May Message From Venerable Marut

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Bad Desire, Good Desire, The Desire, No Desire

The Buddha, just after declaring in his first “noble truth” that life is shot through with suffering, said that there’s a reason for our unhappiness:

This is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.

The Buddha went on to state that the third truth entails “the cessation of suffering: it is the complete fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.” And then in the fourth truth, the Buddha outlined a path for the cessation of suffering and “that same craving” that brings suffering to us.

While in the Mahayana scriptures it is usually ignorance (avidya) that is targeted as the root cause of our suffering, in the early Pali texts of the Buddhist canon it is quite clearly desire or “craving” (the Sanskrit is tanha, “thirst”) that is identified as THE problem.   Craving, as the passage above indicates, is subdivided into three kinds.  The first is the “craving for sensual desires” (kama tanha), the constant hunger for more titillations – dinner at the new Thai restaurant, a new iPad, another holiday to a Lonely Planet destination, more and different sexual escapades.  But the Buddha also talked about the “craving for existence” (bhava tanha), the longing for more life itself that throws into rebirth after rebirth.  Lastly, there is the “craving for extermination” (vibhava tanha), meaning both the nihilistic death-wish for oblivion but also perhaps the wish for nirvana (remembering that Nagarjuna himself pointed out that the grasping to nirvana is just another kind of grasping that precludes freedom).

The Hindu scriptures tend to agree with the Buddhists in declaring desire to be not only bad but Public Enemy Number One.  In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna plaintively poses a question any practitioner has had at one time or another:  “What compels a person, seemingly against his will, to do wrong things as if commanded by an outside power?”  Lord Krishna replies like this:

Know it is desire (kama) and anger (krodha). . .that is the real enemy here, voracious and very evil. . . . Wisdom is obscured by the perpetual enemy of the wise that comes in the form of desire, Arjuna, as insatiable as fire.  It is said to reside in the senses, the mind, and the understanding, and through these it obscures wisdom and bewilders the embodied self.  Therefore you should restrain your senses and so forth, Arjuna, and then vanquish this evil, the destroyer of wisdom and knowledge. ((3.36-37, 39-41)

Tapping into a common metaphor that compares desire to fire – all-consuming and insatiable, we “burn” with desire — the Gita echoes the Buddha in spotlighting both sensual and mental dissatisfaction and longing as the primary cause of our unhappiness.  The text goes on to note that anger or hatred (krodha) is actually a derivative mental affliction: it is only when our desire is thwarted that anger arises.  It is, therefore, ultimately desire that lies behind and fuels all other mental afflictions and the unhappiness they bring.

Desire also appears in the list of the Seven Deadly Sins of the Christian in several forms (“lust,” “gluttony,” and “avarice”) and is problematic in Judaism and Islam as well.  There seems to be a general agreement that our incessant and voracious yearning is antithetical to our well-being.

In a way, the observation that desire thwarts happiness is sort of obvious.  Desire is, of course, the opposite of contentment and the latter is what would I call “entry-level happiness.”  “It is the nature of desire not to be satisfied,” wrote Aristotle, “and most men live only for the gratification of it.”   Otherwise put, we suffer because we always want things to be different than how they are.  We are afflicted by two forms of discontentment: we wish for things we don’t have (raga), and we wish we didn’t have things we do have (dvesha).

We suffer, in sum, due to our perpetual dissatisfaction with life as it is.  Nirvana, from this point of view, is the end of desire in the sense of the radical and totalistic acceptance of reality itself.

But it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that there seems to be a problem built into this equation of desire = suffering.  For what would motivate our quest for deep-seated contentment and happiness if not a desire for that very state?  Desire may lead to suffering, but isn’t it also what inspires us toward the termination of suffering?

Indeed, in the same Buddhist texts that excoriate desire we read how important “attraction,” “will” or “volition” are in one’s spiritual practice.  These English terms are all possible translations of the Sanskrit word canda – and surely are all just variants of “desire.” In Master Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life we read that “attraction (canda) is the root of all goodness” and only a fool would want to cast aside the desire for and attraction to the Dharma (7.39-40).  “Will” or “determination” is listed as one of the powers one must marshal for engendering the strong effort needed for success in the spiritual life:

Eliminate then what acts against us;

Work hard to use the various forces

Of will, confidence, joy, and also

Leaving off, and being engaged, and the

Feeling of self-command, in order

To increase your capacity for effort. (7.32)

So the problem is this:  How can we end desire and achieve peace if we don’t desire the end of desire and the state of peace?  How can the termination of desire be the goal when we must rely on desire to reach that (or any) goal?

