Know the desire that arises within. Where might it lead us?
And how can we best direct its driving power?
And how can we best direct its driving power?
A Course in Spiritual Practice,
Chapter I - Desire
Table of Contents.
I 1 a. Desire as a Cause of Suffering. The Need for New Understanding and
I 1 b. What role does desire play in our efforts to better our lives?
I 2. Buddhist Themes on Desire or tanha
I 3. Sexual Desire or Kāma.
I 4. Desire and the First Sermon, SN 56. 11,
the Four Noble Truths.
I 4. Discussion of the First Sermon : Renunciation of the World.
I 4. Problems with the Renunciate Interpretation about Desire.
I 4. Discussion of the First Sermon : Sexual Desire.
I 5. Bhava tanha, vibhava tanha.
I 6. Other Causes of Suffering in Relationship.
I 6. Non Sexual Desire.
I 7. Kāma and Desire.
I 8. Bhagavād Gita verses on Desire
I 8. Comments on BG 3.37 – 43.
I 8. Misdirected Desire in thinking = buddhir.
I 8. Meditation Training.
I 8. Transcending Addictions.
I 8. Misdirected Desire and Aversion.
I 9. Purush-artha = Goals of Spiritual Practitioners.
Note on Pronunciation. This chapter has many quotes in Pali or Sanskrit from sacred scripture. Dots below and bars above letters, called diacritics, are important, for they indicate proper pronunciation of sacred language. Please read my webpage “Pronouncing the Sanskrit,” on this website.
The purpose of this chapter about desire is to help the mind move towards inner peace,
that is untroubled by any sense of lack or want.
Such as the wanting to know what comes next.
This chapter is no less than 7500 words long, and it will take a long time to get to the end.
So please do not be driven to read this chapter continuously. Or hurriedly.
Take rest now and again to allow the Dharma to soak in.
The rest of this chapter can wait to another time.
Best wishes from Mike.
Desire, Problem or Solution ?
I 1a Desire as a Cause of Suffering. The Need for New Understanding and Interpretation.
The religions of Buddhism and Hinduism both talk about the connection between desire and the causes of our suffering. In Buddhism, this theme is encapsulated in the Buddhist Second Noble Truth, which is usually given the following interpretation –
- Suffering (dukkha) is caused by (samudaya) desire or attachment (taṇhā, kāma).
Such an understanding seems to be profound spiritual teachings. When we are indeed suffering, we may be able to identify some strong unsatisfied want, clinging, need, attachment or desire (ie craving or taṇhā). Often with a strong urge to destroy some important pursuit or relationship that has failed us badly, and is now completely shrouded by pain. Surely this desire or urge is the cause of our troubles? And if so, surely our troubles will end if only this painful desire and dependency can end. And never come back!
But does this interpretation stand up to deeper investigation and long experience? Is it the most helpful interpretation or understanding of desire and attachment? Maybe we are just blaming desire and attachment for our troubles. Including the desire to get out. There is a connection between desire (and attachment) and the causes of our suffering. So let us develop a better interpretation and understanding of desire and the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth.
I 1 b. What role does desire play in our efforts to better our lives?
Inhospitable circumstances can be quite difficult to endure. These include : difficult environmental conditions, unreliable equipment, undesirable people, lack of money, and bodily pain and weakness.
Inhospitable circumstances can be quite difficult to endure. These include : difficult environmental conditions, unreliable equipment, undesirable people, lack of money, and bodily pain and weakness.
Such inhospitable circumstances are an important cause of suffering for humanity, even in the privileged and protected West. Thus, much of our energy is devoted to improving these environmental, social and economic conditions, as individuals and as a society.
Desire is the normal driving force behind such human effort and activity : the desire for better conditions and desire to avoid poor conditions. (And attachment is the usually motivation to care for and protect our body, possessions, pursuits and relationships in our lives – see Chapter J on Karma). Thus desire itself is not normally part of the problem, but more part of the solution of life. The Hindu theme of puruṣ-ārtha or the Noble Goals of life explores this theme, at the end of this webpage.
However, we can easily become overly enthusiastic in our efforts to perform, achieve and be productive, and the economic system usually puts such pressure on us. The desire to improve our income and material possessions can become excessive and unbalanced. To the extent that we can easily lose sight of the real objective behind work. Thus we can find that our work becomes a problem, consuming too much our energy, with risk of injury, damage, exhaustion, illness. Our peace of mind and thus clarity for good decisions, our enjoyment, inspiration, appreciation and many other important spiritual Qualities get eroded, neglected and weakened.
This can be a real issue with disadvantaged people, perhaps refugees seeking safety, for they must work much harder to succeed or even survive compared to more privileged folk.
It can also become an issue for those who climb the corporate ladder, where the corruption of human values worsens as they climb. Where human effort gets directed to only one single goal : profit at whatever cost to all life, human and other. This destructive attitude can be quite brutal, not just to the victims of greed, but to the very people who make the decisions to manipulate, intimidate, exploit and destroy.
It can also be an issue when we make efforts to improve relationship, especially in the family, home and intimate relations. Our desire to improve relations can back fire on us if too much effort is spent on trying to influence others, and not enough on taking responsibility for our own defilements and pain. Or vice versa : we might be frightened of trying to influence the other party, and put too much attention on our own inner world.
So the problem is not really desire but the misdirection of desire. This is an important point when we try to find something useful in religious scripture about desire and letting go of desire.
