Last night I had dinner with a friend, and mentioned to him how helpful Buddhist ideas had been to me lately in terms of dealing with loss, crisis, and the difficulties of life. And he explained to me why Buddhism had never appealed to him, and he described what I’d always felt about Buddhism, until very recently. Namely, that it was what I’d been taught in H.S. and college. And it isn’t.
Here’s what he said to me: “I remember learning the Four Noble Truths in H.S. Everything is suffering, desire causes suffering, the way out of suffering is to get rid of desire, and that’s nirvana. That doesn’t sound all that good to me, why get rid of all desire? Would that really make you happy? I don’t think so.”
And of course, he’s right, destroying all desire would likely make you miserable! But as I’ve tried to show in some recent posts, Buddhism isn’t about destroying desire. This takes some explaining, of course, because it’s against what most of us have been taught about Buddhism, usually in our World History classes in HS.
And in fact, we can see this in the Buddhist notion, nearly as famous and just as ancient as the Four Noble Truths, which is the notion of the Buddha’s way as the “middle path.” The Buddha saw the religions of his day as radically ascetic, divided between the highly conservative Brahmanic rituals, and the wild monks in the forests who practiced various types of self-mortification. The Buddha believed we should live between these various asceticisms and hedonism. And if the middle path is between asceticism and hedonism, which the Buddha is quite clear about in the earliest Buddhist texts we have then getting rid of desire is likely not his path. Then what is?