This week I came across a New York Times article called Love People, Not Pleasure. It’s well worth reading. But the most important section is just three paragraphs long. Here it is:
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we are wired to seek fame, wealth and sexual variety. These things make us more likely to pass on our DNA. Had your cave-man ancestors not acquired some version of these things (a fine reputation for being a great rock sharpener; multiple animal skins), they might not have found enough mating partners to create your lineage.
But here’s where the evolutionary cables have crossed: We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness. My brain says, “Get famous.” It also says, “Unhappiness is lousy.” I conflate the two, getting, “Get famous and you’ll be less unhappy.”
But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.
This is as good an explanation of the Buddhist position on the matter of desire as I have ever come across.
Often people are confused because they’ve heard that the Buddhist Four Noble Truths are 1) All life is suffering, 2) Suffering is caused by desire, 3) Eliminate desire and you eliminate suffering, 4) Follow the Noble Eightfold Path to eliminate desire.
My teacher, Nishijima Roshi, was extremely critical of this understanding of the Four Noble Truths. He heard it when he was a youngster in Japan and it made no sense at all to him. You can’t eliminate desire! Without the basic desires for food, water and shelter, we’d die. Without the desire for sex, the human race would disappear. If Buddhism was about eliminating desire, he thought, then Buddhism was stupid.
Nishijima was not the first person to notice this. Lots of people have thought the same thing and many of those people, quite sensibly, rejected Buddhism altogether as being simply unrealistic. Which it would be, if that’s what it actually said.
It may be true that the cause of suffering is desire. However, the solution to this problem is not to eliminate desire, but to confront and understand desire for what it actually is.
Meditation as Desire Confrontation
The explanation I’ve quoted above is extremely useful for understanding the problem intellectually. But mere intellectual understanding of the problem won’t solve it. This is because, as the quote above suggests, the mechanisms of desire are extremely strong and very subtle. They are literally hardwired into our nervous systems. Desire cannot be eliminated or transcended even if we completely comprehend it with our thinking minds.
This is why meditation is such a brilliant solution. It forces us to confront our desires head-on, over and over and over again. When you sit in non-goal-seeking meditation you are forced into direct confrontation with some very basic desires such as the desire to not be sitting there facing a blank wall, the desire to be doing something productive or at least interesting, the desire to not be bored…
You sit there and you meet your desires moment by moment and you do not do anything at all to satisfy even the easiest ones to satisfy. You want to move, but you don’t. You want this meditation session to be a good one full of peaceful feelings and bliss, but you stick with it even when it’s full of conflict and distractions. You just sit still.
This usually causes desire to redouble its efforts. Rather than getting more blissful and full of peace, you get positively enraged. It’s not an easy practice, however simple it seems. It never was. Not for anyone.
But We Westerners Just Can’t Do That!
These days lots of Westerners have a fantasy that meditation is nice and easy for those blissed-out Asian people over in The Asias, but that we Westerners have a much harder time with it. In working on this Dogen book I’m writing now, I came across a bit in Dogen’s essay Bendowa (A Talk on Practicing Pursuing the Truth) that I’d forgotten about.
In this essay he has an imaginary questioner ask, “In India and China, the people are originally unaffected and straight… As a result, when they are taught the Buddha-Dharma they understand and enter very quickly. In our country (Japan) … we are deeply attached to the results of intentional effort, and we like superficial quality. Can people like this expect to experience the Buddha-Dharma straight away, even if they sit in zazen?”
Dogen answers by basically saying what I just said, that zazen is tough for everybody including people from India and China and that you just need to make the effort anyway. What’s funny to me is that this exact same stance is now taken by Western people who include Japan among those countries where they imagine meditation is easy for everybody.
Bliss Feels Like Shit
This is why quick and easy methods of experiencing spiritual bliss or achieving altered states of awareness are ultimately damaging and a colossal waste of time and money. Achieving spiritual bliss and altered states of awareness are just more ways of giving in to desire. Your desire for bliss or altered states is satiated for a little while, but then it comes back again even stronger and you have to make even greater efforts to achieve it, or else simply suffer for the lack of it.
Bliss will always make you feel like shit after a while.
What we’re working on when we do zazen is the exact opposite of “following our bliss.” We are following our lack of bliss, following our lack of satisfaction. Paul Westerberg was right. In The Replacements song Unsatisfied he says, “Everything goes / Well, anything goes all the time / Everything you dream of is right in front of you / And everything is a lie.”
But the fact that everything is a lie is OK. What the article calls “nature’s useful idiots in society” lie to you and say that the best thing you can possibly do is satisfy your desires. They do so in the hope of satisfying their own desires with the money and fame they take away from you. But in the end they fail.
On the other hand, not literally everything is a lie. Open your eyes and see the truth. It’s right in front of you all the time.
Desire and Happiness
We don’t confront desire this way in order to be all austere and severe with ourselves. We do so in order to find real happiness. If Buddhism wasn’t about finding happiness it wouldn’t even be worth talking about.
Real happiness doesn’t come from satisfying our desires. Real happiness is to be found in dissatisfaction itself.
Sit down and shut up for a little while, and it all becomes crystal clear.
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My desire is to pay my rent. Your donations help me satsify that! Thank you!
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My on-line retreat at Tricycle.com is still happening. Check it out!
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Here’s my upcoming events schedule:
Aug. 16 9:30 AM – Noon at Dogen Sangha Los Angeles in the Veteran’s Memorial Building 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230
Sept. 6 Houston Zen Center All Day Zazen
Sept. 9 Austin Zen Center
Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening
Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland – Lecture Event
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany
Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab
Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands
Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)
Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1, Utrecht)
Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU
Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 9: Noon – 5pm Manchester, UK