For those afflicted with obesity, the desire for food becomes a major problem, and one of never ending conflict. For obesity is usually a life long problem. I know this treatise needs something on obesity, and I hope to compose something soon.
Desire to Get and Get Rid Of.
I 2 Buddhist Themes on Desire or Tanha
Buddhism talks about desire or taṇhā as an important cause of suffering. taṇhā literally means “thirst”. Thus the word taṇhā suggests a desire that is compelling, with a real sense of wanting or lack. taṇhā is often translated as “craving.”
The Second Noble Truth lists several kinds of misdirected desire, including vibhava taṇhā and bhava taṇhā. These are best understood to mean –
- The desire to get the unavailable (bhava - taṇhā) and
- the desire to get rid of the unavoidable (vibhava – taṇhā).
Bhava literally means “becoming” or “come into existence”. Thus the word bhava- taṇhā suggests a desire for something not yet available, something not yet come into existence. vibhava- taṇhā suggests a desire for something to cease, or a desire to annihilate something.
I mean unavailable and unavoidable in the present moment. When environmental, social or economic conditions are inhospitable, we might be struggling to handle them. We simply do not have the necessary tolerance and endurance, or the ability to handle certain people, who might have much power over us. We may be unable to earn sufficient money to pay for our needs.
Naturally, the desire will arise to get away from or get rid of these unavoidable conditions, along with the desire to get what is not available. These desires will only make our suffering worse. So it is important to be wary of the arising of the desire to get and get rid of, and consciously and purposefully not fuel them nor aggravate them. The Dharma here is to cultivate restraint and endurance. When the opportunity arises to work towards improvement of these conditions, then we can make effort. That opportunity might be right now.
But these desires (taṇhā) to get and get rid of also act on a subtle level, to disturb and disrupt our contentment, our appreciation and our enjoyment. It is most noticeable when we make or take opportunity to meditate. This includes opportunity to enjoy the beauty of a flower, sunset, forest, beach or some manifestation of Mother Nature. Or crafted beauty in a gallery or market, or music playing. Or a nutritious meal. The subtle desire for something else begins to stir, then disrupt. Usually the desire to think. Or it might be some criticism of the beauty before us.
Can we just let go of these disturbances? Repeatedly let go, as often as necessary and not allow them to spoil the enjoyment. Let us be sufficiently sensitive to detect them at an early stage, before they can get out of hand and become a real problem. Let us not identify with them, not fuel them.
Instead, we can open our heart to the beauty, to the wonderment, and allow joy, appreciation and inspiration to grow in our heart. We can make effort to cultivate these valuable and healing spiritual Qualities. Then understanding will come to us about how important they are for our Liberation.
The desire to get and get rid of can also be called “likes and dislikes”. People can feel a strong compulsion to obtain what they like and avoid what they dislike, to the extent that the expression “I like this” means “I will (try to) get it.” And “I don’t like it” means “I will (try to) avoid it.” Regardless of whether the outcome is helpful and wholesome, sensible and advisable. Regardless of the nutritional value of the food, or the integrity and decency of the person liked or disliked. Regardless of the importance of the task to be done at home or at work, the importance of exercise and other bodily maintenance.
We can reflect on these urges. When we allow them to govern our behaviour, intention and will, does this really bring us contentment, appreciation and happiness? Or more the opposite? What happens when we take an objective view of our likes and dislikes, our desire and aversion?
Thus Buddhism and Hinduism have much to say about the pleasant and the unpleasant, and desire and aversion.
However, this theme of desire has much deeper significance. We apply this theme when we return to and restore Nirvarna (nirvāṇa) the highest happiness and peace, in our daily lives. Contentment, being satisfied and untroubled : Qualities like these are essential Factors of Enlightenment. They are critical when we approach Nirvarna. To enter into and dwell within the enlightened state, we need to let go of all desire and all wanting (see Bhagavād Gita Ch 6 v 15 & 18 below)
Thus when we are truly Free, our efforts and activity are no longer driven by any sense of lack, or wanting or deprivation. Instead, we feel content, at ease, untroubled, and very happy to be like this. We go about our daily tasks from this posture.
This means that when we do things, we do them because we understand that the action is important, helpful, and wholesome. For ourselves and others. This is a radical shift in motivation, best expressed by the old maxim –
“Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
“After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”
To a inattentive observer, there seems no change. But look more closely, and see that the one who is Free has a special peacefulness, contentment, and untroubled Quality to their actions. Perhaps strong enough to be radiant with peace. Our Kirtan word for radiance is śrī (pronounced “shree.”)
This theme of no longer being troubled by the fruits of our actions is the first theme explored in detail in the Bhagavād Gita (see below).
I 3 Kāma and Sexual Desire.
Kāma is the word commonly used in Hinduism for desire. It often is understood to mean sexual desire.
Sexual desire is an important foundation for stable, long term marriage, de-facto or wedded, which we need to bring up the children. So it can be part of the solution, not the problem. I discuss sexual relationships for the song “Jai Radha Madhava”.
But sexual desire can also be at the root of many of the problems of today.
Judging by pop songs and what I have heard and experienced, sexual desire might be a common cause of intense suffering for many people, and therefore worthy of special attention in Dharma. It is a problem because the desire is so strong, strong enough to throw us off balance.
Why is this desire so strong?
