“Do not be confident about the way you are living as long as you have not yet attained the extinction of desire.”
It’s a resounding conclusion to the chapter. When it was my turn to comment, I said that I thought this chapter hinged on that final statement. I hadn’t always held that opinion.
I remember the first time I read it. I felt incredulous. Contrary to the teaching of the Buddha, I was not at all confident that I should personally aspire to the extinction of desire in my life. I even wondered, “Did the Buddha really mean to say that? How can desire be so bad? Aren’t there forms of desire that are good? Maybe this is a faulty translation.”
Several members of our group seemed to have a similar response. We got out other translations of the Dhammapada. One used “self will” in the place of “desire” and some of us seemed more comfortable with that. But I’ve read the message enough times to know that the Buddha meant what he said. I tried to illustrate the point with a little exercise.
“Vividly imagine a moment of complete happiness with every need well met. Imagine that there is no way you can make this moment more perfect.” I paused to let our imaginations work. “Now think: what is missing from this imaginary moment?” I paused again, and then answered my own question. “What is missing is desire.”
Desire arises as a feeling of ill will towards the present moment. Desire is the wish to change the way things are.”
As luck would have it, the next day, as I was doing my daily devotional readings, I ran across the following passage in the Sutta Nipata;
“The removal of desire and passion for pleasant things, seen heard, or cognized is the sure path for the realization of Nirvana. Understanding this, those who are mindful have attained this tranquility of complete Nirvana in this immediate life. They are calmed forever. They have crossed the attachment in this world.”
Just a little later in the same Sutta, the Buddha, responding to Todeyya’s questions states:
“The wise, Todeyya,” said the Buddha, “do not have desires, nor do they need to learn. They are wishless, they have wisdom, and you can recognize them because they are of nothing: they are not hanging on to pleasure or to being.”
One could find other places where the Buddha makes this same point. I just happened to come across these two very soon after our discussion last Tuesday night. They drive the point home:
Yes, the Buddha does mean that we should aspire to achieve the extinction of desire.
Why is it so hard for us to understand this teaching?
Partly, I think, it is a result of our life and times.
Living, as we do, in a capitalist society, we are subjected to relentless advertisements that skillfully stimulate desires. We are led to believe—against our direct experience—that gratifying desires is a reliable way to find lasting happiness. So it is not surprising that this message from the Dhammapada does not go down easily.
True, if there were absolutely no satisfaction to be found in the gratification of desires, the wheels would immediately come off of our capitalistic caravan, advertisers or no advertisers. There is, I admit, at least temporary satisfaction and happiness to be had from gratifying desires.
It is worth considering, though, that sometimes the gratification of desire brings unhappiness. Whether one reaps happiness or unhappiness depends at least partly upon the object of desire. If what one desires is unwholesome, then the fulfillment of that desire will reliably produce unhappiness.
For example, if a person trying to lose weight desires a jumbo ice cream sundae and fulfills that desire, its gratification will probably result in fleeting satisfaction followed by lingering regret.
If we desire something wholesome, its fulfillment may produce something closer to happiness. For example, if one desires to attend a two-month meditation retreat, the fulfillment of that desire is likely to result in new and deeper understanding, and perhaps even fleeting moments of tranquility.
It is not easy for me to understand why I should try to extinguish my desire for wholesome activities. But my faith in the Buddha’s teaching leads me to suspect that I’m still not yet capable of understanding this.
For now, it is enough to throw a little water on the desire to have seconds on dessert.