Saturday, June 18, 2011

What a Beautiful Tree! Is that Lust?

Amber Dorrian, Wisdom Quarterly response to
Bodhisattva under a redwood tree, Sequoia Nat'l Park, CA (AllegoryImaging/

"Lust" (kama- or raga-chanda, sensual-craving) is a strong desire to possess something. (Desire can seem neutral, but in Buddhism it is translating terms with a negative aspect since there are certainly "good" desires like the will and zeal to realize the liberating truth).

Christians and Muslims have a similar word in is covet. Christians learn that lust and covetousness are "sins" often without considering how or why. What about admiration, the wish to understand, the desire to find harmony? Love, compassion, altruism, and impartiality all express a desire but with a free and happy heart: It does not possess the object of our admiration.

Of course, it is impossible to "possess" things. But what is possible are the harmful mental actions of grasping and clinging, obsession and attachment. The heart is unable to let go. It binds itself. It does not have the object of its craving, yet it does have all the worries and costs of possession.

In a conventional sense, a person may be described as being possessed by objects one clings to. But who -- other than the Five Aggregates -- is clinging? Ultimately, "we" cling to the "factors of clinging." Those factors are called the Five Aggregates. But ultimate truth eludes us.

The title of this article may seem absurd; the story behind the article is even stranger. Our nude Christian friends at Fig Leaf Forum first asked the question in a theistic context. It was like an episode of the Daily Show's "This Week in God." It's beautiful the way things are explicable even with different assumptions about this world.

Do beautiful objects in our perceptual field -- like trees, sunsets, newly nubile gals/guys/ponies -- come about as acts of heavenly Creation or evolve along Evolutionary lines? There's truth in both views, except the polarities won't budge a whit. They thereby turn a blind eye to what is real and what is not. Taking sides is easy, reconciling why the sides exist is less easy but more beneficial. "It's a trap!" we can Admiral Ackbar and Cherry say. Both views are a trap.

No peace is coming between camps, just a few conversions, mostly of sciencey types turning churchy. The truth stands apart, and there would be much more peace if we could see what is right about each pole rather than dismissing one side as kooks and lauding ourselves as the great non-kooks. It's kooky. Keep your view, but keep all eyes open and investigating. Any bias, even a well intended one, causes us to look for confirmation not information. It's our confirmation seeking tendency.

If a particularly stunning tree or model or mountain or magazine cover comes into view, there is great pleasure in taking it in and enjoying its proportions, symmetry, interactive bits, and pleasing fullness (abstract concepts explaining why something strikes us as beautiful that, for less abstract thinkers might just be termed, oh who knows, "God's" handiwork).

Musicians appreciate well performed works and composing skills, jewelers are impressed by well set gems, nature buffs love natural (fractal, Fibonacci, golden mean) beauty. And the wise derive joy from truth, however counterintuitive the Truth may be.

As human beings we find other human beings most beautiful of all -- attractive, creative, evolved, faithful, or intelligent, it hardly matters.

When the mind/heart first hits upon the idea of possessing, we're in line for disappointment and dissatisfaction (dukkha). What if we could be mindful instead, mindfulness being fully aware without thinking, judging, evaluating, planning, or measuring. "It is what it is," people foolishly say, but there's great wisdom in this foolishness. Of course, it itself doesn't say anything, yet something is being said.

Bare awareness means not becoming attached or enmeshed but just seeing, just knowing, just accepting, just allowing. It's very peaceful. It allows the right brain (our silent co-consciousness) to have a say. Of course, it won't speak, but it will communicate with feelings and a bodily sense we react to. ("We" being the left brain thinking portion that thinks, judges, and tries to possess). "Let it be, let it be," the Beatle said.

Will lust help or harm? We can have all that is, but we can possess none of it. What will we choose to try to do?

To carry this analogy further, beauty appears in all sorts of ways. Beauty is not to blame when lust arises. It's not even the reason for admiration. If it were, how would Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and arhats ever be freed from lust (craving, thirst, bondage, disappointment)?