Romantic Culture. The romance of sex, or beginning a sexual relationship, is given much prominence in our culture. The mass media, storey telling and pop songs are all about good looking people, romance, and couples. Facilities like cars, hotel bedrooms, houses are all designed for couples or families. Fashions for young girls can be quite sexually alluring. And much status, overt or covert, can be attached to having a good looking partner, or just a partner. People can have unrealistic expectations about how much they can share with their bed partner, and how much they can depend upon them.
Need for Meaningful Relationship. In the modern self contained home, and in the big cities, isolation and alienation from sense of community can be a real problem for many people. When the doors of loving intimacy open with one special person, this can awaken a deep need hitherto unsatisfied.
An Unreliable Force. Sexual desire has a perverse character of changing from attraction to repulsion, and changing suddenly and disastrously. It drives us to be most supportive of the relationship when it meets our deepest needs, and then drives us to destroy it when our partner is neither willing nor able to meet our needs. Are we being motivated by romantic fantasies? Or are we carefully and wisely building the essential foundations of a sustainable and satisfying relationship, that might become true marriage, defacto or wedded?
Church Commands. Church restrictions on sex used to be the main guide for young adults. But these days, independent young adults are more likely to rebel than comply. This defeats the purpose of the traditional restraint – the effect can be opposite to the intention.
Procreation of the Species. In addition, Mother Nature can be quite tyrannical on the men, who can feel strong compulsion to impregnate a healthy young female, in good shape, to reproduce the species. She also provides less physical strength to the women, driving a woman to seek a male partner of her choice to protect her from all the other men.
Intensity of Pleasure. In addition, sexual intercourse and the build up to it can be intensely pleasurable, especially if orgasm is achieved, and especially if there has been no sex for a quite a while. Such intensity of pleasure naturally breeds strong desire to repeat the performance, and strong attachment, especially sex of this kind happens repeatedly. Such intensity of pleasure requires strong mutual attraction, and requires that both parties be entirely attractive to each other. The blemishes need to be avoided, somehow.
It is easy to forget that both partners are human, and therefore defilements will arise sooner or later, no matter how much they may be denied, concealed and suppressed. Yet such suppression will only cause them to erupt even more savagely later on. This is one of the problems of trying to be “too nice.”
Defilements are contagious, so when they arise in one party, they are quite likely to arise in the other. The harsh contrast between the pleasure of complete harmony “in love” and the ugliness of defilements, greatly aggravates the suffering, and unleashes even more defilements. It is this harsh contrast between pleasure and pain that hurts so much. If our relations with this person was merely humdrum, then the contrast would be less stark, and less painful.
Can we see that the intense pleasure of “perfect” sex depends on conditions, conditions that we might have little or no control over? Can we allow each other to be human, with all the faults of being human?
An Objective View. All these forces can greatly inflame sexual desire into a real problem. Can we use this material to build a more objective view towards sexual desire, so that it becomes less insistent, and more manageable? How can Buddhist themes on desire and suffering be applied to best effect?
Noble Truths of Buddhism.
I 4 Desire and the First Sermon; Samyutta Nikāya 56.11
This famous Sutta was delivered by the historical Buddha, Siddhatta Gotama, straight after his enlightenment experience. It is famous, for the religion uses it to define the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, foundational doctrine of the religion.
The First Sermon is a discourse or Sutta (Sutra) from Theravādan Buddhism of south Asia, so it is in Pali : a dialect or accent of Sanskrit that is less melodious. In PāỊi, it is called the dhamma·cakka·pavattana sutta, which means the Sutta to establish the benefit (pavattana) of the cycle (cakka) of the Dharma (dhamma).
This Sutta describes the Buddha’s Middle Path (majjhimā paṭipadā) that avoids extremes in desire (kāmesu) -
(i) self harm and depletion (atta kilamatha) or
hīno allika lobhana ānuyoge sukhāya
degrading attachment the in our seeking
to alluring pursuit happiness
(ii) the degrading attachment to the alluring in our pursuit of seeking peace and happiness. By “the alluring (lobhana)”, I mean anything compelling but not necessarily healthy, wholesome and helpful. (lobha is a common word for defilement.)
Buddha describes both extremes as ignoble (an-ariya), deprived of benefit (an-attha), and not connected with the Goal (an-saṃhito). We should be servants to neither (na sevitabbā), especially if we have “gone forth” pabbajita to spiritual Liberation.
Buddha says this Middle Path leads towards spiritual awakening and enlightenment (sam-bodhi). It can bestow nirvāṅa (nibbānāya). He describes himself as Tathā-gatha (literally ‘one thus gone’), i.e. one who has gone along this Path. This is all in the first paragraph of the Sutta, which reads thus in Pali –
‘Dve·me, bhikkhave, antā pabbajitena na sevitabbā. Katame dve? Yo c·āyaṃ kāmesu kāma·sukh·allik·ānuyogo hīno gammo pothujjaniko an·ariyo an·attha·saṃhito, yo c·āyaṃ attakilamath·ānuyogo dukkho an·ariyo an·attha·saṃhito. Ete kho, bhikkhave, ubho ante an·upagamma majjhimā paṭipadā tathāgatena abhisambuddhā cakkhu·karaṇī ñāṇa·karaṇī upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati.’
The First Sermon is the authoritative version, used by the religion, of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. I selected and adapted from the translation on -
It has an info bubble on each Pāḷi word.
