Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Extinction of Desire

At our most recent Society of Friends meeting we contemplated Chapter 19 of the Dhammapada which ends with the following statement:

“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.


Delwyn said...

This is a really good musing Dan because in our contemplations and meditations we are desiring understanding and desiring peace or contentment...

so I guess that means as long as we still desire these things then we ain't there....

But should that stop us desiring them?

if that were so we may never be motivated to stretch ourselves closer to that point of wishlessness.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dan, for offering the teaching and your musings on it. I believe that certain desires are physiologically built in to help humans survive-they are more or less instinctive drives. From what I have read, desire is longing for what we do not have, and clinging to the wish for it, and clinging also to it when we have acquired that which we think we must have. I distinquish between needs and wants. Practicing the 7 pillars of mindfulness, as Jon Kabat-Zin has introduced them in "Full Catastrophe Living" has helped me to be grateful for what I have in the present moment, rather than clinging to the desire to have what I think I want or to the worry that I won't be able to keep what I have. Everything is impermanent, right?


Dan Gurney said...

Yes, I think you're right, Delwyn. If we were fully enlightened we would not be "on the path," but we would have already realized it, thus achieving the state of desirelessness. So, not having achieved that sublime state, desiring the desireless is about the best we can do.

Dan Gurney said...


Thanks for commenting—both here on the blog—and in person at SOF.

Your distinction between needs and wants is useful and helpful. I would imagine (but don't really know) that the Buddha isn't talking about the desire for true needs as, for example, the need we currently have right now to take our next inhalation. That sort of need falls into the category you suggest, REAL needs, and I don't think of these things as desires the Buddha would ask us to extinguish.

And, yes, everything IS impermanent at least in our familiar realm of samsara. That's one of the topics we'll be taking up March 17 when we talk about Chapter 20. I'm really looking forward to that already.

Butler and Bagman said...

I'd be incredulous too. Also, it brings up one of the great barriers to meditation -- Is a desire for the extinction of desire just another desire?

Dan Gurney said...


Yes, as I understand it, it is. A wholesome desire for the extinction of desires is a desire. I suppose that this desire is self-extinguishing when fully realized.

Paradox seems to be inherent in this business.

Sathira said...

With due respect to all your thoughts, I believe the understanding of the Pali words is very important. Just take an example of the the word "Metta", it is not just talking about love. We have to use two english words to describe the actual meaning of the Pali word.

Sometime our own perception towards the word may not be accurate, thus gve rise toall sorts of confusion. I believe it would be good for us to go back to the original text which is in Pali Language when we are in doubts!.

As we can see from some other religion, there are so many versions of the interpretation of their Holy Scripture. I believe Buddhists do not like to see so many interpretation of the Buddhadhamma.

I believe we should not go on an "extreme" way to eradicate our desire. Buddha encourages us to walk the Middle Path.

Mind is fantastic. The more you "pressure or control" it, the more resistance you are going to receive from it. We have to learn to make peace with our mind so that we could easily "neutralize" whatever unwholesome thoughts that arise in our mind.

Thank you for reading my one cent worth of comment.

With metta,

Dan Gurney said...


Thank you for chiming in. I've been mulling this over for the past month. I think it is accurate to say that when fully enlightened a person would have extinguished desire. But for mere humans like me, the extinction of desire is extreme and unreachable. Desire for wholesome states helps us make the sort of progress desire to make: to become more loving and wise. So the middle path you mention is a wise and productive path to follow.

Sathira said...

Be patience and be confidence. As the saying goes, "Rome is not made in one day". Prince Siddharta took many life to achieve Enlightenment. We need to strive on heedfully!

May you be well and happy always.

With Metta,