Beanplating Buddhism
June 3, 2010 12:38 PM   Subscribe

Can you explain to me (or point to resources that explain to me) a couple of apparent metacontradictions in Buddhism?

I've been reading a book about a Buddhist approach to trouble lately, to satisfy curiosity and to mine for stuff that is useful.

So far, I see a lot of value in labeling thoughts and being aware of what you're doing. However, there's two concepts that sound OK in isolation but give me trouble when I think about it in the context of human nature:

1. You should accept every moment and occurrence and not desire to be in other situations.

2. Desire leads to samsara, therefore you should strive for the elimination of desire.

What I don't understand about the first idea is: I imagine a lot of people adopt Buddhism in part to find greater peace and to feel less troubled. Accepting and embracing bad situations and feelings is presented as a way that will end up alleviating those bad feelings in the book. There is truth to this; I've experienced it myself. Given that humans do things for reasons, can you truly accept a situation without some desire or outcome (e.g. greater peace) in mind, even if it is in the back of your mind?

My difficulty with the second idea is similar in part: If you want to eliminate desire, isn't that in itself a desire? And can anyone do anything without serving one desire or another? If you took this to a logical extreme, you'd stop desiring food and die. Are practicing Buddhists anywhere close to eliminating desire? Even the Dalai Lama clearly has things he wants and does things to try to get them.

I'm not, as you can probably tell, incredibly well-read (I never know where to start) when it comes to Buddhism, so feel free to clear up any gross misconceptions I may have.
posted by ignignokt to Religion & Philosophy (28 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
There's an interesting discussion of this issue in the recent PBS documentary on the life of the Buddha. Transcript here. What the Dalai Lama says is:

Desire must be there. Without desire how can we live our life? Without desire how can we achieve Buddhahood? Strong desire to become Buddha, but desire to...harmful, no, that’s bad.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:49 PM on June 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have not read any Buddhist book written in English. However, growing up in Taiwan I was very familiar with the concept of Buddhism (and Taoism).

I think you are taking the word "desire" too literally here. There may be some meaning lost in translation. Here's what I think: Buddhism became popular because the material life in ancient times were very poor. People needs some sort of faith/religion to guide them, to make life meaningful, to know that there's more to life than hunger and such. Buddhism teaches people to not seek happiness in materials. Accepting every moment as it is, that when there is no desire to change the outcome, there will be no suffering (from anger, regret, etc).

Think of desire as...electricity. You either have electricity, or you don't. Buddhism is trying to decrease that electricity to an amount of zero. You NEED to eat to live, but you don't need to eat MEAT to live. Hence the monks were all vegetarian. (This also has to do with the idea of not taking lives as well). The desires come from wanting something: money, power, sex, alcohol.

Also Buddhism split into three major branches in China and Dalai Lama follows one of them. The teachings and principles of each branch varies.

This is, again, just from observation. Take it for what it's worth. =)
posted by jstarlee at 12:58 PM on June 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in chapter 9 ("Lose Yourself") of Julian Baggini's What's It All About? -- especially the section "Selfishly losing one's self," beginning at page 146. (You can jump to that page by searching within the book on Amazon for "unproductive egocentrism." But not all relevant pages are available.) He focuses more on eliminating the "self" than eliminating "desire," but his argument is structurally similar to yours.

Disclaimer: I don't know much about Buddhism and I'm not saying Baggini has a good argument, just something to consider.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:04 PM on June 3, 2010

My practice is, I realize, far to young to offer opinions on this subject except to say that there are many strains of Buddhism and, like most religions with sects, they don't all agree on the details.

The Pope, The Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, and Joel Osteen are all going to give you variations on what Christianity means.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:04 PM on June 3, 2010

(Disclaimer: the only kind of Buddhism I know anything about is Zen)

I'd recommend reading Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, especially this chapter.
posted by oinopaponton at 1:14 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

(Lay non-Buddhist who's read and listened to a lot.)