I also provide word-for-word translation of the original Pāḷi. So you can discover why my interpretation differs to the usual interpretations of the Four Noble Truths, that you may find on many other websites, including www.accesstoinsight.org
First Noble Truth
dukkhaṃ ariya• saccaṃ :
suffering noble truth :
byādhi pi dukkho maraṇam pi dukkhaṃ
deterioration is suffering termination is suffering
a·p·piyehi sampayogo dukkho
un pleasant union with is suffering
piyehi vippayogo dukkho
pleasant separated from is suffering
yampicchaṃ nalabhati tam·pi dukkhaṃ
the wanted not obtained is suffering
upādāna khandhā dukkhā.
attachment body & mind is suffering.
The noble truth of suffering is : deterioration, termination, union with the unpleasant, separated from the pleasant, not obtaining the wanted, and attachment to body and mind; all these are suffering or dukkha.
Second Noble Truth.
dukkhā samudayaṃ ariya• saccaṃ
suffering arising or causing noble truth
Y•āyaṃ taṇhā ponob-bhavikā, rāga sahagatā,
That desire leads to rebirth defilement driven,
tatra• tatr• abhi nandino,
there here beyond seek delight,
seyyathidim ? kāmāya taṇhā;
ie misdirected for enjoyment desire;
bhava taṇhā ? vibhava taṇhā. ?
desire to get the unattainable, desire to get rid of the unavoidable.
This is the noble truth of the cause of suffering. Desire that arises in suffering leads to rebirth of troubles. It is driven by defilement, driven to seek delight beyond reach, now here, now there. That is to say, one cause of suffering is misdirected desire for enjoyment, and the desire to get the unattainable, and the desire to get rid of the unavoidable .
Third Noble Truth.
dukkhaṃ nirodhaṃ ariya saccaṃ : tassā taṇhāya asesa
suffering cessation noble truth : this of desire complete
virāga nirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo.
dissolution cessation let go renouncing free unattached
The noble truth of the cessation of suffering is : the complete dissolution, cessation, letting go of, renouncing, being free from and not attached to - the misdirected desire described in the second Noble Truth, and the defilements that drive it.
Fourth Noble Truth.
dukkhaṃ nirodha gāminī paṭipada ariya sacca
suffering cessation leads to the Way noble truth
• sammā•diṭṭhi, sammā•saṅkappo, sammā•vācā, sammā•kammanto, sammā•ājīvo, sammā•vāyāmo, sammā•sati, sammā•samādhi.
The noble truth of the Way that leads to the cessation of suffering is the perfection of the following : views, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.
Comments (in the sutta) on these truths.
- suffering (dukkha) is to be understood, known and recognised (pariññeyya, from parijānāti)
- cause of suffering (dukkha samudaya) is to be let go of, renounced, and expelled (pahātabba’, from pajahati)
- the cessation of suffering (dukkha nirodha) is to be realised and experienced for one self (sacchikātabba’, from sacchi-karoti)
- the path leading to the cessation of suffering (dukkha·nirodha·gāminī paṭipadā) is to take place and be developed (bhāvetabba’, from bhavati)
Understanding of these noble truths does not really come from what is read and heard (an•anus-suttesu). Rather, vision arises (cakkhuṃ udapādi), knowledge arises (ñāṇaṃ udapādi), wisdom arises (paññā udapādi), insight arises (vijjā udapādi), and light arises (āloko udapādi) within.
Knowledge and insight (ñāṇa-dassanaṃ) of these truths, when purified (visuddhaṃ), can help with bodhi awakening and enlightenment (sammā•sambodhi).
This is what the Bhagavā (i) said (Idam•avoca bhagavā.) The Buddha’s first five disciples were delighted.
I 4. Essential Discussion of Sutta and Truths.
I have presented the themes of the First Sermon and its Four Noble Truths in a manner that reflects normal life experience. So that we may apply it to our lives, and access the full benefit. To do this, I have selected and adapted from the original Pali on –
But this is not how the Sutta and the Truths are normally presented and interpreted. These are fundamental to the religion of Buddhism, so both Sutta and Truths are normally interpreted to fit in with Buddhist beliefs and doctrines (and politics). Then the introductory paragraph will talk about two extremes that should not be followed by one “gone forth” into the holy life -
- devotion to sensual desire and pleasure (kāma sukha), which is inferior, low, vulgar, ignoble, and
- self mortification.
The Second Noble Truth becomes –
- The cause (or origin) of suffering (dukkha) is craving (taṅhā) : the craving for sense pleasure (kāma taṅhā), the craving to become someone or something (bhava taṅhā) or the craving not become (vibhava taṅhā).
Then both Sutta and Truths can be used to support Buddhist monasticism and thus the religion, thus –
I 4 Applying the Four Noble Truths to : Renunciation of the World.
This sutta was delivered by a monk (the Buddha) to five other monks, called bhikkhus in Buddhism. These men were all committed to celibacy and “renouncing the world” according to ancient tradition in India, and in Buddhism. This sutta was shaped to suit the audience, and is often interpreted in terms of such renunciation.
The Buddhist Society of Western Australia is extremely successful because its spiritual director and principle speaker, Ajahn Brahm, practises this “renunciation of the world”, and is a very good speaker and charismatic leader. He’s been trained to take charge. Hundreds of people come every week to his suburban center to hear his Dhamma talks, and thousands come to his forest monastery on the Buddhist high days. The leadership of monks like Ajahn Brahm helps the people to develop an extraordinary sense of stillness and peace at meetings and at special places like his monastery.
For me, it was a great privilege to train for a year and half at his monastery. The stillness of my meditation there was twice as deep for twice the length of time, compared to outside the monastery. I also went every week to the suburban center at Nollamara for several years, deriving much benefit.
