Thursday, September 27, 2007

Self on a Hot Tin Roof

Desire is the hot tin roof of Tennessee Williams' play. Only instead of cats leaping around, it is the chimera of the self that steps lively from one desire to the other, ever seeking happiness and never fully satisfied. This is the picture that Phra Cittasamvaro painted in the fifth of his six talks at the Baan Aree Library in Bangkok this week. (My choice of illustration is the "Allegory of Gluttony and Lust" by Hieronymus Bosch.)

Pandit gave a nuanced view of tanha, the Pali word for desire or craving, which, in his Second Noble Truth, the Buddha said was the cause of dukkha, or suffering. The problem, as Pandit tried to point out, is that not all desire, in a broad sense, is bad. Aspiration, for example, is the form of desire that motivates the search for enlightenment or that seeks loving kindness for all creation. How can we distinguish between desire that enslaves and desire that liberates?

In the Sakkapanha Sutta, the Buddha dialogues with Sakka, a manifestation of the divinity Indra (who is called "Ruler of the Gods") and tells him that desire "arises from thinking… when the mind thinks about something, desire arises; when the mind thinks about nothing, desire does not arise." This seems not very helpful because, as biological creatures, born to live briefly and then die, part of our nature, due to an active brain, is to think. Non-thinking is for those with prefrontal lobotomies.

Desire causes suffering, Pandit reminded us, but he said that, as with all of the Buddha's teachings, this needs to be investigated. "The Buddha says what to look at, not what to do." The dhamma, from this perspective, seems to me not so much a recipe as a road map. It does not offer a prescription for every illness, but rather it helps us to become physicians.

Cognition keeps slipping away, Pandit said. It's hard to keep the mind on topic. But this instability of mind does not seem to be really suffering. The slip sliding away of thoughts is an invitation to see what is really there. Difficult change, like going to jail in his youth for an unnamed offense, Pandit said, can often be positive and help to redirect unsatisfactory behavior. Meditation can help as well, but the problem of craving remains after the meditation ends. Pandit illustrated the ways the mind submits to desire by telling stories of his love for power tools and of his need to justify himself in the face of criticism. The best solution in each case was to step back and observe the workings of the mind rather than to be driven by them.

"You don't have to bash desires on the head to get rid of them," Pandit told us. You don't even have to give up sensory desires. But you do have to look at them, observe them. When we see our capitulation to desire, we are like scientists watching laboratory rats as they control their movements by stimulating pleasure centers in their brains. We can be the parent watching their child in a supermarket reaching out a hand for every colorful package on the shelf. And we can stay two feet behind our own outstretched hand. In this way, our desire begin to lose their ability to control us.

"We can enjoy pleasant things," Pandit said. "The trick is not to need them."

Buddhism has been called a "psychology of desire." "Like a monkey swinging from tree to tree in a forest," The Buddha says in The Dhammapada, a person's desires keep him leaping from life to life pursuing every-illusive satisfaction." But, as Pandit explained with the desire, or aspiration, for enlightenment, all desires are not the same. Eknath Easwaran translates the Pali tanha as "selfish desire" to distinguish between desires that promote and enhance (dare we say create?) the ego, and transforming desires that seek to extinguish or transform the ego or self.

Christianity and Buddhism seem on the surface to have very different understandings of desire. Desire for the Christian is wrong or sinful if the object of desire is not God, but rather something that serves only the self. In Hinduism, bhakti, or devotion for the divine is one way to the truth, co-equal with the paths of action and knowledge. Both Buddhism and Christianity, as well as other spiritual traditions, point toward a transcendence of the self-centered ego which can lead to an identification with all creation and concern for others. Desire, then, can be either a preoccupation with the self and its own well being or a thirst for release from the demands of the self. Either enslavement or liberation. In this sense, both the abandonment of the self in Buddhism and the mystical union with God in Christianity are similar in that each promises relief from the petty ego and all its drama.

Desire, of course, is best known in its sexual form. Because desire in general gets a bad rap, sex is inherently seen by fundamentalists as sinful, evil, the source of bad kamma. Why must Catholic priests and Buddhist monks be celibate? Why is it forbidden in some forms of Theravadan Buddhism for women to hand food or gifts directly to monks? Sex is a two-headed sword: It enables us to produce babies and propagate the planet, and it also allows us to indulge in our most self-centered activities, obtaining physical pleasure through the use (often mutual) of another. But it is also possible to transcend the self through love of another and through its physical expression in the sexual act. I find nothing inherently liberating in the idea of sexless love. Arguments for celibacy generally focus on the model (Jesus was a single man, Buddha left his wife and family) or the function -- priests and monks are more effective when their thoughts are undivided by messy relationships. By conceptualizing desire as a unitary notion, we lose the infinite nuances of human motivation.

I think Pandit was trying to express this by telling us several times that we do not have to give up desires, and we certainly do not have to constantly bash them over the head to make them go away. We can enjoy them. "The trick is not to need them."

The discussion of desire always hits close to home. A friend of mine who does not mince words recently wrote me that "I can only suspect that your sex addiction dominates your life." She calls Thailand "the brothel of the world" and believes that its charms for old men like me can only be the result of its available (for a price) women. Methinks she protesteth too much, for our relationship, in the end, was more an intellectual engagement than a physical one. I was also a disappointment to her when I chose Thailand to begin a new life rather than somewhere more unusual and challenging, like the Arabian Desert. And it is true that romance and sex is a component of my motivation. My aspiration (lets leave enslaving desire out of it) has been to find happiness and fulfillment in the arms of a Thai woman. Is that a "sex addiction

I prefer to think that I am seeking beauty in all of her forms. Beauty for a Thai is jai dee, a "good heart." Perhaps I am addicted to the idea that this lumpy, aging body of mine is just as viable and beautiful as a young one, and that what is important about me are not my thoughts, my identities or my accomplishments. It is what's inside my heart that counts. There, in the cave of my heart, I trust that divinity resides; I will know this for certain only when selfish ego concerns are put away. What my friend calls "sex addiction" is more like blindness of the heart, and a preoccupation with the superficial self that finds physical release in the objectification of others. Where we stand on this continuum is always shifting, but I hope and pray that my thoughts and deeds be ever kind and compassionate.

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