There comes a moment in everyone’s practice when our fixed ideas of what is spiritual, and what’s not, collapse in a paradoxical heap before our very eyes. We’re troubled, mystified, frequently angered by these intrusions of too—messy life into the glass house of our idealized self; we’re left to wonder, very often, where desire parts ways with wisdom.
I was eating spaghetti one Sunday morning at a bucolic Zen monastery when such a riddle confronted me in the form of a tattooed, cigarette-smoking priest zooming by in a broken-down golf cart. A quarter of an hour before, I’d been prostrating before this very roshi as he held forth from the zendo altar. Now here he was playing zoom-zoom and puffing, cracking jokes and winking at girls without a hint of decorum or care.
New to practice, I could not reconcile this glaring [apparent] contradiction between what I took to be “Buddhist” behavior—some notion of cool-blooded detachment—and freewheeling, sensual life. How could so-called lower nature coexist fluently with higher yearning? There seemed to be a challenge here, and in the many years since that morning, I’ve come to learn that this built-in riddle tests every Buddhist I’ve ever known: How to make peace with the force of desire [for sex, money, status, you-name-it] while also practicing to be free. How can we learn to enjoy our desires without being tyrannized by them? Can we navigate the Middle Path? Or is it advisable, not being masters, to work on cooling our inner flames?
This riddle has many answers, of course, as many approaches as there are yogis struggling with their own wayward parts. Bearing this in mind, Tricycle asked a number of Buddhists from varying backgrounds to lend their voices to this conversation. French-born Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard offers an introductory teaching on three fundamental Buddhist approaches to working with desire: cultivating nonattachment to desired objects, examining the nature of desire, and using desire as path. Verses by eighth-century Buddhist master Shantideva warn against succumbing to the allure of worldly pleasures, while two writers reflect on the value of nonattachment: Ken McLeod counsels us to relinquish not what we desire, but desire itself, and Joan Duncan Oliver reveals her own grueling journey through addiction and recovery. Addressing the struggle to understand the nature of desire, teacher Tara Brach discovers the true longing under the skin of romantic obsession. How do we use desire as path? “Without wanting, there is no art,” writes poet Jane Hirshfield. Her six meditations celebrate the inextricable connection between creation and beauty. Fifteenth-century poet-monk Ikkyu meditates on the skillful use of desire, weaving the red thread of passion into the weft of his monastic robes. Finally, in a provocative interview, psychiatrist Mark Epstein merges Buddhist and Western psychologies in a defense of desire, and love songs from the Sixth Dalai Lama provide a consummate paean to the riddle of love and attachment.
There are no hard-and-fast answers, of course—only truthful reports from the front. As I deduced from that mischievous roshi, how we integrate our earthly appetites has a great deal to do with our happiness; for we don’t so much have desire as we are desire, in Epstein’s words. This is the heart of our paradox, as hybrid beings forced to love—to struggle and pray—through changeable skin and limited senses, on the path of awakening. Luckily, as these testaments prove, we are not alone.
In early winter’s rain
I’m pleased when up at the peak
Clouds spread open
To show me the moon I longed to see:
A storm that knows compassion.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.