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The Buddha’s essential message is, in a nutshell—end suffering and attain enlightenment.
The “suffering” the Buddha was speaking of is attachment—grasping and craving—the offspring of desire.
The logical implication would be that if desire is destroyed, suffering would end, but that is not what the Buddha meant. What he meant was, if we were not led about by our desires, suffering would end, which does not imply that desire is the cause of suffering.
The misunderstanding lies in our jumping to the unwarranted conclusion that desire is the bad guy, a common attitude whenever the discourse turns to precepts. We feel threatened by any outside interference with our lives, a perfectly natural response, and a familiar one, ever since as children, we balked at our parent’s commands.
Rebellion is a built in response embedded in us due to our love for independence. Unfortunately, however, it often obscures the message, which if we paused long enough to see, might bring light its reasonableness. A child busy at play may block out his mother’s pleas to eat, but if he didn’t eat he would have no energy for play.
Children don’t have desire for sex, wealth, fame, and so forth, and are more malleable in many ways than adults. But as adults, our appetites for objects of desire are irresistible and intrusion on them is perceived as a threat to our sovereignty. This is the case when teachings regarding desire are construe as retractions upon our way of life, particularly the pursuit of sex, wealth, and the material things we crave.
The Buddha never said that desire is bad; he only said its unwise pursuit may mask something better.
Most of us are not enlightened, we are children playing in the playground of desire. What other playground is there? If there is any restriction at all, it will be in the playground we are in. The Buddha knew this, and his teaching is not about some other world “out there” but in the desire realm we are in. He doesn’t think we know how to play in this realm well.
There are two ways to fulfil desires, a selfish way, and an unselfish way.
Which way we go depends on how we have habituated ourselves to go. Seeking selfish gratification binds us in jealousy, greed, and grasping beyond our means. It is ironic that we protest the teachings of the precepted ones on the grounds that they impose restrictions, when we bind ourselves infinitely by our own conniving and seeking. If we want to be free we don’t have to abandon our desires, but we must realize that we create our own heaven or hell through desire, and learn to play our hand better.
If we take a little time to consider what is reasonable, we will see that desire is either a friend or an enemy. It is like atomic energy that can light a city or destroy it. It will be a long, long, while before we have no desire and are enlightened like the Buddha; but we can learn to avoid the traps of desire by making more enlightened use of our desires.
We live in a far more sophisticated world than the Buddha did. Few of the Buddha’s listeners could read or write; much was transmitted by memory from those who attended the teachings and spread to those who were not present. Nothing was written down until a decade or so after the Buddha’s nirvana.
Much was framed in black and white; “this is good and that is bad,” because this is what the people of the day could understand. From this “black and white” teaching emerged the Mahayana, the Middle Way teachings, which became the central teachings of the Buddha about 1000 years after his passing until today.
The Middle Way Teachings don’t say no to sex, money, fine things, fame, and so forth, but explain that we should recognize them as strong energies we can harness to yield fulfillment, or bind us up in attachments.
The Buddha never said separate from desire. The Buddha said separate from selfishness. The problem of being unselfish with respect to our desires is that selfishness cannot be switched off. It requires a transition from one mode of being to another. Transitioning from selfishness to unselfishness, with respect to desire, is what defines the foundation of the Buddha’s teaching.
Some find the only way to transition is to become a monk or nun, but this is fraught with many problems as we all know. The monastic approach is a regression to the “black and white” approach and does not reflect the Middle Way. As lay people, we are more capable of merging with the Middle Way view and transitioning from a selfish mode of fulfilling desires to an unselfish mode.
The idea of “purity” often is force fed to us as renunciation, but the Buddha never meant renunciation by purity. By purity he meant being unselfish. He never said impurity was bad; but his teachings imply it obscures something better.
A kid in the playground always concerned about his toys, and even trying to appropriate the toys of others, will be bound up by his attitude even if the entire playground were his. But the kid who has nothing owns the playground because he is happy just being in it.
Us big kids can learn from the little ones and suffer far less by realizing how great life is when everything is ours. It already is, after all, so what is it we are looking for?