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In Buddhist culture, there exists the core notion of the three poisons, which are considered to be the cause of all sufferings.
In English, the poisons are generally translated as confusion, desire, and hatred, or variations of these terms.
In my experience, while confusion and hatred are generally grasped correctly, the poison of desire is often misunderstood.
In short, confusion refers to the mistaken notion that individuals exist in separation from one another and from everything else. In other words, it corresponds to identification to an « I » that is separate from everything else.
From this confusion, hatred, or aversion, arises. It refers to the feeling that results from being confronted to a particular experience one doesn't appreciate, and to the activity of nurturing this feeling.
Similarly, from this confusion, desire, or greed, arises. But what does it refer to ?
One definition of desire is : « the feeling that accompanies an unsatisfied state. » So, in other words, desire refers to the feeling that results from being confronted to the absence of a particular experience one appreciates, and to the activity of nurturing this feeling.
In order to avoid the sufferings that stem from desire and aversion, it is tempting to simply eliminate what causes desire and aversion. In other words, just like, in the case of aversion, one might be tempted to sever all interactions with objects of aversion, in the case of desire, one might be tempted to relinquish all objects of desire.
In my experience, this temptation to avoid, although quite common it would seem, is based in error. It stems from not recognizing the function of the arising of the objects of both desire and aversion.
I believe it is important to recognize that objects of aversion arise in order to redirect the individual on their path. They are important clues that inform about something which has gone wrong, that the mark has been missed. And thus, trying to suppress them once they have arisen is like denying oneself of the lesson. Ultimately, it is choosing not to learn, and not to grow. So in this sense it is self-denial.
Attempting to eradicate objects of aversion is the act of compounding error with additional error. It is creating more bad karma, instead of attempting to understand, and to create good karma. It only makes matters worse. A striking illustration of this course of action would be escalation of hostilities leading to war.
The next interrogation is then : why do objects of desire arise ?
According to the Wiktionary, the word « desire » could come from de and sidus, the latter meaning « a star. »
Thus, I believe it is essential to realize that objects of desire arise in order to confirm that the actions of the individual are on the mark. They are important beacons too. They inform about something which is going according to plan. They embody the next part of the path which is gradually coming into view.
The function of such objects of desire is also to provide incentives for maintaining the forward motion on the rightful path. As such, they are essential to keep the growth process alive. They are stars pointing to the destination and the repentance-free path.
So, similarly, attempting to relinquish objects of desire is basically self-denial. It is the act of not rewarding good practice. It creates bad karma, bad habit-energy, because of training oneself in such a fashion as to prevent the process from occurring properly.
In my view, the crucial distinction to make is that the problem is not the objects of desire, but desire itself. The problem is in the sustaining of that feeling that something is absent. In other words, it is focusing on missing instead of focusing on the process which leads to getting.
It is a problem because it throws off the process. When energy is not invested in the process, the process doesn't yield fruits. And when the process doesn't yield fruits, then, eventually, it becomes tempting to abandon the process altogether.
And then all sorts of doubts arise. Perhaps the process isn't worthwhile, or perhaps one isn't worthy, or perhaps it's not okay to want things, or perhaps it's not okay to have things, or perhaps one doesn't deserve anything and everything. Ultimately, if they are pursued, all such doubts become hurts which will have to be healed.
It is important to observe that these doubts are objects of aversion themselves. Doubt is not a pleasant experience. When these doubts arise, they in fact inform us that something is going wrong, namely, that the process has been abandoned. And indeed, when one resumes focusing on process, these doubts vanish.
Thus, all kind of problems arise when one stops addressing the process, and instead becomes obsessive about the fruits. That is desire. That is the poison.
And I guess the point is, that it's okay to want things and to have things. In fact, it is necessary if one is to live in the ordinary. It's part of the process. And it's okay to have a dream, or a vision in one's mind about where one wants to go or what one wants to experience. In fact, isn't it unavoidable ?
But if one finds that when they pursue the vision, their efforts don't seem to bring them any closer to it, then making themselves feel bad about it by concentrating on the unsatisfied state is to be avoided. Because that is desire. That is the poison.
One should instead resume concentrating on process.
Why focus on denial and distance, instead of focusing on entitlement and the joy of the experience of advancing towards, and reaching the object of desire ? Why thus make distance and denial seem bigger, instead of emphasizing the positive aspects ?
Isn't desire subtly masochistic ? Isn't it an addiction to self-denial, and suffering, and gloominess ?
Instead, why not direct one's efforts towards what one can do, in the present moment, to keep going forward towards the fulfillment of the vision ?
(« Photo of the magnetic field of two bar magnets with unlike poles cl... » by Alexander Wilmer Duff)
There are equivalents to this interpretation in other cultures. For instance :
In « The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan » :
Many times a person in a pessimistic mood, in a kind of disturbed condition may wish for death, wish for failure, wish for anything. If he only knew what an effect it has, he would be frightened. Even in pain, if a person could refrain from saying: 'I am in pain', he would do a great deal of good to himself. If a person who has met with misfortune would even avoid saying: 'I am experiencing misfortune', it would be a great thing. For when a person acknowledges the existence of something he does not want, he only gives it a greater life. In the same way when a person acknowledges something that he wants, he gives that life too. But when a person says: 'Oh, I have waited and waited and waited; my ship will never come', he is keeping his ship back in the sea. His ship will never arrive in the port, while the one who does not even see the ship, but says: 'It is coming, it is coming' - he is calling it. It will come.
(source : The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan, Vol. Two - THE MYSTICISM OF SOUND AND MUSIC, CHAPTER I : The Power of the Word)
From Søren Kierkegaard :
Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.
From Henry David Thoreau :
The world is but a canvas to the imagination.
From Richard Wagner
One supreme fact which I have discovered is that it is not willpower, but fantasy-imagination that creates. Imagination is the creative force. Imagination creates reality.
And in conclusion, as far as Buddhism is concerned, I believe it is important to realize that
Buddhism proposes vehicles (namely : Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, wherein the -yana suffix translates as vehicle).
Or, in other words, Buddhism does not propose destinations, apart perhaps from its core promise of leading to the end of suffering, which can be construed as a sort of destination.
But from this, one shouldn't infer that there aren't any destinations, as, obviously, if there weren't any, then why would vehicles be needed ?
Perhaps the point is not to systematically let go of everything, like the proverbial monk in the cave at the top of mountain, in the hopes of attaining an ultimate experience of complete enlightenment, from which there is no return.
Perhaps what Buddhism proposes is a way of functioning in the cosmos, free of suffering, by virtue of having recognized the mechanisms of the cosmos, and of diligently remaining observant of these mechanisms so as to stay on the repentance-free path.
Perhaps enlightenment is correctly understanding the vehicles, recognizing how and why they work, and extinguishing the tendencies, such as desire, that prevent the vehicles from functioning properly, so as to be able to use the vehicles to reach destinations one envisions, free of suffering, by virtue of having recognized the behaviors that ultimately cause suffering, and of abstaining from them.
Perhaps this is the Magic City, from where everything that can be envisioned can be experienced.