One way to overcome this apparent contradiction is to divide out “ignorant” or “bad” desire from “wise” or “good” desire.  Ignorant desire is the real culprit, and we are ignorant about desire in different ways.  We are, first of all, ignorant about the object of desire.  We suffer because we think desirable things are desirable in themselves – the food we find tasty seems to have delectable qualities in it; the person we perceive to be so attractive appears to us objectively and obviously appealing; the money and things we crave and work so hard to obtain have inherently, we believe, the power to bring us happiness.  When the thing or person lets us down by showing us that they never intrinsically had the ability to bring us the long-lasting satisfaction we seek in them, we are disappointed (again) and suffer (again) and (again) seek satisfaction in some other object we think will make us happy.

Ignorance about the objects of desire is bound up with ignorance about the changing nature of reality.  Desirable things do not have a “self” or “essence” of being objectively desirable (they are anatman or “without essence”) and (or you could also say, because) they are not stable entities (they are anitya or “impermanent”).  The moment when we get the things we desire the process of losing them begins: they begin to wear out, break, die, or we begin to weary of them.  In one way or another, changing things lose their appeal.

So we suffer because we are ignorant about the nature of the objects we desire.  From another point of view, the problem with desire involves our ignorance about how we obtain the objects we desire.  We think, ignorantly and in a way that is designed to cause us trouble, that to obtain desirable things we need to try to get them before others do.  We act as though we’re playing a zero-sum game where if someone else gets something before we do it means we won’t be getting it at all.  We selfishly desire things and then pursue selfish means to try to satisfy our desire.  When we ignorantly desire things in this way, we quickly forget what we know about karma. We pursue what we want not remembering that we get what we desire only if we help others get what they desire first.

Here is the key to unraveling the Gordian knot of desire: we can (wisely and selflessly) use desire to overcome (ignorant and selfish) desire.  The “good” desire gradually replaces the bad.  We wisely desire goals without misunderstanding the nature of those goals (i.e., we realize the emptiness of the objects we desire), and we intelligently go about reaching those goals by utilizing the only really effective method, karma.  We get what we want by making sure that others get what they want.

So far so good.

But this “wise” use of desire involves its own paradox: in order to achieve our own desire we must renounce our own selfish desire and first try to fulfill the desire of others.  This, in turn, creates the causes for the fulfillment of our own desire — which we renounced in the first place.  Desire for the fulfillment of the other’s desire is used to overcome one’s selfish desire which, in any case, doesn’t work to obtain the object of one’s desire.

Desire, then, is fulfilled only by being relinquished.  This is, after all, the very principle of karma: you get what you want when you don’t want it enough to be able to give it to someone else first. Karmic law is based on the principle of sacrifice — of giving up in order to get back.  You must give to receive; the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

In Buddhism, there are techniques to train us to “jujitsu” desire in this way.  We have, for example, the practice of “equalizing and exchanging self for others.”  In the 8th chapter of Master Shantideva’s Guide, he basically says, “Look, stop trying to overcome desire.  It’s too hard.  Rather than fight this enormous power, cultivate it!  That’s right.  Desire away!  Just stop being ‘you.’  Be someone else and then work hard to fulfill ‘your’ (i.e., the other’s) desires.”  It can be a little confusing, but the technique is sound: you will get what you want when you stop wanting it for yourself and want it for others.

This, so far, is wisdom regarding the methods for obtaining the objects of desire.  But we have also seen that we are ignorant about the nature of the objects of desire.  We wrongly see them as essentially desirable; we think the desirable qualities of desirable objects are in the objects themselves.  One obvious proof that the desirable qualities of, say, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream can’t be in the object is that not everyone likes Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.  Another proof is that if the desirable qualities were in the ice cream, the more ice cream we consumed the happier we’d get.  As many of us know through our own scientific experimentation, at some point (around the second or third pint) the once-desirable ice cream somehow turns into a nausea-producing substance.

Understanding the emptiness of the ice cream (the fact that the desirable qualities I see in the ice cream are not coming from the ice cream) is one main corrective to ignorance about the objects of desire.  But another method involves the transference of desire from objects like ice cream that are “impure” (in the sense of incapable of bringing the true happiness we are seeking in them) to a “pure” object.  As it is said in a text written by Master Ngulchu Dharma Bhadra, “To be attracted to something impure is stupid desire, but to be attracted to something pure is devotion.”

