Tuesday, September 01, 2009

In Defense of Desire

"Never let go of that fiery sadness called desire"
-- Patti Smith

A central tenet of Buddhism is that tanha, the Pali word translated as thirst, craving or desire, leads inevitably to unhappiness and suffering. For Christians, sin does much the same. The solution proposed by the Buddha was to renounce tanha. For monks in both religions, this means a radical turning away from the things of the world; the temptation of desire or sin is everywhere. Lay followers of Jesus and the Buddha are left to interpret these teachings in ways that enable them to live productive and satisfying lives within the context of their faith. I believe, contrary to accepted spiritual wisdom, that desire is an essential part of what makes us human, and the attempt to escape it can be a form of nihilism.

Phra Cittamasvaro presented the case for "What's Wrong with Sense Desire" last week during the fourth in a series of talks to English speakers in Bangkok curious about Buddhist teaching. Acknowledging that advocating giving up sense desire is a "hard sell," the British monk, known to his friends as Pandit Bhikku, proposed restraining the senses (in Buddhist thought there are six, including the mind) rather than renouncing them all through ascetic practices. This soft approach means "you are not trying to live your whole life without any sense pleasures. It is ok to enjoy nice food, good company or stroking your pet cat." Refined desires (for Picasso and Mozart, et al) and aspirations (i.e., for enlightenment) escape the net of prohibition. But if some desires can be approved, what is the standard for identifying "bad" desires? Perhaps it is not tanha that brings suffering but the object to which it is attached; or, more likely, the delusion that the satisfaction of desire might be permanent.

Using several suttas from the Theravada tradition to illustrate his point, Pandit prowled around the edges of desire and asked his listeners to seek the happiness that comes from freedom from craving. "Getting what you want is not good," since it leads to overdosing on sugar, fat, guilt, etc. "Insight comes when you're willing to give things up," he said. "Getting what is good is what you should want." The kind of renunciation he suggested took place during meditation rather than in the world. This brings a happiness superior to sense pleasures "which are really only a temporary cover for a deeper discomfort in the heart. Mindfulness brings more peace than getting what you want."

All well and good. It is certainly true that we are attached to our sense pleasures and avoid the unpleasant via an inventive and endless quest for distraction. We want happiness to last forever and suffering to remain stillborn. This, on any account, is impossible. Our desires "slightly exceed our ability to fulfill them," Pandit gently noted. You can't always get what you want (or even what you need), but is it possible, as Buddhism seems to advocate, that you can get rid of wanting?

And why would we want to do that? Without desires, without wanting anything (even happiness) we are dead. Desire is the lack and the hope that impels us to act. It is the longing or appetite for something which does not yet exist. Powered by energy and will, desire motivates us to complete that which is only yet imagined. It led our ancestors to multiply and come out of the sea where they formed communities and discerned what was edible and what was not. I am not arguing that all objects of desire are equal or that their achievement (like the invention of agriculture) cannot have dire consequences. But I am agreeing with philosophers like Hobbes who said the "fundamental motivation of all human action is the desire for pleasure," and with Spinoza that "desire is the essence of man." Bertrand Russell thought "all human activity is prompted by desire," and Montaigne said "desire and hope will push us on toward the future."

Desire seems inseparable from thought, so maybe we should just give up thinking. In the Rig Veda we hear, "Thought gives rise to desire." During his talk, Pandit spoke of the streams of data that come from the senses, and how thoughts are always ongoing. The mind follows after them, he said, and he advised us to observe our thoughts in meditation rather than become caught up in their content. In an earlier talk in the current series, Pandit cautioned that "thinking will get you in trouble." Many people have the idea that in meditation thoughts stop, or else flail about harmlessly. My own experience is that it is impossible while conscious not to think, and the most I can do is change the subject of the my thoughts, relentlessly.

The Tao of Lao-Tzu says that "there is no calamity greater than lavish desire," and suggested:
Reduce selfishness
Have few desires
I interpret this to mean that our desires should be moderate. Live simply is advice more acceptable to me than stop thinking or give up desires. The Buddha renounced home and family and taught his monks to do the same. Although he taught the Middle Way between sensual indulgence and ascetic denial, it's difficult to reframe for a lay audience his rigorous teaching appropriate for monks without cutting corners. In a traditional Buddhist country like Thailand, there is a patriarchal and clerical attitude that the body is bad, particularly if it involves sexual relations (or even touching). Although individual monks and teachers like Pandit Bhikku may soften the blow by offering the carrot of enlightenment to all, the very existence of the Sangha of monks proclaims that, just as for Catholic priests and nuns, this is the better path. Only the truly dedicated can become free of desire and thoughts.