In addition, Swami Mukund-ananda also uses this theme of “renunciation of the world” in his translation of the Bhagavād Gita.
Such “renunciation of the world” needs a suitable philosophy to support it. In this, desire for worldly pursuits and sense pleasures, and the attachment to possessions, the body and in sexual relationships are perceived as a major cause of suffering. Or such pursuits are judged to be ‘not in keeping’ with the dignity of a Buddhist monk, who is supposed to occupy the top rank in the social hierarchy. As a result, the First Sermon is often summarised and interpreted in this form –
“Attachment is suffering. Suffering is caused by desire. Suffering will end when desire ends.” A renunciate interpretation like this will greatly help in training monks to become like Ajahn Brahm.
I 4. Problems with the Renunciate Interpretation about Desire.
When I was training in Ajahn Brahm’s monastery in 2001, it had been operating for about 15 years, in some form. It was established primarily as a teaching institution, to train Westerners to become Buddhist monks, and so implant Buddhism into yet another country, into yet another race of people. In all those years, it had not produced a single graduate, and it was still dependent on men who had been trained overseas. 20 years later, it has trained very few new Ajahns, one being Ajahn Brahmali, who I knew in 2001.
Therefore, very very few people can properly benefit from the renunciate interpretation : “Attachment and desire is the cause of suffering.” Yet the belief that desire is the cause of suffering has become widespread in Buddhism, especially among Western converts. Buddhists actually believe this is the true Teachings of the Buddha, his deeper Dharma (dhamma.)
Unfortunately, this prescribed belief of Buddhism is likely to cause more problems than it solves. For desire is the normal driving force behind all human endeavour and activities. And depression is now a common malady in the big, impersonal modern cities. People are cut off from a sense of community and Mother Nature in their daily life, exposed to numerous irradiating and chemical biohazards that rob them of health and vigour, and screen dependence has usurped real participatory culture.
The prescribed Buddhist belief that desire and attachment are the cause of suffering is not only unhelpful, it is anti-life. A new interpretation is called for.
I 4. Adapting the First Sermon and Noble Truths to Normal Lifestyle.
Alternatively, we can add a few essential words (which I have underlined), and re-arrange word sequence of the Sutta and Truths. We can also research key words like kāma, taṅhā, sukha in the PTS dictionary, available at – http://lirs.ru/lib/dict/Pali-English_Dictionary,1921-25,v1.pdf or
and reflect on our own experience. This can supply us with more suitable translations and interpretations of the Pali or Sanskrit.
Sacred verse and mantra like these are written to be succinct and concise, with all unnecessary words omitted. We really need to add words to them to make them sensible and workable. Knowing what words to add is a test of spiritual understanding.
Then Sutta and Truths can reflect normal life experience, regardless of religious convictions or lack thereof. They can be applied quite differently, to reflect experience of life not cloistered in a monastery, nor bound by numerous monastic rules and restrictions.
With such adaption, both Sutta and Truths can explore the connection between desire and the causes of our suffering, in our own lives. When properly directed, desire is the normal motivation to (seek) better conditions, and avoid poor conditions, social, environmental, economic, nutritional etc. Such desire is our solution to the problem, not the cause of suffering. And craving (taṅhā) is no more than a compelling desire, because the need is more urgent.
With such adjustment, the First Sermon and its Four Noble Truths will be about mis-directed desire, not desire for worldly sense pleasures. Misdirected desire is described in the first paragraph as “extremes” (anta) in desire (kāmesu), extremes that are “the degrading attachment to the alluring in our pursuit of happiness”, and self harm and depletion (atta kilamatha). These are really the same thing. Buddha advises us to not be servants (sevitabbā = sevati) to such misdirected desire, especially if we have “gone forth” (pabbajita) to spiritual Liberation. And the Second Noble Truth is all about such misdirected desire.
This theme of misdirected desire, first heard in this Sermon, is repeated many times in subsequent talks by the Buddha. So it is important to properly understand these Four Noble Truths, and this First Sermon is worthy of close attention.
When properly understood, the Four Noble Truths can be applied to important pursuits and relationships, that we depend on and need. There can be considerable attachment to such important things, and this is the normal motivation to give them the full care and attention that they deserve. The First Sermon is probably best understood if we first apply it to sexual relationships, and the sexual desire that is foundational to them. Let’s explore …
I 4. Applying the Four Noble Truths to Sexual Desire.
Judging by pop songs and what I have heard and experienced, sexual desire might be a common cause of intense suffering for many people, and therefore worthy of special attention in Dharma. Kāma is mentioned in the second truth of the First Sermon, and kāma often means sexual desire.
The First Noble Truth is easily applied to sexual relations. It’s about the deterioration and termination of relationship, being united with the unloved, separated from love, not getting what we want, and all the attachment to our (former) lover. Our needs cannot be met, and it seems they won’t be met in future with this once-special person.
All these things are suffering or dukkha, intensified because the need is so strong. There is no good reason to judge them as wrong, sinful or shameful, as something to be suppressed, denied, or concealed. Nor are justifications and explanations required. Instead, we can just recognise the truth or sacca = satya of these experiences.
The second truth discusses one important cause of the suffering of these kinds of relationships.
The Second Noble Truth is about desire that arises from suffering (dukkhā samudayaṃ taṇhā), and is driven by defilement (raga sahagatā). This will lead to being “reborn” back into the same old problems (ponob-bhavikā) in relationship. It’s being caught in a rut, or in a vicious circle, in the relationship.