So what would count as a “pure” object of desire or devotion?  Enlightenment itself – the end of all suffering, perfect happiness, and the ability to help all living beings in just the right way.  It is bodhicitta, the wish (i.e., desire) to obtain Buddhahood, which is the only truly pure and beneficial desire we can have.

Think of it like this:  All desires are forms of THE desire.  When we desire ice cream, a new iPad, a vacation in Jamaica, or companionship with an attractive partner, what we really want is the true happiness we think those objects will deliver to us.  We really want the deep-seated contentment and joy that only enlightenment can bring us.  We’re all just looking for bliss, but we’re looking for it in all the wrong places.

Cultivating THE desire motivates us to do the meritorious activities that will actually bring us what we truly do desire.  In fact, as it is said in the Guide (1.5-8), it is the only desire capable of overcoming our “bad” desires, the ones that lead us to vice rather than to virtue:

Just as lightning illuminates the darkness of a cloudy night for an instant, in the same way, because of the inspiration of the Buddha, occasionally people’s minds are momentarily inclined toward merit.

Thus, virtue is always feeble while the power of vice is great and very dreadful. If there were not something called the wish for enlightenment, what other virtue would overcome it?

The Lords of Sages, who have been contemplating for many eons, have seen this alone as a blessing by which happiness is easily increased and immeasurable multitudes of beings are rescued.

Those who long to overcome the abundant miseries of life, who wish to dispel the adversities of sentient beings, and who yearn to experience a myriad of joys should never forsake the wish for enlightenment.

We are thus enjoined to cultivate the wish for enlightenment, a state which will finally make it possible for us to fulfill both our own and others’ deepest needs and desires.  We are encouraged not to repudiate desire but rather to want to obtain this highest object of desire . . . and want it bad!  If we have any version of a real bodhicitta, we become obsessed with achieving enlightenment as soon as possible and by any means necessary.  The wish for enlightenment entails engendering a desire that will overwhelm all other desires.  All desires collapse and are subsumed within THE desire.

But when it comes to real bodhicitta, the snake again eats its tail: one who truly has this overweening wish for enlightenment realizes that the method for reaching it requires the end of one’s own selfish desires in favor of the welfare of others.  The life of a bodhisattva is one of complete altruism and selflessness as other people’s desire for happiness takes precedence over one’s own.

And one final twist.  The wish for enlightenment ultimately requires the sacrifice of itself.  One must, finally, abandon even the desire for enlightenment if one is to attain enlightenment, the culmination and end of all desires.  We must finally abandon the “spiritual materialism” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche warned against:

“We have many expectations, especially if we seek a spiritual path and involve ourselves with spiritual materialism.  We have the expectation that spirituality will bring us happiness and comfort, wisdom and salvation.  This literal, ego-centric way of regarding spirituality must be turned completely upside down.  Finally, if we give up all hope of attaining any sort of enlightenment, then at that moment the path begins to open.”

The end of desire thus calls for even the renouncing of the desire for the end of desire; it entails perfect contentment with things as they are.   “Do not try to become anything,” advises Ajhan Chah.

Do not make yourself into anything.

Do not be a meditator.

Do not become enlightened.

When you sit, let it be.

When you walk, let it be.

Grasp at nothing.

Resist nothing.

In summary, we can say that the spiritual life unfolds like this:  We first recognize bad desire as bad, i.e., as the cause of our suffering.  We then, out of a kind of enlightened self-interest, replace it with good desire – the desire for the welfare and happiness of others – realizing that this is the only way we ever get what we desire anyway.  We then enhance and grow this good desire until we recognize it as THE desire, the wish to achieve perfect enlightenment so as to perfectly fulfill our own and others’ true desire.  But we simultaneously root out any remnant of selfish or bad desire by eliminating them from our wish to be enlightened.  We purify our bodhicitta when we “grasp at nothing” – including the enlightenment we so fervently wish for.

So desire happiness. . . for others.  Desire enlightenment. . . by not wanting anything for oneself, including enlightenment.  Nirvana will come when we stop grasping to and craving for things, including nirvana.  Enlightenment will dawn on us when, having absorbed and concentrated all desires into THE desire, we stop yearning for even it.

Desire the end of desire, and then end the desire for the end of desire.

Practice contentment for yourself while strongly desiring the fulfillment of others’ desires.

Beat desire at its own game.

With all good wishes,


1 comment on “May Message From Venerable Marut”

  1. Thank You, Holy Lama. Please stay, please stay, please stay and keep teaching.


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