follow their desires, struggling at the directives of craving to stay alive in a hostile world. In Buddhism this blind craving is called tanha.
Tanha means craving, ambition, restlessness, or thirst. It arises dependent on feeling and is rooted in ignorance. Whenever a sensation of any kind is experienced, be it pleasing or displeasing -- such as a beautiful or ugly sight, or a pleasant or unpleasant sound -- it is followed by a feeling, either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Tanha arises in correspondence with the feeling: if the feeling is pleasant, there will be a desire to hold onto it; if the feeling is unpleasant, there will be a desire to escape from or destroy it; if the feeling is neutral, there will be a subtle kind of attachment to it. These reactions are automatic, they do not require any conscious intention or any special knowledge or understanding. (On the contrary, if some reflection does interrupt the process at any time, tanha may be intercepted, and the process rechanneled into a new form.)
Because tanha so closely follows feeling, it tends to seek out objects which will provide pleasant feelings, which are basically the six kinds of pleasant sense objects: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily feelings and mental objects. The most prominent of these are the first five, known as the five sense pleasures. The six sense objects, and particularly the five sense pleasures, are the objects that tanha seeks out and fixes onto. In this context, our definition of tanha might be expanded on thus: tanha is the craving for sense objects which provide pleasant feeling, or craving for sense pleasures. In brief, tanha could be called wanting to have or wanting to obtain.
The way tanha works can been seen in the basic need for food. The biological purpose of eating is to nourish the body, to provide it with strength and well-being. Supplanted over this biological need is the desire for enjoyment, for delicious tastes. This is tanha. At times, the desire of tanha may be at odds with well-being, and may even be detrimental to the quality of life. If we are overwhelmed by tanha when we eat, rather than eating for the purpose of nourishing the body and providing it with well-being, we eat for the experience of the pleasant taste. This kind of eating knows no end and can lead to problems in both body and mind. The food may be delicious, but we may end up suffering from indigestion or obesity. On a wider scale, the social costs of overconsumption, such as depletion of natural resources and costs incurred by health care, not to mention crime, corruption and wars, are enormous.
Modern economics and Buddhism both agree that mankind has unlimited wants. As the Buddha said, "There is no river like craving." [Dh.186] Rivers can sometimes fill their banks, but the wants of human beings can never be filled. Even if money were to fall from the skies like rain, man's sensual desires would not be satisfied. [Dh.251] The Buddha also said that even if one could magically transform one single mountain into two mountains of solid gold it would still not provide complete and lasting satisfaction to one person. [S.I.117] There are numerous teachings in the Buddhist tradition describing the unlimited nature of human want. Here I would like to relate a story that appears in the Jataka Tales. [J.II.310]
In the far and ancient past there lived a king called Mandhatu. He was a very powerful ruler, an emperor who is known in legend for having lived a very long life. Mandhatu had all the classic requisites of an emperor; he was an exceptional human being who 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 Mandhatu 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 that could transport him anywhere he wished to go. So King Mandhatu used it to take him to the Heaven of the Four Great Kings. The Four Great Kings came out to welcome him in person, and on learning of his desire, invited him to take over the whole of their heavenly realm.
King Mandhatu 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 Tavatimsa Heaven realm. So King Mandhatu picked up his magic wheel and ascended to the Tavatimsa Heaven, where he was greeted by its ruler, Lord Indra, who promptly made him a gift of half of his kingdom.
King Mandhatu ruled over the Tavatimsa 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 life-span. In all, thirty-six Lord Indras came and went, while King Mandhatu carried 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 Mandhatu began to plot to kill Lord Indra and depose him. But it is impossible for a human being to kill Lord Indra, because humans cannot kill heavenly beings, and so his wish went unfulfilled. King Mandhatu's inability to satisfy this craving began to rot the very root of his being, and caused the aging process to begin.
Suddenly he fell out of Tavatimsa Heaven, down to earth, where he landed in an orchard with a resounding thump. When the workers in the orchard saw that a great king had arrived, some set off to inform the Palace, and others improvised a makeshift throne for him to sit on. By now King Mandhatu was on the verge of death. The Royal Family came out to see and asked if he had any last words. King Mandhatu proclaimed 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 Mandhatu ends. It shows how Buddhism shares with economics the view that the wants of humanity are endless.