Conflict is to be expected in these kinds of relationships, because of the proximity and the strong needs aroused. We are likely to get upset, defilements will try to seize control of our will, and drive us into unhelpful behaviour. At such times, it is no use telling us we are being selfish, demanding, unreasonable or inflexible, because the ego will immediately jump to defend its position. The argument will only intensify.
Yet at such times, it is especially important that we can heed these Dharma themes. Can we be noble enough to just recognise the truth that such behaviour will only bring back the same old problems in our relationship? Can we see that much suffering will arise? Can the wisdom and insight arise within?
The Second Noble Truth is also about desire that is driven to seek delight beyond reach (sahagatā abhi nandino). When we are upset and the pain is driving us to be destructive towards the relationship, we are really craving the delight of easy relations. Yet our destructiveness puts it completely out of reach. One heedless reaction is to storm out of the relationship, and desperately seek someone else to fill the aching void. Yet such a reaction will only place the delight of stable and satisfying relationship further beyond our reach.
The Third Noble Truth is about letting go of, becoming free from, and the cessation of such mis-directed desire. Renouncing desire driven by defilements. Not attached to desire that is discontented and ill at ease.
The Third Noble Truth is the solution to the problems of the second and first Noble Truths. Anything that can help us transcend such troubles is worthy of attention. Much of this website explores such themes that might help us in this important endeavour.
Obviously we cannot let go of misdirected desire when we are upset. If we could, most of our troubles would vanish. There is an attachment at work.
So it is important to let go of such misdirected desire when we are able to do so. When we are noble (ariya) enough to let go and allow it to dissolve and cease.
The fourth Truth focuses attention on our views, thinking, speech, action, lifestyle, effort, attention and concentration. Many things need attention to better our relationship, and prospects for relationship. There is always room for improvement.
I 5 Bhava taṇhā , vibhava taṇhā.
The Second Noble Truth lists two other kinds of misdirected desire that can also cause a lot of trouble for us when sexual desire is disturbing our happiness and peace of mind.
- bhava taṇhā - the desire to get the unavailable in relationship, and
- vibhava taṇhā - the desire to get rid of the unavoidable in relationship.
Faced with being united with the no longer loved, and separated from love, and not getting what we want, we can expect aversion to arise. In our pain, we can be driven to become destructive to the relationship and to our partner. Hurt filled and hurt driven thoughts can invade our mind.
This desire to destroy will greatly aggravate our troubles, and escalate the pain.
Certainly we need to let go of and not be caught up in such destructiveness, in attitude, thought, speech and actions towards our partner.
United with the no longer loved, and separated from love, and not getting what we want will affect us in other ways too. We can expect a lot of grief and deep sense of loss to arise. It is important that we honour these powerful feelings. Allow ourselves to properly feel them, and take courage in this. Not be frightened by the painful feelings.
Allow our body to do what needs to do : convulsive sobbing with wet eyes. Let us heed our somatic intelligence, and support it. Discharge the distress, and not let this pain be suppressed or pushed under.
This will help us to let go of, dissolve and be free of the desire to get the unavailable in love.
Instead of just thinking about these losses. It is too easy to deny, conceal and suppress the painful feelings. With addictive substances, abuse of food and other addictive behaviour. Such as hurt filled and hurt driven thoughts that can invade our mind.
I 6 Other Causes of Suffering in Relationship.
There are many other causes of suffering in intimate relationship - this sutta discusses only the misdirected desire. Practical common sense can help us better manage many of these problems of sexual desire, euphemistically known as “love”.
Are both parties really available and suitable for a relationship together, or even to socialise together? Is there sufficient common interests, mutual attraction and compatibility? Can the income be earned to support the natural result of sex, ie children? Is there commitment to relationship in the long term? Do both parties have sufficient relationship skills to support such close proximity? What skills can we develop, and help our partner develop?
Such practical common sense can help us to better direct our energies. We can make effort to build the necessary foundations for successful intimate relationships, perhaps with this particular person, or another, or perhaps to maintain our independence.
Instead of just being pulled along by mis-directed desire. Yet again.
I 6 Non Sexual Desire.
I have discussed the pain caused by misdirected sexual desire. Yet these themes apply to any powerful desire that becomes misdirected and warped by suffering and the defilements. Powerful desires are to be expected in any important pursuit or relationship that provides for an urgent and fundamental need. The more important and fundamental the need, the greater the harm caused by suffering and defilement.
I 7 Desire and Kāma.
The Wikipedia article on kāma points out that kāma (kaama) is not just sexual desire, but desire for anything attractive in worldly life. This includes desire (kāma) for wholesome and nourishing things like good meal, good company, good music, time spent with Mother Nature, and meditation class. It also includes desire (kāma) for addictive substances like alcohol, tobacco and white flour/white sugar products, and worse. It also includes the desire (kāma) for a good job that will stimulate and develop our work skills, with a sense of real purpose and contribution to the common good. And the desire (kāma) to have creative skills like mastery of a musical instrument, the fine arts, writing.
For desire (kāma) is the normal driving force behind most human effort, at
work or recreation. It is normally active in our daily pursuits and relationships.
The important thing about desire (kāma) is that it is not normally noticeable until it is thwarted or blocked. This thwarting of desire is suffering, because we cannot get what we were expecting and wanting. So it is important that we become aware of this basic force or motivation in our lives, and discover how to awaken this awareness of desire.
