My 19 year old son asks me:
“OK, I have a philosophy Buddhism question – so desire is a bad thing right? Hungry ghost? I think one thing I’ve been working on is understanding my desires and taming them so they don’t control me…. But my question is, isn’t desire what makes you do things? Like what do you do in life if you don’t have desires? Do you just get complete mastery of desire then go live in a monastery? I feel like everything I do has been based on at least some part, on unhealthy desires, so now I don’t know what to do.”
These questions are the essential question in a buddhist life and perhaps in all life.
How do we live? And how do we live with underlying Buddhist principles. It goes back to the 4 Noble Truths.
1) In life there is both joy and suffering. Who has ever seen anyone who doesn’t suffer? And most people come to spiritual life because they are indeed suffering and perhaps suffering a lot. How do we handle suffering in our life? Didn’t Buddha actually say that He came to relieve our suffering? Suffering is sometimes translated as dissatisfaction (which I actually prefer) or dukkha, the hardships that are inherent in a life in the form world and a life of a human being. Sometimes this life of suffering is called Samsara. The form life of the cycle of round and round we go, over and over our problems, over and over, can we fix this? Over and over, is death an annihilation of “me, me, me?”
2) Then, Buddha went on to describe, what causes our suffering. There have been many translations: desire, craving, clinging or attachment. We each, based on our sense of an isolated, individual unit of “me” against the world or environment, develops a whole system of self-centered desires to satisfy our self. Usually these desires have to do with clinging to what we like, pushing away what we don’t like, and being indifferent or misunderstanding everything else. These are the three poisons of greed (attachment), Anger or hatred or Aversion, and Ignorance, indifference, confusion. We can be ignorant of the basic truths about life:
a. That everything is constantly changing and there is no solid, permanent thing
b. That because of everything changing, there is actually no solid, permanent self – no isolated unit of self – no centralized self. And the self is interdependent with everything else.
c. That dukkha (suffering) can be transformed into Nirvana (freedom) in each moment depending upon how we practice with or receive the moment. That dukkha and Nirvana actually become the same thing. They are One in each and every moment and we can bring this to our awareness and our practice.
There is another way to understand desire or attachment and how that causes our suffering. We know that there are ups and downs in life. This is obvious, but what can we do about them? We have in Buddhism what we call the 8 worldly Winds. They are couplets.
· Pleasure and Pain
· Gain and loss
· Success and failure
· Praise and blame
Our suffering is produced when we attach to the so-called “positive” side, which is Pleasure, Gain, Success and Praise and we push away or fight or try to get rid of the so-called “negative” side, which is Pain, Loss, Failure, Blame. Then we are fighting with our life all the time. Even if we try to hold on to our pleasure, one of these days, that pleasure is going to “change” to ordinary life or we are going to lose our pleasure. Or if we avoid our sorrow or push down our failures, or suppress our negative feelings, they are Not Going To Go Away and they will pop up in us side-ways or even appear in really bad ways.
This is a slightly more sophisticated way of understanding your question, “Isn’t desire a bad thing?” It’s not exactly our human desires for our life that produce are suffering, it’s the way we hold on to them or fight for them, or harm other people to get our desires met, that is the problem. How do we react if we don’t get that job we wanted, or can’t have children when we want them, or someone we love dies, etc. These unavoidable parts of human life need to be met with Love, compassion and equanimity. That is a practice. We need to receive all parts of our life whether we like them or not. This makes us more alive and truly a human being.
So, again, it’s not that we have to eradicate our human life or get away from life or our goals. True understanding is not escaping life. As you said, Master all our desires and go to a monastery. No! In the midst of all our desires:
Greed, anger and ignorance arise endlessly, I vow to end them all.
In the midst of all our desires, we practice receiving life, just as it is, working with our reactions and unwholesome behaviors, trying to figure out through wisdom, what to do with our one precious human life. How can we be somewhat peaceful and satisfied with our life, and be of service to others and the world? This is the great question that is answered differently for everyone.
This is called Bodhicitta – the arising of the Way-seeking mind. What is my Way? And when you are 19 that is the all-encompassing question. What should I do? Where do I fit in? How can I rally my gifts into some kind of service to all beings or some kind of usefulness with my life?
3) Buddha said that this can be done! That we can find a cessation to: fighting with our life, and our desire, and trying to satisfy ourselves alone. We can have a calm, balanced, integrated life. Thich Nhat Hanh translates the third noble truth positively, Realizing well-being.
4) The way Buddha said to do this, was to follow the eight fold path. Here is his teaching on “how to” do a life.
a. Finding wisdom. Understanding impermanence and interdependence. And from this understanding, you can begin to perceive what is helpful and what is harmful. We practice and follow what we think is helpful. Under wisdom are two limbs of the Path:
i. Right understanding or view
ii. Right intention, aspiration or desire
1. Contemplating what is healthy and unhealthy in your own life and having the strong desire, the strong bodhicitta, to try and act or conform to what you think is healthy. And, laughingly or ironically, our understanding also changes of what is healthy as we go through the process of living.
b. Finding concentration, or steadfastness, or stability in the moment
i. Right concentration
1. This is learning to place your mind. This is a kind of mastery as you mentioned. The ability to put your mind where you want your mind to be. To lead your mind rather than your mind leading you. It is an ability to be non-distracted.
2. This is cultivated through concentration in meditation or one-pointedness.
ii. Right mindfulness
1. This is the ability to take our stability we find in meditation into the everyday movement of our life.
2. As we go through the day, we are awake enough or aware enough, to notice the moments of choice between healthy or unhealthy. We are aware enough to be settled in each activity we do.
3. I have just been studying doing each activity wholeheartedly and completely and then, letting go of the results of our activity. We do each thing completely and we have “no gaining idea” of how this is going to bring the so-called “I” more pleasure.
c. We have control of our reactions enough to have ethical behavior. Our actions in life match our wisdom. Yeah, really really important.
i. Right Speech
i. Right Speech
ii. Right behavior,
1. Following the ethical guidelines of conduct, the Buddhist precepts
iii. Right livelihood
1. We find a way to make money that doesn’t harm ourselves or others.
2. That we become content or settled within our careers.
3. We find away to give back to the world, even if it’s a very humble way.
d. Right effort I put into its own category, in the center of the whole thing and underlying everything. Right effort is about “trying”. We are neither too loose or soft with our effort, nor too tight or rigid. We are always trying to practice better but we are also okay with things as they are. We don’t give up on ourselves and we don’t give up on society. We accept things as they are and we try to do better.
i. As Suzuki Roshi says: We are perfect the way we are and we need a little improvement. :)