Thursday, August 17, 2006


In his novel We, Zamyatin brings forward yet another profound idea around the concept of desire. The One State announces the availability of the "Operation" that will finally cure all inhabitants of that most insidious of reason-inhibiting diseases—imagination. The announcement is accompanied by the mocking, twisted logic of the beautiful I-330, who connects desire with imagination, that now everyone will be truly happy. Since desire is at the root of unhappiness, she reasons, eliminating desire, will eliminate unhappiness.

Although this idea was spoken mockingly, it is most intriguing as it seems to resonate quite strongly with Buddhist philosophy and the 4 Noble Truths. According to Buddhist philosophy, there is the truth of suffering, there is a singular cause of suffering, there is an end to suffering, and there is the Noble 8-fold path that leads to the end of suffering. But of particular interest is the second Noble Truth summarized as tanha in the ancient Pali language, often translated as "craving" or "desire." In this translation, the second Noble Truth states that "craving" or "desire" is the cause of suffering.

But is it really craving or desire that is the cause of suffering? What about natural animal desires such as for food or water, shelter, sleep, or even love? Should we eliminate desires in order to achieve true happiness as I-330 mockingly indicates and the Buddhist scriptures appear to advocate? Is this even possible? Reflecting upon this, it appears all we can really do is develop an awareness of the sensation of craving or desire as it arises in all circumstances. And then, interpose a question between the desire and the impulsive fulfillment of the desire: "Is this skilful?" Those desires to which we can answer in the affirmative are fulfilled, while those to which we answer in the negative remain unfulfilled. This begs the questions: why would we want to do such a thing, and what is "skilful"? Well, this would gradually move us from a place of unconscious reaction to one of conscious action; and "skilful" refers to anything that moves us in the direction of expanded consciousness or awareness.

What really appears to be at the root of suffering, then, is this unconscious, habitual, impulsive response to desires. Perhaps a more modern translation of the ancient Pali word tanha might be "habit" or "conditioning." It is these processes that plunge the mind into unconsciousness, impulsive reaction, thereby further strengthening conditioning or habit formation. And from here there develops an increasing attachment to the conditioned response for a given stimulus—a kind of subtle expectation that demands fulfillment, or dissatisfaction and unhappiness result. Or put another way, a sense of satisfaction arises when one experiences completion of an expected pattern, or intense dissatisfaction if realization of the full pattern is disturbed.

No comments: