When we stop feeding our cravings, says Thich Nhat Hanh, we discover that we already have everything we need to be happy.
The human mind is always searching for possessions and never feels fulfilled. This causes impure actions ever to increase. Bodhisattvas, however, always remember the principle of having few desires. They live a simple life in peace in order to practice the Way and consider the realization of perfect understanding as their only career.
The Buddha said that craving is like holding a torch against the wind; the fire will burn you. When someone is thirsty and drinks only salty water, the more he drinks, the thirstier he becomes. If we run after money, for example, we think that a certain amount of money will make us happy. But once we have that amount, it’s not enough; we think we need more. There are people who have a lot of money, but they are not happy at all. The Buddha said that the object of our craving is like a bone without flesh. A dog can chew and chew on that bone and never feel satisfied.
The Four Nutriments
The Buddha spoke of four kinds of nutriments, the four kinds of foods that we consume every day. Our happiness and suffering depend very much on whether what we consume is wholesome or unwholesome.
The First Nutriment: Edible Food
The first kind of nutriment is edible food—what we put into our mouth and chew, swallow, or drink. Most of us instinctively know what food is healthy for our bodies and what food isn’t, but we often choose not to think about it. Before eating, we can look at the food on the table and breathe in and out to see whether we are eating food that is making us healthy or making us sick. When we are away from home, whether we are eating a snack on the go, dining at an event, or grazing on something while at work, we can pause and decide to eat only the most nourishing food. This is mindful eating.
The Second Nutriment: Sensory Impressions
Sensory impressions are what we consume with our eyes, ears, nose, body, and mind. Television programs, books, movies, music, and topics of conversation are all items of consumption. They may be healthy or toxic. When we talk with a good friend or listen to a dharma talk, the seeds of compassion, understanding, and forgiveness are watered in us, and we are nourished. But an advertisement or film can touch the seed of craving in us and make us lose our peace and joy.
The Third Nutriment: Volition
The third kind of nutriment, volition, is also called aspiration or desire. Every one of us has a deep desire, and we are nourished by that desire. Without desire, we wouldn’t have the energy to live. That deepest desire can be wholesome or unwholesome. When Siddhartha left the palace to follow a spiritual path, he had a desire to practice and to become enlightened in order to help people suffer less. That desire was wholesome, because it gave him the energy to practice, to overcome difficulties, and succeed. But the desire to punish another person, to acquire wealth, or to succeed at the expense of others, is an unwholesome desire that brings suffering to everyone.
The Fourth Nutriment: Consciousness
Consciousness here means collective consciousness. We are influenced by the way of thinking and the views of other people in many ways. Individual consciousness is made of collective consciousness, and collective consciousness is made of individual consciousness.
More than two thousand years ago, the Buddha offered guidelines called the Five Wonderful Precepts to his lay students to help them live peaceful, wholesome, and happy lives.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen master, scholar, author, poet, and peace activist. He founded the Order of Interbeing, a community of monastics and laypeople with monasteries and practice centers around the world. He resides at his Plum Village Monastery in southern France.