Desire is bad

Inside the jewel-box sanctuary, Dora spots two free benches side-by-side and we squeeze our way down a row and take seats. Women in monastic robes mill about, preparing for the service to begin. I am the only non-Asian present. I feel privileged to be a guest. For her part, Dora seems very pleased to have brought someone, especially someone so inexperienced. For each person who turns to look at me, she puffs a bit with pride. She makes a fuss to secure a folder of the phonetic versions of the prayer sutras. She hands it to me with great aplomb, as if to accentuate to all that she has obtained this item on behalf of her clueless guest.

The service kicks off with chanting. Perhaps because the sanctuary is full and the room is not so big, the sound of the voices is particularly powerful. Dora turns my folder to the right page, but it is just a long series of phonic fragments (NA MO HO LA TA NA TO LA YEH YEH, etc.) that every once in a while fall into an arrangement that could mean something in English (CHER LA CHER LA). I’m amazed that everyone here has committed this complicated sequence of syllables, with its intricate intonations, to memory but, then, this is the heart of worship. This exercise improves karma—not just of people in the room; it’s for everyone in the city, the state, the country, and all around the world. I chime in when I can, but even when I have the correct pronunciation, I don’t have the tone just right. Luckily, my mistakes are drowned out by the collective. Certain syllables resound so deeply that the walls seem to vibrate.

On the other side of me is an older gentleman whose full head of dark hair is salted just so. Age has bestowed upon him the rugged good-looks of an Asian Marlboro Man. During the chanting, when he notices I’ve grown silent and Dora’s not looking, he points to my open page—as if my failure to join in were as simple as having lost my place. He continues to make sure I know exactly where we are in the chant. At first he does this surreptitiously so Dora doesn’t notice. Eventually his effort grows more brazen and Dora shoots him a look. He gives her one back, as if to say, “It’s not my fault you’re slacking on the job.”

This little power struggle continues through the dharma talk, for which my Marlboro Man elects himself the superior translator. Perhaps because he better understands the Cantonese in which the talk is given, Dora concedes. It takes me a while to determine that the person giving the talk is female. Her head is shaved and her robe is a variation of the ones worn by the nuns who have hair. Baldness is a great gender neutralizer as are robes, for that matter. I imagine she is the abbot here or some other high-ranking position. She is the spitting image of the founder of this sect, whose picture hangs on the wall, and I notice she is addressed as “Master.”

“She talks about desire,” my Marlboro Man tells me about one minute into her speech. “It’s not good for you.” He goes silent, so I elaborate in my mind. I imagine she’s explaining how that feeling of wanting, craving, grasping—anything other than satisfaction with your immediate situation—removes a person from the present moment. Several minutes go by and I’m tempted to ask what she’s saying now, but I decide not giving in to that impulse is sort of the point of the talk. Finally, he leans over. I can see him struggling to find the right words. “She says desire is bad…” I wait for him to elaborate, to offer some new twist or detail, but he doesn’t. Fifteen minutes go by and the speech winds down. My Marlboro Man shrugs. “Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.”

8 thoughts on “Desire is bad

  1. I love that humanity shows up even in the most spiritual places.

    As to “desire”, it reminds me of a sermon one of my favorite lady ministers gave many years ago. It was titled, “I Felt Much Better When I Gave Up Hope.” It seemed so antithetical to the Western Christian mind that gives so much importance to “hope” and yet so understandable when one realizes that there is more to life than hoping. There is more to life than “desire” both of which bring much pain when they go unfulfilled.

  2. My first reaction: gosh, Buddhists lack humility just like Christians do? To elaborate. I see humility as the most important quality we need as humans. Altho in the organized christian churches I attended, humility was sometimes talked about, I saw very little of it. Still do. Of course humility is one of those things where if you think you have it, you probably don’t. But I still want it very much. And never learned how to have it as a christian. I have been wondering if buddhists might have a special clue about humility or something. So it made me chuckle to see that even buddhists can be proud.

    Desire is bad? somebody should tell the advertising business. In fact, somebody should tell all the world systems because they all depend on desire. Which makes me believe that desire IS bad because the world systems seem pretty f*ed up to me.

    I was just thinking today that gratitude is about the most important thing to practice. Gratitude for life as it presents itself to me at this moment would necessitate the absence of desire. So yeah, I get it, desire makes us unaccepting, ungrateful, and that IS bad.
    Thanks Corinna, thanks Frank,

  3. I have been fascinated in these replies by the juxtaposition of the words: Hope and Desire. I have been wondering why people perceive hope as being good, and desire as being bad. Desire, it says in the American Heritage Dictionary is about longing….about wanting something badly. It certainly can have sexual overtones, but that is certainly not all that it is about. Wanting or longing perhaps takes us off our course, deters us from our journey, if we get caught up in the emotion of it all, for sure. I am not certain that it makes us ungrateful and/or un-accepting, but it certainly can turn our heads and hearts from the present…..from gratitude…..from what we have and what we can do today.

