Free from Desire

You’ve probably seen this comic panel around, especially on Facebook. The questioner here really has a double problem: not only does he have to contend with the desire to be free from desire, but what does he do about the desire to have his question answered?

It illustrates the conundrum we encounter when we take things so literally. I’ve heard many people ask this question about desire. One of the first things we learn about Buddhism is the idea that suffering is caused by desire (tanha) and that the way to overcome suffering is to eliminate desire.

Even if it were possible to eliminate all desire, including the desire to be free from desire, what would we have? Not a Buddha, and not a human being, and we should remember that a Buddha is nothing more than a human being who has awakened. The human element is crucial. Indeed, as a Japanese Buddhist once said, the real meaning of the historical Buddha’s appearance in this world lay in his behavior as a human being.

A Taoist text, The Book on Purity and Stillness, [1. As in Buddhism, it was a Taoist practice to produce texts and assigned their authorship to important teachers. The t’ai shang ch’ing-ching ching or “The Classic Book on Purity and Stillness” is attributed to Tai-shang Lao-chun, a deified personification of Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, where he is seen as the embodiment of Tao itself. However, it was likely composed by a number of anonymous authors early in the Common Era. Quotes from the text in this post are from Cultivating Stillness, Eva Wong, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1992] states,

If you are able to control desire, then the mind will be still. Clear the mind and the spirit will be pure. Accordingly, the six cravings will not emerge and the three poisons will disappear.” [2. The six cravings refer to those that arise from the six senses; the three poisons are greed, ignorance, and anger.]

Chapter 8, “The Three Obstructions”

When we understand non-duality, then we see that desire is not the problem so much as it is our attachment to desire, or rather the way in which desire controls our mind, body, and speech. So, it is really a matter of controlling desire, and the best tool we have for that is meditation.

The commentary on the text says, “Desires are egotistical cravings.” Craving is our thirst (trsna) for self-gratification. It stems from the false notion that we have a self that needs to be gratified, fed, pleasured and so on. The still mind recognizes both the emptiness of self and the emptiness of the thought of desire. Stillness means to abide in wu-chi, the state of emptiness. (Actually, wu-chi refers to the primordial state of emptiness which is said to have existed before the universe was created, so it’s really a return to that state.) Nagarjuna, in his Treatise on the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, wrote, “With the realization of emptiness, the heart becomes full and contented. No more does it have a desire to seek gratification. It is then that the mind has realized its true essence.”

Our mind is like a pond of muddy water constantly rippled by a strong wind. Meditation helps the mind lay still when the winds of desire blow. It also has the function of clearing the mind, and the commentary says, “Clearing the mind is like removing residue from water.” Yet in nature, even the clearest water has some reside within it. Without desire and imperfections, we would have no opportunity, or reason, to practice meditation. To be free from all desire would be unnatural.

All of this is difficult, as we already know. Meditation is neither a weather machine that stops wind from blowing, nor an instant purifier. For some people controlling desire and cravings is rather easy. However, most of us have to struggle against the winds of desire, and sometimes no matter what we do, we just seem to dig ourselves deeper into the mud. That is why Shunryu Suzuki once said, “We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering. This is the basic teaching of Buddhism.” [3. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Weatherhill, Inc., 1970]

Practice, like life itself, is hard. For those of us who fare on the Buddha Way, what else is there?

Chapter 8 in the text on Purity and Stillness concludes with a quote,

The sages say:
Meditating in a thatched monastery is better than living in a grand building,
Slay the three guards and ascend to the ten regions.
Shun jade, jewelry, and guests with golden horses,
And bury your fancy poetry and clothing in the mountain wilderness.



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