Friday, February 3, 2012

Desire: Karma and Greed (cartoon)

Seth MacFarlane ("American Dad"); Dharmachari Seven (Wisdom Quarterly, Dec. 7, 2011)
(*) WARNING: Violent images depicting the dangers of greed and betrayal!

People often misunderstand Buddhism thinking it says that "desire" is the root of all suffering.

It is not. The mistake is semantic -- arising from words not ideas.

The Buddha pointed at "craving" (tanha, "thirst") as the problem. It is also the weak link (among a chain of 12 links) to solve the problem of suffering ("disappointment").

What do beings crave that causes them to suffer or always be dissatisfied? They crave three things:
  • craving for sensual pleasure (pleasant sensation)
  • craving for renewed existence (eternal life)
  • craving for nonexistence (annihilation)
This is revealed to any meditator who gains absorption then parlays the benefits of absorption to practice for insight by contemplating the 12 links of Dependent Origination.

This is an enlightening practice that leads to the end of suffering here and now. It works by showing the mind how suffering has always originated dependent on ignorance and other factors, including craving.

Siddhartha discovered that craving can be overcome to set the mind/heart free, to awaken from the illusion of identifying with misery, to gain liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth.

After all as the Buddha, he said he was only interested in teaching two things -- suffering and end-of-suffering, unsatisfactoriness and nirvana.


The English word "desire" as a translation for this link (craving) is very misleading.

Desire (wanting) can be neutral or even positive. For example, the desire (motivation, interest, eagerness) to meditate, to understand, to learn, to cultivate the mind/heart are all very profitable.

Without effort, based on a beneficial desire for improvement, there is no improvement. Unfortunately, many of us wait for suffering to become so overwhelming as to push us to better ourselves.

It would be more fruitful to strive with balance for spiritual success than to push away from worldly failure in desperation.


The root of all suffering is ignorance (avidyā, avijjā). Ignorance gives rise to craving, to aversion, and to delusion (moha) -- the three roots of all unskillful karma (regrettable mental, verbal, and physical deeds).

The problem we face is that ignorance expresses itself in subtle ways as wrong view, delusion, and the belief that the illusory world we see is the world as it actually is.

The world coming in through the senses is an "illusion" because it seems to be exactly what it is not: (1) permanent, (2) satisfactory, and (3) personal.

The Three Marks of Existence reveal otherwise; the world is radically impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal.

However, until this is directly experienced by knowledge-and-vision purified through concentration and developed by mindful-insight, we will continue to perceive things in a distorted way as has been going on since time immemorial.

Unskillful karma (action prompted by harmful intention) is rooted in one or more of three unwholesome roots:
  1. greed (lobha)
  2. aversion/fear (dosa/bhava)
  3. delusion (moha)

"Greed" is the best attempt to translate a multivalent term lobha. Rather than hearing the English word and reacting to it, one is better off bearing in mind that like "desire" it is simply a poor stand in for lobha.

"Greed" encompasses bias, prejudice, desire, lust, cupidity, attachment, hankering, pining, wasting away, narcissism, wishing to be with the loved, wishing to be away from the unloved, preferring, liking, craving, clinging, thirst. All of these are manifestations of "greed" (not our word greed, but the ancient Buddhist term being translated as "greed").

The same semantic problem occurs when we try to translate dukkha with a single English word like "suffering." "Suffering" is a best attempt to get at ALL that the multivalent term dukkha refers to.
  • dukkha: the entire range of the unpleasant from slight agitation to severe agony.
  • All existence is NOT "suffering."
  • All conditioned phenomena (including Five Aggregate existence or becoming), is unsatisfactory.
  • It is disappointing, distressing, kilter.
Evil Wishes
There is a form of greed that is very dangerous but rarely appreciated as special. The Buddha referred to it as, and forgive the makeshift English translation, "evil wishes."

It refers, for example, to a sibling killing another sibling. When asked why, the child explains that it had nothing whatsoever to do with anger or hatred but only greed to get something the other child was perceived to be standing in the way of.

Delusion is greatest culprit, always associating with greed and hatred/fear, which depend on ignorance.

One child might push another into the pool to get attention. Or later in life one might hire a hitman to collect a bigger inheritance.
  • In the cartoon, Roger the Alien passes gem-studded gold poop. A glimmering pile of it is found by repairmen. They become so avaricious as to do things "good Americans" would never do...until we're tempted. One betrayal leads to another, one theft and lie to another until it spins all out of control. Greed spins out of control even before its karmic results ripen.

Greed eventually shows its horrific potential to bring harm to ourselves and others. The danger in lust (the poster child for greed in general) is not that one will have sex but that one will engage in sexual misconduct in an attempt to satisfy sexual urges.

The danger in desire is not that one will get up in the morning and engage in some harmless livelihood but that one will engage in theft, fraud, or misappropriation in an attempt to feel safe from the clear danger of insufficiency. The harm we are getting in is not clear, but the harm we think we are avoiding is clear.

The danger of bias and prejudice is not that one will choose paper instead of plastic but that one will be led (by delusion, greed, and/or aversion) to systematically treat some group unfairly.

  1. lobha: "greed," one of the three unwholesome roots, generally treated as a synonym of lust (rāga) and craving (tanhā).
  2. dosa: "hatred," aversion, anger, disliking...
  3. moha: "delusion"; the known synonym of avijjā.-Nyantiloka Thera
  • *Golden Turd Saga tied together by from American Dad, Season 1, Episode 6: Homeland Insecurity; S.2, Ep. 3: Failure is Not a Factory-Installed Option; S. 5, Ep. 9: Rapture's Delight; S. 3, Ep. 12: Widowmaker.

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