Apr 22, 2007

Desire Continued

Barry wrote (in the comments)

What is wrong with enjoying one's food or a householder enjoying their marriage bed or any of the many beautiful and wonderful things in this human life? Surely they all belong?

This is exactly what I mean by wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Phrasing the rhetorical question in terms of right and wrong is misleading. Of course, there is nothing "wrong" with sensual enjoyment per se. That is not the issue.

The issue is one of results. The realization of the Unconditioned, nibbana, is only to be had by a disengagement with the Conditioned, samsara. All the "beautiful and wonderful things" are still marked by dukkha and anicca (misery and impermanence) and engagement in even the most refined objects of the senses lead only to rebirth in the sensual desire sphere. A moral life but one still enmeshed in sensuality can, at best, lead only to the heavenly realms.

The middle path as defined in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta is between the ignoble extremes of sensuality and ascetism. It doesn't mean a moderate enjoyment of sensuality, but a contented non-seeking after either pleasure or pain.

The realization of nibbana only comes from disenchantment and dispassion towards the conditioned objects of sense. You simply cannot have your cake and eat it too.


Barry said...

I agree with these comments
"anonyrod said...
Desire as the English equivalent for Tanha does not quite fit, and probably one of the ways to make Buddhism difficult to understand for many people is to use the word desire. To most people desire as the cause of suffering does not make much sense, nor does cutting desire. "

The English word desire clearly has
a different meaning and context from the English word craving. Tanha is variously translated as thirst or craving and upadana as grasping or clinging. And to be fair the actual post I was responding to said desire was the cause of suffering and despite your post I see no reason to accept that. The cause of suffering is not in the object but through contact. The monkey grasping the sweet fruit is not due to the fruit but to the mind. From this view it is clear that the suffering is not inherent in the object but in the relationship to it.

It is perfectly ok to have your cake and eat it. The wish for more is perhaps where the issue gets tricky. I was also objecting to the language of austerity because it affects the orientation and leans toward a practice that is annihilationist.

I think there is a tendency toward playing with words on this issue. I don't see how anything I said is contradicted by your statement - "It doesn't mean a moderate enjoyment of sensuality, but a contented non-seeking after either pleasure or pain." That is not in dispute.

In the original quote from Ajahn Sumedho he makes it clear that the issue is: "When you really see the origin of suffering, you realise that the problem is the grasping of desire, not the desire itself. Grasping means being deluded by it, thinking it's really 'me' and 'mine': 'These desires are me and there is something wrong with me for having them'; or, 'I don't like the way I am now. I have to become something else'; or, 'I have to get rid of something before I can become what I want to be.' All this is desire."

It is not about annihilating tanha but in the natural cessation of it. If I eat a cake I am not fooled by it! That is entirely possible and I don't feel I am 'enmeshed by sensuality' but merely enjoying something entirely enjoyable while it lasts. I also feel that one can still be "contented non-seeking after either pleasure or pain."

Again 'anonyrod' said "if you get angry with someone or some situation the problem is not because of desire or craving, but attachment." I completely agree with this.
I strongly recommend this link on 'Happiness by Hunger' by Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikkhu


Barry said...

Excuse me I forgot to give the link for 'Happiness and Hunger' - it is http://www.suanmokkh.org/archive/ret/haphung1.htm

Yuttadhammo said...

Here's a few nice English Jataka quotes on desire:

"For every desire that is let go, a happiness is won; he who would all happiness have, must with all lust be done."

"Best be full of wisdom, these no lust can set on fire; never a man with wisdom filled could be a slave unto desire."

I think desire in this context fits quite well with tanha, which of course literally means thirst. Of course neither tanha nor upadana are recognized as ultimate reality; the ultimate reality is lobha or greed, which is a cetasika.

Arguing over semantics is really pointless; greed and desire are used interchangeably in the English language, and have their own special nuances as well. But to say that attachment is the cause of suffering is really missing the mark. Attachment doesn't arise without greed (desire) - the monkey wouldn't hold on if he didn't desire the banana. Even if he were starving, he would still be able to let go if he had no desire.

I think it's odd to use the words "technically correct" to describe the Buddha's teaching on samudaya ariya sacca, as though it were merely an off the cuff remark. The four noble truths are the core of Buddhism and paticcasamupada is clear: upadana arises from tanha. Is it possible to have tanha not lead to upadana? No. Is it possible for vedana not to lead to tanha? Yes. Therefore, it is clear that tanha is the irreversible cause of suffering, and to say that upadana is the cause of suffering is truly only "technically correct".