Objects there, responses here. The world is the world; the heart/mind looking out on it can choose to notice this about it or that (the beautiful or the disappointment inherent in it), and then choose to either attempt to possess it or not.

Buddhism is very pleasing because it syncs up with psychology. And we modern Americans love all things psychology. It's no coincidence so many psychologists, therapists, neuroscientists, and the like are Buddhists. The Buddha focused on our internal experience of the external world far more than he spent talking about physics. As interesting and elegant as physics is, it can hardly hold an atomic candle to cognition, perception, emotion, motivation...

The Buddha gave physics its due ("form" means materiality, fine and gross, basic and derivative, four interdependent qualities or characteristics of material bodies). But he elaborated on our experience of the physical by giving psychology the lions share: sensations, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness are what beings cling to and what they can be freed from clinging to.

That freedom comes with enlightenment, is brought on by enlightenment, so much so that many well intentioned teachers and even monastics think nirvana and bodhi are synonyms. But bodhi is enlightenment, insight, awakening, whereas nirvana is complete freedom, peace, the end of suffering.

Oh to be free! Sex is sex. But clinging, attachment, obsession, possession, being consumed instead of consuming, that's just sad. Naturally, in the Sense Sphere (kama-loka) we like sense objects. That's normal. Is it normal to imagine we can "possess" or "keep" or "own" the composed and decaying object of person, be it tree or person, wealth or self?

All are falling away every moment. And in the meantime, we miss what is available -- enlightenment and freedom.

We can't live without trees. Maybe some people can. But we can't. The trees, the trees, rooted in earth, reaching for the sky. Casting shade, dropping figs (and fig leaves), holding my back while I meditate. What meditation? I'm mindful. There is no straining in my striving. I'm just watching. Eventually I'm seeing things as they truly are. Ahhh. No words for it. The right brain knows. It's the left brain that conceives and tries to capture just the right wording.

But completely "detached from sensual objects, O meditators, detached from unwholesome states of mind/heart, a meditator enters into the first absorption, which is accompanied by applied attention and sustained attention, is born of detachment [withdrawal of the senses, samadhi, intensified-concentration opposing workaday dissolute-distraction] and filled with rapture and happiness" [the Buddha defining the first "absorption" or in Pali jhana, Sanskrit dhyana, Japanese zen, Chinese ch'an, Tibetan samten].

Turning this mind to objects of insight -- vipassana practices -- is suddenly fruitful. Loving-kindness! The breath having become a nimitta takes me to equanimity. The factors-of-absorption (jhana-anga) become my best friends. As such where have "my"
  • sensual desire (lust)
  • ill will
  • sleepiness and laziness
  • restlessness and worries
  • doubts
gone? Hindrances fall and opposing states come in peace:
  • applied attention (on my object of meditation)
  • sustained attention
  • rapture
  • happiness
  • concentration.
Turning the wheel (cycle) of "Dependent Origination" in mind, it becomes clear that this is the way to enlightenment. One persisting in this practice, strengthening absorption then applying that laser focus to insight practices, can see freedom in the distance.

Going, going, going beyond, going altogether beyond, O what an awakening, so it is!

It's a nice mantra not learned rote and repeated with bell and drum but uttered spontaneously -- as words fail and contentment overtakes me.
  • Thanks to the editors at Wisdom Quarterly for helping me putting into words.

Lust is discussed in Fig Leaf Forum revisited by Mark Roberts in a debate published in Issue 55/56 of their newsletter. This article is responding to Issue 59.

Fig Leaf Forum realizes that "Lust is a problem of the heart, not of the mind." But in Buddhism heart is mind (citta). Lust is a problem of both. If we were speaking the same technical English, we would agree. Lust does not help perception; it twists (kinks, perverts, distorts) it. "Love others as ourselves," yes! Love everyone! Choose lust at your peril. For what is possible here and what impossible is often found out too late. What is possible? Freedom from the bonds of craving.What is impossible? Actually possessing and controlling what we crave.

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