It's not desire that's the problem, it's attachment. Desires happen. The trick is to recognize it as just something that's happening rather than getting all wrapped up in it.

Say you desire a drink. Okay, you desire a drink. That's not a problem. All Buddhism says is that 1) you can have unfulfilled desires without suffering and 2) that you can fulfill your desires and still suffer. So you can be content without drinking (you can be content dying of thirst, even) and you can be suffering even as you drink as much of your favorite drink as you like.

The idea isn't to get rid of desire, but to just recognize desires as events in your body without becoming attached to whether those desires are met.

In most versions of the story that I've heard, the Buddha explicitly rejected asceticism.
posted by callmejay at 1:17 PM on June 3, 2010 [14 favorites]

It's no coincidence that many Buddhist rituals implore gurus and teachers to remain in the universe (presumably into their next incarnation) helping the less enlightened, until the rest of us reach enlightenment and samsara ends. The implication I suppose is that if all the amazing gurus and Buddhas do become fully enlightened then, yes, they will just lose all desire / attachment -- including the desire to help other living beings -- and, unattached, pass on to Nirvana.

Another thing to be careful of in Buddhism is that it included as a foundation a pretty intricate system of Indian philosophy from the time of the historical Buddha, where there are technical terms with fairly precise meanings. Sometimes those words lose some of their original meaning, or pick up a raft of new (and inaccurate) connotations, when translated forward into other languages (such as English). So it's often good to know what the Sanskrit term was for whatever you're trying to wrap your head around, since that may remove the stray connotation or confusions you might have imposed on the concept when thinking about the English term it was translated to.
posted by aught at 1:26 PM on June 3, 2010

Re: your point #1. I think jstarlee and callmejay are both explaining it well. "when there is no desire to change the outcome, there will be no suffering." Whatever situation you're in, it is a desire or wish to have it be some other way that is causing the suffering. And I don't think it's so much that you want the desire to go away, you want the suffering to go away. The idea is to recognize the source of the suffering - that frees you from the grip of the suffering.
posted by dnash at 1:28 PM on June 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

And can anyone do anything without serving one desire or another? If you took this to a logical extreme, you'd stop desiring food and die.

Yes. The middle path. Asceticism is easy; hedonism is easy. Moderation is what's difficult.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:32 PM on June 3, 2010

One of the things that often gets left off the word "desire" in these conversations, I think, is the word "unreasonable." As has been said, every human desires something, whether it's a sandwich or an iPad. That's just being human, and to date there's nothing short of heavy pharmacology or head trauma that can cure that.

The key distinction is understanding which desires are reasonable and which ones are not. For example: I might be out in the park, where there are students playing soccer or skateboarding or whatever they do, and - this being summer - they have their shirts off. I look at them, and they're slim and well-built and generally of a body type that I find attractive. Then I look at myself - 36, kinda pasty and flabby with all the muscle tone of cookie dough.

For a moment I feel that pang of, "I want to look like that," but I have to let it go. Because I know that all the working out and exercising in the world will never make me look like an athletic 18 year-old. If I had held on to that unreasonable desire, it would have caused me suffering, as it does to so many people, so I let it go to focus on what I actually could do about my physical appearance.

Desiring inner peace without being willing to do what needs to be done to get it, well, that would be unreasonable. But then so would desiring a ham sandwich without doing what needs to be done to get that. It's the same idea, just that the former takes a wee bit more work than the latter.

So part of Buddhism - as I understand it, mind you - is being aware of these desires and being in a state of constant evaluation. Is this thing that I want something that will bring me happiness? Is it worth the effort that will go into getting it? Is it even possible? Consider these questions and you find that you want certain things less than you did before, or at least that your desires don't eat you up. Your major-league Buddhists have managed to do this to such an extent that they've achieved a simplicity to their lives that most of us would fund unacceptable. But it's the same idea, really.

