Desire and Delusion

One of the most common misconceptions about Buddhism is that it’s as sexually repressive as certain brands of Christianity. But like Christianity in a more classical sense, Buddhism doesn’t have a problem with desire when properly channeled, albeit it doesn’t go so far as to say that you sin when not doing sex within the right context. Christianity limits proper sexual behavior to the sacrament of marriage; Buddhism focuses more on proper relationships. Buddhism’s ethics on sex aside, this idea about Buddhism being about suppressing your desires entirely and becoming like a monk, unaffected by any pleasure or temptation, is a half truth, but misses a significant amount of Buddhist nuance on language. The word for desire usually used in Buddhism and Hinduism is kama and is one of three kinds of tanha, or addiction in Buddhist thought. Kama tanha is a craving for sensual pleasure or general stimulation of your senses. The next is bhava tanha, or a thirst for existence and becoming. The last is vibhava tanha or an attachment to non existence, a nihilistic urge, so to speak. The next things to discuss are distinctions in Buddhism between desires, which are natural and permissible things and addictions/cravings/thirsts, the excess or deficit of desires.

Desire in Buddhism is something understood by many to be a natural impulse we have. Hunger, thirst and other biological needs and wants we have, such as sexual pleasure, are inborn in us, but are not meant to be left to their own means, nor are they meant to be completely shut off. If we ignore our hunger, then we starve; if we indulge our hunger, we suffer backlash of heart disease or obesity. If we hold back our need for sexual desire, it can rebound in more dangerous mental illnesses; if we indulge our libido, then it can become a craving sated in more and more risky behaviors. Simply wanting food is not evil, but even Christians would agree with this, the same with wanting sexual pleasure. The sin of gluttony, excess of desire for sating your hunger, or that of lust, taking sexual desire to be an end in itself instead of a means, can both be likened to one of many forms of tanha, literally translated as thirst, though not like our need for hydration. A better translation I’ve found is similar to the word upadana, also translated as grasping or the like. These two terms are almost intertwined, though they are separate in that upadana might be argued to be the base cause of our various tanha. Because we always grasp for various things, it creates a habit of attachment in one form or another. Upadana is literally translated as fuel, so there is a sort of logical progression since greed, and the other two of the three poisons that bind us the most into rebirth, are also likened to fire. Our grasping is the fuel, the world is a spark and our greed, delusion and hatred are the fires that spur on the resultant thirsts of tanha.

What makes this difficult to qualify is the nature of upadana, lobha (greed) and tanha together in the relationship I’ve enumerated. Upadana is the foundational delusion that keeps us in the cycle of self destructive behavior. Even the notion of a soul can be argued to be a manifestation of a tanha, particularly the one for existence, bhava. Wanting to exist forever in some way is neither realistic nor comforting in the larger scale of immortality. Getting something you want is one thing, but getting it eternally makes it hollow and worthless. Our desire of things is normal and can be something we appreciate on a moment to moment basis. I love things all the more because I recognize their transient nature. Without the delusion of attachment, there is only the natural mourning of separation, but not a clinging to that thing’s memory in its loss. Our memory is a way to remember it, yes, but it should not be an enshrinement to maintain it evermore. Our greed, aversion and ignorance of things are based in the fundamental advocacy that wanting things to always remain in any sense is a good thing. Buddhism argues the opposite, due to one of the key tenets being that things are fundamentally empty of any permanence, as I noted in “Nothingness and No-thingness”(, but also because of something I’ll speak about next week, impermanence and its reflection across all facets of our lives, not just the physical things we attach ourselves to in order to feel fulfilled. It is not only our desire for material/physical things that binds us in samsara (rebirth/circle of life), but also those mental constructs such as the belief in a soul or deities, which older Buddhism especially advised against believing in. Admittedly many Buddhists would not see a problem with believing in gods as something that is part of the world, but as a more atheistic and secular Buddhist, my belief, along with Theravadan Buddhists to an extent, is that gods, even if they do exist (which I see little reason or relevance to believe), have no relevance to our enlightenment, since we accomplish that through our own efforts.

To reiterate; Buddhism is not anti desire and doesn’t want you to become insensitive to your feelings and physical wants, but it also doesn’t advocate complete hedonism or anhedonia (loss of feelings of pleasure). Fulfillment and happiness in Buddhism don’t come from without, they come from within. Once you’re able to accept that things pass away, you become more happy and able to remain that way in spite of the bad things that might thwart your desires for happiness otherwise. Most important is the distinction between natural desire on the one hand and cravings, attachments or addictions, desire taken to excess on the other. Involved with that is the mindset of grasping for something permanent, upadana, and the greed, aversion and ignorance that bind us to those habits of addiction in one form or another. There is also the message through the Buddha’s teachings that we shouldn’t try to completely eliminate desire, since it would create more unnecessary suffering in and of itself, not to mention it presumes a mistaken idea that we should seek complete lack of desire, when desire is a natural thing, and even factors into the want to be enlightened in the path. The middle path of Buddhism accommodates the average person’s desire and yet also prescribes a medicine that allows us to neither stray too far into either extreme of more Epicurean or hedonistic focus on pleasure as the only good, and asceticism or nihilism, where pleasure is somehow seen as an evil or temptation in and of itself entirely. Desire is natural when directed towards wholesome and moderated goals, as any natural good is in a median. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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