The Suffering of Need

In English, we have an unfortunate relationship with the word need. We may often hear something referred to as needed, when the thing described rather embodies only the present or prevailing means by which we meet an actual, often unnamed, need.

A need, rather, names only that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. The notion of biological needs, the biology of living beings, gives us our most familiar examples. We call food a need, for instance, but food embodies only the most prevailing means by which we meet the need of hunger. In other words, we may understand hunger as a need, i.e., that condition that must be met so that a given living being may continue to persist as a living being. That food embodies simply the most prevalent means for satisfying the need of hunger means further that we might meet that need of hunger with other means than food. Biologically—for mammals at least, including ourselves—we may name also the needs of thirst, environmental exposure, and fatigue also, which we generally meet with the prevailing means of water, clothing and shelter, and sleep. By referring to these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, I do not intend to offer an exhaustive list.

Since we experience these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion as unpleasant, as something we wish to avoid, but must continue to experience them in order to persist as living beings, then we may say that we need the suffering they entail. Without them, we would cease to exist as living beings. In this light, we may understand how Thầy Nhất Hạnh insists, “We need suffering” (30). We may see how our embodiment in this life, which seems to require this kind of biological suffering in order to persist, makes suffering a prerequisite for the condition opposite of suffering, which we might call happiness or peace.

Being > Biology

For human beings, as one species amongst the many within the counsels of species, what constitutes our human lifedoes not arise from our biology. Experiencing everything through our perceptions, our perceptions define what we deem reality. A living being without self-awareness will have no body, no brain, not even any world or environment in the sense that we experience it. For us to speak specifically of biological needs, then, already emanates not from any physical reality of the world but from our way of conceptualising our experience of it.

Since a need denotes that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue, inour human experience we not only name under a category of biology such needs as hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, but also many other needs; Thầy Nhất Hạnh specifically combines the biological and the non-biological when he writes, “Love, respect, and friendship all need food to survive” (9).

One will find few who would object to the notion that human beings—if not all sovereign, living beings—need love, respect, and friendship. But again, we see love, respect, and friendship not as needs but rather the present or prevailing means by which we meet some actual, as yet still unnamed, need. I notice that it does not clarify thinking to imagine food as the opposite of hunger; rather, food embodies a prevailing means by which the need of hunger gets met. So just as the necessity of food meets the need of hunger, then we might ask as well what the necessities of love, respect, and friendship meet the needs of.

To address only one example, we may see that friendship meets a need of separation. Since we cannot have the experience of existing as individuals if we do not experience some reality of apartness or distinction that sets us apart from all other people and living beings, then separation or apartness describes a condition that be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. If we ceased to exist in our separateness, then we as a living being would no longer exist. However, as also with hunger, the unpleasantness of this experience of separation or apartness—this absolute isolation from all others—along with our desire to avoid the on-going state of the experience of that, makes friendship (or togetherness or community) a present or prevailing means by which that need of separation, isolation, apartness gets met.

One might elaborate a long list of non-biological human things—for example, love, respect, friendship, fairness, cooperation, compassion, recognition, &c—that we would incorrectly call needs, since these things embody rather the present or prevailing means for meeting some as yet still unnamed need. But in all cases, however one builds such a list, the experience of the unpleasantness of those needs and our desires to avoid experiencing the state of them points again to the sense of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30) if we would attain its opposite: happiness or peace.

However, I would further emphasise that any so-called “biological” needs do not differ in kind at all from these otherwise “non-biological” needs.

A living system self-aware or not that fails to meet the need of hunger disintegrates; the organisation of its life as an organism falls apart and it ceases to have being. Conventionally, we say it dies. In the same way, for self-aware living beings, if one fails to meet the need of separation, the organisation of its life as a living being also falls apart and it ceases to have existence. We sometimes metaphorically say people die of loneliness, but sometimes this happens literally as well.

Moreover, whatever importance I accord my conceptualisation of my biology, that conceptualisation itself already represents a “non-biological” value. Thus, when someone gives me food to eat—when someone meets my need of hunger with the necessity of food—I say we might more clearly understand this not in terms of biology but, rather non-biologically, as meeting the need of separation with friendship.