    Hope, on the other hand, which seems to me, is seen as all powerful and positive, especially in the religious world, carries this meaning in the AH Dictionary: ” Hope is desire accompanied by expectation of fulfillment.” To me that seems more dangerous yet. Frank, I would have loved to have heard the minister”s sermon “I Felt Much Better When I Gave Up Hope.” I personally feel that hope can pick you up and throw you down… often, that which you are hoping for is not in your range of control. So it would seem to me to be a somewhat unrealistic goal…..and hoping can turn you away from living in the present with love and gratitude, it can breed disappointment and despair. So it is a puzzlement to why Hope is so revered… seems all good when the expectation is fulfilled is a way that you are longing/hoping for….but what a letdown when this does not occur.

    I suppose those of you who claim religious beliefs. might say that it is not so simple. Hope is bound to faith is bound to love…..whatever else. I, personally in my own life, try to keep hope tamped down. I am like Frank’s minister friend. In the universe, I am somewhat more optimistic. And although much of what I might hope for—–universal peace and love—-might be outside of my ability to make happen: Kaboom!! Peace and Love Abound! I can make my way in the world as one individual….as one member of my church community….as one member of the greater world community. And I can help make a difference. But it is not Hope that accomplishes this task. It is the hard work of people who care. People who have a desire and a longing to make this a better place for everyone. Amen.
    In peace and love. Merrill

    • Hi Merrill, Interesting conversation! I wonder if hope suggests a less specific kind of optimism–sort of an innate sense that things will be okay. Whereas desire suggests longing for a particular situation or thing. But, you are right, it seems like a very subtle distinction because both might suggest discomfort with current conditions. Hmmmm….whatever the case, it does seem that gratitude is the antidote. It always seems to come back to gratitude.

      • Corinna,
        I am not sure that most people see it that way; the difference between hope and desire, I mean.. Since I started this conversation with myself, I have heard at least three people today use the word hope……the minister this morning WAS speaking of a less specific kind of optimism, but the other folks used the word very specifically in relation to things in their own lives. Perhaps this is a function of the way we have gotten sloppy and less specific with our words, but I think the idea/concept of hope as relating to something we have expectations about…..even when we can’t create/initiate that thing/possibility….has been around for a very long time. I don’t say, “I sure desire that my son would stop drinking.” But it is as silly for me to “hope” that same thing. I have no control over his life choices, and while I can make choices for my own life to be different, I have no way of having my expectations come to fruition, just because I have Hope. But it can certainly lead to frustration and despair when hope doesn’t sway the end result. It isn’t a helpful concept for me, at least, when dealing with my particulars.

        Now gratitude? That is something that I can embrace. Gratitude might be an antidote, or not, in those situations. But it sure can being joy to one’s life when you look at the upside of things. And we don’t even have to create change to have it surround us. We just need to view the world a bit differently……

        This has been a great inner conversation for me, Corinna, and I am glad that you found it intriguing also.

  4. Wow! This is indeed quite a conversation…..with ourselves or otherwise.
    It may surprise you, Corinna, that I don’t think of desire, in and of itself, as wrong at all–which is what it sounds like from the talk that was given.
    We were created with desire–from the mundane (e.g. food) to the sublime (eg. love) and it just seems to be a part of who we are as humans. Another aspect of desire is our ‘will’….our ‘wanter’, perhaps. As a Christian believer, I desire to align my will with God’s, although my will is often a long way off from his! One of the things I believe he is trying to do in my life is to help me better understand everything from his perspective. To the extent that I see things the same way, then that alignment becomes a little more real.
    I think of ‘hope’ differently as well. Of course we use the word in many different ways, but they are generally variants on the idea of ‘wish’. Hope for me is very positive, and represents more of an assurance. For example, my ‘hope’ is that I will one day see face to face what now is a matter of faith. 🙂
    Hope drives us more that we suspect at times. Without hope, what’s the point of continuing with life? I think it was Merrill who mentioned we work hard to bring our hope to pass, such as a better future for our children. The opposite is despair, and I’ve known my share of people who lived down at that bottom end. A person without hope certainly needs our love and compassion.
    (Well, thanks for letting me, like Merrill, have this little conversation with myself! 🙂 )

    • Hi Walt, I don’t think we humans can prevent ourselves from desiring/wanting/hoping. It seems like such a natural inclination. I think a Buddhist perspective would just remind us to see these things for what they are and be aware that they might prevent us from seeing all that we have right now.

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