Awakening & Rotting Away

I’m having trouble understanding why the Buddha, or anyone who reaches enlightenment for that matter, would ever do anything at all. If all craving was truly uprooted, why would they teach, eat, even move? Why wouldn’t they just sit wherever they reached awakening and just rot away until they died, obviously it would be the most peaceful and profound rotting away ever, but still.

There’s compassion for all living beings, but isn’t teaching to help them still craving? The craving for them to suffer less. I’ve thought of 3 possiblities, and maybe one of these is right, or maybe I’m just not thinking of something. The first is cravingless compassion, and not just compassion, but cravingless motivation to act out of that compassion. The second is out of reverence, or respect for the Dhamma. The Buddha or arhat still revered the Dhamma even though craving is gone, and out of that respect, goes on and teaches. The third is that maybe the answer lies in a subtle understanding of suffering in beings that I can’t yet grasp because I haven’t uprooted my view of self yet, so instead of seeing beings suffering, an awakened mind only sees suffering, and although they have eliminated it in themselves, they don’t see “themselves” either, so there is no craving, and there is only emptiness, so somehow that paradigm inclines them toward teaching to lessen suffering elsewhere. I’m not sure how that last one really works, but it’s basically the idea that it somehow makes sense to go out and teach in the mind of an arhat even without any craving, and I just can’t understand the profound nature of something like that unless I’m closer to it.

So, not sure if anyone could help with this, but it’s been bothering me lately. The Buddha wasn’t going to teach because he didn’t think people could understand, but that just means if he knew right away, he would have never thought twice, so it seems innate and intrinsic to arhatship. Any thoughts?

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We don’t always -even the unenlightened- live in craving/aversion and delusion. We can act out of compassion and wisdom. Craving can become mixed with compassion- often there is a hidden motive for the compassionate act- like thinking of oneself as a ‘good person’ which is a bit conceited. Some people then go on to become driven by the image they have built for themselves via the compassionate role. This attachment to the ‘role’ can cause compassionate acts but also some degree of suffering. Suffering exists despite whether the Self-view is there or not. A person without Self view (sakkaya ditti) probably remembers what things were like when she had self view- and therefore knows what everyone else is going through. This would be why they would be compassionate.

I think the path is arduous (change is difficult, in most situations) and so it is likely someone would ‘think twice’. Its not the most appealing, attractive or saleable ‘product’, though some do try to focus on the pleasurable aspects. The thought ‘would this person be able to bear the burden of the cure’ is commonly asked, even in psychology nowadays.

with metta

We all have to work to make a living.
There is no exception for Buddha or Arahant.

The trouble might be in the concept of taṇhā (usually translated as craving). Elsewhere in the suttas the fully awakened state (nibbāna) is described as without lobha, dosa, and moha (often translated as greed, hatred, and delusion), this is an easier to understand definition imo. Add to that another way of understanding the contrast between the unawakened and awakened is between selfishness and selflessness.

Selfish qualities:

  • greed/lust
  • hatred/aversion
  • delusion/confusion

Selfless qualities:

  • generosity/gratitude
  • loving-kindness/compassion
  • wisdom

This is a very rough outline and the dhamma goes much deeper, but I think this way of conceptualizing might clear up some of the confusion about what craving and cessation are.

So wait, I might be totally misunderstanding the entire doctrine then. Is the ultimate goal to elimate craving, or only to eliminate greed, hatred, and delusion? So that any craving that remains completely unrelated to greed, hatred, or delusion is actually wholesome and fine. If this is true, then my view on awakening and arhatship needs a radical remodeling.

The desire for death or annihilation is also eradicated when one attains Nibbana. If there is an intention to bring about an early death by rotting away, then it implies that there is aversion in the mind regarding life. A mind that is free of both desire and aversion has attained an equilibrum that can’t be comprehended easily, but that is still the ultimate liberation. From the Loka Sutta:

Whatever contemplatives or brahmans say that liberation from becoming is by means of becoming, all of them are not released from becoming, I say.

And whatever contemplatives or brahmans say that escape from becoming is by means of non-becoming, all of them have not escaped from becoming, I say.


Yeah I see what you’re saying, but I’m sorry to say that still doesn’t do it for me. To me, that just sounds like rotting away again, because yes there is no desire for death, but the arhat wouldn’t be desiring death, death would just inevitably come. I still see a complete and utter lack of craving as resulting in total inaction. The only reason anyone does anything ever, is because they want to, for whatever reason, it is always the result of some form of desire. I mean obviously not, because that’s not what happens to arhats. So what I’m trying to figure out, is what could possibly drive someone to act without any craving at all.

@sujato I would love your take on this. What would move or drive us to act in anyway whatsoever if all craving was truly uprooted? Every answer I try to think of always ends with desire and craving in some form or another. Unless there can be a cravingless motivation of some kind, then I must be misunderstanding something.

Yes there is desire to end Samsara.

Intension (to do something) doesn’t always arise from desire or craving. It can arise from non-craving (alobha) and non-aversion (adosa) and non-delusion i.e. wisdom and compassion…
Alternatively it might help to think of what you mean by ‘desire’. I suspect you’ve included any and all kinds of volition in it. Arahanths aren’t avolitional. I understand they have functionality and live ‘normal’ lives among other monks, so much so that it isn’t obvious who they might be. Their thinking is just freed up from the burdens and drives of craving, aversion and delusion. It is true that they do not chase after worldly enterprises as that requires craving and conceit. But they are active in the sphere of the Dhamma - memorising, reciting, teaching etc.

