The Paradox of Desire

The 10,000 pages of the Pali Canon  (Most of which I haven’t read)

I have spoken before of an Amazon reviewer that I stumbled across some years ago, a woman named Laurie from New Zealand who writes wonderfully informed and opinionated reviews.  Most of them are favorable[1], but occasionally she gets puckish, especially with contemporary spiritual writers.  She didn’t like John Tarrant’s Bring Me the Rhinoceros, for instance, a book I loved, and made a snide remark in her review about Australians who think they know too much.  I wondered if she was being a little territorial there.  Here’s what she said about another book I enjoyed, Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire.

            I will be the first to admit I haven’t read all 10,000 pages of the Pali Canon.  I very respectfully wonder if Laurie has[2].  And I do understand that the Buddha’s message is not necessarily what we want it to be, and that he took a dim view of sex.  But my impression was that the Buddha primarily confronted desire in his ascetic period; that was when he and his cohorts had decided to cut off desire at its roots, by not giving into it at all.  He nearly died in the attempt, according to the account of his life.  My understanding of that story was that if you cut off desire, you cut off life itself; life in a way is made of desire (in the sense that, right now, you might feel a desire to go have a drink of water.  You don’t necessarily have to give into it now.  But if you don’t give into it eventually, you’ll die).  If you never responded to desire you’d be a zombie (is that what happened to Ramana Maharshi as a young man?)  You’d never do anything.

The Buddha then abandoned asceticism, realized (with the help of a legendary young woman) that eating moderately was a good thing, decided that sitting under a tree with no agenda at all might be the way to truth, and began the practice that led eventually to his enlightenment.  In his most basic teaching, the Four Noble Truths, he settled on the concept of right: right action, right effort, and so forth, which means not too much this way, not too much that way.  In meditation, for instance, you need to make some effort, but too much is counterproductive.  If you try too hard you’re working against yourself (as my favorite koan points out).

The problem with making desire into an enemy (and I have read about Theravada teachers who make unwholesome mind states into the enemy, advising meditators to cut them off as soon as they appear) is that the way to do that is to suppress it, and suppressing desire is not wildly successful as a strategy.  I also honestly don’t understand where you draw the line.  If you suppress every desire you’ll never do anything.  You’ll never get off your ass.  Is that the goal of life?

What I’ve found in my own practice is that desire is energy (and energy, as William Blake pointed out, is eternal delight[3]).  Actually, everything is energy: desire, anger, fear, sorrow; they’re all just energy in the body, and it’s possible to unite with them and absorb them.  If you suppress desire, you’re cutting off your energy at the root, and energy is what you meditate with.  (The people who suppress their energy on retreat are those wan unhappy looking people who seem to be about to keel over.  It’s like what my wife once said when we arrived at the Insight Meditation Society.  “You can always tell when you’re at IMS, because everyone looks utterly miserable.”)

The problem comes when you enact desire.  If during meditation you’re feeling sexual desire, and you get up and go out and do something about it, that might be a problem, depending on what you do.  If you don’t do that, you’re just sitting there, like everyone else.  Desire is an energy in the body, and the objects of desire are thoughts in the mind.  Those thoughts are delusions, and it’s important to know they are.  But I don’t think it’s important to stop feeling desire.  I don’t see how we can.

In my memory, that’s something like what Epstein was saying in his book, though it’s been years since I read it and I don’t want to speak for him.  And after all, sexual desire is what keeps the human race going; it can’t be entirely a bad thing, unless you’re opposed to human existence.

People translate the precept against sexuality in various ways.  For monks it prohibits sex altogether, which is one course of action, though it hardly eliminates the problem[4].  Other traditions tell us not to misuse sexuality, which is suitable vague, and actually leaves the question up to us, as I believe it should[5].  My favorite is Gudo Nishijima’s, which doesn’t mention sex at all.  His rendering is: Try not to desire too much.  That’s good advice for life in general (which is what I think the precepts are, advice for life).  But it leaves room for humans to be human.

[1] They all seem to have been written in 2008; I have a feeling that she just took out some time then to write about the reading of a lifetime.  If she read all those books in 2008 she’s a genius.

[2] I don’t want to get into an argument with the woman.  She has a mind like a steel trap.

[3] Another woman with strong opinions—Francesca Fremantle—called Blake the British Tantric.

[4] You can speak to the Catholic Church about that.

[5] Though we’re a bunch of knuckleheads, and make bad decisions all the time.  But who else can decide, for us?