Desire, Dreams, and Cups of Gold

Today’s post is about desire . . . and pirates.

Desire – lust, appetite, need, an overwhelming feeling of longing, to want something, that craving to hold onto pleasurable experiences, the principle cause of suffering . . . and pirates – buccaneers, sea-bandits, freebooters, picaroons . . .

Why? Because it was on this day in 1671 that one of the most famous pirates of history, Henry Morgan, landed in Panama. And it was on some other day, in August of 1929, that one of my favorite authors, John Steinbeck published his first book, Cup of Gold, which he subtitled “A life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History.”

The reason Henry Morgan landed on The Isthmus of Panama was because he wanted to take the city of Panama, and he wanted it bad. Steinbeck writes,

Panama was a great, lovely city in 1670 when Henry Morgan determined on its destruction; a rich, strong city, and justly called the Cup of Gold. No place in all the raw New World could compare with it in beauty and in wealth.”

First edition
First edition

In Steinbeck’s novel, Henry Morgan is obsessed with this goal: “I must take Panama. I must capture the Cup of Gold.” Because the author presents Morgan as a rather romantic character, for Steinbeck was at heart a romantic writer and many of his books are modern retellings of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, it is not merely the riches of the city he desires. He wants a woman, too:

‘There is a woman in Panama and she is lovely as the sun. They call her the Red Saint in Panama. All men kneel to her.’ Thus said the whispering. The voice grew and grew until men in the taverns drank to La Santa Roja. Young seamen whispered of her in the dog watch. ‘There is a woman in the Cup of Gold and all men fall before her as heathen kneel before the sun.’ They spoke softly of her in the streets of Goaves. No one had seen her; no one could tell the tint of her cheeks or the color of her hair. Yet, in a few years, every man in the wide, wild Main had drunk to the Red Saint, had dreamed of her; many had prayed to La Santa Roja. She became to every man the quest of his heart, bearing the image of some fair young girl left on a European beach to be gloriously colored by the years. And Panama was to every man the nest of his desire. It was a curious thing. In time, no speech among gathered men could end without mention of La Santa Roja. She was become a queer delirium in the minds of the rough pirates, a new virgin for their worship. Many said she was Mary come to live on earth again, and they added her name in their prayers.”

Morgan and his men landed on Panama’s Caribbean coast and marched overland to the city. However, to the pirates chagrin, they found very little in the way of plunder, for the city officials, having anticipated the assault, transferred most of the town’s treasure to a Spanish galleon that lay in the Gulf of Panama beyond their reach. Not too happy about this turn of events, Morgan and his men tortured as many of the Panamanian citizens they could find, but these folks had little gold to surrender, and perhaps, that’s why, in frustration, the pirates burned the city to the ground.

After Cup of Gold came out, Steinbeck was of the opinion that this first published work was not very good, and others have agreed with him. When I first read it some thirty years ago, I enjoyed it immensely and thought it too short, but then I’m a sucker for pirates, and especially Morgan, portrayed on film by Errol Flynn (as Captain Blood) and the immortal Steve Reeves. In case you might pick up the book some day, I won’t include any spoilers here. I’ll just say that Morgan was consumed by greed and hunger, a consummation that led to fairly predictable results.

The moral of Steinbeck’s version of the Captain Morgan legend is pretty obvious: all that glitters is not gold, or as the Buddha puts it in the Dhammapada,

Even a rain of gold would not be able to quench the thirst of desire, for It is insatiable and the origin of sorrows. This the sage knows, and finds no delight even in the pleasures of heaven. A disciple of the Buddha delights only in the elimination of desire.”

Not all desire is destructive. The desire for peace, for instance, is constructive. In Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, desire is the fuel for transformation and the foundation of compassion. The idea is not to reject desires but to use them. That can be a tricky path, though, and a practitioner needs to possess a superior degree of self-discipline because it’s easy to end up going down a side path where one indulges desire.