Hope that makes sense....
posted by MShades at 1:33 PM on June 3, 2010

Also Buddhism split into three major branches in China and Dalai Lama follows one of them.

No. While obviously Buddhism does have doctrinal branches, Tibetan Buddhism is directly derived from Indian Buddhism (via Padmasambavha, Naropa, and Atisha), not from Chinese branches.
posted by aught at 1:34 PM on June 3, 2010

In the book The Zen of Oz, they explain it this way: Dorothy wants to get home. She desires to get home. That's expected. But she's so attached to the idea that she gets distracted by everything else going on around her and caught up in all the pre-existing drama of Oz. She isn't able to realize what she has to do to get home until she's forced to let go of her attachment (when the "wizard" floats away without her and she gives up hope). When she was forced to say to herself for a moment "Okay, I'm here now." (and thus embracing the current moment) her mind became clear enough to see what she really had to do.
posted by amethysts at 1:36 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

For myself as a half-assed Buddhist, the core word is not "desire" it is "attachment." I do not expect myself not to want things. If I could not want things how could I have goals? I do X because I want result Y.

The suffering comes from attachment to an outcome. I don't suffer when I get excited that my favorite band might come to town. I suffer when I let myself get attached to that outcome and then am disappointed when they do not.

I am sure there are people who have spent their entire lives questioning whether you can have hope without disappointment, but for me Buddhism means trying to find the balance between the two.
posted by phearlez at 1:45 PM on June 3, 2010 [7 favorites]

One way to think of it, is to not spend your time wishing that the world was somehow different than it is. Desires and preferences will always be part of your mental landscape; that's what guides your choices. It isn't about the total elimination of desire but rather abandoning the notion that you will be satisfied with you life (or in grander terms, accepting of the world) when your particular desire is met. Instead you can start be grateful for the attending circumstances of your life right now.
posted by BigSky at 1:47 PM on June 3, 2010

If you took this to a logical extreme, you'd stop desiring food and die

Plants don't desire food and still they eat. It's what plants do.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:56 PM on June 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Based on my readings (which don't qualify me as an expert in any sense), I can give you two answers:

- The "desire" to eliminate desire isn't actually a desire at all - rather, it's an conscious and/or unconscious attempt to return our natural state. That is to say, if you eliminate desire, you will naturally fall into a state of non-desire. Think of desire like a net holding us in the air. If you get rid of the net, you'll fall down into your natural state.

- Actual desire is of course a part of being human. When we accept that and don't attach ego-centric emotion to it, we can accept it for what it is - a necessary condition of the human mind. We can "feel" non-desire while accepting that desire is necessary to carry out our lives.
posted by hiteleven at 2:36 PM on June 3, 2010

Ok, so IANAB(uddha) or anywhere close to enlightened, but I do read a lot about this stuff and would like to be at least proficiently aware of the basics of buddhism.

that said, I don't know where you are getting

"1. You should accept every moment and occurrence and not desire to be in other situations."

I mean, that is certainly not an anti Buddhist thought, and it is zen like in a way, but if you are thinking about this then you need to relate it to a sutta or a story of the Buddha, or a Buddhist teacher, because then you can put it in context of a larger body of thoughts.

What I THINK you may be referring to is either some zen teaching or the concept of mindfulness, being in the moment and seeing it clearly. Present-ness. It is only with a clear perception of the present that you can act in a skillful, or non-hurtful way.

but to say you should not desire other situations is silly (unless you happen to be an enlightened buddha and are in a state of nirvana... ).

Which leads to my other really big point:


First, "desire" is not really what the buddha is talking about. It is, but ... it's not. The word he used is Taṇhā and it means unwholesome desire (or perhaps a better way to say it is "unhelpful" desire). This is desire that you desire because you think it will make you happy (IE end suffering) but it will not, in actuality it will increase suffering. Like eating a million M&M's sounds good but try it... not so good. But, desire to know more about wisdom, and desire to bring happiness to others, and live a upstanding life... these are all good things. So desire can be compatible, even necessary to lead a Buddhist life.

