Lysander wrote:Hello there, I am new to Buddhism. I hope i can find a satisfactory answer for the question i have here.
Is the prescription for dealing with suffering, i.e. the renunciation of all worldly desires flawed? The desiring part of us -- call it eros, taṇhā, the id, the amygdala, or whatever you will -- is ultimately still a part of us. We are embodied beings, with physical cravings and wants. We can't disown our desires, because they are us.
That's an excellent question. Science, like Buddhism, doesn't posit a 'self' or soul for their to be things part of; nevertheless, they both recognize the existence of complex and interdependent processes that compose what we collectively call a 'human being.' From a scientific point of view, there are certain pieces of genetically conditioned hardware that seem to correspond to certain psycho-physical activities, and the question is, can something like the noble eightfold path
change and/or eliminate those activities.
In this case, I think science would have to at least accept the possibility
due to the fact that certain repeated activities and ways of thinking have been shown to literally alter the brain, thereby demonstrating its plasticity; although, I think it'd have to be equally as skeptical since it hasn't been shown to completely eliminate or overcome certain key biological functions. I've been pondering similar questions for a while myself, and I'm still not sure as to the answers, but I do think they're questions worth asking. So while I can't offer you a definitive answer, I can at least share my thoughts on desire from a Buddhist perspective.
In my understanding, desire and craving are ultimately seen as two different but closely related aspects of our psychology: desires (chanda
) is a neutral term, and one generally has to have the desire to achieve a goal in order to achieve it, even nibbana (SN 51.15
); whereas the Pali word for craving, tahna
(literally 'thirst'), is something that's directly tied to suffering.
The second noble truth states that the origination of suffering is "the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming" (SN 56.11
). As Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains in Wings to Awakening
- Craving for sensuality, here, means the desire for sensual objects. Craving for becoming means the desire for the formation of states or realms of being that are not currently happening, while craving for non-becoming means the desire for the destruction or halting of any that are. "Passion and delight," here, is apparently a synonym for the "desire and passion" for the five aggregates that constitutes clinging/sustenance [III/H/ii].
Desire, on the other hand, can be skillful (kusala
) and unskillful (akusala
). The desire for happiness, especially long-term welfare and happiness, is actually an important part of the Buddhist path. Moreover, desire is listed as one of the four bases of power (iddhipada
), which themselves are included in the seven sets of qualities that lead to the end of suffering (MN 103). The four qualities listed in the bases of power are desire, persistence, intent and discrimination. In Wings to Awakening
, Thanissaro Bhikkhu points to this passage:
- There is the case where a monk develops the base of power endowed with concentration founded on desire & the fabrications of exertion, thinking, 'This desire of mine will be neither overly sluggish nor overly active, neither inwardly restricted nor outwardly scattered.' (Similarly with concentration founded on persistence, intent, and discrimination.)
He goes on to explain that, "This passage shows that the problem lies not in the desire, effort, intent or discrimination, but in the fact that these qualities can be unskillfully applied or improperly tuned to their task." If we take a look at the exchange between Ananda and the brahmin Unnabha in SN 51.15, for example, we can see that the attainment of the goal is indeed achieved through desire, even though paradoxically, the goal is said to be the abandoning of desire. That's because at the end of the path desire, as well as the other three bases of power, subside on their own. As Ananda explains at the end of SN 51.15:
- He earlier had the desire for the attainment of arahantship, and when he atained arahantship, the corresponding desire subsided. He earlier had aroused energy for the attainment of arahantship, and when he attained arahantship, the corresponding energy subsided. He earlier had made up his mind to attain arahantship, and when he attained arahantship, the corresponding resolution subsided. He earlier had made an investigation for the attainment of arahantship, and when he attained arahantship, the corresponding investigation subsided. (Bodhi)
However, since the second noble truth states that suffering is caused by any kind of craving that leads to becoming, how can the end of suffering be attained if it seems the desire to end it is itself a possible cause of suffering? The answer does present somewhat of a paradox; and to make sense of it, I suggest checking out Thanissaro Bhikkhu's book The Paradox of Becoming
for a detailed look at what the Buddha means when talking about becoming (bhava
) and how he resolves this apparent paradox. In this, I think it's possible that desire (as well as craving) can be overcome.