Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Desire: I'm not supposed to want stuff, but...

Dharmachari Seven and Amber Dorrian, Wisdom Quarterly
Lisa Simpson prays to the Buddha (Season 22, Episode 5), "Lord Buddha, I know I'm not supposed to want stuff, but come on."
The Buddha (Indiaaaaaaaaaa.../Flickr.com)
Are Buddhists really "not supposed to want stuff," as Lisa Simpson assumes in her petitionary-prayer to the Buddha? No. Of course we all want stuff.
And some of the stuff we want is good. We could hardly go on without some dream, ambition, motivation, or determination. There is a difference between motivation (chanda) and craving (tanha and kama) and detrimental passions (raga).
We cannot stop wanting by an act of will. That very act would be a desire trying to assert itself. We can overcome any harmful desire through stillness (serenity, samatha) and wisdom (panya, vipassana). But why would we want to?
Most living beings are in love with desires. We take them to be ourselves. I am what I want, and what I mostly want is to continue to be, to continue wandering through the round of rebirth and death in search of satisfaction of my sensual desires (kama-tanha), my quest for eternal life (bhava-tanha), and from time to time my wish for annihilation. (These are very subtle and embedded defilements that cannot be rooted out by force but only by insight).
  • Incomprehensibly to the heart not yet attained to insight, we cannot find satisfaction in (composite) "things." They are unreal, they fall apart (anicca), they are by their very conditional nature unsatisfactory (disappointing, "suffering"). They wholly depends on impersonal factors. We cannot "continue" to exist forever if we cannot continue to exist for two consecutive moments. There is no identity from one moment to the next. All that carries over is influence, and we are not influence. Consciousness is not a thing but a conditional process whose conditions keep changing. We cannot be annihilated if we never existed except as this illusory process. This illusion can continue. It has continued for countless aeons, and it has always been associated with disappointment.
  • What is the ultimate cause of disappointment/suffering? It is not actually desire (craving); that is the proximate cause. The ultimate cause is ignorance. Illusion is bound up with disappointment.
  • Whenever there is ignorance, craving and clinging follow.
The Buddha-to-be asked one question. This question led him to his great enlightenment. The question, asked on behalf of all sentient beings was, What is the cause of this suffering, this unsatisfactoriness, this disappointment?
By asking it the Buddha realized that what existed now (his circumstances and conditions) existed due to fruition. That fruition (of causes and conditions) existed due to previous karma. That karma existed due to... and so on. Back he went through 12 major causal links.
These links are collectively referred to as "Dependent Origination." All "things" (composite entities, events, stuff) have their origin relying on constituent factors. For example, a flame is composed of five major factors: heat, oxidizer, wick, fuel, and the process of combustion. It does not exist in these; it does not exist apart from these. All that it is is conceived of in relation to these.
    We are just the same. This "self" (soul, essence, ego, Buddha nature, I, me, atta or atman) is composed of five groups of factors: form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness. All that we are is conceived of in relation to these:
    1. There is SUFFERING now because there is aging and death.
    2. There is aging and death because there was birth.
    3. There was birth because there was becoming.
    4. There was becoming because there was clinging.
    5. There was clinging because there was CRAVING.
    6. There was craving because there was sensation.
    7. There was sensation because there was contact.
    8. There was contact because there were senses.
    9. There were senses because there were mind and matter.
    10. There were mind and matter because there was consciousness.
    11. There was consciousness because there were mental formations.
    12. There were mental formations because there was IGNORANCE.
    Why, then, is such a big deal made of "desire," of wanting, lusting, and craving? The real problem is ignorance (avijja). But the Buddha noticed that it was craving -- a link in the chain of Dependent Origination -- that we could do something about here and now. 
    (Faolo Passoli/Flickr.com)
    By uprooting it, we can make an end of all suffering in this very life. But we cannot uproot it by an act of will. Nor can we permanently suppress or repress it by developing the blissful and equanimous absorptions (jhanas). Serenity and stillness are not enough. We can't. But insight can.
    Setting up the four foundations of mindfulness (body, sensations, mind, and mind objects), on a firm base of serenity and stillness, CAN undo craving. If that happens for even a moment, the hear/mind is released from all bonds. Nirvana (the unconditioned that depends on no thing whatsoever) is glimpsed. We change lineage from "uninstructed worldlings" to "noble ones." We enter the stream that culminates in full enlightenment.
    So, Lisa, go ahead and want. But when you meditate (intensive practice, on retreat, or during a temporary ordination), set aside the sensual wants.
    Aim for supersensual experiences -- the bliss of absorption (zen, dhyana), the one-pointedness, the joy of virtue and blamelessness, the preternatural light, the unflappable stillness; true knowledge, liberating insight, awakening, enlightenment. 
    Then all the guidelines, disciplines, and rules are one's friends. They are easy to adhere to when regularly meditating, almost impossible to keep when one falls away from a regular practice. With momentum in meditation, simply turning attention (being mindful) to how things really are releases us. The truth sets us free when nothing else can.
    Forcing ourselves to "not want," "not crave," "not lust" is much more likely to lead to frustration and hypocrisy. Have all that you want to, be all that you want to, but be mindful that no one is harmed in the process. Then a person will not be stained, tainted, and weighed down by karma for have delighted for a time in the realm of desire.

    No comments: