Written in 2004
The phrase ‘desire for liberation’ seems like a contradiction in terms: how can desire, which is regarded as a root cause of all suffering and bondage, be associated with liberation,
which is regarded as the “total eradication of hate, greed and delusion”, meaning also the absence of attachments, which is the samsaric byproduct of desire. So how can ‘desire’ and ‘liberation’ go together?
In the Dharma circles it seems that desires have a bad reputation, while liberation is considered a worthy goal. In Pali there are two different words to describe two different kinds of desires, and the desire for liberation falls under the “good & wholesome” category (Chanda).
I’d like to examine if desire and liberation are that opposite at all.
A few years ago I witnessed an exchanged that left a very deep impact on me. I was serving in a retreat that Shaila Catherine taught in Israel. One day, during the questions and answers, one participant asked about boredom; he said he was bored. To this, Shaila could have answered in a few possible ways: she could have explained about the five hindrances of which boredom is one of; she could have encouraged him to cultivate more interest in the small details of the breath or the details of the moment, or she could have sent
him to do some walking meditation to move his energy a bit.
Instead, Shaila did something rather surprising: she asked him why he was there, at the retreat. The young man stopped and thought for a moment, then said, “Because I don’t want to waste my life”.
These words struck a deep cord in me.
What does it mean to “not waste my life”?
How can we live life in such a way that we feel it’s not wasted?
When I was in my twenties, many years ago, I lived in New York City and – appropriate to the age and place – my time was dedicated to having fun and exploring sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Then one day, I came across the famous words of the American poet Henry David Thoreau:
‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately’.
These words shook me to my very core: what does it mean to live deliberately? Something in every cell of my being recognized and resonated with the notion of living deliberately, though I was at a loss as to what it meant.
For me not to waste my life is to live deliberately. And to live deliberately is to be awake.
So the desire to be awake brought me to the practice.
We often hear we should be wary, suspicious about the desire to be liberated because it comes from the ego; the ego wants to wear it like a medal. Generally I don’t like the word “ego”, as it is usually used in a derogatory, demeaning connotation, as if there’s something wrong or unspiritual with the ego. I see ego as the arising of sense of self, and as such, the ego is not an obstacle to liberation, especially if we don’t identify with it, if we see through it, and see its rising and falling, similarly to the four foundations of awareness, described in the Maha Satipatana Suttra. Let’s not care so much about the ego when we feel the longing to be awake. A rocket sent to the moon is not concerned with who sent it – the Americans or the Russians; the rocket is only thinking, “Wow! I’m going to see the moon!” In a similar way, when we feel a deep longing to be free, let’s not concern ourselves with where this wish is coming from; the only thing that matters is wanting to be awake.
The arising of desire in inevitable, it is inherent in the state of embodiment. According to the Buddha, when perception occurs – recognition occurs, and giving name and conceptualization occurs, and from there it’s a short way for desire and aversion to arise. From desires we form attachments.
This may not be purely Buddhist, but I believe that all desires stem from the “original” desire for oneness, for union, just as every pain stems from the ‘original’ pain, the pain of separation, which is the sense of self, the arising of ego.
Similarly, I believe that underneath all desires there's the desire to be free, free from suffering, free from pain, but these desires are mislead, misdirected to various external objects, to wealth, power, fame, and other sensual pleasures, comfort and security. The fulfillment of these desires is futile, but it brings us a glimpse of the state of freedom, a short-lived but tangible taste of liberation. It is the mind’s attempt to heal the separation, to return to union.
The Advaita-Vedanta teacher, HWL Punjaji said, “The moment you give rise to the desire for freedom, from that moment you are on the raft. If you desire freedom above everything else, then that takes care of all the rest. It takes care of all desires.”
Being good little Buddhists (myself included) we sometimes think our desires are in the way, an obstacle to being free. We are afraid of our desires and their power. We think we need to choose between desires – and liberation. But desires are only a problem in the mind that splits things into duality, “this desire is good, that one is bad; this one is holier than that one”. The problem lies with what the mind does with the desire, in the hope of escaping the power of the desire.
We shouldn’t fight our desires – conflicts feed the ego/self. The struggle to eliminate desires is in itself an expression of self. The self thrives on struggles and conflicts. When we resist our desires saying, “I don’t want to be slave to them” there is force; which means they still have power on us. My teacher yogi Amrit Desai used to say, “What you resist – persists.” We make a mistake when we think the goal of spirituality is to conquer and destroy greed and attachments. We don’t need to rid ourselves from attachments and desires, we only need – through determined and diligent effort – to see clearly into the their empty nature. Then we can watch them drop, one by one, and enjoy the freedom we have every day more and more, every day less and less desires, not by force but by the understanding and wisdom that comes out of practice, or by some spontaneous magic and grace of life.
When we remember that desires are also the Movement of Life – then we make sure we don’t squash them. We’re put in the dualistic world to be completely immersed in duality, to be sunk in the dual mud to our neck until we’re so sick of it – we seek a way out. Then we discover the non-dual and we rejoice, and reject the dual. Finally we may discover that these are not two, not separate, there’s no dual and non-dual. We’re sunk in the mud of duality and it’s not a problem! At the first stage we study the mud, examine it, contemplate it, read and write about it, try to transcend it. Finally we realize: there’s nothing to transcend! Yes, we’re stuck in the mud, and yet, there’s no mud, there’s no stuckness.
Desires are pointers. They point us to the direction we want to go, like the finger pointing to the sun. It is usually said, “Don’t look at the finger – it’s just the pointer, look at the sun.” Perhaps at first, desires point and we need to look beyond them, to what they point at.
But I’ve discovered – everything is a pointer. Every thing in life points to the beyond.
Then we may discover something really strange: everything is pointing back to itself. There’s no difference between the pointer and the pointed. Everything is the stuff that liberation is made of.