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How To Understand Desire and Suffering

Updated on April 11, 2013
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In the Old Testament, it is said at the dawn of man, God created for humans a Garden of Eden, a place of heaven on earth. Plentiful food and pure water filled all of our needs for existence, and only the fruit of one tree was forbidden. In the Bible, Genesis 3:6 King James: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.”

In Genesis 16:17: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children: and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, because thou hast heartened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying thou shalt not eat it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.”

From this passage, the Jews and all others who read the Torah are taught that through desire, we introduce suffering into the world. In this section of this chapter, let us look at the root of desire and suffering according to religion. From Lao Tze’s Tao Teh Ching Chapter 13, (F.S. Huang Translation):

“Favor and disgrace both seem startling. The valued and great troubles are identified with the self. What is the meaning of ‘favor and disgrace both seem startling’? Favor and disgrace will make the mind move upward and descend. Because favor ascends and disgrace descends thus, when we are favored, we are moved.

When we are disgraced, we are also moved. Thus it is said ‘Favor and disgrace both seem startling.’ What is the meaning of the valued and the great trouble are identified with self? The reason I have great trouble is simply because I have self.

When I no longer have a self, what trouble have I? Therefore, those who value the world as self may be committed to the world. Those who love the world as self may be entrusted with the world.”

In this passage, Lao Tze shows how mental concepts like favor and disgrace can move our mind from tranquility. Life in the physical world can easily lead us to think that a notion of ‘self’ is real. Commonly, human beings view the physical body as self, yet we can only live in the world for a certain period of time, then we pass away. When Lao Tze states: “The reason we have great trouble is simply because we have self.” Hepoints to the root of desire and suffering. Desire comes from having a body. Without a body, how can there be desires? Although these desires are a normal by-product of living in the physical world, the physical body can be regarded as a trap. We easily become deluded as our consciousness attaches to desires.

Delusion is attachment to the objects of desire. Once we become deluded, we lose the purity and tranquility of our mind; our self-nature becomes obscured. All desires may be understood and categorized by so-called ‘Five Desires of Sentient Beings.’ The Five Desires of Sentient Beings are: Wealth, Sex, Fame, Eating and Sleeping(Relaxation).

Desires originate from the six organs of the physical body—the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Through the organs, our mind attaches to sense-objects as follows, and desire develops.

The Six Sense Organs and Sense Objects:

1. The eyes see forms.

2. The ears hear sounds.

3. The nose likes to smell.

4. The tongue likes to taste.

5. The body likes to touch.

6. The mind likes to think.

When our six organs come into contact with the physical world, the six consciousnesses develop.

The Six Consciousnesses Are:

1. Eye Consciousness

2. Ear Consciousness

3. Nose Consciousness

4. Tongue Consciousness

5. Body Consciousness

6. Mind Consciousness

Together, the Six Consciousnesses form the ‘Consciousness of Being.’ Since all phenomena of the world are unreal and impermanent, our desire for phenomena is also unreal and impermanent. Indeed, even our consciousness of being is unreal and impermanent since this existence is one of birth, temporary life, and death.

Our consciousness stimulates the desires of the senses. As we attach to sense- objects, the mind becomes deluded, customs, tastes, and habits develop, our thoughts and views become erroneous and enlightenment and deliverance is hindered. From Chapter 12 of the Tao Teh Ching, (F.S. Huang Translation):

The five colors blind the eye. The five sounds deafen the ear. The five tastes dull the tongue. Racing and pursuing games madden the mind. Valuing rare goods perverts one’s conduct. Therefore, the sage regards the belly and not the eye. Hence he discards that and receives this.”

Attachment to desire is the root of delusion. Buddhism talks of five delusions of view and five delusions of thought.

The Five Delusions of View:

Ego View: The ego view is the illusion of a ‘self’; thedelusion of belief in the existence of an ego.

Extreme View: Extreme View is the belief inannihilation at death, the denial of God’s existence and lack of recognition that all is void.

Stubborn View: Stubborn view is the view of one whosemind is closed to the absolute truth, viewing inferior things as superior, or seeing evil as good and good as evil.

Perverse View: Perverse view is wrong view; it is the deviation from what is considered right or good and the disbelief in the Law of Cause and Effect. Perverse view is the supposition that all sentient beings are not endowed with the same pure nature.

