I refer to desires that become cravings as “unskillful desires,” thereby implying that there is such a thing as a “skillful desire.” Yet the concept of a skillful desire, a Right desire is not found in traditional Buddhist teaching. Typically, the two words … desire and craving … are equated, even though in Pali as in English, they are two separate words with different meanings.
Several years ago, however, I happened to hear a series of dharma talks on tape given by a learned student of the Buddha dharma, Larry Yang of San Francisco, on this very topic. It made sense to me, it fit with the dharma, and I felt it was very helpful in making ones way along the path. And so, I want to share my understanding of that teaching with you.
As a Buddhist, the five Precepts … not killing, helping others, refraining from sexual misconduct, speaking and listening with loving kindness, and not consuming things which are harmful … are an essential element of ones meditation practice and form a core guidance on how to live a Right life. We know that vast numbers of people on this earth do not follow these precepts, and not only do they suffer for it, but those who they abuse suffer as well. Indeed, most of us can point to many moments in our own past and even occasions in the present when we did not act in accordance with the Precepts.
Can one, as a Buddhist, “desire” to address this source of suffering, both by directly helping those in need and by spreading the Buddha dharma and bringing the benefits of its teaching to more people? Can we desire, for ourselves and others, a life that is in keeping with the Precepts? What about work … can we not desire to help others through our work, in ways both large and small? In general, can we desire things that are consistent with the Five Precepts? Is this not what engaged Buddhism is about?
It was with much surprise that I recently discovered that the Buddha as well as Larry Yang would say, “yes.” Listen to what the Buddha said:
What is right effort? Here a bhikkhu awakens desire for the non-arising of … unwholesome states, the abandoning of arisen unwholesome states, the arising of wholesome states, and the perfecting of arisen wholesome states, for which he makes efforts, arouses energy, exerts his mind, and endeavors. Bhikkhu Nanamoli, The Life of the Buddha, BPS Pariyatti Editions, 1992, p.239
If that is not support for the concept of Right desire and engaged Buddhism, I don’t know what is.
But there is one major caveat to this teaching on skillful v unskillful desires. And that caveat is that if such a desire has an unskillful origination either because of intent or lack of equanimity, then the desire becomes unskillful and a craving (or to use the Buddha’s phrasing, an unwholesome state).
Let me give some examples. Desiring to help others is a skillful desire, but if that desire arises from the intent to create an image of oneself as being good, then the desire becomes unskillful. Indeed the unskillful intent in this case indicates that one is not really interested in helping others.
Desiring to have friends is a skillful desire, but if that desire arises from dissatisfaction with ones life as it is now, if one is running from what is … from loneliness … then the desire becomes unskillful; it arises from a lack of equanimity. Whereas, if one is content with ones life as it is now, accepts that it’s just the way it is, and desires to have friends, then the desire is skillful.
Desiring to have a sexual relationship in a physically and psychologically healthy way is a skillful desire. But if that desire becomes obsessive, then the desire becomes unskillful because it arises from a lack of equanimity.
So, desires that are in furtherance of, or in keeping with, the five Precepts and are not tainted by unskillful origination are Right desires. They can and indeed should be acted upon for they move us along the path, they increase our happiness; they are skillful.
But beware that your ego does not play tricks on you. It is critically important to be mindful of the arising of desire and to be aware of its origination. To ensure that one’s desires remain or become Right desires, it is essential that you truly accept your life as it is now. If your acceptance is self-deception, your desires will not be based in equanimity and will remain cravings.
In order to not fall into this trap of self-deception, we need to give our acceptance an opportunity to take root before we engage in any desires, even potentially skillful ones. This is after all a major shift for us after spending most of our lives not accepting. And as I wrote in an earlier post (“12 Steps on the Buddhist Path”), we need to recognize that our craving for things is basically an addiction … we feel we need them to be happy … and so we need to follow the practice of 12-step programs and commit to not entertaining any of our desires/cravings for a period of time … however long it takes until you can honestly say that you accept yourself and your life as it is right now.
Now someone might say that despite the fact that Bhikkhu Nanamoli translated Right Effort using the word “desire,” such “good” desires are not desires at all … a desire is something obsessive, it controls our life, it by definition causes suffering. Certainly most desires or wants fit that definition. But I would counter that a desire is simply wanting something that is not. So while the skillful desire I have defined is not harmful, it is nevertheless a desire. Indeed, if one is far along in ones practice and is free of ego, such a desire can result directly from ones true Buddha nature rather than be the result of a choice one makes.
Desire is not in and of itself a harmful thing. It is the nature of a specific desire or its origination that renders it a harmful craving rather than Right.