And again, it is the annihilation of tanha that is called for:

“There is indeed, brahmin a way in which one speaking truly of me could say: The recluse Gotama professes the doctrine of annihilation. For I, brahmin, speak of the annihilation of passion, of hatred and of confusion; I speak of the annihilation of manifold evil and wrong states. This indeed, brahmin, is a way in which one speaking truly of me could say: The recluse Gotama professes the doctrine of annihilation. But surely you did not mean that.”

(Vinaya, Parajika)

If it were the nature of tanha to just "naturally cease", I think we'd all be enlightened by now. But as the Buddha said:

n'atthi ta.nhaa samaa nadii - there is no river like craving (because it never dries up of its own accord).

As for "desire" not fitting with states like anger, that is fine. Anger was never called the cause of suffering. Anger is intrinsic suffering and, again, the cause of the attachment which leads to anger is tanha.

Barry said...

With respect your argument is the one playing with words. It is not true to say "greed and desire are used interchangeably in the English language". Greed has a specific meaning which is negative and desire can be both positive and negative. I think there is a muddle here to say "Attachment doesn't arise without greed (desire)". These are two words being used interchangeably. In reality the words are all quite specific.
As for the quotes often translations are not clear because of the historical changes in language usage. Many of the translations are very dated - the use of the word annihilation is just such a case. Was it the Buddha who said that or a translator?
As for my remark "not about annihilating tanha but in the natural cessation of it" this refers to the orientation of practice. This is not about adhering to a thing called Buddhism as an ideology, with scriptural justifications and the rest, but about looking at our experience from the perspective of here and now; from the perspective of relaxed attention, of the witness. This means trusting one's experience to be what it is, to know what it is directly for oneself. The position of the annihilationist is to mistrust their experience and to deny their or supress their feelings to make reality accord with their views. (See you earlier response to Bill about the mother dying) You will find this among Christian fundamentalists who say that our nature is sinful and wrong and must be straightened out by discipline and austerity. It all boils down to the big stick. Look at that from the point of view practice.
If I cannot get to Nibbana for eating a banana, strawberries, cake or honey then so be it. But how will you or I know that and what does that mean from the perspective of the present moment? What does that mean from the view of here and now? It means the big stick. What I am really being told here is ideological and this is not what the Buddha advocated.

anonyrod said...

Regarding having your cake and eating it too, and not wishing to appear impolite to those who do have partners, this realm of ours, which we share to some extent with the animal realm, is the only breeding realm, or the only realm in which procreation takes place. All of the other realms other than animal and human have instantaneous birth (a much more sensible procedure than what the mothers of this world have to endure).

The problem with eating your cake is, as pointed out by Bhante, the result, or to be more specific, the direction in which the mind is steered.

None of us can be too critical of eating your cake because every single one of us arrived here through this taste. However, to really progress along the path, as the Ajarns point out, we have to go beyond this, first through celibacy, and then beyond even that.

Years ago, the cover of a book by Ajarn Buddhadasa, ‘Yahn Sip Hok’ or the 16 path knowledges, showed a bikkhu with a machine gun shooting down cupid, implying that these knowledges not only destroyed the notion of self but also the notion of love. No doubt this would not have been a popular book in the rest of the world.

Setting a course for the direction of the mind is something very difficult, as ultimately it means sailing away from everything we know, hence the need for a good friend to show us the way. However, those who do make this determination are very few indeed, so the next best approach is to sow as many seeds as we can within our minds to establish this direction.

Perfect Awakening said...

I just ran into your blog and ran across this at ther same time:

Craving: taṇhā, which is not just any kind of "desire," but demanding desire. Chanda, the "desire to do," for example, can have wholesome forms which are part of the path.

anonyrod said...

Regarding ‘technically correct’, understanding Tanha completely, particularly bhavatanha and vibhavatanha is probably the domain of Arahants, therefore it is a little too subtle and advanced for most people beginning Buddhism. People can however understand their attachment to thoughts and feelings and sense contact, which is more ‘practically correct’ when it comes to developing vipassana.

This is the point I was making, whatever word or words we use for Tahnha, it is the overall picture and not something we can deal with in a practical way.

Barry said...

There is a very long way indeed between renunciation and 'annihilation of desire'. The monkey needs to eat. Fornication is another matter and I agree with anonyrod in this respect. But the monkey and the man needs to eat. That is simply undeniable and it is not relevant to say "ultimately it means sailing away from everything we know". If you sail away from eating you will die. The point is the monkey and the man need to eat. Thereafter we can discuss tanha and upadana.

Grasping of views about desire leads to bhava tanha, to becoming - the need to become someone without desire in order to get enlightened, for example. This arises from a failure to draw a real distinction between thinking about Buddhist ideas and the direct unmediated experience of awareness in the here and now. Failure to see this distinction leads to one becoming enmeshed in views.