The effect of this flight from the body as the seat of desire is to declare that the goal of enlightenment is beyond or within, somewhere else rather than in the bloomin' buzzin' confusion of the world where we all live. For Christians, salvation comes in heaven. This favors the neglect of social and political problems (unless by a slight of hand the enlightened one becomes the savior, but that is usually only in northern Buddhism ). When Buddhism becomes otherworldly, it resembles the Catholicism of punishment and reward that I left behind in America. By denigrating the pleasures brought by the senses, we demean the transient value of marveling at a beautiful sunset, the scent of cookies baking, the taste of mango, the sounds of a moving sonata or rock opera, and the love between two people that delights in physical expression. When restraint leads to renunciation, we not only withdraw from life but we exult in its denial. This is nihilism.

I apologize if I have used and abused Pandit's teaching on desire to climb atop my own soap box. In my limited understanding of the Dhamma as passed down from the Buddha over the centuries, I have found a helpful and useful way to look at the world and my place in it. In the process I have had to test and prune various teachings of of what I see as harmful and misleading accretions. I recall that Fr. Bede Griffiths edited the Psalms for his ashram in India by removing violent and bloodthirsty passages that exalted in the conquering of Canaan. Here in Thailand I've gotten help from the writings of Buddhadasa Bhikku who attempted to purge Thai Buddhism of superstition and ritualism. For him, there was no particular benefit in being a monk if your goal was enlightenment, and, along with his disciple Sulak Sivaraksa, he taught the wisdom of an engaged Buddhism in the world where enlightened action is sorely needed.

All of this is my way of struggling by means of words and ideas to understand who I am and what I must do, a task which began as I recall when I was a teenager. I have pursued mystical insight in "the cloud of unknowing," and I've sought the wisdom that surpasses understanding. Resisting gurus and unable to shed a persistent skepticism about all established truths, I've stumbled from flying saucers to Theosophy, and through the New Age into the postmodern period where grand narratives are no longer acceptable. The thought that I cannot see the promised land that others see is a lingering frustration, but I'm thankful for the steps I've taken. Buddhism has taught me to question the very reality of "me," while Christian activists have shown convincingly that the Gospel message must be lived through service in this world to others. The time is now, in this present moment, and it takes place with love and compassion. Without any desire for the Truth, would I have gotten this far?


Janet Brown said...

"By denigrating the pleasures brought by the senses, we demean the transient value of marveling at a beautiful sunset, the scent of cookies baking, the taste of mango, the sounds of a moving sonata or rock opera, and the love between two people that delights in physical expression."--This is the kernel of what keeps me from pursuing the practice of Buddhism--or can we as you say savor the transience of everything in the realm of the senses and then let it go--whether it's music or someone we love or our own physical power?

Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

Great post, great questions, so well written! Thank you.

I've also struggled with this one. If desires lead to suffering and the way to end suffering is to end desires, then that sounds like a very nihilistic practice indeed.

But, you know, desires DO lead to suffering. We are dragged around by desires, made to do stupid things by desire, act in destructive ways under the impulse of desire.

So what the Buddha said, as far as I understand it, is to take a step back and watch those desires! Rather than chase them, watch them. Watch them arise, complain and nag (desires do complain and nag a lot in my experience!) and eventually pass away.

And if, in the course of your observation, you see that some of these desires are worth acting on, then you can act on them. But YOU are in control of the desire - not the other way around.

Here's some reading, from an excellent blog, published just today that might help...


Oh, and by the way, I'm pretty sure the Buddha was a big fan of Aspiration, and Appreciation. Things quite separate from desire.

All the very best,


Unknown said...

Maybe it's right at the point of cognition where this whole perceived notion of a so-called self having desires only just seems to exist or feels like it does anyway(got a sense of self anyone?)... and that by being mindful and less self-ish, all desires, as well as every other tendency, would get into balanced harmony with everything else(and everybody else). The problem is that nowadays there are so many fabricated desires that were not around in the time of the Buddha...

Plato: To do is to be.

Aristotle: To be is to do.

Sinatra: Do be do be do.

GeNial said...

Hi Will,
just found you while surfing on Shantivanam. Remember the redhaired german woman December 2007?It´s me!!! When I read your blogs from India and Thailand I get a very big desire to travel again. What can I do?

The best for you