Apr 21, 2007

Desire (Reposted Tale of Two Similes)

Some good discussion about the nature of desire in the comments section.

Let's remember that the Buddha was very clear in his formulation; the second noble truth says that the cause of suffering is desire (dukkha, tanha). I detect a little bit of wanting to have your cake and eat it too in attempts to shift the problem away from desire to attachment or something else.

Here is an old post from October, 2005 with some salient points;

A Tale of Two Similes

I previously blogged about my trip to the Exploring the Mind conference, and mentionedespecially Mark Epstein's lecture, which I quite enjoyed although one or two points bothered me.Well, I'm currently reading his new book "Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life" and I'm finding more than a pointor two to be bothered about. (For example, that title)

But for now I'll just focus on one symptomatic point that illustrates most of my problem withthe "psychologized" form of Buddhism. Dr. Epstein quotes a well-known story from the Zen tradition.This is a great favourite of western Buddhists and shows up a lot in slightly different versions.But there is a subtly different version in the Theravada literature that is not nearly so wellknown. Read the two versions below and then I'll add a comment or two;

Zen Version, as retold by Dr. Epstein There is a famous storyfrom Japan that expresses the peculiar delight with which desire is held in the Buddhist tradition.A young woman, it is told, is walking through a field when she encounters a tiger that eyes herhungrily. She runs and the tiger pursues her. She comes to a cliff, takes hold of the root of awild vine and, in a single motion, swings herself over the precipice. Dangling there, clutching thevine, she sees the tiger sniffing the ground above her. Trembling, she looks down. It is a long wayto the bottom, and she feels momentarily dizzy. Then she , sees something else. There is anothertiger below, presumably a hungry one, who has also noticed her plight. The tigers prowl, one aboveand one below; waiting for their feast. She clings to the vine. Suddenly; two mice appear at theedge of the cliff and start to gnaw at the roots that hold her. The woman notices a wildstrawberry growing nearby on the side of the hill. She reaches with one hand to pluck thestrawberry, still clutching the vine with the other, and places the fruit in her mouth. She takesone bite. Ahhhh! How sweet it tastes. This is the end of the story. We never learn what happens or,rather, we are told exactly what we need to hear.

The story, as I understand it, is about desire. As a Buddhist teaching story,it is obviously about other things as well. It is about being in the moment and the fragility ofeveryday life and doing one thing at a time, but it also seems to be a metaphor for desire. Thewoman encounters her desire and it appears as a tiger. In psychoanalysis, the tiger would be calleda projection. Fierce, wild, devouring. A beast. just as with desire, there seem to be only twooptions: to flee or to surrender to it.

Our protagonist runs from the beast, only to encounter a second tiger. There isno escape. Cornered, she hangs on for dear life. But desire continues to torment her. It changesform, multiplies, threatens her as she struggles to avoid it. Even in the form of the mice it isdangerous. How can she escape? The solution lies in the strawberry. What does she do? She tastes itand it is good. She takes one bite, not even knowing if she will have a second one, not knowing ifthere will be a next moment at all. With complete attention, she savors the flavor of the fruit.Desire is the tiger and the mouse, but it is also the strawberry. When the young woman stopsrunning and gives up the fear of being devoured, she can finally taste it. The flavor of desire isgood.

Theravada Version; from the Avadana A man is lost in a drearydesert for a long time, being persecuted by misfortune. Then he comes to a dark and dense forest.Exhausted from the scorching sun, he is at first delighted to enter the cool shade. As he wanderson, however, thorns and jungle undergrowth cause him difficulty so that he can progress only withgreat hardship. As he struggles like this, wild animals come closer from all sides. With flarednostrils, glinting eyes and greedy jaws, they get closer and closer. Full of fear , he tries toescape , but the jungle becomes even more dense.

On this desperate escape from the desert, from the thorny forest and from thewild animals he finally comes to a half-overgrown well. In his fear he seeks refuge there. But ashe hurls himself into the well, one of his feet becomes entangled in a creeper wine, and he findshimself hanging upside down in the dark well. Although almost unconscious from fear and despair,his eyes have grown accustomed to the dark, and he sees a poisonous snake winding itself slowlytowards him, flicking its tongue in and out. Full of terror, he looks up again only to see the headof a huge elephant with two enormous tusks looking over the edge of the well.

Among the vines of the creeper in which he became stuck, wild bees swarm busilyand occasionally one of them stings him. Whenever he is stung, he flinches from the pain. At thesame time, however, droplets of honey drip from time to time onto his face. Greedily he licks themup, enjoying their sweetness, and concentrating completely on their dripping on hill.

Suddenly he notices two mice-one black and one white gnawing on the roots of thecreeper holding him. It is just a matter of time before the roots are chewed through and he fallsinto the abyss and into the snake's reach. But on the pinnacle of despair, yet another drop ofhoney drips onto his face. He sticks out his tongue to get it and for a moment forgets his hopelesssituation.

All of a sudden he notices that the wild animals have disappeared. A merciful manlooks into the well and shouts down that he will free him from his terrible peril. The man caughtin the well shouts back: "Just a moment! Wait till I've enjoyed this honey!"