Someone might object, “Why only the need of separation? Why not also the need of hunger?”

I intend to erase here the false distinction of the biological as somehow prior to human existence or simply more important. Instead of “one does not live by bread alone,” I would say, “one does not live by bread at all; one only persists.”

But further, that I should cease to have being “biologically” does not end my life—it ends only my experience of that life. Whatever role our human imagining of biology plays in the shaping of our lives—and it plays a considerable role, one assumes—it describes neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for understanding the character or experience of self-aware life. When I die, my life continues in the lives of other living beings; the framework of “biology” cannot explain this aspect of human experience, an experience shared by other living beings who express grief over the death of another, for instance.

For the experience of a self-aware life, then, the qualities of difference one may identify between different needs (like hunger or separation) have felt consequences, but do not finally rise to a difference in kind. In other words, one perhaps may not ultimately find a satisfying distinction of difference between the so-called “biological” and “non-biological” needs of self-aware living beings.

To make this more starkly dramatic, rather than speaking of a need for hunger, one might describe the need for starvation in human experience. It seems no accident or coincidence that one of the riders of the Apocalypse has the name Famine, not Hunger. Or again, people in prison and in poverty and in alienating workplaces may receive food and yet feel (correctly) that they have ceased to live. Or yet again, like those on hunger strikes who specifically refuse to meet the need of hunger with food, they may yet feel (correctly) that their life, perhaps for the first time, has at last attained significance and meaning. At the end of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton reflects on his impending (and voluntary) execution as giving for the first time a weight and significance to his otherwise wasted life.

In all of this, we may understand all human needs as the needs of self-aware living beings, and refuse to misleadingly distinguish between biological and non-biological needs and the means that meet those needs. Such a view remains resonant with Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30)—we need the human experience of hunger and separation, thirst and loneliness, &c. In the case of all such human needs, the unpleasantness of the experience of those needs as well as our desire to avoid those experiences, points to the (human) need of suffering Thầy Nhất Hạnh identifies; an experience we then either meet with the present and prevailing means that meet that need or fail too and experience the disintegration of the organisation of our lives, i.e., we die or cease to exist.

In the same way that if we cease to experience hunger this in all likelihood means that we have died, then more generally if we cease to suffer, then this in all likelihood means we have stopped humanly living.


mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni – never commit violence to anyone

नमस्ते. Namasté. “I bow to the divine within you, and am grateful for your presence.”

In The Art of Communicating, Zen teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh says that “when we listen to someone with the intention of helping that person suffer less, this is deep listening” (42). One must “take the time to look and see the suffering in the other person” (44), and to say to yourself as you listen, “I am listening to this person with only one purpose: to give this person a chance to suffer less” (44).

I honour to remember this as I comment on what he has written about suffering. And I remember also verses 62 and 63 in chapter 2 of the Bhāgavad-Gītā, where Kṛṣṇa offers a detailed description of the origin of suffering. I give this below with the hope that you may as well savour the beauty of the original Sanskrit script, the strangeness—for those, like myself, who cannot read Sanskrit—of an encounter with its transliteration into the Roman alphabet, and also the insight offered by one of its translations into English of the sequence Kṛṣṇa identifies as the source of suffering, how it comes about:



dhyāyato viṣayān puṁsah saṅgas teṣūpajāyate
saṅgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ kāmāt krodho ‘bhijāyate
krodhād bhavati saṁmohaḥ saṁmohāt smṛti-vibhramaḥ
smṛti-bhraṁśād buddhi-nāśo buddhi-nāśāt praṇaśati

While contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops;
from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger;
from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory
from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence
and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

Thầy Nhất Hạnh—the word thầy suggests an honoured teacher in Vietnamese—writes that “we need suffering” (30, emphasis in original), and adds further:

Understanding suffering always brings compassion. If we don’t understand suffering, we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of suffering, we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need suffering to grow happiness. The fact is that suffering and happiness always go together. When we understand suffering, we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle suffering, we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness (31).

The purpose of my commentary in this essay aims to respond to the points made here by Thầy Nhất Hạnh, endeavouring as I do to remember to listen for the suffering in his writing, that I might make him suffer less.