On Desire

This evening we recited our Bodhisattva Vows as we do every evening after sitting. Our sangha recites the English version of the second vow (Bon No Mu Jin Sei Gan Dan) as “Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them,” but bon no is really Sino-Japanese for the Sanskrit kleśas, usually translated as “defilements” or “afflictions,” most notably the three so-called “poisons” of desire, aversion, and ignorance.

It’s a pretty grandiose vow when you come to think of it. The idea that you and I are going to put an end to our desire, aversion, and ignorance is, on the face of it, patently absurd. Let’s just focus on desire, for one thing. As the Sephardic Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, might have said, desire is an example of “natura naturans,” nature doing what nature does, and our brains can’t help producing states of desire and aversion regardless of our intentions. It’s the nature of the hypothalamus to make us thirsty when we’re dry and hungry when our energy’s run low. That’s what brains do. That’s how mammalian species survive.

Above and beyond that, we can rightly ask if desire is always something that must carry such a negative connotation. Do we really want to put an end to it? All of it? What about our aspirations to do and be better? What about our aspirations to help others, be more present, be more kind? What about our wish for the aesthetic enjoyment of unspoiled nature or of great music, art, and literature? What about wanting a hug or a cup of hot chocolate? Can there really be a plausible description of human well-being that doesn’t honor these basic human desires?

So how are we to meaningfully understand and make use of the second Bodhisattva Vow? What are we really supposed to do about desire? The Sino-Japanese word dan in the vow literally means “cut off,” but extirpating desire never seems to work out all that well. Consider how well the celibate priesthood has worked out for the Catholic Church. Or just as an experiment, try counting from one to ten without thinking of a white rabbit. As psychologist Daniel Wegner points out, attempting to suppress psychological processes often ends up only ironically reinforcing them.

The Buddha’s first talk after his Enlightenment was his discourse on the Four Noble Truths at the Deer Park in Sarnath. The Four Noble Truths are like an Aryuvedic prescription, diagnosing the nature of the human dilemma, its etiology, and its treatment. The First Noble Truth is a description of the problematic nature of human existence, namely, that our lives are, in some fundamental way, unsatisfactory. This is sometimes translated as the “truth of suffering,” but the Pali word dukkha is more nuanced then that, suggesting something out of balance or off-kilter. In any case, the First Truth points to a fundamental dissatisfaction with our lives, and the inability of any relationship, achievement, attainment, experience, or object to plug that gap and make our lives wholly satisfactory.

Why does anyone come to a zendo to sit for long periods (often uncomfortably) in silence and chant in an incomprehensible alien tongue? People only come because their lives are not completely satisfactory as they already are. Maybe they want a little less suffering or a little more inner peace. Maybe they want to be happier. Maybe they are looking for more meaning in their lives, something deeper. Maybe they want to be kinder to others, or to be more present. Maybe they are looking for something beyond the materialism and gospel of success preached by our culture. Maybe they are looking for something to replace their old religion with which they grew disenchanted. Whatever the reason, there is some present dissatisfaction that motivates people to become “seekers.” It’s that desire for “something more” that brings us to Buddhism, and there’s more than a little irony in the fact that “wanting something more” is also part of Buddhism’s definition of the problem, and that often, what people genuinely derive from Buddhist practice is not the “more” they were initially seeking.

The Buddha identified the source of human dissatisfaction in the never-ending process of desiring itself. We are forever wanting something else, not wanting what we already have. Whoever we are, whatever our circumstances, we are always wanting, wanting, wanting. We want to have a better job, or do a better job. We want more money, better health. We want more loving relationships. We want to be thinner, younger, and more beautiful. We want to be more popular, better appreciated and respected. We want to do something more substantial, more important. Our lists never end. When we get what we want we find it wasn’t what we thought it would be, or that it doesn’t last, or we grow weary of it, or we soon find ourselves wanting something different or something more.

