Is desire something good or bad?

I’ve been doing some reading on Buddhism, and what a blast I’m having. Doctrines shine when placed next to an equivalent: contrasts emerge, colors become vivid, contours more precise.’

Take Buddha’s definition of karma, for instance. What is the problem with the world? What is wrong with us? What do we have to overcome? “It is volition that I call ‘karma’. Having willed, one [then] acts by body, speech, and mind.” Another section of Buddhist scriptures affirms:

This, truly, is Peace, this is the Highest, namely the end of all karma formations, the forsaking of every substratum of rebirth, the fading away of craving, detachment…. Ah, happy indeed the Arahants [noble person]!  In them no craving’s found. The ‘I am’ conceit is rooted out; confusion’s net is burst. Lust-free they have attained; translucent is the mind of them.[1]

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I found that utterly fascinating. For the faith that I know best (and believe in), Christianity, gives an apparently similar but in the end quite different answer to the same problem. For Christians the problem is not the will per se, nor is the solution the cessation of desire. Rather, it is that our will is bent, in Augustine’s image, it is bound, as Luther portrayed it: we desire the wrong things. Desire itself is not evil, on the contrary, it is a delight in pleasure implanted by an infinitely festive Creator.

This difference leads to rather different worldviews. For Christians, this world and its matter are profoundly good. It is so good that we long for, in the end, resurrected bodies in a new heaven and a new earth. This life is to be appreciated. Love is the ultimate virtue, a love so strong and particular that calls us to give of ourselves to others like Jesus gave himself for us.

For Buddhism, however, if the objective is to overcome suffering and the problem is desire itself, ultimate redemption is the escape from this world. It is detachment, indifference (at least as far as I understand it; please correct me if I’m wrong, Buddhist friends). The path toward Nirvana is one of relinquishment of desire, the emptying of the will. That is conformity to the highest wisdom, resulting in ultimate indifference.

Since nothing can be grasped, what is the Buddha, what is wisdom, what is bodhisttva [a wise person], what is revelation? All the components are by nature empty–just convention, just names, agreed tokens, coverings….  Therefore, O Sariputra, it is because of his indifference to any kind of personal attainment that a Bodhisattva … end the end he attains to Nirvana.[2]

What a contrast emerges, however, when we compare this worldview to Christianity. Here not only does God define himself as “I am who I am” to Moses–the supreme affirmation of personhood  in the heart of divinity–but Jesus presents himself with echoes of the same language. I am the light of the world. I am the bread of life. I am the truth, the way, and the life. To be divine is to be a person. It is to be a Trinitarian community of persons defined by mutual love. A love so large that God decides to create an universe to share his love with intelligent beings. A world desired to foster desire, attachment, gratitude.

Fascinating. Have a good week, friends.

René Breuel

[1] Reproduced in Philip Novak, The World’s Wisdom: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions (New York: HarperOne, 1994), 75, 76

[2] Reproduced in Philip Novak, The World’s Wisdom: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions (New York: HarperOne, 1994), 79

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