Rigid View: Rigid view is in favor of rigorous ascetic prohibitions such as covering oneself with ashes, etc. Rigid view is clinging to heterodox views, even when the falseness of that view is demonstrated.

These delusions may be understood to derive from some fundamental errors in reasoning: Lack of enlightenment in regard to the ego; holding onto, or attachment to the concept of an ego as real; self-esteem, egotism, pride, self-seeking, or desire.

From The Book of Mencius (James Legge Translation) Book VI, Kon Tzu Part 1, Chapter 7, Mencius said, “In good years the children of the people are most of them good, while in bad years the most of them abandon themselves to evil. It is not owing to any difference of their natural powers conferred by Heaven that they are thus different. The abandonment is owing to the circumstances through which they allow their minds to be ensnared and drowned in evil.

(2) There now is barley—Let it be sown and covered up; the ground being the same, and the time of sowing likewise the same, it grows rapidly up, and, when the full time is come, it is all found to be ripe. Although there may be difference of the soil, as rich or poor, to the unequal nourishment afforded by the rains and dew, and to the different ways in which man has performed his business in reference to it. These are things which are the same in kind are like to one another— why should we doubt in regard to man, as if he were a solitary exception to this? The sage and we are the same in kind. (4) In accordance with the scholar Lung said, “If a man make hempen sandals without knowing the size of people’s feet, yet I know that he will not make them like baskets.” Sandals are all like one another, because all men’s feet are like one another. (5) So with the mouth and flavor; all mouths have the same relishes. Yi Ya only apprehended before me what my mouth relishes.

Suppose that his mouth in its relish for flavors different from that of other men, as is the case with dogs or horses which are not the same in kind with us, why should all men be found following Yi Ya in their relishes? In the matter of taste all the people model themselves after Yi Ya; that is, the mouths of all men are like one another. (6) And so also it is with the ear. In the matter of sounds the whole people model themselves after the music-master K’wang; that is, the ears of all men are like one another. (7) And so also it is with the eye. In the case of Tsze-Too, there is no man but would recognize that he was beautiful. Anyone who would not recognize the beauty of Tsze-Too must have no eyes. (8) Therefore I say—Men’s mouths agree in having the same relishes, their eyes agree in recognizing the same beauty: shall their minds alone be without that which they similarly approve? What is it then of which they similarly approve? It is, I say, the principle of our nature, and the determinations of righteousness. The sages only apprehended before me that of which my mind approves along with other men. Therefore, the principles of our nature and the determination of righteousness are agreeable to my mind, just as the flesh of grass and grain fed animals is agreeable to my mouth.”

There are ‘Five Delusions of Thought’, they are: Greed, hatred, ignorance, conceits or arrogance and doubt. Greed, hatred, and ignorance are called the ‘Three Poisons’; they defile our nature and destroy the Five Constant Virtues. Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch1, in his final instruction gave a stanza entitled “The Real Buddha of the Essence of Mind.” In this stanza, Hui Neng illustrates the destructiveness of greed, hatred and ignorance: “The Essence of Mind or Tathagata (suchness) is the real Buddha, while heretical views and the three poisonous elements are Mara (Satan).

Enlightened by Right Views, we call forth the Buddha within us. When our nature is dominated by the three poisonous elements as a result of heretical views we are said to be possessed by Mara; but when right views eliminate from our mind these poisonous elements, Mara will be transformed into a real Buddha.

The Dharmakaya, (Pure Nature) the Sambhogakaya (Spiritual Body) and the Nirmanakaya (Manifestation of form in body). These three bodies emanate from one (essence of mind). He who is able to realize this fact intrusively has sown the seed, and will reap the fruit of enlightenment.

It is from the Nirmanakaya that our ‘Pure Nature’ emanates. Wither the former the latter is always to be found. Guided by ‘Pure Nature’, the Nirmanakaya treads the right path, and will some day attain to the Sambhgakaya, perfect and infinite. Pure nature is the out growth of our sensual instincts; by getting rid of sensuality we attain the Pure Dharmakaya.

When our temperament is such that we are no longer the slaves of the five-objects, and when we have realized the essence of mind, even for one ksana only, then truth is known to us.”

