What does it mean to overcome desire?

Buddhism talks a lot about the the three poisons: desire, hatred and ignorance.   I talked about hatred in a previous post (a better word might be aversion).   There's a similar problem with the word "desire."  You hear this a lot; sometimes the word is even translated as "lust!"  That is so missing the point.   When it's translated as craving, that's a bit better.  It doesn't have to be a really powerful craving—it's just that motivation to want to have something, or to bring something about, or to keep something you have.

The word "desire" is actually the translation of two different, but related, concepts that are talked about in the suttas.   The first is "tanha," craving, which literally means "thirst."   This is considered undesirable: this form of desire leads to suffering.  The second word is "chanda," which I would be tempted to define as "the awareness that there is something beneficial that could be done."   This is not entirely accurate, but I think it's useful for illustrating the point.

Someone asked a question today about desire: if our desire for freedom, for awakening, whatever you want to call it, is rooted in craving, aren't we damned from the beginning?   How can we actually ever reach freedom if the motivation we have for reaching it is itself one of the three causes of suffering?

The problem with desire and aversion isn't that they don't work. They do. Not particularly well, but they do the job of keeping us somewhere near homeostasis as living organisms—we tend not to starve to death, we tend not to be eaten by tigers, etc. That's what desire and aversion are for.   The problems desire and aversion cause are second-order problems.   They do their job—they keep  you fed, and out of the tiger's tummy. 

But they also lead to behavior that isn't so great—various forms of harm  you might be tempted to visit on others or on  yourself, feelings of insecurity, all the various pains that come up in the mind when we have something we want to keep or want something we don't have, or when we are in a situation we don't want, or are trying to avoid a situation we don't want.

On the one hand, they are a problem, because they lead to suffering. On the other hand, when they drop, you have a new problem, because a large part of your daily activities were based on them, and suddenly you're dead in the water.

So it's important to recognize that the Buddhist teaching is not that desire and ignorance are immoral, and that you are damned by them. That's not the situation. What they are is dissatisfactory. They lead to unskillful behavior, to unwholesome motivations, and to the reinforcement of ignorance. The problem with them is not that they aren't any good at all—it's that there is a better alternative, one that frees you from suffering.

When you approach any dharma, whether it's Buddhism, one of the Abrahamic religions, or something more secular, with a desire for awakening, that desire is necessarily tainted by craving. But remember the distinction between chanda and tanha.   Does the Buddha want to help living beings? Yes. Is the Buddha damned by the desire to help living beings? No.

There's no paradox here: if you completely accept that things are precisely as they are, it doesn't mean that you can't see things that you could change that would produce a new state in which things are once again precisely as they are, but also, separately, better than the previous state. Tanha is when you are not accepting things as they are, and you want them to be different. Chanda is noticing that there is some wholesome action to be taken in this moment that might make things better.

I'm not describing this perfectly accurately, but I hope I'm conveying the point. When you first start on the path, you may be quite mired in craving. You may really not be willing to accept things as they are. This will indeed be an impediment to practice. As you practice, imperfectly, in the grasp of tanha, slowly things will improve. There will be less tanha, more chanda.

The moment when the back of tanha is finally broken will come: you will suddenly notice that you are resisting something that can't be resisted, and you will stop. You will set down that burden. And then you'll imagine that your path will be blissfully free of craving, but actually the work has just begun: now you see craving for what it is, and you can start to actually free yourself from it.

It's an incremental process.  If where you are is that your motivation is 99% craving for surcease, and 1% awareness that there is something that can be done about it and a determination to do it, start there.   That's fine.   You are not damned by the craving, because the simple wish to do what needs to be done is there underneath it.

WorldviewTed Lemon4 Comments