Some other concepts that might help are kamma and chanda.

Chanda can be translated as desire, and can be used in a negative or positive context. It is actually used in a few instances among positive qualities to be developed within the scope of the Buddha’s dispensation, a desire to abandon negative qualities and to develop positive ones for instance.

Kamma is a huge subject. Relevant to the topic though, the awakened are said to generate no new kamma. I think here the meaning is no actions that come from self-view (arahatta is without the illusion of self).

To revisit taṇhā again, it literally means ‘thirst’ but figuratively means something like craving and unlike chanda it is always used in a negative sense in Buddhism (it is to be abandoned as the second of the Four Ennobling Tasks). It is sometimes divided into kāma, bhava, and vibhava taṇhā — thirsting/craving for sensuality, existence, and non-existence. All three of these kinds of craving keep one trapped in saṃsāra.

Anyway, this is a very hard question and one that the Buddha was especially cautious around. He never directly answered what the awakened state consisted of, almost always describing instead what was absent. It is something that must be beyond words, but at the same time he compassionately left behind lots of instruction on how to approach and develop the way toward such realization.

…There are also the paccekabuddha’s that come to awakening without ever having heard the dhamma and never teach, but they’re barely worth mentioning as they are apparently a very rare phenomena.

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Perhaps this is the difference between the Samma Sambuddha and the Pacceka Buddha. Even Gotama Buddha had some reluctance to teach Dhamma to the public at large. Then he got an invitation from Braham to teach Dhamma. Now the Arahants follow his foot step. It is a sign of enlightenment that the Arahant has compassion for all living beings.

The way I make sense of this puzzle is that once awakening eventuates the five kandhas carry on, by simple inertia, the momentum of the path factors which resulted in awakening itself.

To be more precise, most of the momentum should come from the path factor of right thought or resolve (samma sankappo), which is all about renunciation (nekkhamma), friendliness/loving kindness (metta) and non-violence/compassion (avihiṃsā) - see SN45.8. And of course the path factors of right speech, action and livelihood definitely shaped by the factor right resolve should explain the spiritual career of compassion and service that marked the years of compassionate leadership and guidance between Buddha’s awakening and his final parinibbana.

Last but not least, it is worth noting that the rotting away you mention seems to be exactly what happens to those usually called silent Buddhas (Pacceka Buddhas). I can’t find a source for that now but my understanding is that once awakened such beings simply sit and wait to die. This is for the strength of their merits is not as massive as the one of a Buddha who must have over eons and eons cultivated the qualities needed to result in a self-awakening event, in which a Buddha arises in the world and brings back to it the Dhamma. But I am unsure about how much of this mythos is or not supported by the earliest strata of the EBTs…

The way I understand it, the craving being talked about refers to the everyday urges that concern my false sense of self. “If I had a new Jaguar, my life would be better.” “That bowl of ice cream was good, so more would be even better.” It’s the mostly imaginary self trying to perpetuate itself. Once that is seen for what it is, those urges fall away. It doesn’t mean that I’ll cease to want to help people, or eat and exercise in order to stay alive, as that sort of motivation isn’t necessarily self-centered.


Many people forget that Brahama Vihara entails four aspects.
Metta, Karuna, Mudita and most important point in this case Upekkha.
Upekkha is the detaching from other three or balanced view.

Kiriya-citta is an abhidhammic concept. Is it found in the EBTs?

Craving, aversion and delusion are replaced by non-craving, non-aversion and non-delusion in the arahanth. However these are still the roots of wholesome kamma. I wonder how the EBTs make sense of this.

with metta

yes. it is called neither dark nor bright with a neither dark nor bright result.

Buddha classifies kamma into four groups:

dark with a dark result;
bright with a bright result;
dark and bright with a dark and bright result;
neither dark nor bright with a neither dark nor bright result.

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That would fit the requirement, that after becoming an arahant you either become monastic or die within 7 days. If one stopped eating and drinking, 7 days would be more than enough for the end to come.

This sutta was actually quite illuminating for me. It seems that when the Buddha spoke of extinguishing “craving” or “desire,” it was really meant in the context of these 3 things, resulting from a sense of self, however subtle. So it seems that craving/greed is only meant as acquisitive, wanting something for your “self,” and aversion or ill will is not wanting something for yourself. Delusion therefore, in this context, is the sense that there actually is yourself, that conceit or “I am.” So it seems that it is anatta which ultimately frees you. I feel as if this important point is often left untaught, and the main enemy is shown to be craving instead of the delusion of self. I mean that certainly changes things for me. That means that pure compassion, the desire for others well being, is totally fine, as well as it’s not rooted in any sense of self, and so doesn’t cause you suffering whether it happens or not. You desire their well being because you’re filled with metta, not because it affects you in any way. Maybe I don’t fully have a grasp on it yet, but I do think I’m headed in the right direction.


There are these four types of people found in the world. What four? Those who are concerned neither with their own good nor the good of others, those who are concerned with good of others but not their own, those concerned with their own good but not that of others, and those who are concerned with both their own good and the good of others. Just as a stick from a funeral pyre, burning at both ends and smeared with dung in the middle, serves no useful purpose as fuel in the village or as timber in the forest—using such a simile do I speak of those concerned neither with their own good nor the good of the others. Those concerned with the good of others but not their own are more excellent and higher than this. Those who are concerned with their own good but not that of others are more excellent and higher still. But those who are concerned with both their own good and the good of others—they are, of these four persons, the supreme, the highest the topmost and the best.

Chavālāta, AN 4.95