Desire becomes a major cause of our suffering when it is misdirected. The driving force behind our efforts then becomes warped, and sends us on the path to problems if not ruin.
It is essential that we direct our desire (kāma) correctly. Towards wholesome and nourishing paths or amritāt, and away from destruction or mrityor as in our triambakam mantra. This consciousness chit or chid of desire is one of the awakenings bodhi that is of great assistance in our spiritual practice.
In the modern age, with so much junk food, cheap fattening food, sensational screen entertainment, sexually alluring clothes for the girls, and the availability of mild drugs like tobacco or dangerous synthetic drugs, it is especially important to direct our desire correctly. To cultivate the palette to prefer real food to pseudo substitutes. To avoid overeating fattening food that makes the body a hot, heavy and cumbersome burden on life. To cultivate preference for meditation as recreation, to re-create our spiritual essence sugandhim instead of the sensory bombardment of the screen. To steer away from alcohol and drug orientated social scenes, and choose other friends. To be aware of the lust that arises when the eye becomes fixed on the fashions of these young girls, and not be drawn into those power games.
Bhagavad Gita and Harmful Addictions.
I 8. Bhagavād Gita Verses on Desire.
Chapter 3 verses 37 to 43 are quite useful when exploring the dynamics of harmful addictions. For they explore how misdirected desire (kāma) and aversion can cause problems in our world. (The word kāma only occurs in verses 37 and 43; the verses in between refer to it as “this” or “that”). I use the word-for-word translation available at –
https://www.holy-bhagavad-gita.org/chapter/3 These verses describe how –
Desire (kāma) and aversion (krodha) that is misdirected (rajo-guṇa) is all-devouring (mahāśhano). They can cause major problems (mahā-pāpmā) in our world (37).
They can obscure (āvṛitaṁ) the wisdom of the wise (jñānam jñānino) (39), like smoke can obscure the flame, and surface dust can obscure a mirror (38).
This kind of desire and aversion breeds in sense impression (indriyāṇi), in thinking (buddhir) and in our mind (mano) (40).
Therefore, we need to properly direct (niyamya) our sense impressions and thoughts (indriyāṇi) (41), to full purity (param) using our higher self (ātmanā) (43).
We need to restrain (prajahi) this problem (pāpmānaṁ), because it is the destroyer (nāśhanam) of our knowledge (jñāna) and our wisdom (vijñāna) (41).
Otherwise, desire in this form (kāma rῡpam) will become a formidable enemy (durāsadam śhatruṁ) that injures (jahi) (43).
I have adapted Mukundananda’s translation on www.holy-bhagavad-gita.org. I give the Sanskrit in brackets, so you can link my translation with his.
I 8. Comments on BG 3.37 – 43.
Let’s look first at misdirected desire. This warps our thinking and judgement. It’s easily overlooked and unattended. Misdirected desire is most clearly perceived and easily understood when it’s a harmful addiction. So let us apply these verses to the dynamics of harmful addictions, to aid understanding.
The term “sense impression” (indriyāṇi) (v 40) is best understood as the image or sound or taste or smell of the following : junk food, fattening food, sensational screen entertainment, sexually alluring clothes for the girls, and tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. It is what impinges on our consciousness, and stimulates misdirected desire to take off in our mind (mano) (v 40). Sense impressions come from the five physical senses.
However, misdirected desire can arise directly in the mind (mano) (v 40). There might be no tobacco or alcohol or junk food in sight, but the craving still arises in the mind.
I 8. Misdirected Desire in Thinking
= buddhir rajo-guṇa samud-bhavaḥ
Verse 40 also talks of misdirected desire “in thinking (buddhir)”. This is best understood to mean the desire to think in an unhelpful and unnecessary way. Such as the compulsion to think when we actually need to rest our tired-out mind, for bed time is approaching, or we are in bed trying to sleep at night. Or the compulsion to think about the troubles and difficulties that beset us. Our mind just goes round and round the problem, and we never get clear insight into the solution. Indeed, the painful thinking becomes the main problem.
This kind of misdirected desire is actually a harmful addiction. We become addicted to unnecessary thought. It is probably the most widely occurring addiction that remains unrecognised, and therefore unresolved.
Such misdirected desire is the root cause of compulsive thinking that will obscure the quality and usefulness of our thinking.
So verses 41 and 43 advise us to : “properly direct (niyamya) our thinking and sense impressions (indriyāṇi) (41) to full purity (param) using our higher self (ātmanā) (43). We need to restrain (prajahi) this problem (pāpmānaṁ), because it is the destroyer (nāśhanam) of our knowledge (jñāna) and our wisdom (vijñāna) (41).”
Verse 41 uses the term “sense impressions = indriyāṇi”. The mind is considered to be one of our senses, our “sixth sense”, for thoughts have an impact our mind just like image and sound. In fact, thoughts have a far greater impact on our state of mind, and thus our happiness, than image and sound. Therefore, indriyāṇi = indriya also means “thoughts” (in this context.)
I 8. Meditation Training.
Verse 41 advises us to : “properly direct (niyamya) our thoughts (indriyāṇi)”. Although this is essential advice for the spiritual practitioner, it is extremely difficult to follow while the mind remains untrained, and unable to let go of the problems of life, unable to let go of defilements that inevitably assail our poor minds. This is the real purpose of meditation. Not to relax the body after physical exercise. Rather to train the mind to let go of unhelpful and unnecessary thought, thru daily practice.