Delusion of view and delusion of thought are created by attachment to the Five Desires. Delusions are responsible for the manifestation of the Seven Passions. When the mind is moved by loss or gain, honor or disgrace, the passions are stirred. To experience and react to the seven passions is normal human reaction to stimuli, but the longing for, or the desire to repeat pleasure will often lead to the Three Poisons and the Seven Passions.

The goal in religion is to cultivate us, to fill our hearts with true love, mercy, and compassion. The intent is not to negate our emotions or to become emotionless machines. However, we cannot allow passions and desires to blind ourselves to the cause of suffering.

Delusion of view and delusion of thought stimulates the mind to react to phenomenon. Life’s conditions and circumstances may stimulate the mind in a positive or negative direction, this generates within us conflicting desires and expectations. In order to fulfill our desires and meet expectations we contrive ideas and methods to obtain our goals.

When ideas are virtuous, goals are accomplished with methods that encompass the higher ideals of mankind; therefore the fulfillment of our desires enables us to uplift ourselves and to benefit others. To elevate the mind and contribute to the cultivation of others is called the desire of the virtuous.

When ideas are without virtue and methods unethical, we produce evil deeds. Evil deeds taint our pure nature and lead us into greater delusion. This process is called the cycle of delusion. The cycle of delusion can be illustrated with a diagram of the delusion triangle.



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In the center of the triangle we have ego. Our egos, which have no independent nature of their own, deceive us into the belief that we are separate beings. Ego is the center of delusion.

All deeds are produced by thought and action, without the action of the body and mind no deeds could be produced. Through negative thoughts and actions, we produce evil deeds that increase our delusion. As delusion increases, virtue decreases, and the cycle of delusion is likely to accelerate and intensify. Only by returning to our innate virtue can we break the bonds that bind us to suffering, and thus stop sowing the seeds of our destruction.

Out of delusions, passions manifest. Although passions, like desires, are a natural consequence of living in a physical body, if we attach to passions and act upon them in a way that hurts others, or ourselves we once again stain our pure nature and increase our delusions.

In the East it is believed the common people are controlled by what is known as the seven passions. They are: Joy, anger, sorrow, fear, sensual love, hatred and lust. It is through our attachments for the seven passions that we loose ourselves in the ego triangle. Whenever our intention is to cause harm or pain to ourselves or to others, we are committing evil deeds.

The evil we commit serves only to darken the light of our spirit. Evil has many dark faces and each face may vary in appearance, but if we break past the variations and look at the root of evil, we find there are ten categories of evil deeds. From these ten, all evil emanates.

The ‘Ten Evil Deeds’ are divided into three categories: bodily actions, verbal actions, and mental actions. “The reason I have great trouble is that I have a self. When I no longer have a self, what trouble have I?” Lao Tze,Tao Teh Ching.

Bodily Action: Killing, stealing, committing adultery.

Verbal Action: Harsh speech, gossip or frivolous speech,slander, lying.

Mental Action: Greed, hatred, ignorance.

“The original spirit of man loves Purity, but his mind disturbs it. The mind of man loves stillness, but his desires draw it away.” Tai Shang Lao Chun, Purity TranquilityClassic.

The Eastern religions believe when we succumb to the desires of the body and mind in this physical world, we commit evil deeds, which tie us to the realms of reincarnation. Buddha said there are 3600 heresies that are invented by deluded people out of concern for the illusory physical body. The deluded hold onto the idea of the physical body as real, and forget about the real body—the spiritual body, which is our absolute nature. When this happens, the people become lost and their pure nature is obscured.

Our physical body is like a house with six doors, and the host of the house is our nature. The host cowers at the desires of the six thieves; eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, and mind consciousness.

The six doors (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind) must be shut (cut off attachment to sense-objects) before tranquility is restored in the house. Our mind is like a monkey, which is trapped in this house. An active animal, he will always try to open the doors in order to satisfy his desire for fun and games, and if successful, will only bring suffering and regret.

Many people in the world discuss suffering and its cause. I think it can be argued that few explain the causes of suffering better than Buddha. All religions teach the causes of suffering. One need only research the books of the world’s religions to find numberless examples.