So we sit down to do zazen, hoping for a respite, but as soon as we sit, we notice the inexorable desire for things to be different than they are as it manifests in the present moment. Nothing has changed just because we are sitting down to do zazen. We want the room to be warmer or cooler. We want it to be quieter. We want our thoughts to slow down. We want our mind to be more focused and concentrated. We want our meditation to be the way it was yesterday when it was so pleasant and peaceful. We want to be more alert and awake. We wish the pain in our back or leg would go away, the itch on our nose to cease. We want our stomach to stop gurgling. We wish our posture were better. We wish the bell would ring. We want to be better at this meditation thing. We want to be Enlightened. And so it goes.

If you attempt squelching these wishes and try making them disappear, you soon discover that you are setting yourself up for a battle with the impossible. It’s like struggling with quick sand — you just sink deeper. The trick is to simply notice the desire and allow it to be as it is, but at the same time, in the very act of recognition and noticing, we are in a very real way unhooking from the desire. It’s there, but we’re no longer driven by it. We can step back and watch the urge grow and intensify, and then wane and pass, only to return again later. We can surf the desire like a wave that ebbs and flows. The trick to desire is mindfulness and non-attachment. Once we can step back and watch desire, we can use discerning wisdom to analyze its pros and cons, to decide whether pursuing it is something in our own and others’ best interest — or whether it’s just another one of those endless desires to open our hands to and let go of.

The problem with desire isn’t that it exists, but that it drives us — that it controls us whether it’s good for us or not. Desires have an inherent velcro-like stickiness to them, but mindfulness, to pursue the metaphor beyond the boundaries of good taste, Teflon coats them. In Zen we say that while ordinary people are pushed by their desires, Bodhisattvas are pulled by their vows. The real intention behind the second vow is to remind us to deal skillfully with desire, to live guided by the North Star of our aspirations rather than being tossed hither and yon by the passing currents of our whims.

So we sit zazen and watch desire come and go. And the golden rule is: Don’t live driven by desire. If you want to move, don’t move. If you have an itch, don’t scratch. Just sit. See what happens.

Gesshin Greenwood explored this “don’t move” policy in a recent post in That’s So Zen. She was about to undergo the traditional trial period in Japanese Zen monasteries when newly ordained clerics must sit still for a week, excepting bathroom breaks and meals. Dreading this, Gesshin asked her teacher:

“What do I do if I have to move?” A week seemed like a really long time, and I had heard horror stories about people digging their nails into their palms and drawing blood in order to keep on enduring the zazen posture.

“You can’t move,” he said.

“But what if I really have to move?”

“Don’t move,” he reiterated.

“But what if I really, really have to move?”

“Well, then you move.”

It sounds so simply when it’s laid out like that, doesn’t it? We take up the posture of not moving, and we don’t move, and don’t move, despite the pain and itchiness and restlessness, until we simply must move, and then we do. This is true with most things, too. With any sort of commitment– a friendship, a romantic relationship, a marriage, a monastery, a period of academic study, a job, a diet, an exercise regime, a forty minute zazen period. We try our best to stay in one place, where we promised to stay, until we can’t anymore, and then we move.

Sometimes staying in one place and being patient is right, and sometimes moving is right, too, when it’s the only thing left to do.”

The end of zen training is learning how to be with each moment as it is — letting go of the desires and aversions that interfere with just being present. All of these desires only reinforce the network of me-ness, our narrative of identity. They are all about “me:” what I want, what I want to have. The universe is supposed to go the way I want it to. When we loosen our attachment to desire, we are also loosening our attachment to “I,” learning to get our “selves” out of the universe’s way. We’re learning to see reality from outside the confines of our necessarily limited point of view and see it, as Spinoza would say, sub specie aeternatatis — from the vantage point of eternity.

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On Bodhisattva Vows


IMG_5533In our zendo, we recite the Bodhisattva Vows as part of the closing ritual for the evening sitting, just before the timekeeper’s gatha and our final bows:

Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to put and end to them.

Dharmas are boundless, I vow to perceive them.

