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