Look at how the use of words affects or conditions one's experience of reality: if I say renunciation it inflects one sense, if I say annihilation it creates quite another, one which is actually quite extreme from an emotional standpoint. When I said tanha has to naturally cease this refers to the nature of practise itself when one witnesses the motive power of tanha and does not get caught up in habitual responses to it. This empowers one to trust their responses. Any other method involves supression or denial. It leads to unhealthy mistrust. One is simply unable to trust oneself. No amount of scripture will save one from that feeling and the behaviour it engenders. It is in fact an extremely practical matter, (anonyrod said "not something we can deal with in a practical way") One can develop a number of upayas that will help one considerably in this respect.

From the perspective of witness I can have my cake and thoroughly enjoy it while it lasts. Getting lost in that experience, the loss of mindfulness, is quite another matter.

If one steps back from this entire argument it is quite funny actually. I have only encountered a handful of thin monks in my time and some of the best known monks were and are some of the fattest! Oddly enough the fatter ones gave the better teachings...If one spends anytime in a monastery, food is a huge issue and I always found Theravada monastics somewhat obsessesed by it as they were either in denial and often painfully unhealthy specimens or just completely hung up about it and wracked with guilt about their relationship to it. The rest were happier more balanced people...

My mother bakes the most wonderful cakes and sweets and the world is considerably better for the sheer unmitigated delight and pleasure our family and friends take from that and may she attain Nibbana for it! Her food is pure joy!

anonyrod said...

On the idea of fatter monks giving better teachings, while it is true that some Arahants do become fat, particularly in their later years and due more to a lack of physical activity than anything else, they are somewhat in the minority. Both Chinese and Japanese cultures usually depict enlightened beings as rolly polly figures, however, being fat implies being well fed more than anything else.

As one Ajarn points out, becoming well known or high in rank is somewhat dangerous due to the amount and variety of food one is offered, compared with the usual monk’s life of feast and famine; one day being overloaded with food followed by several days of just enough to survive. However, most end up quite thin because they do not feel the need to eat so much.

Further, one should also note that the main physical feature common to all Arahants, the tremendous girth, is due to meditative development and not food intake. Thus, they can appear to be fat around the middle but are often thin everywhere else.

The modern idea of the ideal shape, especially through the obsession with excessive exercise, cannot be maintained with Buddhist practice, as the ‘meditative muscle’ develops at the abdomen. Other than the usual walking around, exercise is not necessary to live a long life if you lead a natural lifestyle.

Years ago in Thailand there used to be a popular graphic of a Buddha image made out of the Thai words ‘Ya Hen Gae Dtooa’, literally meaning ‘Don’t look to the body’, which in Thai means ‘Don’t be selfish’.

Thinking that the answers to a good life are within the body is being selfish, as looking to the body for anything whatsoever is selfish. All the answers are within the mind.

Barry said...

"Thinking that the answers to a good life are within the body is being selfish, as looking to the body for anything whatsoever is selfish."
I don't really understand anonyrods point. I don't see what he means. Maybe it is the use of the word 'selfish'. Selfish? I don't get it because it is a judgement. No need for judgement whatsoever. It isn't a matter of judgement but of clear seeing. We don't need to take conditions personally at all because they arise and cease dependent on certain causes. Of course that's the point - if it is so easy then why are we still here?

Attachment to 'me' and 'mine'.

Grasping at views about how the body is or should be comes from the self position. You see when we use the four noble truths as tools to examine our immediate experience, of consciousness, then we no longer assume everything is 'me' or 'mine'. Feeling hungry isn't 'me' feeling hungry, the hunger is not self but rather comes from that which is primal about us, that's its nature because it comes from nature and belongs to nature. We just need certain things like food. That's ok. To look at it like this is from the point of view of Dhamma. To attach to those urges and drives happens through conditioning - 'this is my sexual drive', 'I need food' and so on. This is where it all starts, the avija, the ignorant and causal relationship we can have to the drives and urges and needs of the human body through identification with it as me and mine.