The Nature and Cause of Suffering According to the Buddha:

The Eight Sufferings2:

1. Birth

2. Old age

3. Illness

4. Death

5. Separation from beloved ones or things.

6. Yearning for something or somebody, but failing to attain it, or him/her.

7. Being in the company of enemies or those whom we hate.

8. The Five Aggregates of suffering: Matters, reception, perception, volitional activities, and consciousness.

To understand the cause of suffering, we must understand its root— delusion. The root of delusion is the attachment of the mind to what is unreal and impermanent. How, then, are we to counteract the pull of delusion in this world we live in? Bodhidharma, 1st patriarch of the Tao in China in the latter 18 generations gives us some advice. In the ‘Breakthrough Sermon’, a student asks Bodhidharma: “But the sutras say the six paramitas [perfections] are charity, morality, patience, devotion, meditation, and wisdom. Now you say the paramitas refer to the purification of the senses. What do you mean by this? And why are they called ferries?”

“Cultivating the Paramitas means purifying the six senses by overcoming the six thieves. Casting out the thief of the eye by abandoning the visual world is charity. Keeping out the thief of the ear by not listening to sounds is morality. Humbling the thief of the nose by equating all smells as neutral is patience. Controlling the thief of the mouth by conquering desires to taste, praise, and explain is devotion. Quelling the thief of the body by remaining unmoved by sensations of touch is meditation. And taming the thief of the mind by not yielding to delusions but practicing wakefulness is wisdom. The six paramitas are transports. Like boats or rafts, they transport beings to the other shore. Hence they’re called ferries.”

It is explained to us that in seeking to understand the root of suffering, we should not attach our minds to the western concept of sin, since the notion of sin is itself unreal and impermanent. This point is illustrated in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, in which the monk Upali tells a story of Vimalakirti, an enlightened being who lived in India at the same time as Sakyamuni Buddha: “Upali said: ‘World Honored One, I am not qualified to call on Vimalakirti to enquire after his health. For once, two bhiksus broke the prohibitions, and being shameful of their sins they dared not to call on the Buddha. They came to ask me: ‘Upali, we have broken the commandments and are ashamed of our sins, so we dare not ask the Buddha about this and come to you. Please teach us the rules of repentance so as to wipe out our sins.’ I then taught them the rules of repentance.”

“Thereat Vimalakirti came and said: ‘Hey, Upali, do not aggravate their sins which you should wipe out at once without further disturbing their minds. Why? Because the nature of sin is neither within nor without, nor in between. As the Buddha said, living beings are impure because their minds are impure; if their minds are pure they are all pure. And mind is also neither within nor without, nor in between. Their minds being such, so are their sins. Likewise all things do not go beyond (their) suchness. Upali, when your mind is liberated, is there any remaining impurity?’ I replied: ‘There will be no more.’ He said: ‘Likewise, the minds of all living beings are free from impurities. Upali, false thoughts are impure and the absence of false thoughts is purity. Inverted (ideas) are impure and the absence of inverted (ideas) is purity. Clinging to the ego is impure and non-clinging to ego is purity. Upali, all phenomena rise and fall without staying (for an instant) like an illusion and lightning. All phenomena do not wait for one another and do not stay for the time of a thought. They all derive from false views and are like a dream and a flame, the moon in water, and an image in a mirror for they are born from wrong thinking. He who understands this is called a keeper of the rules of discipline and he who knows it is called a skillful interpreter (of the precepts).”

Moralists and religious teachers believe the ‘Five Desires’ and ‘Ten Evil Deeds’ enslave our minds in darkness. It is their position that through the practice of the ‘Five Constant Virtues’ and with detachment from the ‘Seven Passions’, we can avoid the ‘Eight Sufferings’ caused by the desires of the six senses and stop the contamination of our self-nature.

Human delusion and passions are the work of the mind and brain. The manifestation of the mind’s work is called ‘Life’s Work’, and our actions while in this world compose our human existence. If our life is one dominated by passions, desires, and delusions, then we have succumbed to the calling of our physical body, ignoring the transcendent nature of our spirit. However, if we remain unattached to desires and enlighten ourselves to our pure nature, then our life will have clarity and awareness.

Religions teach that the recompense for a life of passion and delusion is suffering, but peace of mind is the reward for regarding the body and desires as unreal and impermanent.

To View My Previous Article:The Charts of the Restoration of Human Nature

To View My Next Article:The Four Noble Truths

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