Another thing... on a deeper level Taṇhā is much much much stronger than just every day desire like "I desire to have some pizza" or "I desire to play a game of table tennis and win". No, this means literally "thirst" which is a very strong, visceral, poetic emotion in the original pali... something reserved for passionate love poems. when you think "desire" think that teenage crush desire where you spend all day and night thinking about how you want to be with mr/miss perfect and stare at their picture, and dream about your house together, and stalk them at their home, and can FEEL your SOUL pressing out from your chest like it's gonna burst.... THAT level of desire.

And as unenlightened humans we feel that level of desire to our "self". So much so that we get a deluded attachment to anything we perceive as "ourself". We wish to see our "self" be happy, and our "self" be respected/accepted, and our "self" be connected to god, or enlightenment or knowledge because then those people would see how valuable we are and then they would love us, and we'd get money and be happy and could live with mr./miss so and so and have the nice car and...... whatever. So Taṇhā generates attachment, and attachment generates suffering. The metaphysical explanation is that it is because of attachment that we seek to be reborn into samsara.

That is Taṇhā and I hope you can see what that type of desire is always going to lead to pain and suffering. But it doesn't mean you should not desire to DO things.

I would finally point you to read "Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities" by Robert Morrison. Oxford University Press, 1998." Excellent book, if you have any background in Buddhism and philosophy at all. Because he spends the book relating Buddhism to a western philosopher (Nietzsche) he develops the thoughts in a quite useful manner (I find). YMMV but good luck!
posted by DetonatedManiac at 3:12 PM on June 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

There are bound to be some contradictions in buddhism with so many differing doctrines, holy books and schools. Take the idea of Samsara: We're in it and want to "get out". Traditional Buddhism advises following the eightfold path to enlightenment. But then the buddha says in the Diamond Sutra, "Hey guy, even if you said you were enlightened it wouldn't be true--Enlightenment doesn't exist!"

On the other hand, ask a Zen practitioner how to become enlightened, they might tell you "You mean you didn't notice you are already?" It's hard to tell when all we know is the enlightened state...The whole "This is water" thing. See: Original Face koan.

In the Lotus Sutra there is a chapter called The Parable of The Magic city that describes the steps from Ignorance through sensation, desire and clinging, to old age and death, and the cycle of rebirth that it causes. The Lotus Sutra makes the point that desire leads to clinging (attachment) or worse "an attachment to a separate ego entity," leads in turn to the further suffering in subsequent rebirths. Sort of karmaesque but referred to as the Law of 12 Causes.

The big point there is that a fundamental ignorance is what causes our suffering. If we knew how bad it was going to be, we never would have wanted it. But wait...If we weren't suffering we wouldn't be here in Samsara, would we? Then the Buddha comes along in the Diamond Sutra again, and is all "You're not really here anyways, and if you weren't here, you wouldn't "not be here" either. These are only names."

And then you're all "Screw this. I'm getting drunk."
posted by domographer at 3:35 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

can you truly accept a situation without some desire or outcome (e.g. greater peace) in mind, even if it is in the back of your mind?

If you want to eliminate desire, isn't that in itself a desire?

That's the point. The "truths" presented by Buddhists are not laid out there because they're true, but because attempting them and/or thinking about them lends insight into the truth about what they're trying to tell you. This is all recursive, of course, and applies to what I've just said and everything that can be said. Obviously you can't give up desire because to do so would be to desire to be desireless. The point is to try and realize this.

Buddhism is not (should not) be a religion. Good Buddhist readings don't hand you information. For practical reasons... That is, you can't say very well in words any of the things that they're actually talking about. Lots of Buddhists take this stuff literally, but they're fighting the same losing battle as any other religious person.
posted by cmoj at 3:49 PM on June 3, 2010

Emphasizing cessation of attachment rather than desire creates the same paradox: you can become attached to non-attachment. The key is impermanence.