Grasping views about desire as the cause of suffering will simply lead to denial and greater suffering. This does not mean one who doesn't agree is therefore welded to sense pleasure or anything like that or one is automatically enslaved. The four noble truths are not ideology to be recited and used as a cudgel against anyone who disagrees. On the contrary they are tools for investigation of the immediacy of here and now – being the Buddho - the one who is awake. We are awakening to the nature of conditioned responses by using the tools the Buddha gave us in the four noble truths. I can see the suffering and the cause and it isn't desire, it is the 'self-ing' of the whole thing that causes the suffering. You see this if we can draw a distinction between mundane reality and ultimate reality. Desire arises and passes away but it is in the attachment to it that the problem comes about. The basic drives are just how it is. We can attach to sensual desire (kama tanha) and when you find that unsatisfactory then boredom or discontent arise then you might want to become someone who isn't bored or discontented or restless or angry or whatever. This is bhava tanha, the desire to become. The position taken earlier in the post was of vibhava tanha, the desire to get rid of or annihilate the desire. That's avija and is stuck at a limited view of the second noble truth. In cessation we endure the suffering; we let it pass without sparking the whole conflagration off again through becoming or annihilating in our emotional and habitual conditioned responses to what arises. We want the wisdom of peace not the suppression of denial. The conditions were not self in other words. It isn't a doctrine to believe in, a shibboleth with doctrinal exegesis. You think the body is yours, that identification is reactive and innately unsatisfactory because the play of arising and passing conditions means it can never be satisfied. We take a 'cool' position on this because they are not permanent, they have no essential essence and aren't ultimate reality. So desire isn't the cause of suffering but attachment, attachment to me and mine from this perspective.
There is however a problem with words because we can go at it two ways - from the second noble truth or through dependent arising. In each way there are slightly different inflections and connotations for desire. Desire has a motivational pull, it seeks outwardly wanting to absorb into sense pleasure. In Ajahn Sumedho's words 'it wants another womb to be born into'. But we Buddhist have a context for practicing with this – mindfulness. In other words heedlessness is how that happens in our lives - getting lost in the experience, wanting more and more, unable to satiate, fanning the flames. One is not therefore saying that we are animals welded to our sensual gratification. Enjoyment and pleasure are just so. There is nothing to get upset about especially not through the practice of mindfulness. Anything else is just mistrust which is just another self view, another head trip, another birth. So we aim to be at peace with the conditions because then there can be no rebirth. We use mindfulness practice deliberately bringing the motive power into consciousness and hold it, allowing it to be what it is. It is not me, it is not mine. How can you do that if you think we are going to annihilate desire? How can you annihilate desire anyway? castration and a diet of air? Suppression and repression just intensifies desire. The fundamentalist Christians like self flagellation, mortifying the unruly passions with the birch and the cane. It is frankly absurd. It also creates a thoroughly judgemental and neurotic outlook that creaks on the hinge of denial and suppression.

This whole ‘debate’ centres on the word desire and frankly a very unhealthy view of it, one that has been about mistrust and suppression. In other words this whole debate has been about total identification with the self – ‘I annihilate desire’ - which is the self view par excellence! It is total attachment, total identification. The desire didn’t do anything except what all desire does – it is energy and gravity – as even desire is not self, not me, not mine! But the self view can’t distinguish that from ‘me’ and ‘my’ and ‘mine’ so it says ‘as a Buddhist I shouldn’t have desires’. That’s bhava tanha. Then it says ‘As a Buddhist I have to get rid of desire’. That’s vibhava tanha then it says eating is ‘kama tanha’! It is ludicrous.

A little sense restraint would have illustrated the motive pull of desire without resorting to full castration and starvation!!!!! Anyone who ever went on a diet or gave up cigarettes could have talked more sense about desire than ‘annihilate desire’. Imagine attending a ‘Weight Watchers’ class and the leader said ‘We must annihilate desire’! End of meeting. It simply isn’t possible to annihilate desire anymore than standing on one leg for 40 years will reveal the maker of the universe.

Any discussion about desire that doesn't mention 'self' is just about words and attachment to views. But don’t get me wrong. This debate is entirely necessary as there is a great deal of fogginess about desire. But since the entire thing we call ‘Buddhism’ is supposed to be about exploring consciousness in the here and now then anything that starts with anything other than our immediate experience of here and now is just another tedious inflated belief system with ‘thou shalt nots’ aplenty which reduces the four noble truths to tablets of unedifying stone as unpalatable as a cold desire-free dessert free life.

For anyone who is interested in Ajahn Sumedho’s work please see ‘Now is the knowing’ which is freely available – along with several of his books at http://www.buddhanet.net/ebooks_g.htm and his book ‘The Mind and the Way’ published by Wisdom books. You will see how he treats ‘desire’ from the self view in The Four Noble Truths and explores it through ‘rebirth’ in dependent arising in ‘The Mind and the Way’.

As an aside has the Bhante thought of collecting this little debate and getting it published in 'The Wheel' or as a short pamphlet? I would like to offer to help with the costs of it. I think it would be a highly novel and interesting read for people.