A bit on desire in Buddhism

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 strategy of skillful desire is explicit in the path factor of right effort:

What is right effort? There is the case where a monk (here meaning any meditator) generates desire, endeavors, arouses persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful mental qualities that have not yet arisen… for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen… for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen… for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, and culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen. This is called right effort.

DN 22

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