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.”


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