The enlightened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

Or, as it reads in Sino-Japanese:





Lofty sentiments, but what exactly is it that we are vowing to do?  I’ve often wondered about the precise meaning of these mysterious Sino-Japanese phrases.  Does the word shujo in the First Vow refer to “creations,” “sentient beings,” or “living beings?”  Does the word bonno in the Second Vow ask us to put an end to “delusions” (as in some translations) or “desires” (as in others)?  Which of the myriad meanings of the word dharma is intended by the word homon in the Third Vow? Is it “Dharma” with a big “D” or “dharma” with a little “d?”

This kind of concern for linguistic precision may seem like just-so-much petty nitpicking to you, dear reader, but if I am going to recite a vow and take it seriously, I want to know just exactly what it is that I’m saying.  These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night.  So I’m eternally grateful to Shohaku Okumura for his marvelous new book on the Zen liturgy, Living By Vow [1] which helped illuminate some of these questions.  (Grateful thanks also go to the ever helpful Wikipedia.)

The First Vow’s “shujo” is a Japanese equivalent of the Sanskrit “sattva,” meaning “sentient being.”  Buddhist tradition uses this word to refer to beings in the six realms of rebirth, i.e., humans, brahmas, devas, asuras, animals, ghosts, and hell-dwellers.  Previous generations of Buddhists did not concern themselves overly much over differing levels of sentience in different animal species (except perhaps in the case of Joshu’s dog).  Distinctions between differing levels of sentience is a more modern concern, stemming in part from scientific research on consciousness and cognition, and, in part from contemporary ethicist’s concerns with the rights of animals.  Will the changing connotation of “sentience” affect modern Buddhist practice?  Will we concern ourselves less with saving ghosts and devas, and more with our obligations to primates, cetaceans, parrots, livestock, and yes, Joshu’s dog?  Is this already happening?

The Second Vow’s “bonno” is the Japanese equivalent of the Sanskrit “klesha,” or “defilement.”  It refers to the three traditional defilements (or “afflictions” or “poisons”) of greed, hatred, and ignorance.  Buddhism sees these as the source of suffering in our lives, and in the lives of others.  So we are not just putting an end to “delusions,” but to all the mental defilements which cloud our judgment and lead to negative consequences.

The Third Vow’s “homon” means not “dharmas,” but “Dharma gates,” referring to the totality of Buddhist teachings and practices, and also to those daily encounters with reality which can potentially open us up to and deepen our understanding of life.  There are allegedly 84,000 Dharma gates.  Eighty-four thousand is the traditional Buddhist way of saying there are an awful lot of them.  If we’re lucky, we stumble upon the gate (or “gateless gate”) that best fits our own unique predilections and abilities.  Different strokes for different folks.  Each and every moment is a potential Dharma gate, if we’re really paying attention.

It helps to think of the “vows” as aspirational statements rather than as solemn oaths.  They are expressions of our deepest intentions, welling up from the inner core of our being. The very idea of freeing all sentient beings–or of completely eliminating our greed, hatred, and ignorance–is of course, on the face of it, patently absurd.  We all fail miserably at it.  If the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, and Tolstoy couldn’t accomplish it, what are our odds?  Thankfully, the only consequences for our failure are our recognition of how far we’ve fallen short, and the renewal of our intention to continue striving. As Shohaku Okamura says:

 “Our practice and study are like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon, one spoonful at a time. It is certainly a stupid way of life, not a clever one.”

Okumura concludes by saying:

“A clever person cannot be a bodhisattva.”

The vows serve as cardinal points on our spiritual compass, helping to guide our practice and as such, molding our character and shaping the future.  Uchiyama Roshi used to say that ordinary people live by karma, but that bodhisattvas live by vow.  In contemporary Western psychology we speak about living out our values rather than being driven by our impulses. In either case, it’s a fine idea.  The Bodhisattva vows are the rock we stand on.



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  1. [1] Okumura, S. (2012). Living By Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Wisdom: Boston.