The reason desire leads to suffering is because it attempts to carve out a secure, unchanging space for the self to be permanently happy in the world, which is ultimately futile because all things change. Even coming to terms with this fact and adopting an "enlightened" non-desiring or non-attached attitude as a method for preserving the self ultimately fails, because this attitude is itself impermanent -- at some time in the past, you didn't have it, you may not have it in the future, etc.

Rather than struggling to make the world safe for the self, or having the self adopt a particular attitude, the ultimate goal of Buddhism is to realize that even the self is radically impermanent, and stop identifying with it and treating it as a permanent, unconditioned, self-sustaining entity.

There's also a complicated philosophical idea in Buddhism called the two truths doctrine which might also shed some light on this apparent paradox.
posted by AlsoMike at 4:12 PM on June 3, 2010

Thank you for asking. Lots of good food for thought here.

As many have suggested you examine the term "desire," I would also suggest examining the word "suffering." Because both have nuances that are perhaps introduced by translation into English.

"Note that "suffering" is an inadequate translation of the word "Dukkha", but it is the one most commonly found, lacking a better word in English. "Dukkha" means "intolerable", "unsustainable", "difficult to endure", and can also mean "imperfect", "unsatisfying", or "incapable of providing perfect happiness". Interestingly enough, some people actually translate it as "stress"." [via view on buddhism].

Also, we as humans and mefites just love the thinky-thinky over a steaming plate of beans. Buddhism loves it, too. However, a very important aspect of Buddhism is the practice of meditation:

As Allan Wallace writes in Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up:

"The point of Buddhist meditation is not to stop thinking, for ... cultivation of insight clearly requires intelligent use of thought and discrimination. What needs to be stopped is conceptualisation that is compulsive, mechanical and unintelligent, that is, activity that is always fatiguing, usually pointless, and at times seriously harmful.
" [from the same blog]

So perhaps your philosophical conundrum could best be addressed by sitting quietly with it for five minutes a day, letting each side of the equation duke it out in the tv of your mind while you watch, then turn off the broadcast altogether with an exhaled breath.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 4:12 PM on June 3, 2010

I read the book and I took it as its more of a matter of not constantly chasing or indulging your desires (or running from your fears) to distract yourself from the big tornado that you are afraid will hit you if you calm your mind and stop the chatter.
posted by ian1977 at 5:46 PM on June 3, 2010

Was listening to a talk a while ago by Gil Fronsdel who talked about some of these paradoxes. What I took from it was along the line of DetonatedManiac's distinction of helpful and unhelpful states.

Desire for enlightenment is a good thing, especially if one is non-attached to that desire. Because in order to get enlightened, there will come a time when even that desire will fall away. So there are states that are helpful and states that are not, and a phase shift in practice is said to happen when states that have seemed steady and helpful are now holding you back. By the time you (or I) get there, I trust that my mindfulness will be so sharp that I will recognize that shift. If I don't, whatever comes next won't come next.

So, practice.
posted by salishsea at 5:54 PM on June 3, 2010

(As a disclaimer, I'm not officially a Buddhist but have a strong interest in the Theravada tradition- pretty much everything I have to say here is based on what my readings of what that tradition teaches, and of the Pali Canon.)

One of the suttas in the Pali Canon, the Brahmana Sutta, addresses the seeming contradiction in the second idea- to briefly summarize it, Ananda, one of the principal disciples of the Buddha, says in it that the concentration required to achieve the end of desire is "founded on desire"- that is, the desire to achieve full enlightenment. His questioner says that it's impossible that desire could be abandoned by means of desire, and Ananda responds by pointing out that desire is allayed when the object of desire is achieved- so that, when enlightenment is achieved, there's no more reason to desire enlightenment, and so no presence of that desire. In essence, desire for enlightenment is necessary to achieve the goal, and as I understand it, it's seen as the last one to go.

