The Next Buddha is Sangha

Dear Abhi-dhamma,

If all desire leads to unhappiness:
1. Does that mean that progress also leads to unhappiness since it is our desire for a particular outcome that motivates us to achieve? Would things, such as hospitals, farms, music or even this electronic medium ever have been created if there was no desire to have them exist?
2. What about noble desires such as a desire to do good deeds for others, a desire for self-improvement, and a desire to see the world a better place?
3. Am I just confusing desire with expectation, since I can see how expectation leads to unhappiness and that desire seems like a neutral thing depending on what you do with it?

Brand New to Buddhism


Dear Brand New,

Paradox and Mixed Views
The Buddha offers guidelines rather than rules. The practitioner must apply the guidelines skillfully.

There are mixed opinions as to whether all desire leads to unhappiness. Some experts say that desire is absolutely the root cause of suffering while others say that there are some desires (particularly the desire for freedom from suffering) that are skillful.

One Theravada teacher and writer, Thanissarro Bhikku, says,
“… a mature mind intuitively pursues the desires it sees as skillful and drops those it perceives as not. Basic in everyone is the desire for happiness. Every other desire is a strategy for attaining that happiness. You want an iPod, a sexual partner, or an experience of inner peace because you think it will make you happy.”

He goes on to say that it is a mis-perception to think that the Four Noble Truths imply that there is no positive role for desire. He says that “unskillful desire is the cause of suffering; skillful desire forms part of the path to its cessation.”

Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, a significant Tibetan Buddhist teacher, in his Spiritual Materialism teaches that anything we desire, even the pursuit of enlightenment, can be a mechanism for the ego to strengthen its grip. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that a strong desire for practice or to do good deeds is a sign of enlightenment when it is actually clinging to an idea of how things should be. At the same time the desire for freedom motivates practice and practice helps to eliminate ignorance, greed and hatred.

Desire, Clinging, Preferences and Expectations
Desire leads to clinging. Clinging or attachment to a desire even when there is no likelihood of obtaining the desired object or state, surely creates suffering. Even the desire to do good for others can cause suffering, for example, you can be so attached to the outcome that you feel yourself to be a failure if you don’t succeed or you drive yourself to the extent that it makes you sick. Further, desire promotes ignorance by reinforcing a false sense of self.

Desire is driven by preferences. As Seng S’tan, the Third Zen Patriarch said in Verses on The Faith Mind
” The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.”

The desire for something is different than the compulsion to satisfy that desire. The compulsion to cling or push away is emotional. Expectations and preferences for one future possibility over another contribute to clinging . This can be very powerful as a force for positive change. If I am attached to the vision of a healthier, more compassionate and happier life experience, I may be motivated to expend the effort to achieve my vision. But, I am still attached, still driven to act. I am still acting as if I am ignorant of the empty nature of all phenomena, including myself.

We can choose to pursue a desire for a world within which peace, compassion, a heartfelt joy in the joy of others, loving kindness abound. But, what happens when our dream has not materialized? Do we become angry or depressed? How will our emotional response to either achieving or not achieving what we want impact the way we pursue our dream.

Living in the Relative World
Many of us are still bound by our conditioning; we have not yet realized our enlightenment. We live in the realm of duality and relationships. Seng S’tan reminds us that

“To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality;
To assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality.”

Recognizing that the relative is as a much a reality as the absolute, we can cultivate the desire to be free from desire, prioritizing it high in our inventory of desires.

What’s more important, the desire for an ice cream or the desire to lose weight? What is the higher priority, the desire to lose weight or the desire to be free from desire?

With desire as an object of mindfulness, and with the desire to become free of desire, we go through life making the choices that will ultimately alleviate suffering. We can accept the reality of desire arising in us. We can choose to act out of the desire; to try to achieve the object of the desire. Or, we can choose to not feed the desire and let it go.

A practical strategy is to let go of the desire for freedom last. Commit to fulfilling the desire to be desire-less. Choose to follow skillful desires; those that help and those that can eliminate desire itself.

When desire is gone, there is the promise that action, no longer driven by desire, becomes an expression of wisdom manifesting itself as compassion.

George Pitagorsky