For most Buddhists, the path means having few desires, and although the Buddha spoke of the elimination of desire, I think their complete eradication is somewhat idealistic. In theory, there’s something to be said for the Vajrayana approach. It’s more realistic to conquer desire. Just as we strive to master our minds, we want to master our desires so that they don’t master us.

Desires are like dreams . . . I often dream that I am about to get something that I want very much, but always before I can have it, I wake up. These dreams can be intense, and seem real, and in those first few minutes of wakefulness I am disappointed that I was only dreaming, and I experience frustration and a sense of loss that I didn’t get what I wanted. Buddha said not getting what you want is the greatest suffering, and actually getting what you want is the second greatest.

But enough about desire. When I was a boy, I used to dream about being a pirate . . .

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call,
Wanted to sail upon your waters
since I was three feet tall.
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all.

Watch the men who rode you,
Switch from sails to steam.
And in your belly you hold the treasure
that few have ever seen, most of them dreams,
Most of them dreams.

Yes, I am a pirate two hundred years too late.
The cannons don’t thunder there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late.

– Jimmy Bufffett



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.



To be without desire?

In the Ratanvalli, Nagarjuna says,

There is pleasure when an itch is scratched,
But to be without an itch is more pleasurable still;
There are pleasures in worldly desires,
But to be without desires is more pleasurable still.

Upon hearing this we might ask, aren’t some desires good? What about the desire for world peace?

This is true, for actually there are not good and bad desires. There are desires for good and bad things, and desires for good and bad reasons.

Desire itself is a fundamental component of life that is inherent in all individuals. Desire is not an entity that can stand by itself, since there could be no desire without a “desirer” and an object of desire. Desire should not be confused with feeling, sensation, consciousness, and the other things that accompany it, and yet, desire is not apart from any of those either.

There are not different kinds of desire. Desire is just desire, just wanting. But there are different objects of desire, and different intensities of desire for different things at different times. There are varying degrees of intensity that can be good and bad. This intensity can be called passion. The desire for world peace should be accompanied by some passion for if is not enough to simply want peace and then be complacent about it. However, if one’s passion for peace becomes too intense then it can be an opportunity for clinging.

Here is the crux of what Nagarjuna is saying. As much as we might like to be without an itch, it is not possible. Itches will come and go, and there is little we can do about it. What we can do something about, however, is the way that we deal with an itch. If we acknowledge the itch, scratch it and then move on, in much the same way we do with errant thoughts during meditation, that’s fine. If we become overly concerned or obsessive about our itch, then we might be in for some trouble. The same thing with desire.

The Buddhist word used most commonly for desire is trsna, literally meaning “thrist.” Trsna is craving, clinging, seizing upon things. We do this out of ignorance, thinking that things are real, that we need them, or misunderstanding the difference between need and want, or because we view things, and other beings, as different, and so on. Ignorance is the real enemy.

Difference and distinction belong to the relative realm of truth. In the ultimate realm, there is Prajnaparamita or Transcendent Wisdom that goes beyond difference and distinction. When we chip away at ignorance, and begin to see the true nature of things, we have an opportunity to resist the constant temptation to seize the unreal and cling to objects of desire.

It’s pretty clear that clinging has a direct relationship with our sensation of objects. The Tao Te Ching probably has the simplest approach: “If you do not wish to have your heart disturbed by desire, then do not look at objects of desire.”



This is a poem I wrote some years ago after listening to a tape of songs by Francoise Hardy.


is singing    a song of love
made from alien words
i am listening
“je vous désire”

the songs are songs
of nights     of tongues
thoughts dreamed by fire

i dream     i hear
the flowers sing
i question the sky    (i would
hold up the sky)    between
the sky and     my face

come into my heart
empty place    the unoccupied zone
come shivering     naked
i am alone

i dream that you are smiling
love is not dead     you say
without breathing

touched by the lips
on some far shore
passionate     sad

for love is an affection
the other limit
a hungry word
beyond the cry    of dawn