In his teaching of the First Noble Truth, the Buddha asks, “What now is the Noble Truth of suffering?” Answering his own question he cites the forms that human suffering takes, naming such things as sickness, old age, and death along with the sorrow pain, grief, and despair that accompany human decay and loss. “Not getting what you want,” the Buddha says, “is suffering.” What he doesn’t say at the time is that getting what you want is also suffering.
Wanting is generally thought of as wanting something in particular, a specific object or outcome, like wanting a new car or a bigger house, a different job or mate or hair color or personality. Some “wanters” think bigger than others, wanting an entirely different life from the one they’re currently living. Their dissatisfactions are comprehensive and they yearn for a life with more freedom, interest, excitement, adventure, respect, or fame than they’re accustomed to getting. But while wanters always want something specific, I’ve observed that wanting is more a state of mind than it is an attraction to a discrete object. A person with a “wanting mind” is perpetually on the lookout for something to want. It’s a habit of preferring almost anything other than what one already has, a chronic dissatisfaction with one’s circumstance, a persistently distressed mood. A wanting mind is a mind with a predilection toward need.
If wanting is your thing, then it’s easy to see how getting what you want won’t relieve the suffering of not getting what you want. Let’s say that you want to write a novel, not just any novel but a really good novel. You tell yourself that if you could just do that, you’d be satisfied. Suppose then you get what you want. You write just the very novel you had in mind. But since wanting is of your very nature, your satisfaction in having written the novel you’d so desired will be short lived, and your wanting will simply transfer itself to a new object of desire. There’s no satisfaction in having written a novel unless it gets published. And then of course it must get good reviews and sell well. The obvious point here is that wanting and dissatisfaction go hand in hand. And they go hand in hand because wanting is an expression of dissatisfaction. It’s not the lack of the thing wanted but the wanting itself that constitutes the suffering.
Buddhists will readily identify the wanting mind with the metaphor of the hungry ghost who can never satisfy its hungers because hunger is of its very nature. Without its hungers, the hungry ghost would cease to exist. The hungry ghost clings to the object of its desire in order to preserve its identity. Indeed, its desire for the object is its identity. This confusing of one’s self with the object of one’s desire is a huge mistake we humans make, but a common enough mistake at that. What the hungry ghost fears is the loss of itself, and that fear is the source of all its variant clinging.
I lately viewed a 1987 movie called “Moonstruck” in which, Cher, playing Loretta Castorini in the starring role, was a still a very young actress. Olympia Dukakis, playing the role of Rose, Loretta’s mother, was portrayed as a woman in her mid-sixties with a husband of the same approximate age who had taken a younger woman for a mistress. What Rose wanted to know was what exactly drove her husband toward this behavior. Twice in the movie, she asked other men, “Why do men chase after women?” On the second such occasion, she got an answer that struck her as the truth. “We’re afraid we’ll die,” she was told. One can very well take this as reference to a metaphorical demise, and it certainly would be if, say, my identity was postulated on my attractiveness and sexual desirability in the eyes of younger women. Deprived of any confirmation of that fact, the whole hopeful “person” I cling to as myself would necessarily die away in the face of contrary evidence.
But the demise of self-image alone doesn’t account for the great lengths people go to in order to keep these flattering fictions viable. Within all such losses lies the premonition of actual physical death itself. It’s our mortality that drives us toward these hopeless and pathetic delusions. The hunger of the hungry ghost is driven by the fear of death“ If I can earn more, eat more, buy more, run more marathons, get more sex, achieve more fame, maybe I can stave off just a little longer the certain knowledge that I’m going to die.
Even if you’re not a person who’s particularly prone to wanting more than life has given, there’s still another subtle way in which getting what you want is often occasioned by suffering. Suppose you want the love of a man or woman whom you’ve met. You think of this person day and night and sometimes dream of spending your lives together. And then you get what you want and you’re finally together with your loved one and have no inclination to want more or other than what you already have in hand. But even then, in the midst of your fresh delight and fulfillment, the possibility of losing the loved one through death or estrangement may very likely weave its subtle distress into your newfound happiness. It’s a distress that’s inevitable when you consider that nothing lasts. Sooner or later, whatever I have will be taken from me.
Yet when it comes to persons or things that I genuinely love for their own sakes and not as an extension of my own sense of worth, I say go for it and pay the price of heartache if I happen to lose what I love. I’ve never required myself, nor suggested it to anyone else, to live a life of never wanting anything. I love my wife, Karen, and would be heartbroken if she were somehow lost to me. And the same can be said of certain places and things that I’ve come to love—the fall gathering of crows in the Chico Cemetery, the shaded pool on Chico Creek where I swim in the heat of summer, a cup and saucer my daughter gave me, and even an old sharpening stone that was once my mother-in-law, Eloise’s. I love such things and don’t try to temper the strength of my affection in any way.
Love is the very heartbeat of humanity, and if it comes at a cost then so be it. I don’t consider it a wise option to play it safe so as to avoid eventual loss and disappointment, because to do so forfeits most of the reason for having a life at all. So I don’t ask of myself that I not want to keep at hand the people and things I care most about. What I do ask is that I not complain of the cost of doing so and take my chances along with the rest of humankind, holding in reserve a certain willingness to relinquish what I care most about when the time has come to let go. It’s a continual training of the most practical sort, in which I bow to circumstance and set aside, or at the very least put in perspective, whatever troubled yearnings arise to have things go my way.
I don’t know about others, but I’ve never learned how to not want what, in fact, I want. And some of the things I want I’m likely to get. The trick of getting what I want and not unduly suffering as a consequence is the willingness to pass it on. Circumstances will eventually pry my hand loose regardless, and any insistence on my part to cling to things will only make of my life a tense and distressful exercise in “getting,” “having,” and “holding.” Zen Master, Yun-men, may have had something like this outcome in mind when he said, “I’d rather have nothing than something good.”
In December of 2000, I retook the Buddhist precepts under the direction of a Rinzai Zen Master who gave me the fortunate dharma name of Chuan Liu or “River Willow” in English. I say it was fortunate because while a river willow is a rather small, scrubby, unimpressive tree, it’s nonetheless adaptable and good at reseeding the eroding and shifting banks of streams. My teacher gave me a poem to go with the name, picturing the river willow overhanging the moving waters. He wrote:
Through the long day The willow gives its green shade, Shelter, water, a soft breeze Light dappling the undersurface of the boughs. Whatever is given is passed on.
I have lived where actual river willows secure the banks of mountain streams. I’ve watched the waters slip under the shady patches their limbs cast upon the current. And I’ve learned from them how to content myself with whatever soil holds my roots in place, receiving what the river brings and passing it on once more.
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