This helpful analogy from The Budda comes from his conversation with Magandiya. This translation is from In The Buddha’s Words, Bhikkua Bodhi, ed. (Boston: Wisdom, 2005).
Not only are desires important, but also understanding them clearly is difficult.
The Buddha’s position is not easy to understand. Permit me to make some suggestions that may help to understand two chief points he’s making here. One is about the nature of desire and the other is about the objects of desire. [I have discussed this in other writings.]
A lust or craving for sensual pleasure is just an intense desire for sensual pleasure.
Consider, as a less extreme example, an ordinary desire, such as the desire to eat delicious food. That desire is different from hunger, which is simply the desire to eat.
It’s important to distinguish a desire from its object. In the case of hunger, for example, the hunger is the desire and the food is the object of the desire.
The reason that distinction is important is that people are often confused with respect to their evaluations of desires and their evaluations of the objects of desires. In other words, they often confuse the good of the desire with the good of that desire’s object.
Ask, for example, ‘Is hunger good?’ This illustrates the ordinary confusion. At least if it’s nutritious, eating food is good in the sense that it nourishes the body and that permits continued life. So the consequences of eating food may be, and usually are, good.
What, though, about the hunger itself? Although the consequences of being hungry can be good in the sense that hunger stimulates us to eat and the food that we eat may sustain us, being hungry is an unpleasant state. In itself, it’s not good. It can really hurt. In fact, the good with respect to hunger is the nonexistence (end, elimination, annihilation) of the hunger.
At least hunger has a biological purpose. The desire to eat delicious food, though, insofar as it is different from mere hunger, has no biological purpose. It’s really just a distraction. Presumably, this is why being an epicure is considered by many religious or spiritual traditions as being a foolish or wrong way to live.
Other desires work the same way. The more we are free from desires, the better off we are. The good with respect to any desire is its nonexistence.
This applies to the desire or lust for sensual pleasures, which is one point The Buddha is making.
What, though, about the desire for freedom from all desires? In the tradition coming from The Buddha, this is the desire for spiritual awakening, the desire for nirvana, which is living without dissatisfaction or suffering.
Desires are really peculiar kinds of thought or energy. They can be really troublesome or they can disappear quickly on their own. Would we be better off without them?
Although we would not be better off without the objects of some desires (e.g., nutritious food), yes, we would be better off without them.
This applies even to the desire for freedom from desires. A spiritual seeker desires, at least in part, freedom from all desires. This can be understood as heaven, which is union with God or the Divine, or as nirvana.
Desiring heaven or nirvana is not the optimal state. Although it may be a nonegocentric desire (and, so, superior to egocentric desires), it’s still a desire and we’d be better off without it. The best kind of life is not that of a spiritual seeker. Being a spiritual seeker may be thought of as a transitional state.
The best kind of life is that of a sage (saint, successful philosopher); it’s one without acquisitiveness, enmity, and ignorance. The Buddha characterizes it negatively as a state that requires “the destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, [and] the destruction of delusion.” In other words, the best kind of life, a life of wisdom, which may be correctly — although partially — thought and talked about as being in heaven [dwelling in the Kingdom of God] or living in nirvana, is living without desire. Nothing could be more peaceful than that.
It requires opening to the unconditioned. Being is unconditioned, whereas Becoming is conditioned. Another way to say this is to say that Becoming is populated by forms (objects, things) whereas Being is formless.
Living well is living in Becoming from the standpoint of Being.
The other chief point the Buddha is making to Magandiya is one to which everyone should readily assent, namely, that the objects of desires have different valuations.
He looks at most human beings as we normal human beings look at drug addicts. We feel compassion towards them and hope that they find a better way. Although we may not know how to help them, it’s normal to want to help them. Anyone who thinks the life of a junkie is optimal is a fool. Probably nobody understands that better than junkies.
Is desiring delicious food really much different from desiring heroin? Obtaining either may provide some temporary relief, but aren’t they both distractions?
What about other popular objects of desires such as the desire for sex, for love, for acclaim, for power, for wealth, for beauty, and so on? Are they all distractions?
The Buddha claims that there’s a wholesome state that’s even better than divine bliss. If so, could anything be more desirable than that?
To put his point in my preferred language, some abstract goods are superior to others. In effect, The Buddha challenges us, in multiple texts, to ignore lesser goods and pursue higher ones.
Life is short and the only way to live well is to master meditation.
“Short is the life of human beings . . . Meditate . . . do not be negligent, or else you will regret it later.” [Ibid, my emphasis.]