A Buddhist Understanding of Desire
For a long time, I thought that Buddhism advocated for a neutral mental state: an escape from the whirlwind of excitement and sorrow. This viewpoint might have come from the life of a stereotypical monk, who denies desire in order to live in freedom from worldly pressures.
That stereotypical monk, who like all stereotypes does not exist, eats the same simple breakfast every morning in the same simple clothing without a care for appearances. They do not have a family, besides the other monks they share a life with. The stereotypical monk abstains from sensual pleasures; this is to deny desire. By denying desire, they become content.
This picture didn’t seem like a compelling way to live. For one, I wasn’t sure I would be willing to sacrifice strong positive emotions to be free from pain. In Dante’s Inferno, two lovers are shown forever spinning in wild currents beyond their control. This was a consequence of their lust.
Though modern romantics may not want to condemn them to such a fate, I couldn’t help but think that being trapped in waves beyond control is a good metaphor for the experience of lust; the current, like lust, might rush you across the surface or drown you dizzyingly. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would prefer this painful and beautiful water to the nothing of an escape from it. After the monk denies desire, what is left?
Moreover, I didn’t want to be uninvolved from the world. This stereotypical monk sits in meditation for hours a day, in the practice of accepting the world and its hardships. At the same time, there is genocide and inequality and corruption. Is it really the best, for the happiness and freedom of living beings, to accept those things?
It seems I need human attachment to actively improve the lives of others, which is a tremendous source of meaning. And what of the cases in which desire brings happiness or love? I might desire to spend time with my family or to aid someone.
So, I felt conflicted about the doctrine desire is suffering. Recently, though, I’ve found a helpful interpretation of the tenant in Tiantai Buddhism. Here is the crux: What if desire were taken literally as the experience of desire in itself?
A while ago, I ate a cookie. I didn’t think it tasted good, as I do not have much of a sweet tooth, and after I ate it, I felt sick to my stomach. The automatic pleasure generated by sugar-consumption and my dislike of the taste combined in pleasurable distaste.
Despite this uneasiness, I felt a sense of relief; for some reason, I had wanted to eat the cookie. After eating it, that feeling of wanting was gone. The wanting was unpleasant, eating the cookie was unpleasant, feeling sick afterward was unpleasant, and the cookie was unhealthy. The whole endeavor seems either machotistic or absurd.
By the Tiantai view, eating the cookie was a relief because the moment of desire before I ate it had been a kind of pain. I tried to dismiss this pain as quickly as possible by eating the cookie, even though I knew the result wouldn’t be pleasant. This points out the distinction between the desire itself and the result of enacting a desire’s object. The result of enacting a desire’s object, such as drinking tea with a friend, can be quite pleasant while the desire itself is still uncomfortable.
As I’m writing this, I want to check my email, or my phone, or my to-do list. I want to write another to-do list. Instead, I try to stay present and let the desire sit. And what is this desire, sitting here? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s an impulse to press buttons, or a rolling of my stomach, or some itch at the back of my head. Whatever it is, the desire stays with me as I abstain from its end. It may fade slightly as I continue to write.
At the same time, I wish that I would hear back from a job application. Unlike with my unchecked messages, there is no immediate action that would quell the discomfort of this desire. I might call this desire anxiety as it rolls around in my stomach. In any case, I’m not doing anything to the desire itself. I’m letting it be.
Interestingly, Tiantai Buddhism relates indulgence and suppression to each other; both of these extreme ways of engaging in desire seek to end it. A person who acts indulgently seeks to end their desire by meeting their desire’s end. A person who acts suppressively seeks to end their desire by avoiding it so that it is no longer felt. A person who notices a desire without making an attempt to end it through either indulgence or suppression follows the Middle Way.
The stereotypical monk may act suppressive; they deny desire and abstain from all sensual pleasures. The actual monk may follow the Middle Way; they might notice desire without actively attempting to quelch or pander to it.
This Middle Way might be likened to standing by the ocean with the ways lapping at your feet. You can walk how you choose and may even choose to follow the direction of the subtle flow around your calves. Still, you are not thrown about by the current like the lovers in Dante’s Inferno. You do not run away in fear from the ocean and live barren.
We now have a story. Desire is pain is literal; the experience of desire in itself is a kind of pain. Desire has an object, or a focus. To meet the desire’s end for the purpose of ending desire is indulgence. To gaze away from a desire in the attempt to eliminate it is suppression. Someone might, after practice, observe desire as it is.
Without the immediate need to subdue the desire, or to enact it, that person has freedom. They might engage in the world with that freedom; while the repetitive and restrained environment of a monastery might be helpful, the awareness of desire in itself can be practiced anywhere.
This awareness of desire as it is in the body, abstracted from the thing that is desired, has been helpful to me and has felt like a revelation. It felt like a revelation, but a deceptively simple one. I still do things I want without planning it or thinking about it, and when I ask what my desire is, I’m still confused. I’m confused, but sometimes I have small moments of awareness. At least, the illusion of it; awareness has layers.
I’m not an expert, and there are ways in which this story is not accurate of Tiantai Buddhism. It is especially not accurate of Buddhism in general (no particular picture could cover such a varied religion). For instance, different variations and translations of the first of the Four Noble Truths involve sentiments ranging from, “life involves suffering,” to the extreme, “all life is suffering.”
Desire is deeply connected to this conception, and it might be held that desire causes suffering. This is precisely what a practitioner of Tiantai might call out as a misconception, using the differentiation of desire in itself and the causal result of engaging with desire; Tiantai Buddhism merely holds that desire is suffering. To observe the suffering of desire without attempting to eliminate it is the Middle Way.
These claims pose a question: “What does it feel like to want?” Listen, and you might surprise yourself.
For further learning, consider Emptiness and Omnipresence by Brook A. Ziporyn. I used this book as a reference and may include it in some future articles as well. Thanks for reading!