The idea isn't to get rid of desire, but to just recognize desires as events in your body without becoming attached to whether those desires are met.

I can't speak to the other traditions, but as I understand Theravada Buddhism, the ultimate aim is indeed to eliminate desire entirely (in the sutta I linked, Ananda says as much, and there are many statements of that kind throughout the Pali Canon), though this may be more a semantic issue than anything- at least in Theravada, it is thought that the lack of attachment to whether those desires are met means that in the end they disappear altogether. (And conversely, that it's not possible for something to be a desire if you truly don't care whether or not it's met.) For those who aren't enlightened, it's impossible not to desire, of course, and this is very much acknowledged and understood in all the Buddhist traditions that I know of. (Violently rejecting desire doesn't work, obviously- that's aversion, which is simply another kind of desire.) Therefore, the goal is to channel it in directions which eventually lead, with proper practice, to enlightenment, and part of that practice is to come to see desire in the way you describe, as a mental event one doesn't become attached to. That's essentially what the Eightfold Path is about, as I understand it.

What the end of desire means is pretty much impossible to imagine for those who still have it, but according to the Theravada tradition, arahants (the fully enlightened) are indeed without desire, ego, or suffering. This doesn't mean that they simply waste away and die- they still, for example, have the physical sensation of hunger, and they still continue to eat and drink and do all that is necessary to stay alive. The impression that I have from what I've read is that this is because their compassion for others leads them to stay around to share what they've learned- but they are entirely without attachments. It's pretty much impossible for me (or probably anyone who hasn't achieved enlightenment) to really imagine what that state of being is like, but as I understand it that is indeed the goal, in Theravada at least.
posted by a louis wain cat at 8:50 PM on June 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thanks, everybody! Those were all rather thoughtful answers.

Seems as though the common message here is that "desire" is not really the most accurate word for this idea, and many Buddhists acknowledge that some desires and goals are OK or even essential. Some of those reasonable, non-troublesome desires may or may not include self-interest-driven ones. So, there's much less fighting of human nature than I thought there might be in Buddhist thought.

I'll continue to read about this. I can't say I'd ever ascribe to Buddhism as a religion, but so far, it's got some useful ideas.
posted by ignignokt at 10:54 PM on June 3, 2010

posted by somanyamys at 5:52 AM on June 4, 2010

ZOMG I'm so late to this party.

So, there's much less fighting of human nature than I thought there might be in Buddhist thought.

There's really no fighting at all unless you want there to be. You're uncovering your TRUE nature. We call our ego ourselves, but it's just a bunch of made-up stuff, and when you're able to let go of that, it feels as natural as breathing, I promise you. The "fighting" is you not letting go of all the drama with which you've surrounded yourself. The trap that some people get into is that you realize you suffer less when you let go of your ego, but your ego doesn't want to be let go of. So you start fighting the fighting, and fighting THAT, and on and on. Whenever I get upset or anxious, my mantra is "don't fight," and I am almost always instantly calm.

With respect to everyday desires, Buddhism says "hey, you might want to not overindulge, because that's not really helpful to meditation and good health." That's not fighting human nature, that's just common sense + exercising restraint. What you do has consequences. The very very tl;dr version of what Buddha said (IMHO) is "Hey guys, I've been enlightened, and if you want to follow the same path, do x, y, and z (i.e. the eightfold path) and you can be enlightened too. If you don't want to, OK, that's cool, suit yourself, but the actions you take will have consequences and you'll be on a different path." (i.e. not necessarily worse, just different)

I watched this video by Alan Watts the other night and it's a good intro to Buddhism from a Western point of view. It's also a guide to meditation. The visuals are nice but not necessary, you can just listen if you wish.

I can't say I'd ever ascribe to Buddhism as a religion, but so far, it's got some useful ideas.

There's no harm in picking and choosing, and definitely none in critical thought.
posted by desjardins at 5:01 PM on June 8, 2010

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