An important feature of the desire (kāma) in thinking (buddhir) (v 40) is that we cannot perceive this desire for as long as the thought train continues. The consciousness needs the quiet of the Silent mind to perceive the desire (kāma) to think, and perceive the attachment to thought.
Thus we cannot even perceive the root cause of the problem until there is sufficient spaciousness in the mind = manas. And so thin-king remains the Ruler of our mind. To the extent that thinking and mind become synonymous.
The consciousness is fully absorbed into the thought train, and none is left over to observe the process of the thinking. We cannot even perceive the desire and attachment to thinking. So there is no objectivity towards the thinking.
(mind = manas = mano = manaḥ is best understood as the theatre in which both thoughts and feelings play out their dramas. These dramas include attitudes, judgments, analysis and emotions.)
I 8. Transcending Addictions.
Verse 41 also advises us to : “properly direct (niyamya) our sense impressions (indriyāṇi)”. This expression “control the senses” or “subdue the senses” is often used to translate Hindu philosophy. Hinduism seems to be incriminating the senses, as a cause of our suffering. Suggesting that real liberation comes from total withdrawal from them, through an out-of-body experience that they call “samādhi.”
This part of BG 3. 41 is better understood like this. Let us –
- cultivate the palette to prefer real food to pseudo substitutes.
- avoid overeating fattening food that makes the body a hot, heavy and cumbersome burden on life.
- cultivate preference for meditation as recreation, to re-create our spiritual essence sugandhim instead of the sensory bombardment of the screen.
- steer away from alcohol and drug orientated social scenes, and choose other friends.
- be aware of the lust that arises when the eye becomes fixed on the fashions of these young girls, and not be drawn into those power games.
I 8. Misdirected Desire and Aversion.
This chapter I is primarily about desire = kāma. However, these verses BG 3. 37 – 41 are actually about the problems caused by both misdirected desire and misdirected aversion. The Sanskrit of BG 3. 37 reads–
kāma krodha rajo-guṇa -samud-bhavaḥ
desire aversion defilements born of
Desire and aversion that are born of defilements are
mahā- śhano mahā- pāpmā.
all devouring, major problems.
are all devouring, and cause major problems.
Defilements = rajas = rajo warp both our desires and our aversions. We become assailed by the desire for unhealthy things, and an equal aversion to the healthy. We don’t have time to be patient, we can’t be bothered preparing wholesome meals. We become derisive of appreciation and beauty, we fear exercise that our body cries out for. We become dismissive of tolerance and forgiveness, and we push our bodies until they get injured.
Aversion for the defilements, aversion for addictive substances and habits, aversion for the sensory bombardment of the screen, aversion to sloth and inertia that sabotages exercise : these healthy aversions protect us from harm.
I 9 Purush-artha.
The themes of this chapter on desire or kāma can also be expressed in terms of purush-artha = puruṣārtha. These are the purposes of life, or the inherent values of spiritual practitioners. (The word purusha = puruṣa means spiritual, or the spiritual side of a person. The word artha ranges in meaning from things and wealth, to the usefulness of possessions, to purpose, goals and values.)
Roger Gabriel gives a good discussion about purushartha, available on –
Proper spelling of the purushartha is available at –
https://www.wisdomlib.org/definition/purushartha in the clip from Arthashastra.
Purush-artha are four basic Principles in Hindu teachings and practice –
- kāma = desire
- artha = worldly abundance and prosperity
- dharma = spiritual truth and guidance
- moksha = transcendence and liberation from suffering.
kāma or desire is a sense of lack and need. So it is the usual driving force or motivation to achieve artha or worldly abundance and prosperity. However, kāma needs dharma or spiritual guidance to avoid misdirected desire and all the problems that follow from such misdirection.
In addition, dharma needs kāma to give us the impetus to achieve the ideals of dharma.
In this way, the first three principles are interdependent; they need each other.
The fourth principle of moksha = Freedom = nirvāna is the culmination of a life dedicated to the first three principles. In moksha, there is no sense of lack or need. This is because the spiritual Qualities of contentment, and being satisfied and at ease are uppermost. Thus kāma fades out when we reach the ultimate Goal of moksha = nirvāna. In moksha, kāma ceases to be our motivation.
When we are truly Free, then our actions and efforts are motivated and driven by a deep understanding of the benefits of wholesome action. It could be said that we perform our actions in an “effortless way”.
The following verses of the Bhagavād Gita can be confusing, until we remember they are referring to the state of moksha. In moksha, we no longer need to be compelled by outside forces to do our duties. Nor is there any sense of want or lack in moksha, for the spiritual Qualities of contentment, at peace, being untroubled are strong and active.
mānavaḥ ātman-yeva cha santuṣhṭas
person in higher self truly and content
tasya kāryaṁ na vidyate
his duties non existant
For a person truly in their higher self and (fully) content : their obligations will not exist.
In this verse, BG 3. 17, the key word kārya means actions done because of obligation to religion, work, or society’s expectations. In moksha, no such outer pressure is needed. We act because we know the benefits of our actions. We need no external impetus.
(kāryaṁ is the noun in the future sense, and means “duties in future”)
sarve samārambhāḥ kāma saṅkalpa varjitāḥ
every pursuit desire intention free of
In every pursuit, intend to be free of desire.
In this verse, BG 4. 19, the key word kāma means motivation that is driven by a sense of lack or want. The verse is talking about performing our pursuits free of any such deprivation. Instead, it advises us to act with full contentment, being unhurried, untroubled, and balanced.
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