The Hunger That Keeps This Whole Thing Going

A couple of months ago I once again hiked the trail that, earlier in the spring, had inspired me to compose that very ominous post: When Faith in the Earth Betrays Us. This time, though, it was an entirely different experience. The air was calm. The leaves were full, and various luscious shades of green. Sure enough, ample evidence remained of the circumstances that had prompted me to write that earlier post. Numerous fallen trees and limbs still blocked the trail. But there was also much more abundant evidence that life would not be subdued. Life, it seemed during this hike, was indomitable. In fact, life was so indomitable, it seemed that the entire forest was literally breathing as one. Yes, literally!

It started softly at first, almost inaudibly. The rhythmic rising and falling of sound became just barely perceptible only to disappear again amongst the chatter of birds and the rustling of leaves. When it returned it was a little bit louder, and distinctly like the sound of breathing echoing through the woods. What was it? I recalled how on a previous hike the sounds of the high school marching band practicing a good mile away up the road had managed to slip through the trees and flow down into the draws through which the trail wended. But this? This was breathing! Strong…, persistent…, breathing. It was almost as if the forest were one body, manifesting its being from breath to breath.

It wasn’t until I reached a spot overlooking the river that I realized what I’d been hearing. The crew of one of the replica longboats of the Lewis and Clark expedition was slowly and arduously, but methodically nonetheless, making its way up the swollen Missouri River – just as had been done over 200 years ago. The “breathing” that I was hearing was the coxswain calling out the strokes, and the crew, in turn, answering with coordinated, and articulated pulls on their oars.

Interesting, I thought to myself. Yes, it would be kind of cool to learn a little bit of what it must have been like for the original crew of the Corps of Discovery. But that’s an awful lot of work to go through, even for a short daytrip upstream just to see what it would be like. One would have to be pretty hungry for the experience in order to sign up for such a workout. And imagine how hungry the original crew must have been – for adventure, for escape, for answers, for fame, for meaning…

Buddhists will recognize hunger – or, variously, craving, thirst, or desire (tanha, in Pali) – as one of the links in the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination. The twelve-fold chain, you will recall, is a summary of the various teachings of the Buddha regarding how we cycle through our various incarnations, whether on a moment-to-moment or a lifetime-to-lifetime basis, as the case may be. Indeed, hunger prompts us to appropriate that which we crave, thereby making it our own – thereby making it who we are. Whether it is hunger for damp soil in which to root, hunger for warm sun to stretch our branches towards, hunger for juicy flesh in which to sink our teeth, or hunger for new horizons to explore – it is what makes the world what it is. Hunger keeps this whole thing going. See the conclusion of my blog series on the subject if you'd like to delve into it a little deeper:

Of course, if it is liberation from this endless cycle of suffering that we seek, then hunger is a very negative thing. It stands between us and our goal. But if we’re sick and in pain, or if death is reaching ever closer and we’re not yet ready to say goodbye, then hunger might just keep us alive. We might even be grateful for the hunger that prompted our doctor to learn enough about medicine to cure us – or, for those with a more cynical outlook, which prompted him or her to choose a career where they could make good money and have lots of prestige.

Paradoxically, at least from a Buddhist standpoint, hunger is both the cause of our further suffering and the nudge towards our liberation from it. After all, aren’t many of us just as hungry for liberation as many, many others are hungry for a cheeseburger? Do you recall the admonishment of the old Zen master to sit zazen as if your hair were on fire? Indeed, that is quite a craving for liberation! And aren’t there bodhisattvas out there who are hungry to save all beings from their suffering, hungry to end the injustices of this world that keep us all from achieving our highest potential – liberation, that is.

We’re all hungry for something. Whether it’s something from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or liberation from need altogether, we’re all hungry. Until such time as we can walk through the world like the Buddha walked with his empty bowl – neither yearning for it to be filled, nor yearning for it to remain empty that he might pass away forever from this samsaric realm – we remain hungry. The question that we all must answer to our own satisfaction regards the nature of our hunger. What is it that we crave, and why? How will the satisfaction of our hunger advance that which we value most? How does the hunger itself represent that which we value most? How will the satisfaction of our hunger change the world for better or worse? Indeed, it is hunger that keeps the whole thing going, but we humans do have some control over the objects of our hunger.   

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank


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