The explanation of the similes;

The arid desert: the cyclic existence of beings .
The dense jungle: humanbirth.
The cool shade: childish carelessness.
The thorns: the necessity to wind oneselfthrough life .
The wild animals: manifold diseases.
The well: lust for the body.
Thecreeper: hope and expectation.
The poisonous snake: the inevitable decay of old age .
Theelephant : an expression for the power of death.
The bees: changing fate .
The honeydrops; the five sense desires, longed for, loved, thrilling, belonging to desire , charming.
The two mice: day and night, sun and moon, that gnaw away at one's life .
The merciful man:the Awakened One .

These two stories illustrate the point I previously made in this blog about the importance ofThird Noble Truth. In the first version, there is no escape from the well (no faith in Third NobleTruth or Nibbana) whereas in the second (older) version a man representing the Buddha appears tooffer an escape; transcendence.

Notice how this turns the point of the story one hundred and eighty degrees. In the version usedby Dr. Epstein, eating the strawberry becomes an almost heroic act of existential engagement withthe present moment. Given the assumptions of the story, the best thing you can do is enjoy thesweetness of the strawberry. But in the Theravada version, continuing to lick the honey becomes anact of supreme folly. There is a man offering a way out, and only a fool would hesitate to take it,no matter how sweet the honey.

As Ajahn Chah put it; if you stop and smell the roses along the way it may be dark before youfind your way home.


Anonymous 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.

In the Abhidhamma, Tanha is described as threefold: craving for sensual pleasures (kamatanha); craving for sensual pleasures associated with the view of eternalism (bhavatanha); and craving for sensual pleasure with the view of nihilism (vibhavatanha) or the materialistic point of view. These last two boil down to craving for existence and non-existence.

While it is ‘technically’ correct to say that The Buddha taught Tanha as the cause of suffering, this word is used in the broad sense. For a detailed explanation we use Upadana, intensive craving, firm grasping, or attachment. For example we have ‘Upatahn See’ in Thai, the four attachments of an ordinary being.

Some desire, like Dhammachanda, is very good.

Using either desire or craving does not fit with things you do not like. If you get angry with someone or some situation the problem is not because of desire or craving, but attachment.

Anonymous said...


Bless you sir. I was expecting a prolonged argument on the subject, and it's always reassuring to have ones understanding reaffirmed by a venerable elder. I was at one of your talks in Toronto when you brought up these two very similes.

Just so it's clear to others, I'm very happy to have your blog to read, I think your outlook is quite open-minded and very Buddhist (though I may express disagreement about the whole worldliness issue). Please keep up the good work.



Anonymous said...

Surely the point in both stories is not the strawberry or the honey but the choice to take them at cost. Therefore there is nothing inherently wrong with either strawberry or honey - with desire - but in the choice to consume them (craving)? This is what Ajahn Sumedho is saying

Surely the point in both stories is not strawberry or honey but the choice to take them at a high cost? There is nothing inherently wrong with either strawberry or honey but it is the desire to take them, a craving, that causes the problem. This is what Ajahn Sumedho means when he said, "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."

He is pointing to the delusion not to desire, it is craving AND desire, in other words the mind that cannot distinguish. The root delusions are attachment and ignorance. One has a choice. Venerable Yuttadhammo is saying one has no choice, all desire must be uprooted. That position leads to an asceticism that starts with suspicion of our own perfectly normal drives and ends with a life not of choosing sense restraint but of annihilation, of mistrust of all desire. The Buddha did not advocate this; he spoke of the middle way. The Buddha gave the life of harsh denial up quite simply because he was going to starve to death and he enjoyed that milk rice! Why not?

Since metaphors have been used already here is another about how monkeys can be caught: the trapper takes a coconut and makes a hole in it, just large enough that a monkey can squeeze its hand in. Then the coconut is tied down, and put a sweet inside. What happens next is pure attachment. The monkey smells the sweet, puts his hand into the coconut, grabs the sweet and ... the hole is too small to let a fist out of the coconut. The monkey will not let go of the sweet, so it is literally tied down by its own attachment. Often they only let go when they fall asleep or become unconscious because of exhaustion. The problem wasn't the coconut the problem is the relationship the monkey has to it.

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?

Anonymous said...

I think you missed one viewpoint in the Zen version.

One Theravada-Buddhist teacher puts it this way. Enlightenment is when you don't need to seek for place to rest..

Take zen version literally (there is also other meanings, but bare with me), what would enlightened person do in the situation? He always faces what is front of him. When tiger chases him, he runs. When there is nowhere to go he tastes the berry. Always going like this, he sees things like they are. Empty. For Tagatha everything is like this. The just does what is to be done without stop.

Anonymous said...

Great post, but it would be a much more enjoybable read if many words weren't stuckedtogether (probably because you cut and pasted a previous post).

Unknown said...

2 massive differences. (based on my own experiences)

1. desire from ego
2. desire from source

desire from ego = temporary relief, suffering, unsatisfactory, subject to sickness, decay and death.
desire from source = purpose of life

renounce all that is, at the same time loving all that is UNCONDITIONALLY, free from attachment.

unconditional love, this is indestructable stone of liberation that the great gotama speaks of.

and indestructable it is :) no ego based desire in the universe can compare!!!