Desire on Its Own Terms

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

Desire on Its Own Terms

Most of us, when looking at the four noble truths, don’t realize that they’re all about desire. We’re taught that the Buddha gave only one role to desire—as the cause of suffering. Because he says to abandon the cause of suffering, it sounds like he’s denying any positive role to desire and its constructive companions: creativity, imagination, and hope. This perception, though, misses two important points.

The first is that all four truths speak to the basic dynamic of desire on its own terms: perception of lack and limitation, the imagination of a solution, and a strategy for attaining it.

The first truth teaches the basic lack and limitation in our lives—the clinging that constitutes suffering—while the second truth points to the types of desires that lead to clinging: desires for sensuality, becoming, and annihilation. The third truth expands our imagination to encompass the possibility that clinging can be totally overcome. The fourth truth, the path to the end of suffering, shows how to strategize so as to overcome clinging by abandoning its cause.

The second point that’s often missed is that the noble truths give two roles to desire, depending on whether it’s skillful or not.

Unskillful desire is the cause of suffering; skillful desire forms part of the path to its cessation. Skillful desire undercuts unskillful desire, not by repressing it, but by producing greater and greater levels of satisfaction and well-being so that unskillful desire has no place to stand.

This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the book, Purity of Heart: Essays on the Buddhist Path, (pdf) p. 28.