Saturday, August 28, 2010

On Desires

By Bhante Upananda
(This article first appeared in the Budusarana Newspaper, January 24, 2005, Sri Lanka)

In Buddhism, life could be seen as so many things, one of which is that it is a whole net of desires (tanha-jalini). There is a misconception of Buddhism among many a people that it denies desires. It is the true Buddhist idea of desires that they keep living beings (at this point, human beings) ‘alive’, and that there should be an overall understanding of how far human beings should be desirous of desires. According to Buddha’s explanations on the facets of human mind, people are endlessly desirous of desires. Desires both make us live and destroy our life, and it is owing to this reality that Buddhas appearing in the world from time to time would give the same basic admonition that evil not be done, and good be done. This admonition is further understood as a fourfold strategy of desire-reduction, and on the ultimate level, desire-extirpation, traditionally termed as ‘four energetic efforts’.

It is often asked whether to be desirous of Nirvana is Buddhist, and the answer is it is never un-Buddhist to be that way, since the desire for Nirvana is not a sensual desire but affirm determination to end sensual desires, which are the source of every suffering. Living beings are of the nature of being desire-made and desire-driven. It is rare that the ordinary mind can be away from that nature. Without that nature, we cannot talk about the notion of existence. There only exist the memories of past desire-fulfilments, and present imaginations of such fulfilments in the future,and it is very hard to talk about a truly existing ‘current fulfilment’, except the moment something desirous is now being experienced. Unless otherwise repeated, the desires have no value, since finally they leave no essence for us, and if we can think of an essence, it is only the memories. Owing to this reality, an ordinary person may have no other choice but being constantly occupied with and trapped in a cycle of the same desire-fulfilments. This cycle triggers our getting more and more trapped in the net of desires.

It’s an inherent characteristic of human beings that they tend to behave beyond their limits, and that is why Buddha has stressed the importance of different tendencies, good and bad, by birth, which remain dormant in association of the mental drives of lobha (greed) and alobha (non-greed), dosa (anger) and adosa (non-anger), and moha (delusion) and amoha (non-delusion). Of each of these three pairs the former, which is unwholesome, is much more dominant and
extremely hard to control, and the latter, which is wholesome, gets weakened, unless cultivated and enhanced. Buddha teaches a unique technique of tendency-management, which is meditation (bhavana). Tendency-management is the most integral part of suffering - reduction in Buddhism. Our desires impede our wholesome tendencies, and nurture our unwholesome tendencies, both as a result of our complicated observation of the external world through our sense organs of eyes (cakkhu), ears (sota), nose (ghana), tongue (jivha) and body (skin) (Kaya). 

I have talked to affluent people who have enjoyed almost every worldly comfort in every possible way. After all, they maintain the same perspective on life that it is ‘imperfect’. People are so much after desires, since they need to have a sense of perfection in life, and most of them fail in their journey to worldly perfection. In a way they are not wrong, since there is such worldly perfection,if it’s worldly, then it is not perfect. Pleasure is momentous and therefore is not perfect. Perfection is beyond desires. The true journey to perfection is essentially a continued process of gradual relinquishment of desires. But, it is unique to Buddha’s teaching that it first helps you to embark upon a ‘journey to worldliness’. Unless you see at least your existence, as it appears to be, how can you see it as it really is? First, you awaken yourself to the ‘conventional realities’in life and the world, without which you will find it hard in the true sense of the word to awaken yourself to the ‘true reality’ of life and the world. There is no margin between the two realities, since they have no external or physical forms of them. Upon your enlightenment the mind is transformed into a ‘desire-free’one, which then is used in a totally different way to see your own existence and the world. Whether or not a mind is free from desires makes the distinction between an enlightened person and an unenlightened one. At enlightenment,you see all the conventional realities as bogus. To you even the worldly desires are conceptual and not experiential. If they are at least kind of experiential, then you can at least see through the worldly desires, no point talking about Nirvana,yet.

Because of desires, an average mind gets tangled with desires. The moment something desirous is experienced, it is ‘real’, and with the experience coming to an end, only pleasant memories plus subtle but intense disappointment are left as the result (= essence); the dream of perfection is only tantalizing. Your tantalizing dreams of perfection through sense-desires needs to be practical, practical in the sense that you understand how much more you can achieve with your human capacity rather than how much you need. You have sow basic intellect that you inherited by birth, and you as a person with this intellect in proper application (sapanno puriso) can see ‘inner tangles’ (anto-jata), or complicated mental states, and ‘outer tangles’ (bahi jata), or situations in the external world, both types born of desires. Neither your mind in its basic nature nor the situations in the external but your perspective on yourself and the world is to blame, if necessary.

At nirvana, you desist yourself from desires, as a result, you become ‘tanglefree’.
Being truly desirous is being desirous of the desirelessness. Make your
worldly desire a source of relief, not a source of burden to you. While you continue to enjoy your worldly desires, think of the following insight of Buddha, who has undeniably proved that desires bring you momentous pleasure, and at the same time, same or higher amount of suffering as well, the latter being the core of the former.

“As, a tree cut down begins to grow up again if its roots remain uninjured and firm, even so when the roots of desire remain undestroyed, suffering arises again and again.” (Buddha: Dhammapada 338)

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