Desires are inexhaustible. I vow to put an end to them.
This is the second of the four Bodhisattva Vows that I’ve chanted for many years, a way to bring to consciousness my intention to “wake up.”
The Buddha taught that hunger or desire is the engine that drives human suffering. It’s the incessant wanting, and grasping for things, people and experiences. It’s never feeling satisfied, always reaching for more—the cycle of samsara, or perpetually wandering, that continues life after life, or at least moment after moment. The Buddha taught the path to freedom is to stop grasping for the next thing and to see my own true nature.
I don’t have to look very far to see the effects of hunger and greed on a personal, social, political and global level. We are on the brink of destroying ourselves and taking this beautiful earth down with us.
So why does this teaching rub me the wrong way?
Most of the Buddhist training and reading I’ve done focuses on the disease of greed: me, me, me, I want, I want, I want. Pema Chodron teaches us to stay with the itch and not reach every time I want something. This teaching is good medicine in a culture where greed is the main disease. It’s easy and desirable to want more and to just keep taking, no matter the cost or impact.
But how does it work when I’m coming from the other end of the desire scale? Am I being conditioned to believe that wanting anything is selfish? Sometimes even knowing that I want at all is a conundrum, whether it’s my desire for a new pair of shoes, making more money, or even being a compassionate human being.
I’ve been conditioned to not reach when I find myself wanting something. But if I’m sitting at the banquet of life and my stomach is growling, and I’m saying, “No, thank you,” does that make me a better Buddhist? Hardly. Am I free? It sure doesn’t feel like it!
It’s small wonder that I and probably many others hear this vow as stop-eating-you-fat-cow.
If, as the Buddha said, the only thing I have to do is see my own mind (oh, is that all?), what are the implications of seeing that I’ve been on a diet of self-denial? How do I put an end to desires when I haven’t allowed myself to desire much in the first place?
One thing Buddhist practice teaches is that just as the unending cycle of greed is a form of delusion, so is not allowing myself to see my wants. It’s the other side of the same coin, a way of abdicating responsibility for myself as an alive, desiring human being. It’s safe. Things don’t get messy if I don’t let myself want, reach for, or take anything. I don’t disturb anyone, I don’t cause envy in others and I don’t get disappointed.
I can say that Buddhist practice is about nothing if not taking a fierce and honest look at myself. Shirking responsibility becomes more painful than the so-called safety it offers. The strategy doesn’t work anymore, just as constantly reaching for the next thing doesn’t ultimately satisfy or offer a sense of completeness.
So if self-denial doesn’t work to free me, and the hyped-up go-for-it-and-own-it message of our culture is another way of reinforcing the very greed that has gotten our race and planet into so much pain and trouble in the first place, what is the solution? Where is freedom to be found?
Fortunately, the second Bodhisattva Vow is about putting an end to desires and not about reinforcing the kind of neurotic self-denial that I was brought up with. On a deeper level, putting an end to desires has to do with getting unstuck from my fixed ideas of who I am, including the self-denying so-called fat cow. In fact, in order to let go of desires, I need to allow myself not only to feel and taste them completely, sometimes I must also reach, act and take. In other words, I have to be OK with being my whole self, and sometimes that is a hungry fat cow.
If I have the intention to be clear and come from a place of wholeness, knowing what I want is not a problem; on the contrary, it’s good news. Choosing to take or not comes out of clarity, not a place of need or greed, nor a place of safety. Rather, it becomes about fully expressing the one life I was given.
The Buddha taught about learning how to be satisfied with what I already have, and to see that I am enough, here and now, with my talents, neuroses, self-doubt and hunger. The practice is putting myself and my life out there as an offering, reaching and taking from the banquet of life, without greed or pride.
Despite her family’s heartfelt predictions that STJ Lennon would fulfill her true calling and be the Persian Princess she was born to be, marry a rich man, wear gold and diamond rings and enjoy the comforts of her high seat—an altogether lovely dream, she admits—she instead found herself on a different path. STJ Lennon currently lives the life of a Buddhist practitioner, psychologist, yoga student and lover of all things food. She will never finish exploring her own heart and mind and helping others do the same. For more of her musings check out her blog at heightofthemoon.wordpress.com.
Editor: Anne Clendening
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